What it’s like running a children’s centre for refugees

“The aim of the Centre was to provide a safe place for the children to play and learn… It also gave them some continuity as they got to know the volunteers who were there week after week.” Netty Miles on running a children’s centre for refugees at Dunkirk…

During my five days at the Dunkirk refugee camp, I was able to briefly visit the Children’s Centre. The plan had been to volunteer with them directly, but in the end my help was needed in other areas of the camp and so sadly I never had the opportunity. However I was very impressed by the atmosphere in the Centre and so I sought out Netty Miles, who supported the Children’s Centre remotely from England, to ask her all about it.

“I first visited the Dunkirk Camp on Christmas Day, 2015. I was already involved with the refugee support effort, as I’d been working as the online volunteer coordinator for the Women and Children’s Centre (WCC) in Calais, since the beginning of the month.

The Women’s Centre there were working with unaccompanied minors so anyone coming into contact with them was required to provide continuity of care and contact, so as not to create any further abandonment issues than those which already existed. I therefore was able to start redirecting surplus volunteers who didn’t meet that strict criteria to what was then called Maktab – the children’s school in the old Dunkirk camp.

Maktab means Elementary school in Arabic so it’s not one where formal lessons would necessarily take place. But on the move from old camp to new, we dropped the name because of its religious associations. Most of the people in the new camp were Kurdish and they do not have a long standing affinity with Islam. We felt that ‘Children’s Centre’ was a more accurate representation of what we did at the camp. Also, we did not follow or offer the French National Curriculum and so could not be classified as a school.

In the seven months that Utopia was running the camp, I visited as often as I could. I maintained a distant support role for the Children’s Centre, leaving those qualified to work with children to do the work on the ground. I observed how the Centre was getting on; had meetings with the play leader and visited several refugees at their shelters.

The aim of the Centre was to provide a safe place for the children to play and learn, through regular arts, sports, reading and music activities. It also gave them some continuity as they got to know the volunteers who were there week after week, as many were.

A typical day would start with the children arriving around 10am. All of the under elevens in the camp came along at one time or another. Many of them would be very tired, having spent the night attempting to get in to the UK with their families. The cold and often cramped conditions that some of them lived in also added to their fatigue.

Play activities such as painting; jigsaws; soft play and the always popular Lego would take place until lunch – which was provided by volunteers in the camp kitchen. After lunch, activities would consist of outdoor play and any visiting projects that visiting volunteers were carrying out – for example we had kite making; football and tennis and lots of different art projects.

We had a system set up in collaboration with Edlumino, the school next door, which was run by Rory Fox. This was essentially to prevent too much destructive gatecrashing of the Centre by the older children. Once the children had done one hour’s study at Edlumino, they were given a wristband which allowed them access to the Children’s Centre. It really helped with their motivation to attend Maths and Language classes.

I got to know a few of the children… I met Aylan in the Maktab school in the old camp – he was sheltering there for warmth from the fierce January wind and mud outside. Although he was 16, he was trying to learn to read out of an English children’s beginner’s story book. A good start really. We spent some time reading with him and it became clear that although he was getting his pronunciation right, he didn’t understand the meaning of the words. We talked a while and he told us that he had never been to secondary school in Iraq because his father had died and he had needed to work to support his mother. Therefore he had never mastered reading in any language.

Aylan spent that hard winter in the old camp and then moved to the new camp. I was worried about him because he didn’t have any family members in the camp and there were some older men there who were not a good influence. I’m glad to say that Aylan is now in the UK and attending college to learn English and he is very happy there. He’ll go on to choose a vocational course next year.

Mahmoud was one of the boys in camp who was hard to miss. Looking impossibly French, with a heavy dark blonde fringe, you would never have picked him out as a refugee if you saw him in the local town. He was very intelligent but unfortunately the Children’s Centre wasn’t able to give him the individual time he needed to work on his learning so he often busied himself around the camp, always on his bike, which he learnt how to fix and make improvements on. He would meet and greet new volunteers and he knew who everyone was even if you had only visited once or twice. He was often seen looking after his younger sister, who was well known for having a fierce temper! She too was probably just frustrated with the lack of structured learning.

Fortunately Mahmoud’s family is now in the UK and I hope they are enjoying life at school – they will be such fast learners.

My time was given for free. I’m freelance and so used to juggling multiple jobs, somehow I just fit everything in. I did the remote project managing which included fundraising; communications logistics and the screening and interviewing of all potential volunteers to the Centre. I did this all from the UK with regular visits to the camp.

I continue to work with Refugee Aid, an organisation based in Cornwall that supports educational projects in Calais, Dunkirk and Greece. I work on the ground in France, supporting individual refugees. I blog about this for their website. They are always in need of supporters and donations, for more information people should visit: www.refugeeaid.org.

I also work with Help Refugees as their event production manager. We just raised over £1,000,000 in three weeks for some of the 106 projects in camps across Europe which we support. We are particularly concentrating on supporting the 9000 women in camps in Greece who are currently pregnant. Their pregnancies are almost entirely the result of rape by traffickers.”

If you would like to help by volunteering or donate, please visit: www.helprefugees.org.uk