I have had much fun with my trusty wagon, an old Royal mail van, over the past few years and it has never let me down. Recently, though, it was asked to go on a mission of a different kind far from the joyful jaunting that it is used to.
My son has been working at festivals throughout this summer and has been shocked and angered at the amount of waste left behind by revellers. It actually works out at an industrial sized skip full of stuff for every 1000 people. All of that goes into landfill and pretty much all of it is good, usable, perfectly functioning stuff – tents, sleeping bags, shoes, toiletries – you name it, it gets left behind. People even leave caravans behind! There is some myth that it all gets collected up and sent to charities where it is made good use of but it actually gets bulldozed into a great big heap and put into our dear Mother Earth. It is insane! Chris, my son, started gathering up stuff and filling van loads to send to Calais to the refugees there of whom we have heard so much recently in our wonderful press. And so, the Royal Snail was called into action!
I made my way to Winchester to the aftermath of the Boomtown festival. It was as if 40,000 people had been suctioned off into the air and transported elsewhere leaving every bit of their belongings behind. We packed the van full of tarps, tents, sleeping bags, boots (really good boots) and all manner of perfectly good stuff. The polarities of their beginnings and their intended destination was mind blowing. Boots that had been upon the feet of someone running across a field to see their favourite band would soon be upon the feet of someone running, willing to risk their lives to reach our shores. Belongings left with such careless abandon would soon be greeted with such desperate gratitude. We set off with a thousand smells and stories at our backs.
We were stopped at every conceivable checkpoint because we looked dodgy and we smelt bad! We had arranged beforehand to take everything to a storage place in Calais, an abandoned Catholic church run by volunteers. The scale of the task facing them was utterly overwhelming. These people have been doing this for years and although conditions have worsened over the recent period, this is something that they have been managing uncomplainingly for a long time. We met with a trojan of a man, whose tireless enthusiasm and energy was something to behold. He told us of the problems that they were dealing with, of the daily influx of people desperate for food and shelter, of the injuries that the people sustain while trying to get across the Channel. He told us of the battles with the local authorities in trying to secure some sort of support, financial and otherwise, and being beaten back every time. He told us of the support from the local people who go out every day to give food to these people having to flee from their homes. He told us that he had volunteered to try and better the lives of these people in some way but that he was constantly having to say no as there are not enough resources to give to people. He told us of having to turn people away who want a coat in the cold of winter, who want a blanket, a tent, some socks – things that we take for granted. He told us that he is tired of seeing what man is capable of doing to his own kind.
The situation in Calais is a political hot potato. I have no intention of writing about the political situation but solely about the human side of it which is appalling. This is not a crisis of the many names that politicians and people with weirdly held beliefs would like to call it. It is a humanitarian crisis. It is a situation where people are facing death and they need help.
I have since become involved in organisations trying to ease the situation in Calais and I have been blown away by the kindness of people who want to do whatever they can in whatever way that they can. There are people who say ‘We have to look after our own’ and they are generally people who don’t lift a finger to look after their own. People who sit at home spouting out statistics and have never spent a day at the local hospice, homeless centre, fundraising and the million and one other ways in which this country goes on doing what it does thanks to the generosity and hard work of volunteers. Those volunteers are also usually the first people to say that anyone in need is welcome with open arms to our country and to what we may be able to offer. I have spent 20 years plus working as a social worker with the vulnerable of this country and I see no difference between ‘our own’ and ‘the others.’ People are people. Help is given as well as, not instead of or at the cost of people already in need here. Indeed, much of the stuff that my son has gathered at festivals has gone to charities in this country.
i am going back to Calais to volunteer my time and also to gather stories from the people there. I will then tell those stories and be a voice for people at a time when they do not have a voice. It is through personal stories that we are able to humanise a situation that feels overwhelming and unsolvable but with one story at a time it is possible. People’s stories hold a mirror up to the world and to our own stories. Coming home, we passed miles and miles of fencing with brand new razor wire glinting in the sun. That was the solution that the leader of our country was able to offer. Millions of pounds spent on making the journey more impossible than it already is. People are not able to apply for asylum unless they are in this country. They cannot do that without breaking the law which makes them unable to apply for asylum. People need help not row upon row of shiny new razor wire. There were faces pressed against the fences conjuring up images that remain so abhorrent of camps in the world wars. I fear we have learnt nothing.