Nikki McArthur recently drove from south-west France to the mud of Dunkirk’s makeshift Grande-Synthe camp. This is the second in a series of blogs she is writing for us based on her experiences.
One of the things that touched and changed my opinions most about my time in Dunkirk was surprising. I have enormous empathy for the women and children – I have cried many times at the thought of them living in such heartbreaking conditions – but what about the young men? I didn’t realise how strongly my feelings would change towards them.
Before I went, the main images that came to mind were those portrayed by the media of angry young men, running around in groups with hoodies, threatening to hijack lorries and force their way into the UK.
So I was at first a little uneasy about wading our way through the mud in between piles of rubbish and flimsy tents filled with these men. But instead of finding threatening, aggressive young men, I found hungry, tired young men; young men and teenagers just trying to keep warm. I saw young men with big smiles when we handed them some warm socks – young men who would thank us and manage a sad smile even though we didn’t have something they needed (a pair of shoes, some gas to cook with, something to eat or a razor to shave). In every young man, I saw the eyes of my own sons staring back at me.
When I first met Rayan, he sheepishly approached us through the knee-deep mud and rubbish-laden floor of the wooded area where he had been sheltering from the winter cold in a tent.
“Hello, my friend”. We asked if he needed something, but he he shook his head – he just wanted to talk. He looked tired, wearily tired, like something was lost inside him. He had tried many times unsuccessfully to cross to the UK. We spoke with him for some time and tried to persuade him to seek asylum in France, but his English was good and he had friends in the UK.
He was scared of the French authorities, scared his claim would be refused and that he would be sent home and then have no chance. Living in squalor was apparently preferable to what he had left behind. He reluctantly agreed to meet us the next day to find out how to go about seeking asylum in France, but I could see in his eyes he wasn’t going to come. Rayan had just turn 22 – the same age as my own son Ryan, yet their lives couldn’t be more different.
Later that day I came across Besh at an open meeting held by Médecins Sans Frontières about the new camp in Dunkirk.
Beshwar, a 25-year-old Kurd from Iraq, was staying in the camp with his mother and brothers. He spoke English very well and was the spokesperson for the refugees.
He spoke eloquently about what the people wanted. Nobody had consulted them about what they needed – to start with, they didn’t want the new camp. They appreciated it would mean better living conditions, but they didn’t think spending €1.1 million on another camp was an effective solution. They wanted safe passage to the UK, where they have the right to claim asylum.
As he spoke so passionately about what he believed in, Besh reminded me so much of my eldest son, Matthew. He too is 25, determined, full of ideas about how to help others in the future. Except Matthew was born in the UK, now lives and works in Barcelona, and has the right to go and do just about anything he wishes.
I can’t forget the faces of the young men in Dunkirk – they haunt me. I want to help them. I want people to see they have nothing to fear. These are boys and young men who need a future. They are the future. We need to help them be part of a great future; if we don’t, we will be the losers in the long run.
Soon after Besh’s speech, the meeting came to an abrupt end as news filtered through that there had been a shooting involving smugglers at the camp – more on that next time.
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.