The Government’s response to the refugee crisis in Europe may be slow, but grassroots action has sprung up fast. Hannah Dunleavy spoke to a number of women about what they’re doing to assist refugees in Calais. First up, she talks to Mary Jones of Jungle Books.
“This has been going on forever. People have been living in awful conditions for a very long time. And I always thought, ‘If I was nearer I’d help.’ I work in a business school and we’d have discussions about it and I’d get my pupils to donate some of their nice clothes, so I had an eye on it but I wasn’t doing anything.”
Three months ago, that changed, when teacher Mary Jones decided to set up a library in The Jungle, the series of makeshift camps housing thousands of refugees in Calais, about 150km away from her French home.
Jungle Books has now been up and running for a few weeks, because Jones says, “It took a bit of time to understand the situation and how best to do it.” Currently, she is managing to stay open full-time, with help of a young English volunteer who has camped next door. And although school term has started again, she’s “regrouped” and is only working one day a week, so she can be in Calais the rest of the time.
“Eventually, I’d like to see if I can find someone or an organisation that can give me a part-time job doing this. Currently, I’m doing it as a volunteer, off my own back.
“At the moment, you have to think of it not as a library. It’s a wooden structure, the size of a couple of garden sheds. It’s a place where people come and do all kinds of things. I try to source things for people, essential things. They come in to ask me for shoes, or they show me how their tent has been flooded overnight. People come in to do lessons [in French and English]. It’s not a library, although there are books they can take quite freely. It’s very much a drop-in centre with books.
“There is this idea that people here are just economic migrants. But then why have they brought their family? Why are there four-year-olds in the camp sleeping in tents if it’s all about the man making money?”
“People have also asked if they can use the space for discussions, so people from Sudan or Afghanistan, for example, can explain their situation to other people there, or people from outside, so they understand why they’re there and why they can’t go back.”
The point of why they can’t go back is an interesting one, given this country is seemingly cleaved in two; those who have sympathy for the residents of The Jungle and those who don’t.
“There is this idea,” Jones says, “that people here are just economic migrants. But then why have they brought their family? Why are there four-year-olds in the camp sleeping in tents if it’s all about the man making money?
“There are so many women on the site, and that’s changed since I started, and split-up families, where the husband is in England. I know an absolutely lovely lady and her four-year-old, who are just stuck in Calais.”
She pauses. “They will never get across.”
On the other hand, Jones, who is originally from Wales, has seen in the last week “a massive wave of support, with people just getting in cars and turning up. It’s gone a bit crazy.
“I’ve been blown away by the generosity I’ve seen but I don’t have capacity for any more books. And I’ve been inundated with offers of help. I couldn’t have asked for better. Currently, I’m at the point where I’m asking people what they want – and some of it is quite specific – and I’m trying to source those books.
“Now, what would be nice would be if I could do something more long-lasting. With money I could make a big difference, because being here I can see what would be really useful.”
“People who come here say, ‘everyone seems quite happy’ and it’s true because people do make the best of a very bad situation and there is a lot of solidarity. But even now, it’s starting to get cold in the evening.”
And what would be useful, Jones says is gas stoves and generators. She’s set up a crowdfunding page to help raise the cash to make it happen.
“The current situation is quite chaotic. People are organising themselves and a lot of shelters have been built, but as soon as the weather gets bad then things are going to change quite a lot.
“People who come here say, ‘everyone seems quite happy’ and it’s true because people do make the best of a very bad situation and there is a lot of solidarity. But even now, it’s starting to get cold in the evening. When people are living in shelters and rain is starting to get in and clothes are getting wet, it’s going to get really miserable.
“People are cooking on open fires so as soon as it rains all the wood’s wet. Or people are cooking inside tents on open fires. It’s an absolute disaster waiting to happen.
“The electricity here is just street lights and very soon it’s going to be dark at four o’clock. People will go back to their tent and all they have is a candle, like the Middle Ages.”
It’s a rather depressing picture of a tough winter ahead, that rather begs the question: what’s in it for you?
Jones laughs: “It’s a massive learning curve and mostly it’s a learning curve about how not to do things. But I’ve met really, really interesting people.”
Other ways you can get involved
CalAid is a group of volunteers collecting urgently needed donations for those living in the Calais refugee camps. To volunteer or donate go to http://www.calaid.co.uk
Médecins Sans Frontières had a record day last week – rescuing 1,658 people from boats on the Mediterranean Sea, including 547 women and 199 children. Details of how you can support its work are here http://www.msf.org.uk/support-us
Refugee Action helps people fleeing violence, oppression and harassment. More details here http://www.refugee-action.org.uk
Refugees Welcome Here plans a National Day of Action on Saturday, including a march in central London. For more details go to the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/events/1629390697300657/?ref_newsfeed_story_type=regular&action_history=null
Hand in Hand for Syria offers medical and humanitarian aid in Syria. For more information on what they do and how you can help, go to http://www.handinhandforsyria.org.uk/get-involved
Shelterbox provides emergency shelter and supplies to families affected by the Syrian crisis in Iraq, Kurdistan, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. You can get in touch via the website at http://www.shelterbox.org2464 Views
Hannah Dunleavy is the deputy editor of Standard Issue. She likes whisky and not having to run anywhere.