This post was most recently updated on March 3rd, 2017
Another guest post from my friend, Linda Robinson MBE.
Linda’s account of her visit to the Dunkirk camp, January 2017.
Life has not improved since I was there 2 months ago. I found more despair and I picked up the feeling that they felt that their lives were going nowhere.
The trip had many highs and lows. The high began months before with an amazing fundraising drive. This enabled me to buy 60 onesies and PJ’s for the children and a further 70 were collected from some wonderful supporters.
This time I shared the experience with two amazing women, Maddie and Katie. They are both Doulas and came to the camp as part of the Infant feeding team. Their aim was to pass on their expertise to the French midwives. An arranged meeting had been set up to have a full discussion with a group of midwives the following day.
We arrived at the security check in point and we actually came across a really nice security guard. On previous visits I had found them to be most unhelpful. This man after a few phone calls allowed us to drive our car into the camp to unload our very full car of amazing donations. This really was a great start to the day as it’s a good walk from the gates to the Women’s Center where we needed to store them.
Once we transferred them into the Center we went straight to the supermarket to buy soft furnishings, cushions, rugs, pillows, and anything that would make the Center into a warm and inviting place for the mums to spend the day. It’s a makeshift building and extremely bleak and cold. The mums (men not allowed in) come every day for support, a safe place to care for their babies, to learn new skills and to break the boredom of sitting in their small huts every day. They can also pick up nappies, baby wipes, clothes etc. With another two trolley loads of goodies we headed back to camp to start our day.
While I went to help in the Children’s Center, Maddie and Katie attended a planned visit with the GSF (Gynaecologie Sans Frontieres) which is a French NGO. This was to have a discussion around infant feeding practices that are happening daily in the camp. They were unaware of the dangers of powdered formula when used in emergency situations like the refugee camps. The main reason for this concern is around hygiene and that many donations of powdered milk are given already opened and out of date.
There was a discussion around implementing a powdered formula free zone for babies in the camp. If for any reason the mothers are unable to breastfeed, it is suggested that the midwives introduce the cup which will be used with ready-made liquid formula. By implementing this procedure it is safeguarding the lives of many babies.
When I arrived the Children’s Center was really buzzing. Volunteers organising play activities for the children and lots of noisy children benefitting from the stimulation, listening to the English language being spoken and most of all having fun. We then took them outside with drums, plastic bottles and anything that makes a noise. They began to bash the drums etc. Not very musical, but as I watched them bash and bang away, the children were really getting their frustrations out, which is vital in these circumstances.
I then noticed a 9 year old boy pushing his 13 month old baby brother around in a buggy. I heard from a volunteer that they try to get the baby out of the pram as much as possible as he is in the pram for most of the day, as his mother is looking after his sister who has disabilities. He did get the baby out and was hurling him around the room. Frightening to watch, but the baby seemed to be unperturbed that at any minute he could have been dropped. I picked up the baby and took him over to the younger group of children so that he could crawl about for a while and to also give his elder brother a bit of a break. It is quite common in the camp to see children looking after their siblings. Fine for short bursts but not for whole days. Is this how a child’s life should be?
I then saw a small 7 year old looking really sad and just staring at the ground. The volunteer told me that she had gone to a French school the day before (some of the children go for two hours a day to the local school) and she had got on really well and talked a lot about the friend that she had made. I asked her if she was going to lunch and still staring at the ground she shook her head to let me know that she wouldn’t be going and then said “mummy angry”. Apparently her mother was really cross with her that she had gone to school the previous day. I felt so sorry for her and wondered how these children cope on a daily basis being let down time and time again.
Every time I have the privilege to be in the camps, seeing and listening to many parents and children, I cannot believe the kindness shown to myself and to the other refugees. Especially the children who seem to have an enormous amount of empathy to their siblings and friends.
Talking to one of the Children’s Centre volunteers, she told me a story about one little girl who, normally very active, was one day very, very quiet. On trying to escape the night before she had hurt her eye and nose. Whilst in the Children’s Center it was noticed that her older sister was making her gifts and encouraging the others in the group to do the same. She signed and just said “my heart”. How much we could learn from these little children.
After lunch (more rice), I wandered round the camp chatting to lots of mums with their children and distributing my onesies. I met a young mum with a beautiful 2 year old with big eyes and dark curly hair (the curly haired ones always get to me). The mother invited me into her hut and I was very surprised to find 7 others sitting on the floor. In this hut there are 2 mums, 2 dads and children aged 2, 3, 10 and 15 years old. The hut measures 12×12. They met on their journey here and as there are not enough huts to go around they have had to share one between all six. At this present time there are 1,300 refugees in the camp and a further 100 who are homeless. How can you be homeless in a refugee camp? It was very difficult to take this information in.
As we were walking around the camp we found this little lad wandering around on his own. So scary for him. We decided to take him to the children’s Center in hope that someone would know him. Luckily his sister was there and immediately picked him up to take him back to his mother.
When I was in the camp in November the huts were being destroyed as soon as a family left the camp. This is still happening so I guess this is the answer to the homeless question. Humanity at its worst.
I spent an hour with this family and by the time I was leaving the elder of the two women was calling me Nana. It wasn’t long before the children were joining in. Then with the few words that I had been dreading to hear she asked “could you take the two little ones back to the UK?”. I was very proud at my very assertive “no” to this request. I know my family were convinced that I will have a few children in my suitcase one day, but not today.
After I said my goodbyes, I met a mother with a month old baby. He was absolutely gorgeous and not a curl in sight. I fell in love with him immediately and my heart when out to them both. Can you imagine how a mum must feel bringing up her baby in the middle of winter in a refugee camp? I asked her if there was anything she needed and she just said “baby hat”. I told her I would call to see her the following day.
There are many children in the camp who have no memory of life before the war demolished their childhood. There are hundreds of unaccompanied children who have travelled on their own, some taking months, some taking years to get to Europe. These parents do not take this decision lightly, but the need to keep their children safe is overwhelming for them. We would all do the same.
Quick dash to the supermarket to get two more trolleys of soft furnishings for the Women’s Center, nappies, hot water bottles and torches. We had also been asked to get adult nappies, as the women are too scared to go the toilet block at night. The older children also have to wear nappies, which must be so degrading for them.
The baby section drew me over to all the lovely baby clothes that all new babies should have. I picked up a really warm all-in-one outdoor suit and a few hats for the gorgeous 1 month old baby. I had noticed that the mother had been wearing a very thin coat and had been shivering when I had been speaking to her. I managed to find a nice warm wrap that I am hoping will keep her a little warmer. While I was with the families this time, I was able to assess from chatting to the mothers, if there was anything they needed. I would rather do it this way as you are responding directly to their individual needs. I was so pleased I could buy these additional items and take them straight back to the family.
All loaded up, we arrived at the camp hoping we would be met by the friendly security guard who allowed us to drive the car into the camp. No such luck. One word “no” quickly told us that we had a long walk carting all our buys.
Just as we were unpacking the car Maddie received a call with the devastating news that the Women’s Center had burnt down in the night. Arms full and heavy hearts we walked towards the Center hoping that there had not been too much damage. But no, the Center had practically burnt to the ground. All our cushions, rugs and soft furnishings had all gone up in smoke. At this time, I presumed all my onesies had been destroyed but after talking to the volunteers I was pleased to hear that they had managed to distribute them to the families the previous afternoon, but awful for Maddie and Kate whose dream of making the Women’s Center a bright and comfortable place to be was
The worst thing for me was watching the women standing just staring at the charcoal cinders and the realisation that there would now be nowhere for them to spend their days. I felt anger, frustration and helplessness. Buildings and items can be replaced, but the look on those women’s faces will haunt me forever. All I could do was give them big hugs and say how sorry I was. There were no other words.
The only thing we could do was hope that the Children’s Center could store all of our purchases.
As were were heading there, a little lad came up to me and asked if he could have a purple rug for his home. How important it must be for him to make his hut into a home. Luckily I had my bag of tricks in my rucksack and found a small car for him. He looked at this small present as if I had given him the moon and a huge smile spread on his face.
People ask me why I keep going back to the camps, well it’s that smile and I would go a hundred times to bring such joy to a child like this little boy.
I really wanted to give the children a lunchtime treat. They usually have either pasta or rice which must get quite boring. Several weeks ago the Children’s Center had a donation to give the little ones pizza and hot chocolate, so I decided if I had money left over from the donations given to me, I would love to do the same. So we went to the pizza restaurant and picked up 12 large Margaritas.
On our return to the Center we could hear the children shouting “pizza, pizza”. It was magical. I watched the children tuck in and it was so lovely to see them actually being children and that their day-to-day life as they know it diminished for a short while.
I then took Maddie and Katie to meet my mum with the young baby and also to take the baby clothes and wrap to her. She had told me that she was breastfeeding her baby but thought while I was privileged to have a Breastfeeding Counsellor with me I thought it would be useful for them to come along and offer help if needed. Again we were welcomed into one of these plywood huts. We sat on the floor admiring her beautiful baby. Mum beamed at us and looked so proud. Can you remember when you wanted to show your new-born off to family and friends. There are no family or friends here, she is isolated from all normal living. I found this to be so sad.
It wasn’t long before the tears started to run down her face and then this turned into uncontrollable sobs as she told us of her journey to get to Dunkirk. Five days in an open top boat, rain day and night batting down on 250 refugees. No food, no water, no toilet. She mentioned that she was so concerned for her unborn baby. THIS MUM WAS EIGHT AND A HALF MONTHS PREGNANT. As I write this I still feel her fear. Two weeks later she gave birth to her baby in an Italian Hospital. I hardly dared ask her if they had been kind to her. Her face lit up when she began to tell us of her quick labour and that the nurses had kept coming in and telling her what a beautiful baby she had given birth to. Normality for a short while and I was so grateful they had been so nice to her. She then got up of the floor to offer us all her last bananas. This gesture finished us all off completely.
More stories in her very broken English came forth. She told us of the despair she was feeling that she had not seen her 17 year old son since he arrived in the UK a year ago. We cried and sobbed with her and held her close to us. What else could we do? We took her son’s details in the hope we could trace him. She also showed us his picture which of course started the tears flowing again. We don’t know if he is dead or alive. Would she ever see him again I wondered? I then gave her the baby hats and clothes that I had bought from the supermarket plus the warm wrap for mum. She looked into my eyes then raised her arms in the air and said “I pray to Allah for you”. And you wonder why I keep coming. We left this mum and baby with really heavy hearts and our admiration for this women was by this point overwhelming.
I then knocked on the hut of the family I had been with the day before. I was greeted with “Nana, Nana ” and both little children still had their onesies on. I gave colouring books, crayons, chocolate biscuits, sweets and hot water bottles to them. What a joy to watch them having so much enjoyment from so little.
One of the dads said he had been to see someone to ask for his own hut for his wife and child. He then said “my wife and I need time to ourselves”. I quickly said “no, no, you must not have too much time on your own, no more babies please”. He laughed and then translated to the others who joined in the joke.
By now it was beginning to get dark and it really wouldn’t be safe to stay any longer. I said my goodbyes and after cuddles all round I left quickly as I could feel the tears welling up within me. What a privilege it is to be with these families, to share their horrendous experiences, to cry, to hold their hands and to laugh with them. More importantly to let them know we care.
None of the refugees would ever leave their country with their family unless it really was the last resort to save their lives. Can you imagine having to choose to either stay and risk your life and that of your young family or risk dying on your journey to Europe? I would never want to make that decision, and nor do they.
5,000 lives have been lost in the treacherous boat journeys. 2016 has been the deadliest year on record. On January 14th a further 100 lost their lives trying to escape to safety.
I have written this poem as I have heard this story over and over again whilst talking to the refugees and it breaks my heart that anyone should go through these horrors.
I have to get into the boat, this is what has to be done, we have travelled so far yet we are still on the run.
We gave over our money to God knows who, I guess if you were in my position you would too.
We cling together our life on a thread, no toilet, water or food to be fed.
5 long days and 5 long nights,
The waves surging over us at a frightening height.
All I want is for my child to be alright, but I am not even sure
We will make it through the night.
On my journey home and for many days that have followed, I’ve had time to reflect. Again, an overwhelming emotion comes over me when I think of the ones I’ve left behind. The fact that I can COME BACK. I have a home, I have family and friends. I can make my own decisions about my life and the direction I want to go. I cannot imagine not knowing when I am going to be moved on, will be caught trying to escape, will my children survive this ordeal, where is all this going to lead me, will I ever know the life before the war demolished my world?
I have food, warmth, love and respect. I am not humiliated on a daily basis. We can all follow our dreams. My dreams is that one day they will find their dreams and life a life free from fear in a homeland where they feel safe and respected. IS THIS DREAM A POSSIBILITY?