We didn’t really know what to expect.
We had been following an organization called “l’Auberge des migrants” on Facebook for several weeks. It is a UK-based nonprofit that mobilizes volunteers — largely from the UK, but from other countries as well, including a few Americans — to sort clothes, cook and deliver meals, teach English lessons, and generally help meet the daily needs of the roughly 4,500 migrants that find themselves in a place called the Jungle.
I’m not at all sure who gave this refugee camp that nickname. In a way it seems to me to dehumanize what is already a cauldron of needs, hopes and aspirations, not to mention abhorrent living conditions.
Becky and I wanted to visit the camp, even for just a day, to observe and compare this situation with what we encountered in Greece. We decided to apply as volunteers for a day with the Auberge (which means “inn”). Not having heard back from them (it turns out they only accept volunteers for a week or more), we decided to just drive to Calais and see what we could see.
On a tip from the staff at the restaurant where we had had lunch, we drove to an area near the port of Calais, where hundreds of vehicles line up every day for the car ferry that will take them across the English Channel. Not surprisingly, the Jungle is right there, below the overpass leading to the ferry, although it took what seemed like forever to figure out how to get there by car. One young man at a nearby animal shelter, where we stopped to ask more questions, told me where I could find the warehouses where most of the volunteers work.
Under a chilly drizzle, we arrived at the warehouse, given away by the number of British license plates on the cars parked in the street. We were welcomed by a smiling young man from Manchester, wearing a high-vis raincoat. Dozens of other young volunteers scurried about, many of them finishing up a coffee break and getting back to sorting supplies, setting up donated tents to make sure all the parts were there, and loading a large truck with clothes. Mostly English was spoken, with a little French or German here and there.
After a few more minutes of asking questions of whomever was available, we were told that we couldn’t actually go inside the camp, but that if we showed up at the gate at 6:00 pm, we could visit the makeshift school on the edge of the Jungle, where anyone can go and volunteer their time to give lessons in English, French, and other things.
We arrived at the entrance to the Jungle, guarded by a strong contingent of police. Having set aside my natural reluctance to ask strangers questions (I suppose I’m becoming a self-styled journalist in my old age), I struck up a conversation with one of the troopers while his colleague was running my passport through the system. He told me this unit is part of the national riot police, called in anywhere in France where there is a need to restore order. It wouldn’t be long before we would see part of how this is done.
There was such a different feel between the camps we visited in Athens and the Jungle here in Calais. A majority (by how many I’m not sure) of the migrants come from Africa, notably Sudan, Eritrea, and Ethiopia. There are also a number from other African countries, along with Syria and other Middle Eastern countries. Many have attempted to jump aboard a truck bound for the ferry. Some of those waiting in the Jungle are following legal procedures for applying for asylum, but their chances are usually slim. And now with the Brexit, many in France are calling on England to protect their own border — in other words, to relieve France of the responsibility of holding them back.
If many of the refugees in Athens have family waiting for them in Germany, many of those in the Jungle have people waiting in the UK — hence the hope of somehow making it across the Channel.
In Part II, you’ll read about the surprise that awaited not only us, but some of the volunteers who happened to be at the Jungle at the same time….
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