Volunteering in Dunkirk – First impressions

Posted by Nikki

Nikki McArthur recently drove from south-west France to the mud of Dunkirk’s makeshift Grande-Synthe camp. In the first of a series of blogs about the experience, she tells us why.

Last week I left my kids, husband and cosy, safe life in south-west France and drove over 1000 kilometres to volunteer at the makeshift refugee camp in Grande-Synthe, Dunkirk. Why? Because I’ve been collecting and delivering donations over the past five months with France and Beyond and I hoped it would give me an insight into how to help more in the future. Besides, Roni from Hub 16 had 60 high-quality sleeping bags to distribute and I had a van we could take them in.

I’ve been back a few days now and everyone keeps asking, “So how did it go? What was it like?” So for those of you who’d like to volunteer but can’t – or for those of you who do want to volunteer but aren’t sure what to expect – here are some of my initial impressions.

Roni, Stephanie and I preparing for our day

Roni, Stephanie and I preparing for our day

We arrived the first day with a van full of sleeping bags, socks, warm clothes and food, and parked in the Decathlon carpark less than a 5-minute walk from the camp.  We put on our wellies, waterproofs and high viz jackets and marched up the road to the main entrance.

We might as well have had big ‘L’ plates on our backs, we were so obviously new.

As we walked up the main road to the camp, it was bizarre to see the housing estate on one side of the road and on the other a massive sprawl of tents and mud.

Our first views of inside the camp

Our first views of inside the camp

When we arrived at the main entrance, there were about four police on the gate. They looked at our IDs, asked which organisation we were volunteering with, then told us we couldn’t go in without a pass from the Mairie.

Stunned, we turned back towards the carpark, asking the volunteers we passed for advice. We were told to just go through a gap in the fence as this was total rubbish; the police had no right to stop us and it was the first time anyone had heard of this.

I didn’t really feel happy about it as we were so easy to recognise (Roni and I with our long blonde hair). There didn’t seem a choice, though, so we slipped through one of the side paths directly into a muddy, wooded area of the camp.

It was like stepping into another world, dozens of flimsy tents strewn haphazardly around thick muddy paths amid piles of rubbish.  We waded through the mud soup to the ‘main street’ of the camp, trying to avoid the attention of the gendarmes who had just turned us away.

Before going, I had prepared myself to be shocked. I’d read a lot of reports and I was concerned I might be a useless blubbering mess. In December I’d visited a camp in Bordeaux where 200 guys are squatting in a disused factory. I was shocked at how deeply affected I was by the experience of witnessing how they survive with so little and yet manage to smile and welcome us like friends.

I’d cried much of the way home from Bordeaux that day and felt too emotional to talk about it for quite a while afterwards. If I was so deeply affected by this, how on Earth was I going to react to the dreadful conditions in Dunkirk?

Feeling slightly uncomfortable with the situation

Feeling slightly uncomfortable with the situation

So, did I cry? No, surprisingly I didn’t (except for a couple of times on the last day and I’ll tell you about that later).

I felt strangely detached from what I was seeing; it was like I wasn’t really there. I felt extremely uncomfortable having photos taken as if they were holiday snaps while all around me were squalid conditions and human suffering.

It just didn’t seem right somehow. But I got used to it – you have to. It’s important to show what’s going on here and if the refugees can smile despite having to live in this hell hole, then so can I.

We spent the first hour just talking to other volunteers and small associations on site to get a feel for what was going on, who was in charge and what areas we should avoid.

There are lots of small groups of associations doing some really good work, but we were surprised by the lack of coordination. It’s really very much a case of everyone doing their own thing.

We had been advised that although there are some distribution tents in the camp, many refugees don’t use them and there are areas where people get less attention than others.  We decided the best way to make sure our donations were going where they were really needed was to go tent to tent, visiting people in the less accessible areas (full of mud) and seeing what they needed.

After our initial look around the camp, we went back to the van to fill our rucksacks.  On our way we met a French photography lecturer, Jean-Paul Lanneau, who had just arrived for the first time at the camp and wanted to take some pictures for his students. We were happy to have him join us for the day and it made us feel safer having a guy with us.

Thermal socks are always needed

Thermal socks are always needed

And so the four of us slipped back into the camp and started hand distributing our donations. It seemed that no matter what we had in our rucksacks, there was always a need for something we didn’t have …

Many people were too proud to ask for help, so we had to coax them by showing them something we had to see if they needed it.

Socks are always appreciated and we had plenty of thick thermal ones thanks to the hard work of our Socks for Refugees team.

Some of the most requested items were sport shoes (sizes 40, 41, 42), jogging bottoms, gas, batteries, razors, baby wipes and food. We all had money we had raised, so we went on subsequent days to buy the things we had been asked for, so we could return with them. The difficulty was remembering who had asked for what and then trying to find them again in the maze of tents.

Jean-Paul made a wonderful video report of what we saw and the people we met on our very first day. It captures the conditions and the feel of the camp far more eloquently than I could ever put into words.

That’s all I have time for now.

In my next Dunkirk post I’ll talk more about the individuals we met, as well as about a Médecins Sans Frontières meeting about the new camp (and why it ended so abruptly).

Nikki runs France and Beyond Hub 31 in Escanecrabe, one hour south-west of Toulouse. You can get in touch with Nikki and find out more about her hub (and how to donate) by joining her Facebook page.