Providing Humanitarian Relief in Calais and Brussels

Humanity’s Heart’s first encounter with displaced individuals in the refugee current crisis was in Calais back in June 2016. At our recent screening of “Humanity Rising in the Refugee Crisis” at the University of Essex (October 2018) we were joined by Philip Horner who has been a dedicated volunteer with relief organisation, Care for Calais. Philip shared about his experience and learnings as a volunteer in Calais. At our screening SOAS in London (November 2018) Frances Gahl from SOAS student group, “Calais and Beyond” (which regularly takes students to volunteer in Calais) shared about her experience and the reasons for their work.

Whilst, the Jungle (the refugee camp in Calais) was officially closed down at the end of the summer in 2016, within months refugees gathered once more and today the camp has resurrected once more as a space which brings refugees together and one where humanitarian aid has come from initiatives such as Care for Calais or Help Refugees. Universal critical acclaim of the recent sold-out theatre production of the play, “The Jungle” in London tells the stories of loss, fear, community, hope and resilience of the Calais camp’s creation and of its eventual destruction. It showcased the moving and uplifting encounters between refugees from many different countries and the volunteers who arrived from the UK.

Philip Horner recognises the need to help those stuck in displacement in Calais.

Since its demolition he has done the 2 ½ hour journey from home to Calais around eight times and shares what he is witnessed there on his visit in November 2018:

“Returning to Calais after six months away - little has changed. The Warehouse is still empty looking and during the week there are few volunteers. Now the media has lost interest and people think that the Jungle demolition removed the problem.

On Sunday we do have a reasonable number of volunteers which enables us to head for the industrial estate near the port - less than half a mile from the old Jungle - now overgrown scrubland with high fences surrounding it. This area has been one of the most volatile as it is a mix of ethnicities, many from Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, and also Africa. I find myself talking to a young man from Nigeria. He has excellent English and hopes to be able to build a life in the UK. Sadly he was fingerprinted in Italy, so I have to tell him that if he is found in the UK, he will be deported back to Italy. He says the only foreign language he speaks is English. He speaks neither French, nor Italian. He has friends in the UK and has been in Calais for four months. I tell him if he gets to the UK he will have to stay hidden, working in the black economy, unable to get asylum. After our conversation he walks away, disappointed. One young man gets frustrated that we only give one pack to each person. He picks up a rock and threatens to throw it at our vehicle. Calmly, one of the long-term volunteers talks to him, persuades him to accept that this is the way things are done. Almost everyone has a story of their friend who is sleeping in or has a bad leg, so they can't come to the distribution.

Humanity's Heart volunteers arrive in Calais.jpg

From experience, the procedure is always to tell them that it is one pack per person, if someone needs special treatment then we need to see them. A family with three small children appears. The eldest child, a daughter of around eight enjoys playing with the volunteers. The mother approaches one of the female volunteers for help - she needs sanitary products. Supplies are in the van, so the volunteer says she needs to get the key from one of the male volunteers. The woman says no as she feels shame asking for such items. The female volunteer tactfully manages the situation and gets the required items whilst keeping the mother's dignity intact.

Whilst all this is going on a game of football is taking place, and the Care4Calais team have set up tea and coffee and a barber's area. Three people at a time are having haircuts, other refugees using the clippers and scissors with reasonable dexterity considering it is cold and in the open. This make-do barbers is one of the most popular things that Care4Calais do - every distribution, Calais, Dunkirk, Brussels - it is always in demand and the last thing to be packed away each time.

Care4Calais barbers shop.jpg

Thursday is Brussels, a two and a half hour drive away. A smaller team, as mid week volunteers are desperately low, but enough, just, to be able to carry out this vital role. Packs are given out containing food and a few other items to help people stay warm - socks and hats. There are between 400 and 500 people seeking refuge in Brussels, spending most of their time in a Park near the centre. Again the haircutting is popular, and the mood generally ok, considering the colder autumn temperatures.

Hair cuts in Brussels.jpg

Whilst there we were approached by a group of smartly dressed men who wanted to talk to us. After some discussion, it became apparent that these were immigrants, who were horrified with what they saw in the treatment of people in these circumstances. They had been strangers themselves in the city but by now had made some money and wanted to help. They asked what was needed and they wanted to spend 5000 Euros. This local support is not unusual - a different man appears with several hundred waffles and pains aux chocolat and asked us to distribute them. On a previous visit a local had stopped his car and handed over bags and bags of donated clothing for us.

A few days later we are distributing at the 'Eritrean' roundabout. I had been here in the summer and whilst the distribution point is by the roundabout itself, the refugees were living in a small area of parkland by a quiet residential street. Since my last visit the authorities had put up high fences and removed access to the area. Now the Eritreans were sleeping under a motorway bridge. Nevertheless this is always a highlight of any visit - the group is friendly, around 80 strong, and almost all teenage and early twenties. Again, hair was being cut, tea and coffee drunk and games of football and 'death' volleyball taking place. Sadly I had to leave early to catch my ferry back to the first world, just 25 miles away.”