September 27th, 2016

Standard reporter spends weekend in Dunkirk refugee camp

Updated: 10:23 am, Jan 29, 2016

As 2,500 refugees struggle to survive deplorable conditions in a makeshift camp in Dunkirk, northern France, groups like Worcestershire’s People in Motion play a crucial role in bringing aid to those in need.

Standard reporter, Anu Shukla spent a weekend in the camp to find out just how much of a difference help and supplies were making.

SOME say you’re never quite the same after an experience like this – and there’s nothing to prepare you for it either. But two decades of packing for festivals and extreme travel had at least trained me to cram a small case with essentials to survive.

So I jumped on a train to London, hopped on the Victoria line to Brixton and dived into a car to Dover with Jen, Mash and Tom.

French police searched us at the entrance of the Grande Synthe camp.

It was an apocalyptic sight as smoke from the cinders of fires burning all night hung thick in the air. The bright sunlight made everything look all hazy and surreal.

As volunteers and refugees worked side by side, it was difficult to tell who was who. And as events took shape, I realised anything could happen in a day where 90 per cent of the relief effort is from a small untrained army of volunteers dealing with a colossal humanitarian crisis.

People in Motion founder, Elaine Lawson caught me taking photos of the chemical toilets and greeted me with a huge hug. She told me aid was not ‘allowed onto site’.

Elaine brews a plan to get her dignity packs to refugees. These comprise toiletries and clothes to women and children she says are ‘too afraid to leave their tents’.

As soon as the coast is clear, we re-enter the camp with the packs.

As we traverse the site looking for women and children, I’m introduced to Malvern steelworker, Gavin Fraser who’s been on site for three months.

He tells me how they ran through the woods with supplies when police stopped food from entering the camp on Christmas Eve.

He says: “As bad as you think it is right now, the situation would be ten times worse without the effort of volunteers.

“It’s been an emotional roller-coaster. Physically and mentally, it’s the most difficult thing I’ve ever had to deal with.

“These people are not terrorists or scroungers. They’re fighting terrorists and deserve so much more than this. I feel I’d be letting them down if I wasn’t here.”

At this point, it became absolutely evident to me that volunteer groups like these carry an astronomical weight and without them, the situation would be diabolical beyond belief. At the same time, they must literally fight to help those trapped in beyond-human conditions.

I  realised these were real strong salt of the earth folk – overflowing with their love for humanity yet hard as nails as they dealt with a constant stream of non-stop missions.

The Saturday became a feat for all volunteers when a protest in Calais distracted the authorities, allowing supplies though the doors of the Dunkirk site.

The next morning, a frosty swamp of faeces and mud covered the camp. I heard a small baby was already taken to hospital and so the dark shadow of hyperthermia loomed over the water-logged site.

Smiles of resilience were beginning to fade as I witnessed the tiniest children weather sub-zero temperatures in thin nylon tents. Elaine and company disappeared that afternoon to hunt down some gas fire heaters.

Later on, I find myself at the women and children’s distribution centre sorting through a mountain of boots with volunteers from Mexico and the Netherlands when I receive a text.

A new family with a six-month old child had just arrived on site after spending the night on the streets. I rush over to find out more.

After puzzling over the complex six-man tent, it was all hands to the pump as we helped settle the new arrivals into their new ‘home.’

There were hugs and kisses of gratitude all around. The couple were clearly relieved, but their seven-year old daughter visibly traumatised. It was eye-opening to witness the unfolding reality.

Yet even in the face of adversity, the people I met were full of hope for the future. The Kurdish answer to David Beckham was one of them.

Gavin spotted him and we called him over. Known as ‘Power,’ the 20-year old footballer tells me ‘football is my life.’ He played for the Kurdistan league since the age of 17 and left his country after receiving a death threat from ISIS. He tells me the situation would be ‘unthinkable’ without the effort of volunteers.

Power compares himself to Zinedine Zidane because ‘he was also poor like me.’

He tells me: “My dream is to be somewhere safe, to play football and to be someone.

“I want to go to England and see Arsène Wenger and tell him about my life, my story. I love him. That’s my dream.”

There is no concept of time in the refugee camp. Everything seems to unfold in slow-motion yet before we even realise, it’s Monday morning.

While litter picking with Jen and Tom, I spot a bunch of kids going wild with excitement on the back of a trailer pulled by a car.

Inside, I find Droitwich resident Mairtin O’Graidy smiling widely. He invites me to hop inside and we drive to the Calais jungle.

Dunkirk is a far cry from the organised chaos of Calais with its school, library, legal centre, vaccination unit, several churches, mosques and a theatre dome.

Outside a jungle cafe, a group of smiling Afghans stop for a chat in fluent Hindi – indulging me with details of their favourite Bollywood stars.

Medicine San Frontier have permission to build a new camp with 500 heated tents near the Dunkirk sight.

Martain tells me: “It will improve the situation massively but it has to happen – and it has to happen now.

“People will die of hyperthermia in the next few weeks if it doesn’t.”

While refugees wait for the new camp, those next few weeks will either make or break the human spirit.

And volunteer groups like People in Motion will continue to do all they can to get aid where it’s needed – and whenever necessary, fight the obstacles to get it there.

We contacted the French authorities but no one was available for comment.