I recently went to the Calais refugee camp as part of a solidarity convoy of 10 cars with ‘Stand up Against Racism’. I was joined by child psychotherapist in training, Mariachiara Zappa, and two women I had not met before. One was a young politics and international relations student, the other a filmmaker, and a car stuffed full of donations of the things like ‘men’s shoes, size 6-9’ that we had been told they wanted and were high priority need. This is my experience of the trip:
The camp known by everyone there as the ‘Jungle’ was actually worse than I had imagined. There was an immediately shocking sense of disbelief that this was happening in Calais. A two-hour drive away, I had only travelled just across the border to France, but felt like I had walked in to the Third World. Not, that the horror of peoples’ smashed up lives is any less if happening further away. But here, I feel certain, that our governments are capable of stopping it being like this. We were told not to give donations out directly because people had fought over them yesterday when a small group had come and done this. In the old church where donations were being stored, they had so much stuff but seemed to have no resources to get the things to the people in the camp or to sort them in a way that meant they could do this. They said they didn’t want any jumpers at all and turned away quite a bit of what the convoy had brought, rather than adding to the mountains they already had but couldn’t manage.
Yet in the camp, the people were cold, wearing flip flops and sometimes shoeless. Children were struggling with adult shoes. I didn’t want to give out anything directly because we saw the aftermath of when this had happened, but an old man who looked sick and struggled to walk, was freezing and wanted my coat so I took it off and gave to him. Much later he found me again, he had followed me because I had left a packet of Tic Tacs and a pen in my pocket and he thought I had left them by mistake and might want them back and wanted to give them back to me...I honestly cannot imagine how these people cope in winter and assume some must die.
I gave money that people had given me to buy things to the two different aid organisations (organisation gives the wrong idea) that we went to. At the second one we met a tough and passionate older French woman who has lived all her life in Calais. She used to be a jeweller but now devotes her life to working here giving out food, with her husband. She cried when I gave her the money.
The refugees living in the camp were friendly and pleased to see us - they wanted to talk (even if they had little English) and said they wanted people to see where they were living. One young Eritrean man who has no family, told me with little English and lots of gestures about his experience. “The police (and people on border controls ask), “What is your name?”’, and then, ‘‘Where are you from?”’ (If the answer is) “Syria”, he looked at me smiling and gestured beckoning. When he said, “ Eritrea” his face hardened, he crossed his arms with violence in fists as if being handcuffed as he said, “No”. A small group of Eritrean boys/young men stood round him as he told me this. He repeated this several times, naming places other than Eritrea receiving the welcome, and ending always with, “Eritrea”, the handcuffed fists and the same impenetrable “No”.
So quickly, I knew just like he did, and had to hear again and again, what the inevitable outcome would be each time. Hopelessness, suffering, injustice, not counting, dehumanisation, reduced to a name and a country - on repeat. Yet he did want to tell me this, he wanted me - fellow humans - to know. We know that Syrians are not being welcomed into the UK with open arms either, but certainly from the current media coverage we might forget that it is not only Syria that is war-torn and desperate.
The chaos of the situation, including the lack of an effective way to get the aid to the people living there was shocking. The fact that traumatised people who have already lived through so much unimaginable atrocity were now living here in this, 'slum' was devastating and we do need to know about it. I felt that perhaps the tiny impact if any made from our visit was from just being there, talking, listening, seeing and showing solidarity. The aid worker said that people ask her how to help. She said come, talk, spend time and then think about what else individuals feel they personally can do, in the “Jungle” to offer something. They want and need donations but at the moment cannot actually manage most of them. One English young man who is staying out there, says he spends hours each day just clearing debris away from water taps to try to keep the water clean.
Clearly more than this is needed, including a way of effectively managing the donations that are in fact desperately needed. I am not criticising the people who are working incredibly hard out there and have been for years. Perhaps they are working as effectively as they can be or perhaps not, I could not judge this from a one-day visit. But they were there long before this shocking situation hit the recent headlines and prompted the surge of people wanting to help. And they will be there after the halting image of Aylan Kurdi, dead on a beach, fades from people’s minds. They have to consider how to give things out fairly so as not to lead to further feelings of resentment, injustice and deprivation, which in these inhumane living conditions can push people to violence. They are also in need of help with organising and distribution and we were told that they don’t even have a van. The people living in the camp are given one very small cold ‘packed lunch’ a day by the French government, they have very few toilets, queue hours to use them, as they do to get food. They queue hours for medication, if needed and are often just given one painkiller each. This treatment of traumatised humans is happening on the border of the UK and in the European Union in 2015. I returned feeling like I’d been gone a week rather than just a day and to another continent rather than to France.
I think that we, as child and adolescent psychotherapists, may have something small but still important to offer to the immediate experience of those living in the camps. What these people need most of all is for this situation to change and that is of course the priority. They need to be fed, clothed and housed properly. Campaigning and lobbying for this and seeing how to help with organisation are top on the list of necessity. But while these people are living this way, in this appalling limbo, we may be also able to help to make some of the individuals feel at least a little more thought about and seen. We have a particular understanding of the need to feel recognised and to have one’s experience, however terrible, taken in and known about. These people obviously do not need therapy now; they need their defences. But to have people sit, listen and absorb some of this horror was I think valuable and something we as a group are good at.
There were some women and children in the camp, but they are housed in an actual building at least. It is apparently still grim but I did not see it on this visit. There are certainly adolescent boys living in the camp itself.
In terms of public understanding, we also have important experiences to share. We are used to working with trauma and extreme disturbance. We have CAPTS who work in specialist refugee services and probably many others of us who are seeing refugees in other settings in our daily work. This includes work with children, adolescents and parents who have fled home countries themselves, and second and third generations of children whose parents have. We see how heavily the experience of intergenerational trauma and displacement can land on developing minds.
For the current children and families in the world seeking safety, or in the majority of cases in the Calais camp - young men who will hopefully one day become members of new families, by keeping them in places like this rather than helping them to feel safe and valued, their trauma is being compounded. This in turn, is likely to contribute to the development of mental health difficulties in future generations.
We are all busy and filled up with the important and painful lives of those we already work with. But, if anyone would like to think further about what we might also be able to contribute helpfully to this situation, perhaps including visiting the people in Calais, or to share what you are already doing and thoughts you have about what others can do, then I would be interested to hear. It is worth noting if you do want to be involved immediately, then it is best to contact one of the organisations already there, rather than going alone or with an uninvolved group, at least to start with and certainly do not take donations without checking with the people there first.