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In northern France, a Facebook call to aid refugees inspires a social movement

grande synthe shelter and girl
Reuters/Pascal Rossignol
Hope in the darkest of places.
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

For most of them, it started with a call to action on Facebook. Now, hundreds of people from across Europe find themselves living in northern France, helping the refugees stuck there in whatever way they can.

What brought this group together was a shared sense of injustice; an inability to watch a crisis so close to home unfurl from behind a computer or TV screen. In coming together, they have formed a social movement that exists outside of a mainstream political discourse—one that does not represent their views on refugees.

“There was a call for help on Facebook. I came down and brought some wellies and blankets. I was supposed to stay for a weekend,” says Ivana*, a Bosnian student from Amsterdam who has been volunteering for several months.

“The best thing I realized I could’ve done was my offer friendship, solidarity, be here with them,” she says. “If we all decided to live in the Jungle [refugee camp], the governments couldn’t ignore us. That’s why I’m here.”

Ivana teaches English to the mostly Kurdish inhabitants of the Grande-Synthe camp, where she lives. She is also learning their language so she can advocate for them and share vital information from the authorities, which regularly gets lost in translation.

She is a refugee herself, having fled Bosnia at the age of four and receiving asylum in the Netherlands. Now Ivana says the “horrible” treatment of people fleeing persecution by “fortress Europe” compelled her to take action.

“The political climate was so much better in the ’90s. Even then, it was quite bad, but we were acknowledged as refugees—as human beings and not as fortune seekers,” she says. For now, her literary theory thesis is on hold, and she has no idea when she will head home.

About 8,000 refugees, mainly from the Middle East and Africa, are living in the area. They are split between the camp in Calais, known as the Jungle, and a new purpose-built camp in Grande-Synthe, a suburb of Dunkirk, about 25 miles up the coast. With the recent partial eviction of the Jungle, and the closure of a different camp in Grande-Synthe, dubbed the “forgotten Jungle,” refugees also languish in smaller camps and sleep rough in the surrounding area.

For many years, this unassuming coastal region was a stop where British people on so-called booze cruises came to pick up cheap wine. Now it’s become a political hotbed. Miles of razor-wire fence hugs the Calais coastline, heavily patrolled by the CRS, the French national riot police. The UK government has pledged to take 20,000 Syrian refugees over the next five years, a fraction of the number that other European countries, like Germany, have taken. The mayor and deputy mayor of Calais have blasted the UK for failing to do more. They say the city—which is the penultimate frontier for refugees on their treacherous journeys—has been “sacrificed” by the UK and Europe.

The French government has been reluctant to officially recognize the refugee camps in the region, making it difficult for the United Nations and large aid organizations to operate there. Médecins Sans Frontières, which set up the new Grande-Synthe camp, is one of the few large NGOs out there.

As a result, dozens of grassroots volunteer groups and charities have sprouted up in Calais, helping to run the camps and organizing volunteers and donations through a network of Facebook groups.

One of the largest groups is L’Auberge des Migrants. Founded in 2008, L’Auberge runs a large warehouse in an industrial estate. There, tons of donations—including clothes, toiletries, and food—are dropped off, sorted, and packaged for distribution. Also operating from the warehouse is Refugee Community Kitchen, which prepares a hot meal a day for thousands of refugees.

On weekends, an influx of eager volunteers coming in carpools turn up to help at the warehouse, which is in a state of semi-organized chaos. Reggae music plays, tea breaks are frequent, and there is an upbeat, jovial atmosphere, which could be attributed to the fact that many of the long-term volunteers who live there work in the UK festival business.

With so many informal groups operating at once, and an unpredictable flow of weekend volunteers, coordinating resources is a huge logistical challenge for the long-term volunteers—especially with language barriers. “We really have to take our time to get to know each other,” says Johanna Verpoort, a volunteer with L’Auberge. “We are here for the same cause. What you studied, if you have work, is not important. The way you work with people is.”

Verpoort, 43, began volunteering with L’Auberge in December last year and lives at the warehouse in a trailer. She moved from Ghent, Belgium, after losing her job as a fund writer for the European Union. Now she mostly works in the Grande-Synthe camp, finding accommodation for the new arrivals there. She returns to Ghent, an hour’s drive away, once a week for a teaching job. Her son, 13, and daughter, 11, come to help in Calais two weekends every month. A typical day starts at 8:30 am and finishes at 11:30 pm.

While it’s exhausting, unpaid work, Verpoort enjoys being part of a community with a shared purpose. “There’s a lot of trust and we feel like family,” she says. “My children have friends here too. They don’t talk about them as refugees—for them, they are just people living here.”

These friendships give the refugees a much-needed sense of stability in uncertain circumstances, according to Peter Carr, a volunteer with the UK group Aid Box Convoy. “Long-term relationships are very important. They need a community, rather than just accommodation,” he says. “We want to make sure the people we have met don’t feel abandoned.”

The benefits of this community cut both ways. Carr, 56, first started volunteering in northern France in December after he had his heart broken. He did not want to spend Christmas with “rum and misery,” he says. He works alternate weeks, doing construction work in the refugee camps and running his antique business back home in Bristol, UK. He says the volunteering experience has been “uplifting.”

“I’ve met so many people that take your breath away,” he says.

But the highs come with lows. Many of the long-term volunteers have deep concerns about the welfare of the refugees. This takes an emotional toll. There are hundreds of unaccompanied children, many of whom have gone missing. Meanwhile, every night refugees put their lives at risk when they try to jump in the back of UK-bound trucks and freight trains.

Last month, a 17-year old Kurd named Mohammad Hussain was killed when he clung to the wheel axis of a truck that crashed in the UK. Carr, who says he is now prone to crying “at the drop of a hat,” says the death deeply shook the community in the Grande-Synthe camp, where the teenager was living. Some volunteers offer counseling for those struggling to cope. “The kids here are so much braver and stronger then I will ever be,” says Ivana.

For a movement predicated on the notion that borders shouldn’t exist, it is apt that it expands beyond a single location. There are hundreds of groups raising awareness, funds, and donations from home in solidarity with the volunteers in France. After visiting the old refugee camp Grande-Synthe, Louise Billet and Melissa Lawley, both 30, decided to set up donation points in their respective hometowns in the Midlands, UK.

“When you experience what we experienced, it never leaves you,” says Lawley. “We need to do what we can because I like to think if we ended up in this situation people would help us.”

With refugees still arriving in the camps in France, the movement needs to maintain its momentum. But the longer it goes on, the harder it becomes for some of the long-term volunteers to support themselves financially. Numbers of weekend volunteers have dwindled, and urgent calls for help have been posted on social media. So much is unknown about the crisis’ future; the only certainty is that it will not be ending anytime soon. And until it does, a lot of the volunteers won’t be going anywhere.

*Ivana’s surname has been withheld at her request.

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