By Lauren Peters
Knowledge is power, but activism flicks the switch
Dad: So will you be coming to Greece with us in the summer then?
Me: Ur, probably not no. Was thinking of heading to Calais instead.
I know what you`re thinking. Why in god`s name would I forfeit two weeks basking horizontal in the Med – Solero in hand, for the sake of a trip to a country quite literally 20 miles South of Dover?
Well, because… there`s this thing called the refugee crisis right (occasionally it`ll rise to the forefront of the news during a slow spell or return to the surface when someone powerful decides to use it as ammunition for their political games) and well, it`s happening. And whilst there are those who utter confusion at the prospect of going overseas to help when there are `citizens of our own in need`, for me, it makes no difference what passport you`re privileged enough to possess. Whether you`re from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Eritrea, Syria, Iraq, Pakistan, Wolverhampton, Bromley or Kent, it makes no fucking difference. And right now, the millions of people fleeing conflict and oppression in search of life are the priority.
(Can I just say as well – really quick, I don`t mean to preach from some self-congratulatory position of perceived superiority here, absolutely not at all. After only one week in Calais I am acutely aware of my naivety. I am merely riffing about the one experience I had and trying to articulate my thoughts on the matter. Whilst friends would have me believe I am a saint, the reality is I was unemployed at the time and therefore able to up sticks for a bit).
Dans la Cuisine
I have passata encrusted on my forearms, garlic dissolving my nail beds, chickpea residue blurring my vision, blisters in the creases of my phalanges, an unhealthy obsession with crushing cans and an apron for a second skin. What am I? I am an ordinary human being. I have no skills or experience. But I do wear contact lenses and am therefore fucking proficient when it comes to dicing onions, hence my decision to work in the kitchen. How about a tour?
Right so over here we have: The Volunteers, the vast majority of whom are amateurs in this endeavour, forced to fill the relief vacuum left by us Brits and the French who refuse to declare this a humanitarian crisis or an official camp thereby denying international aid organisations the access they require. Medecins Sans Frontieres are the only major NGO on the ground, offering emergency care during office hours. Thus, the volunteers work where Governments and NGOs do not. Unconstrained by red tape, politics and bureaucracy, they act to change lives. And my GOD do they put a shift in. 9-5 every day, relentlessly washing, peeling, chopping, slicing, grating, crushing, picking… for as long as they can – be it a day, a week, a month or a year. Serious claps to the long-termers who have to repeat the same information day in day out with as much vigour as the first. You have my respect.
And now to the sink. You`ll spend at least 4.5 hours of your day decanting, de-crusting, soaking, scrubbing, rinsing and drying absolutely everything anyone has laid eyes on since the morning. But it`s cool because with the sink comes a greasy mat which is like, the BEST for experimental footwork. A bold incentive if you ask me.
There are of course other dimensions to the warehouse, namely: clothing, hygiene, tents, shoes and woodwork. But rather than guess what they`re like I shall leave them for you to explore and accurately detail instead.
So yes, the kitchen is awesome.
It is the ultimate democracy. Like ants, working as a synchronised collective consciousness (cue Einaudi accompaniment) together the volunteers strive to build something greater than the sum of their parts. There really are few places in the cosmos where a top bant gentletoff can work seamlessly alongside a dreadlock Rasta. C`est fucking bon if you ask me. C`est fucking bon.
Take out: GO AND VOLUNTEER. HELPERS NEED HELP TOO!!!
Originally an inside joke made by the migrants in ironic reference to the squalid living conditions of the camp, `the Jungle` has taken on an entirely different meaning in the context of scare stories published by the media. The imagery the headlines evoke is of primitive, uncontrollable brutes. It’s a convenient way to explain away the causes – `they do this because they are savages`, rather than trying to decipher the political, economic, or historic roots. Whether or not you believe the refugees should be allowed to enter into Britain, they are humans like the rest of us and so we must cease using language that denies them this humanity (paraphrased from Joseph Harker`s article: `Stop calling the Calais refugee camp the `Jungle`).
Due to very strong inter-ethnic tensions at the start of the week (whereby a young Ethiopian man was stabbed to death), strict regulations were put in place for volunteers, prohibiting anyone entering that was unable to commit to a week`s work or more. Consequently, I have very little to report on the camp itself, and it was perhaps naive of me to presume I would.
There`s no denying my initial frustration. Anyone arriving with an expectation to wander freely would be annoyed I think. Of course I was there to help, but I wanted to know first-hand what it was I was actually helping – to gain some perspective above and beyond the distortions of the media and hearsay. But by the end I began to understand. This was not a joke – no playground for poverty tourism, no feel-good opportunity for yet another pair of useless white hands. These were real people with real problems requiring real support from individuals who were properly informed and sensitised to deal with the situation. And if in reading this you`re thinking `oh right, well I won`t bother then` – don`t, because you`d be going for the wrong reasons. Volunteers are there to help, period.
The 3 hour hitchhike back to the UK presented a sad and ironic parallel of the aspirations of the 7000 or so people in the camp. I will definitely try to go back. Not because I have the solution, or a precise idea of how things should progress, but because I`m convinced the only thing not to do is nothing. As the poster plastered on the bus driver`s sun visor said `Whilst you can`t help everyone, you can help someone`.