This is a guest post by my friend and fellow doula, Linda Robinson, who spent five days in the Dunkirk camp. I am honoured to host her account on my blog and urge you to read and share to raise awareness. Winter is drawing in and as temperatures dip, conditions worsen. Thank you for joining us in helping the refugees.
We arrived at the camp at 3 o’clock. There were 4 police cars and 5 police vans. They immediately asked us to hand over our passports. They then fired questions at us (in French). Luckily Margaret speaks fluent French. They wanted to know why we were here, what we intended to do with the children and what we hoped to achieve. Margaret very cleverly bombarded them with everything we had in the boot of the car; blankets, toys, clothes, and art activities for the children. She then went on to tell him what she intended to do with the enclosed paper plates, asking him if he thought she should put arms and legs on the faces. He blanked over and just shouted ‘SEARCH’. They then proceeded to search the boot and then allowed us to go forward. We were then met by the security guards with the same questions. Eventually we had to phone the children’s center to get them to come and collect us.
Eventually we arrived at the children’s center and immediately started to help the children make chocolate spread sandwiches. What a mess but what fun. I never want to eat chocolate spread sandwiches ever again.
I then went out to play with some of the children on the climbing frame. One little girl got stuck at the top and insisted I climb up to get her. It was at this point I noticed many of the children just wore either summer shoes or flip flops. Their feet were very grubby and cold.
We were warned that home time can be very fraught and that is exactly what it was. I had a child underneath the table refusing to come out and another lad became really angry when we asked him to put his shoes on. Two days before there had apparently been 65 children in the centre so I cannot imagine what home time must have been like. I do understand why they didn’t want to go back home and sit in a extremely cold shack all evening. At least the children’s centre has a small amount of heating.
As we were leaving we heard the awful news that a father had kicked his 10 year old in the head. The child had run off and has not been seen since. The mother and 2 month old baby had been taken off the camp into a safe house. It was by now getting dark and the child had not returned. It had also begun to rain. I cannot imagine how scared this little lad must have been. I knew a few of us would be having sleepless nights worrying about him.
We arrived at the camp at 10.00 o’clock and played with the children on the climbing frame.
I spent time with a family with a 18 month old and a 5 year old. Dad had lived in Ruston for 11 years working in a family restaurant. He then went back to Iraq in 2006, married and had his two little girls. He has a British passport but his family are not allowed to come to the UK.
They had all had to leave suddenly as ISIS were threatening them. Another woman we talked to was really upset as her husband was in hospital in England with a back injury.
She doesn’t think she will ever see him again.
A mother told us that the Children’s Centre had run out of toilet roll and baby wipes so we popped to the supermarket and bought the provisions needed. It was very strange walking round the shopping centre with little French children so beautifully dressed, families eating lunch in coffee shops and life just going on as normal; as if completely unaware that just 5 minutes down the road there were children cold and frightened, living a life of uncertainty .
We were searched again when we entered the camp. Luckily when they saw a boot full of loo rolls the police actually chuckled.
We then stopped to talk to a mum with a three year old little girl. She asked us if we would like to come back to her home. A shack in my eyes but I guess she had to try to make it her home. She led us in and said ‘you are very welcome’ and immediately offered us a box of dates. The area was about 12×12 and just had blankets on the floor, one small suitcase in the corner and two small teddies. This is her home. How can this be right. She told us that they had sold their house in Iraq and travelled on foot, by train and by boat. As soon as she said the word boat she began to cry as she told us ‘boat bad, boat very bad’. She then proceeded to explain in very broken English that they had been on the boat for 7 days; ‘I was sick, very sick with headaches all the way’. They had been given no food, just water. As she cried, her little girl went to cuddle her. She hated that her daughter had experienced such a frightening ordeal. When she got off the boat she was unable to walk for three days.
Her husband then joined us. He told us that he was a Clinical Psychologist and his wife had been training to be be a Anaesthetist nurse. What a waste.
To get here from Iraq they travelled through many borders. He said from Turkey to Italy they had to give the smugglers £3.000 each and from Italy to Calais was £6.000 each. All this money and trauma of getting to France from Iraq and now they were stuck in the camp with very little hope of getting to the UK. They did say that how ever awful it is here in the camp at least they are safe. If they had stayed in Iraq they would have been killed.
We then spoke to a volunteer who told us that a mum with 3 young children had been arrested 12 days ago whilst she was in the jungle camp. She had been throwing stones at police and is now serving 3 years. She won’t let the children visit her in prison and can only talk to them on the phone. A young volunteer has moved into the shack to look after the children. These children are already calling her mum. This poor volunteer is in such a dilemma as she will need to go home soon. Not only will it break her heart to leave the children, but the children are going to be lost without her. Without experienced NGOs in the camp providing appropriate training, volunteers can make mistakes and cross boundaries, making things harder than they need to be, for everyone.
We then headed back to the Children’s Centre and had to split up two little girls who were fighting. The elder of the two smacked the little one really hard around the face. She was so upset that I suggested that we go to find her mum. Surprisingly, she seemed to understand what I was saying as she took my hand and led me to the Women’s Centre. She found her mum, who was busy making pillows out of odd bits of material. The mother didn’t seem concerned and carried on with the job in hand. It did make me wonder if the parents have any emotional energy left in them to offer reassurance and comfort to their children when needed. Five minutes later I came across two boys beating the living daylights out of each other. I had noticed quite a bit of this sort of behaviour; the anger on their faces was horrid to watch.
Another interesting day with a few highs and many lows. As soon as we arrived we met some journalists from the Guardian. They were coming to report on the camp. We gave them an insight into what to expect and managed to mention the poor woman who was still in prison.
While walking through the camp, we met the dad who we had been talking to the day before. I had been concerned about his two children who looked quite traumatised. He asked us if we could take some rucksacks back with us to give to his relatives. We asked what we would be taking and he said we would be able to look in the rucksacks beforehand but assured us that it was only clothes. We tactfully said we would think about it presuming we would most probably not see him again before we left.
We then met a group of young adults sitting around a open fire. They immediately asked us to sit with them and straight away gave up their seats for us – even cleaning them for us. I have to say that I found everyone we met to be very gracious and polite – we both felt very respected and safe. One of the men with a very distinctive Liverpool accent told me he was visiting his brother from the UK and wants his brother to join him. His brother, who had arrived in the camp two months before, has a brain tumour which had caused him to have a stoke.
This brother also joined us later and the stoke has left him quite disabled. I cannot imagine how his brother will feel when he has to say goodbye to him.
A magic tent had been set up close to the Children’s Centre. This had been brought in by a French charity and planned for a two day visit before they went onto other camps around France. The children’s faces were an absolute picture. For a short while painful memories could be forgotten.
It was then we met a six year old who was playing in the tent with her toy doctor’s case. With very little English we were told to sit down and write our names on the piece of paper than she gave us. We put our names in the wrong place and were told off. No language difficulties here; we certainly knew we were in trouble! We then sat and had our medicals: eyes, heart, pulse and blood tests. She was very methodical and knew exactly what to do. We were even given a strip of paper to put on our arm after we had our blood test. She then told us not to look while she marked our test results. I had a cross on mine and Margaret had a tick. I had obviously failed miserably.
She indicated that she would do another test on me later. Luckily I passed the next one. A lovely Kurdish man who was in the tent with his little boy told us he had asked her when it was his turn. Apparently she just shock her finger and shouted ‘in the queue’. Although this was a fun activity for her, it did make me aware that this little girl had most probably had lots of medicals herself and told to stand in queues.
When the helper in the tent told her she had to give the case back, her face was so sad. She nearly started crying and promptly legged it out of the tent.
One little girl couldn’t find her shoes when she had to leave the tent to go for lunch. She was so upset. Eventually l found them and she looked so relieved. They were open toed plastic shoes with no socks. In November.
She took my hand and said ‘you come’, and led me to the Women’s Centre, presumably looking for her mother. She wasn’t there so she took my hand again and led me to the Children’s Center for lunch. In the 5 days I was there I didn’t see her with either of her parents. She was left to roam the camp on her own knowing that there were smugglers, Mafia and ISIS in the camp. This little girl is 4 years old.
Lunch is provided by a charity and was usually pasta or rice. There was always fruit available for them.
The CRS were present in the camp today to dish out wristbands for everyone in the camp. This was to stop anyone new sneaking in who may be seeking refuge. Many hid because they were so frightened of them. Some children were picked up and taken by bus to the local school for two hours. One little lad got himself in a dreadful state because he hadn’t been given a wristband and was petrified they wouldn’t let him back into the camp.
I arrived back at the B&B and wondered if these children would ever see their childhoods again.
I spent the morning in the Children’s Center. The children were very angry that day. One little boy made a gun out of Lego and was sternly reprimanded. I guess British children play toy guns but the way he was playing with it was somehow very different.
The children had to clear up the tables so we could get ready for lunch. The atmosphere changed straight away. The children started to run up and down shouting and refusing to put their shoes on. One child again hid his shoes and really hit out and had to be restrained when we found them. He went out of the centre and started to bang the window latch back and forth very aggressively.
While I was outside a dad asked me to look after his little girl for 5 minutes. He never came back. She was under two so wasn’t allowed in the Children’s Centre. I did end up taking her in as she was getting cold and extremely upset.
Walked around the camp and met the family with the two children I had been worrying about.
The two year old was in her pram and just staring into space. I then realised that she had ‘frozen awareness’.* The only way she was able to cope was to shut herself away from life. She did hold one of my fingers but hardly knew what she was doing. If I hadn’t removed my hand I would have still been there; emotional trauma at its worst.
I bumped into the dad who left his child at the centre. He approached me and said, ‘thank you for being my mum today’ and then gave me a big cuddle.
We then went back to the supermarket and bought £200.00 worth of warm clothes for the children.
On our return we chatted to several refugees who told us how they had watched some of their family being murdered. They felt lucky they had managed to escape before the same happened to them. Some had also lost family members en route to France.
I went back to B&B that night feeling very disheartened.
* Frozen Awareness or Frozen Watchfulness. A result of trauma or insecure attachment – the child seems distant and emotionally detached, and may flinch if someone approaches. The child may be passive, have low self-esteem and appear unhappy or unable to participate in activities.
My last day in the camp. I went to play with the children on the climbing frame. Many refugees were walking around the camp with their billycans to collect their breakfast. I passed the demolished shack that the family had left in fear of their lives. Under some rubble was a pair of wellies which we had seen the little girl wearing a few days before. Did she leave without anything on her cold feet? Yes, she most probably did. That scene still haunts me today.
The little girl who performed our medicals came running up to us and asked us for the medical report she had done for us. She wanted to correct them. We tried to explain to her that we had left them at home. She was upset and wouldn’t talk to us. She did come up to me later on in the day and cuddled me with her head on my heart. She indicated that my heart was ticking and once again I had passed the test. We did take a picture of us holding the precious pieces of paper when we got back to the B&B and sent it to me of the helpers. I do hope she received it and we are forgiven.
A lovely young 18 year old refugee was helping us with the children. He somehow looked displaced and I think he felt that he was not accepted by the others in the camp. He told me of his dream to come to the UK. I asked about the smugglers and the rumour they spread that they could give them all their money because in England, everything is free. He told me that this was the truth. Bless these children – they really believed it that this would happen. I guess when you’re that desperate you would want to believe what you hear. There had been one lad I spoke to who’d had a horrendous long journey. He was abused along the way and was relieved when he arrived in Calais. When he saw the camp he had said ‘This is a horrid place. It’s not like what I saw of Europe on the television at home’.
The young lad we were talking to told us his family had sold their land to get him there. It had got him as far as France but now he only has £1.000 left. To pay a smuggler he will need at least £6.000 for a safe passage to the UK. He can give the £1.000 to the smugglers but it won’t be a guaranteed
passage. I couldn’t help think his money would definitely be going into the wrong hands and he’d lose it all. He was very unhappy and didn’t know what his future held.
In the afternoon it started to rain and it broke my heart to see so many mums walking around trying to console their babies. I met a mum with twin boys who were about 13 months and another child who would have been about 6. This is no life for them here but there also is no life for them in their own country.
We popped into the Women’s Centre before we left the camp. They had just let a dad come into the centre to collect some warm baby blankets and clothes. This is not normally allowed. His wife had just given birth.
How worried must you be to know that your newborn baby has been born in a refugee camp. There won’t be any warm baths for mum and baby, no family members to come to admire your new born, grave concerns about keeping your baby warm at night. Hopefully this baby will be a breastfed baby. I have heard that much of the formula milk they are given is inappropriate for newborns or out of date. Even more dangerous is the use of bottles, which can’t be kept clean and sterilised. This will obviously be putting many babies in danger of becoming very ill and dying.
I just had time to shout a congratulations to the dad, who returned my good wishes with a huge smile.
The resilience of these people will stay with me forever.
How I have worried about this family since I have been home.
I am now home and have been through my 3 days of feeling like a big black cloud has engulfed me (I had this also when I came back from the Calais Jungle).
I worry about the cold winter and the children’s emotional well-being. I worry not only about what they have endured in their short lives, but what they are still witnessing each night in the camp.
I worry about the beautiful little 4 year old who looked so like my granddaughter at that age.
I can do so little in the grand scheme of things, except keep raising money for the charities that are working in the camp. I do hope to raise some money for onesies (big fluffy pyjamas) to keep the children warm at night.
NB When people leave the camp, their hut is destroyed to prevent other refugees from settling in the camp. This means there are many families sleeping rough in the streets of Calais and Dunkirk.
If anyone wants to help with this or donate to this fund please email me: [email protected] Every penny helps.
The most difficult emotion for me to cope with now I am back home is the fact that l can and did walk out of that camp. I can just carry on with life. I am warm at night and I don’t go hungry and I don’t have to fear for my future.
If you managed to read all of my words well done. Much appreciated and a huge thank you for caring X X.
I see humans but I don’t see humanity ,
I just wonder how that can be.
Children cry at night, so so cold,
All the mum can do is cuddle her child and keep a-hold.
No hope for the future, their dreams no more,
Their hearts are torn to the core.
Nothing to look forward to and life so bleak,
Surely this life is not one they hope to seek.