The most surreal day of my life to date (part 1)

It’s quite a strange feeling knowing that the last time you embarked on this journey, the car was packed to the ceiling with belongings, holiday luggage and random antiques that your mother had acquired from the last brocante (she’s extremely talented in bringing dying pieces of furniture back to life, yet we still complain about her decision to drag around her purchases with us). During the 12 hour journey, our knees would often be wedged into our chests (only allowing for shallow breathing) and occasionally a friend, boyfriend or grandmother would be forced to squeeze into this tiny, frustrating space that ran on 4 wheels. I never considered the fact that I would mature to a point where I would deem  this infuriating journey to be one that I realised I was blessed to have even experienced. Today, I make the same journey to Calais with my father (only this time my dad drives from Belgium where he is temporarily working and I drive from Amsterdam were I now live – you could say things have changed). We repeat this journey due to the fact that we are offering some ‘hands on deck’ for the refugee crisis that is currently unfolding in Calais.

The journey

The nerves initiated as soon as I read the destination on the impending road sign and it was then that it all began to feel very present. I had to remind myself that these individuals have no option to turn around and go home, so what makes me think that I should even have the option to consider doing so? Presumably , the sensation of home is now non-existent for these people – it has completely dispersed.

Through social networking, I was able to discover a contact to instruct me on all of the ‘do’s and don’t s’ of visiting the refugee camp. The address, provided by a complete stranger via social networking also, allowed us to drive directly to the warehouse where the donated support was piled two stories high. It’s interesting how in these situations your ability to trust a complete stranger has to be inclined to increase, because at the end of the day, it is this blind trust that allows these organisations to execute their work in the way they do.

It soon became evident that every other number plate in the warehouse car park, displayed a nationality of people that were definitely prolific throughout the organisation of donations – Brits. My father and I timidly approached a group of people clustered together, smoking outside the entrance. They all possessed a look of enthusiasm, combined with a dose of sadness and exhaustion.

As we cautiously entered the warehouse I felt completely overwhelmed and genuinely shocked by the sheer volume of donations that stood before me. In a bit of a satirical way, with the radio gently pumping a bit of spirit in the background and volunteers carting items in and out, the warehouse reminded me of a slightly morbid Santa’s workshop – I’m a regular with inappropriate thoughts, sorry.

Dad and I stood between the two story high iron shelves feeling very overwhelmed, insignificant and in the way. This organisation felt like a tightly run ship and the volunteers knew exactly how to run it. Shortly after, dad and I met a feisty woman, who I’m going to call Lisa. She was a boisterous, yet headstrong  individual who dedicated her time to a group of also headstrong lads – many who had no parental supervision or care.  These boys (who she knew by their first names and various preferences), had either lost their parents through unfortunate death, possible abandonment or broken promise of return. The 5 ft 2, sharp yet distracted woman explained to dad and I that there were specific items that the boys needed – hair gel, deodorant and of course clean pants. Lisa explained that not only were these boys mischievous, but at times they were inconsolable and even dangerous. Lisa went on to explain how some evenings, the lads even ‘tooled up’ and shockingly mugged people – their dedication to survive was obviously evident, yet their ability to blend in and behave in the camp, was not. Thus, something such as hair gel obviously presented a bargaining tool for Lisa. At times, I found it difficult to mentally process the hardship that these kids had experienced being combined with certain elements of normality, such as wanting to smell good or have perfectly coiffed hair. Occasionally, the kids turned their nose up at certain brands of canned food that were handed to them and it was moments like this that gently reminded myself of the fact that they were still just teenage boys – this realisation allowed for the unproductive soppiness to wilt away, making way for some much needed proactive emotion.

After receiving the kind orders, dad and I went to the local Carrefour to purchase the goods. After raising just under 400 euros, it’s safe to say that this went a long way and bought a lot of pants – dad referred to us as the ‘pants people’ from this moment onward. Feeling incredibly determined, we then dumped the goods in the warehouse in the most organised way possible (there are strict orders not to interfere with the organisation of the warehouse, otherwise it becomes extremely chaotic).

Dad and I had initially agreed to perhaps remain in the warehouse as the camp had proved to be a vulnerable and highly sensitive area at times – perhaps we would discuss it together upon arrival. However, after a 3 and a 1/2 hour journey and with some guidance of other volunteers, it only felt right to make a visit to the media labelled ‘jungle’. Plus, the general tone for dad and I entering the refugee camp felt extremely non-chalant which subtly soothed our concerns. So, in response, we bit the bullet and decided to go for it – this is what we came for. No discussion was had, just a simplistic gaze to one another based on instinct.

Prior to entering the refugee camp, another volunteer requested that I wear waterproof trousers to cover my ankles as a sign of respect to those who support particular faiths where this would be thanked. I happily obliged, whilst mentally appreciating the volunteers’ sensitivity for other cultures – as if they didn’t do enough already.

We nervously jumped back in the car and using a vague map, cautiously made our way to the camp. After driving for about 5 minutes, a very subtle slip road forked to the right leading us to something which we could not have mentally prepared for. I gasped in disbelief, encouraging my father to follow my gaze, allowing him to lay his eyes on the enormous refugee camp that sat 10 feet away from us, yet a stone’s throw to the ferry port where endless amounts of holidaymakers  would be travelling happily back and forth – practically pulling the wool over their eyes, until the camp was out of their sight.

At the entrance, the atmosphere was tense as groups of men clustered together, staring out at the roads and the people gawping at them from their cars. Something just didn’t feel right in my gut, so we carried on driving, watching the entrance pass us by. First the pull of the handbrake and then the guilty look across to one another. We both voiced our reasonable concerns, and for a moment it all felt far too real. Our sights gazed around our environment to a police van that sat on the outskirts of the camp – we were both fully aware that this was only as a precaution for the tax paying public living on the outside. They provided an initial facade of safety within the camp, however it soon became clear that their interests were not with the people of the camp as they hid around a blind spot, naive to the goings on around the other side of that corner.

 

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