Friday, 11 December 2015

Calais Visit 3

Since I got back from Calais I’ve been noticing clothes a lot more. I realise that after just a few days my mind has become fairly acutely attuned to categorising things in terms of ‘suitable’ and ‘unsuitable’. That is, suitable or unsuitable for protection in a refugee camp, in Winter. The distinction between the two, representing much more than a piece of clothing. The ‘yes’ and ‘no’ piles representing a distinction between on the one side - entitlement; privilege; resources; choices... Whilst on the other side – survival. Mostly that – survival, and the retaining of human dignity.

Last night at work back in the UK (welcoming people coming to the Panto) I noticed the men wearing thin clean white jumpers (there were quite a few) and suddenly the ‘unsuitable’ label pops into my mind shining a light on the simple privilege I wouldn’t have considered before Calais. Thin white jumpers which assume heating and clothes-washing facilities and a frequent change of clothes. Jumpers which in Calais would have been thrown firmly on the ‘no’ pile.

I notice people wearing shoes – that is, any kind of footwear that is not a trainer (suitable for running to jump on lorries/trains) or wellies/hiking boots (suitable for walking on muddy, flooded, bumpy ground). ‘Unsuitable’ shoes which assume the privilege of having solid even floors and pavements to walk on. Footwear which does not require the judgement of being more or less likely to give you trench foot...

Fellow volunteers – when I close my eyes I’m still searching the waist sizes of jeans! And taping boxes...

And seeing so many faces – the faces of the people who stood in the long line to take the toiletry packs we handed them from the back of the van. I am remembering all their faces – the smiles, the laughing ‘hello’s’ and ‘thank you’s’, the faces with pain in them, the downcast eyes, the joking, the disappointed faces, the hopeful and the resigned. The bald man taking the shampoo and catching my questioning expression - ‘yes, yes, I need’ as he rubs his head laughing. Laughing together.

I see the faces of the two young men from Afghanistan and hear their voices telling us about arriving on the boat in Greece, how scary it was, and about how they felt so touched by the kindness of people welcoming them ashore with cups of tea and biscuits, how they would never forget it.

I see the woman and young boy carrying a crate of bananas between them. There must have been a fruit distribution. Suddenly there are lots of people holding apples and bananas. A man who sees me tying bin bags around the fence where a rubbish point is, offers his banana. The generosity of people is so incredibly humbling.

I see the faces of the boys walking alongside our car drawing hearts in the raindrops running down our windows.

I smile seeing the little girl who is laughing and laughing, and sticking her tongue out at these funny people who have turned up in her field and are doing such a silly dance ‘Oh the hokey cokey...’ and insisting on sharing her smarties with us.

I see the woman’s face as she steps out from between the tents and we smile at each other and she is nodding her head to me, and it feels like between both of us there is a big longing unspoken welcome. I have never realised until that moment, how deeply it feels a smile, merely a genuine smile, can connect hearts through untold boundaries and differences. I can still feel her smile in my heart.

Our team – dropping donations; building shelters; repairing homes; working in the medic caravan; teaching English in the library; making up and distributing food parcels; sorting shoes; making up and distributing clothing and toiletry packs; joining a peaceful protest organised by refugees about the boy killed on the road and demanding to be treated as human beings; talking to people... Just four days of helping where we could, which is such a tiny drop in the ocean of support and change that is so desperately needed. It feels so inadequate, because it is. But if you are able to go, for whatever amount of time, please go. It will make a difference and sometimes the difference that it will make could be immeasurable. And there are amazing volunteers there who would really appreciate some help

One time when we were working in the warehouse, the dance track that was playing had the words ‘to understand is to transform’. It stuck in my mind. By participating in the work here, by meeting the people, we gain an understanding that no amount of media can give, and it is transforming. How much this has the power to transform the appalling and shocking injustice and harm taking place at Calais and to refugees around the world, is yet to be seen. But the old adage is clear – we can’t wait for our ‘leaders’ to do the right thing, we need to be the change we wish to see. And keep on moving towards understanding.