A spirit that can never be killed

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In January activists from anti-racist group We Are Wakefield travelled to Dunkirk on the north coast of France to take solidarity to the refugee camp. Raya Ziyaei tells the story of their journey.

We chose Dunkirk, 30 miles east of Calais, because it had been hit by the recent floods, and the camp had doubled in size in the previous few weeks. Calais has an organised volunteer structure which means it is easier for the refugees at “The Jungle” to get what they need. Dunkirk doesn’t have this, with only a handful of volunteers coping with a huge amount of work.

Upon arrival we quickly put on our high visibility jackets and waited as a group to be given instructions. Due to the restrictions on the camp, our van full of donations wasn’t initially allowed to enter. We were told to take in donations by hand until we had permission to move the vehicle. We were told the camp had no blankets left, and that the distribution tent needed filling with these before anything else.

We walked a short road with our arms full of bags of donations. To the right of us stood row after row of posh houses, each with a well-kept yard and a driveway leading to a locked garage. To the left was an emaciated man carrying a wooden pallet on his back staggering to the camp. The road we walked seemed to be a physical representation of the divide between the upper class and true poverty.

My first encounter with the camp was the French police searching our bags before allowing us to enter. What they were looking for is still unbeknown to us; however, our blankets and sleeping bags were deemed acceptable and we were allowed to pass. I kept my head down as we walked roughly three quarters of a mile up a dirt path. The sides of this path were lined with tents, people huddled around small fires, and pop-up stalls for various needs.

Every ten steps or so we were asked by the refugees if the donations were for them. A small child asked if I had any food and a teenage boy begged me for a blanket. However, we were under strict instructions not to give away blankets directly as they were reserved firstly for newcomers to the camp.

The recent floods had devastated the camp, causing diseases to spread and obliterating previous donations and the property of those living there.

The further into the camp we walked the more sinister the conditions became. Mud with the consistency of milkshake, which can only be described as “gloop”, rose to around ankle height. The number of tents increased, as did the numbers of children and women.

Eventually we turned off of the main dirt track. We were then faced with a mud slope to descend. There had been attempts to combat the mud with branches and small trees piled underfoot, but this was soon deemed futile as the sheer quantity of the mud meant that the branches were quickly covered. After the slope a bridge of small wooden pallets appeared, which led directly to the blanket distribution tent.

We waited on this bridge while a few refugees were denied blankets because they were not newcomers to the camp. As we began to distribute our goods into the tent, a woman in her early 20s took a blanket. It was clear she was desperate from the look of sheer relief on her face. As she left the distribution centre she hugged and shook hands with many of our group.

We quickly made our way back across the makeshift bridge and the mud slope back onto the dirt track. As we walked back to the entrance I witnessed many heartbreaking scenes.

A boy around ten years old dropped a new sleeping bag in the mud and cursing to himself as he tried to salvage what he had only recently collected. A girl, no more than two years old, ran to a man I presumed to be her father with a small sandwich bag holding around five chocolates. Her eyes were bright and she was obviously proud of her findings. Her father praised her for her hard work, but the sorrow in his eyes was plain to those who bothered to look. It became clear at this point that children of all ages were being used to collect supplies. This is not done as an act of malice or deceit. These people simply have no other choice. You do not let an infant scrounge for food unless you have no other option.

Then we encountered a very interesting woman. She introduced herself to us, and asked where our group were from. She spoke limited English and asked if any of us spoke French or Arabic as she was fluent in both. As we didn’t, she continued speaking in broken English. She told us that she was from Palestine and she was trying to create an alliance between the French and the Palestinians. She told us of a protest happening at 1pm at the gates to the camp to demand that the borders be opened. This brilliant woman was forming a group of activists within the camp.

We again began to walk back to the van to collect more donations. This time I took in my surroundings. Tents were surrounded by the gloopy mud, and from glancing into the unzipped tents, it was clear that they were also full of the mud. A few of the luckier families had a wooden pallet to sleep on; however, many of the sleeping bags were immersed in the mud.

Outside roughly every other tent was a fire, being used for warmth and to cook food. The smog from these fires filled the air, and it became hard not to cough on the fumes. Many of the refugees had scarves and material wrapped around their mouths and noses for this reason.

I also noticed a multitude of pop-up businesses in the camp, where people were attempting to bargain goods they had collected. It reminded me of the kid in high school who would buy his lunch from money collected by selling chocolates and sweets to the other students. This was not done out of selfishness, but rather out of a desperate need to survive.

When we arrived back at the gates of the camp, the police had disappeared and the van no longer had any restrictions upon entering. We were told it was unusual for the police to not be there, and we were led to believe they had moved on to Calais because they did not want to be around for the oncoming protest.

We set up three tables around the doors of the van in a U-shape, creating a square for the volunteers to stand and distribute the goods. A line of volunteers then stood side by side around the tables, acting as bodyguards against the donations being swarmed.

At first we attempted to organise the refugees into lines; however it soon became clear that this was not going to work. I believe that this was a direct result of the language barrier and of the desperation felt by these people. The tables and volunteers were quickly flocked by refugees.

I use the word flocked with a distaste in my mouth. The words “flocked” and “swarmed” imply that these people were animals, relying on their primal instincts. This was not the case. The refugees were not unruly; they were desperate. They were clinging on to the hope that we could give them what they needed. They told us that nobody had ever brought such a high quantity of donations to the camp. In the words of one of the volunteers, “It was like opening a pop up supermarket in a place that had only ever had market stalls.”

Originally I was with the line of “bodyguards”, taking requests and asking the people behind the table for them. I did this for roughly 45 minutes before I noticed a person go ignored towards the back of the crowd. I decided to leave my post to help them. After this I couldn’t get back to the tables and instead talked to the people loitering towards the back. These people could not get to the table for various reasons, and so I took their requests and shouted them back to the bodyguards. Here I met dozens of people with different needs and different stories.

I met a middle aged man who asked for new shoes. I told him that the shoes had already been given away, but he did not understand. He told me that when the floods hit, his boots had been ruined, and that his feet were infected. He was in dire need of new shoes, which I just couldn’t give him. He waited for hours on the off-chance that he might get them. He only left as we began to pack up.

There was a young man in his early 20s who told me that he didn’t need clothes, but he was hoping to get something for his brother. He told me his brother had gone into hospital after losing his hand to disease, and that he had no clothes left. The man was patient with me while I searched for jeans and a jumper, and he shook my hand after I had managed to find them.

There was a man holding a baby. Her legs were caked with mud, and her face blank. She was wearing crocs and pink shorts. I couldn’t help wondering if she was born stateless.

After being handed a child’s coat I decided to head up to the camp again to give it away to someone who would need it. I found a group of children playing together next to a tent. I asked who needed it, and two boys held out their arms. The older of the two told me to give it to the younger, and explained that he was his brother. The two younger girls were his sisters.

At this point one of the volunteers was filming and taking photographs. The eldest child demanded that no photographs were taken of his siblings. We explained that we wanted to take photographs to show people so that more people would come and help in the camps. At this point, he agreed that we should film as they needed as much help as possible.

On the walk back to the camp I saw people carrying oil/petrol tanks full of water, their backs stooped as they struggled with the weight. I saw children holding boxes, sacks and buckets of food, giving them out to the people walking past. The people who accepted the food clung to it as they made their way back to their tents. It reaffirmed the notion that those who have the least give the most. Everybody in the camp helped each other in whatever way they could. It would take far worse than extreme poverty to break the spirit of these beautiful people.

In the face of disease, unsanitary conditions, malnutrition, overcrowding, distress and hatred from the state, these amazing people are sticking together. They are cracking jokes, cheering when donations come in, playing games and smiling at each other. They are not happy; they are not warm; and they are fighting for survival. And yet they have created a society of people in which no one is alone in the struggle. A society of people who understand what they have been through, and most importantly, a society of people who will not back down.

Upon leaving we were all faced with one ultimate question: “What is the long term solution?” There was one unifying answer — “Open the borders”.

Raya Ziyaei is co-owner of Northern Community Feminism: www.facebook.com/NCFeminism