Well, the title is a little misleading. I actually spent Christmas at home, in a warm sheltered house, surrounded by my loved ones, eating, drinking, laughing and of course sharing presents.
On the 27th I then travelled to Calais, a place where many people had a very different experience of Christmas. The refugees in Calais spent Christmas outside, in the freezing cold, wet and miserable weather conditions, with no shelter. The refugees spent Christmas in limited clothing, with a donation of food and water to get them by (local water supplies turned off), and with the police stealing/slashing their tents and blankets. Some of the refugees spent Christmas with no idea where their loved ones were or if they are even alive!
A complete opposite Christmas to what most people reading this blog would’ve experienced this year, yet there were some similarities…the happiness, the optimism, the hope of what the future may bring and the sense of community.
My experience in Calais over the last few days has been a whirlwind of emotions. I have sorted heaps of generous donations ready for the refugees, leaving me feeling proud and warmed by the amount that comes into the warehouses. I have spent time with volunteers from a range of backgrounds all giving their time whether that be for a day or for years, learning about their ‘why’ and sharing healthy debates about what we can do. I have taught refugees in a school bus, inspired by their dedication and hunger for learning. I have shared laughter and smiles with strangers from completely different walks of life with no judgement or segregation. However I have also seen the cruel reality these people face. Minutes after a van distributes vital necessities; tents, blankets, shoes, waterproofs etc. Police follow ready to destroy the hours of hard work it has taken to try and make the horrendous living conditions slightly easier. The weather in Calais has been freezing, the wind has been bitter and the rain numbing. Not only that but while in Calais refugees have died trying to get across to England, being here it hits home harder, the desperate measures, the harsh reality. Being in the presence of those who have lost close friends and family in the attempt to come to England is utterly heartbreaking.
I spent my few days with five charities, all with the same goal (Help Regugees, Care4Calais, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia, The School Bus Project and there are probably many many more). I saw how hard people are working to fight for refugees and how frustrating it is to have the relentless cycle of donations being confiscated and ruined. I learned so much from a range of people about the history of what is happening, the small successes, the steps backwards, the future goals.
The past week has been an eye opener in many ways. It’s a bitter sweet moment now as I sit here on the Eurostar back to my home, back to a place where I can feel safe, warm and protected. A place where there are clothes in the wardrobe and food in the cupboard. A place near the people I love. I almost feel a sense of guilt, how dare I live this life of luxury (I would never have before described my life as luxurious, however in comparison it is). I was lucky, I was born into a family in England. My family have certainly struggled over the years yet I have never had to sleep without a roof on my head or food in my stomach, and for the people I met in Calais not only is this what they are experiencing, this was the better choice. These refugees have risked their lives and lost people they love to get away from the war and despair of where they were born, escaping to Calais with a dream of a better life.
I met many refugees living in Calais and Dunkirk, every single person I met was friendly, kind and appreciative for the help they received. Although I was only in France for a short while, there were 2 people in particular that made my face light up whenever I saw them. One, a man so desperate to learn, he ran over to the school bus as soon as it pulled up, notebook ready. He has a dream to one day be the Prime Minister of England! He also unfortunately suffers with his mental health as many do (what can you expect after the traumatic experiences they have been through). Not only was this man desperate to learn to become employable, he also recognised and wanted help for his health, together we created sentences that would help him communicate his needs with a doctor.
The other, a young boy. 10 years old and living outside with other refugees, no family with him. He spoke about his home often and how much he loved and missed Afghanistan. He has lived in Calais for 2 months so far and who knows for how much longer. This boy came to the bus to improve his English, he enjoyed drawing and was an absolute Math whizz, a young boy with so much potential. A young boy who if in England would be looked after, yet in Calais looks after himself. No one to tuck him into bed or wave goodbye as he goes to school.
Leaving these people with no expectation of ever meeting them again is tough, but in fact I hope when I go back that I don’t meet them again. I hope that the situation improves, that these people find safety and stability. There are many ways we can continue to help…there are collection points for donations of warm clothes and sleeping bags up and down the country, there is a ‘Help Refugees’ shop in Soho, you can donate online, you can give your time to distribute food and clothes in the camps, to teach, to provide medical advice etc, you can fight for the basic rights of these people to be met.
Everyone should have the right to somewhere they feel safe.
Hannah was a volunteer educator on The School Bus Project #Calais2017 programme December 2017