This post is the final installment (although I will continue to write about this topic in many forms – your feedback is welcome in the survey at the bottom of this post!) in my diary posts on volunteering in a refugee camp in Northern France with the Roland Levinsky Memorial scholarship. You can read the first three posts here: 1, 2, 3.
A Final Reflection
I found working in the refugee camp very difficult. That is not a secret. A few days in I called my boyfriend and said “I want to leave,” and he said “why don’t you, then?”
But. I didn’t leave.
There was a point about a week and a half in where I turned a corner. Each day no longer seemed interminably long, confusing, terrifying, overwhelming. No… that’s not quite right. It still felt like all those things (that never changes) but I changed. I added to that list: rewarding, efficient, important, loving. I figured out how the system worked and I developed relationships with the people, and suddenly I felt that I not only had a purpose but I knew how to make a difference. One of the most frustrating things in the world is when you see that you are needed, but you don’t know how to make a difference.
Well, right at the point when I began to feel like I knew how to make a difference, I left.
And… something horrible happened.
Something really, really horrific, which kept me constantly updating my phone’s news on the Eurostar back to London, messaging new friends to make sure they were okay, were safe. Prickling with tears of anger and frustration as I passed through security in St Pancras and met my parents waiting for me on the other side. On the day I left France, there was a massive police eviction. The riot police and the normal police and dozens of vans came into the forest, and every single last refugee was put on a van, many against their will or purely confused as there was no explanation calmly given in their language. Their tents, wellies, sleeping bags, tarps were abandoned or cut or destroyed… these same tents that were donated and carefully distributed by myself and the other women working for the charity, now decimated in heaps in the mud.
How terrifying, to one day be forced onto a van, yelled at in a language you cannot understand (many refugees speak English but not French), and driven hours (I heard of up to 17 hours), to a city you don’t know, with no way to get back to your only few belongings and people you know. Many families were separated…imagine this if you have no phone or access to the internet, after all the trauma you escaped in your home country, to now be thrown around and transported like cargo.
If you treat people like dirt for long enough, they will begin to think that way about themselves. This is a well known sociological theory, which I saw in action every day.
After a few days, we knew the refugees would come trickling back into the forest, a few at a time, as they somehow made their way across France and back to the jungle. But this was the terrifying part – we had nothing left to give them. Our supplies had been destroyed or depleted, and we had nowhere near enough left to replace the destroyed materials.
At this point, I lay in my Airbnb bed in London, the softest bed I had ever slept in, staring at the ceiling. Thinking how unfair.
I don’t have much else to offer because I think the connections are all pretty obvious. Very soon, I will be heading back to France. This wasn’t something I initially planned. I thought I would volunteer, and then go on my way… but this tragedy, right in the middle of the comfortable middle class neighborhoods in Northern France, is calling me back.
If I don’t help, who will?
On the Blog
I want to know if you all would like to continue reading about volunteering in the refugee camps. It would mean the world to me if you could answer this short survey.
A Call to Action
If you would like to donate to the Refugee Women’s Center, you can do so here: Dunkirk RWC donation website
You can keep up to date on the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Center actions here: Dunkirk RWC facebook
Are you a woman who wants to volunteer with Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Center? You can email [email protected]
Other worthy organizations in the area include Refugee Youth Service, Refugee Community Kitchen, Care4Calais, Drop Solidarite, and Help Refugees. All organizations accept donations and volunteers (and you don’t have to be a woman).
& of course, a final heartfelt thank you to the Roland Levinsky Memorial Fund for enabling me financially to volunteer with the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Center, and to continue my volunteering past my initial plans.
How wonderful that you could make a difference but it was heartbreaking to read of the police eviction. It seems like we humans have learned nothing from our past lessons and world history. I am keen to read more of your posts and find out more about your experiences and those of the refugees. I volunteer at our local asylum seekers centre, and although it’s not in the same league as the work you have been doing, I really believe that together we can make a difference.
Yes – that’s what I keep thinking of over and over, that we haven’t learned much from history. It was actually really ironic, because a new Hollywood film just came out called Dunkirk, about a battle that took place in Dunkirk, France (where the refugee camp is) and the tagline on all the movie posters was “thousands of people can’t get home”…. well, everyone loved that movie and it made millions. But we CURRENTLY have the same situation in Dunkirk (thousands of people that can’t get home!) and, well, not nearly as many people care about what is happening right now, compared to a Harry Styles movie. It’s really sad 🙁
Amazing that you volunteer with asylum seekers, though, that is amazing work and so, so necessary!!
I haven’t seen Dunkirk but heard lots about it. I’ve been thinking about your post over the last few days and it’s just like something out of the holocaust or a Russian pogrom and no one seems to do anything about it! So thank you for sharing these stories and giving these people a voice. We humans are such slow learners 🙁
Wow, just wow. The police eviction, I can’t even imagine. As I was reading that, it just broke my heart. I would love to hear more about your stories there and ways to help. Keep them coming! It’s nice to read something “real” even if it’s not full of sunshine and rainbows!
Yes – it was really difficult. I’m actually surprised by all the feedback that people want to keep reading about this experience, but I am more than happy to keep sharing!!
You are doing important work by volunteering there and also by sharing your experiences through this platform. Thank you for being brave for those you need it the most right now.
Aw thank you Isabel <3 Not nearly as brave as the people living in the camps. I am surprised at all the feedback to continue these type of posts but I am happy to comply!!
I have to admit, that I wasn’t quite aware of these police evictions! It’s heartbreaking and I can totally understand your frustration!!! I would love to hear more about your work there and first and foremost, about the people you met and how they picture their future. I completely understand that governments are overwhelmed with the amount of people who came into their countries these past few years but we have to make sure that everyone gets treated with respect!
I wasn’t either until I was volunteering! They happen weekly, but only “mini” ones – none on the scale of the eviction on the day I left in which every single last refugee was evacuated (they have mostly all returned by now). I am going to try and share more stories from the people because that seems to be the common theme that everyone wants to read. I agree that it is really difficult because governments are so overwhelmed but I do think the first priority should be survival of these people and respect of the humanity in us all! It is terrible how certain governments treat these people 🙁