Amy Lineham, a UK medical student, spent six weeks volunteering with Utopia56 in the Paris Porte de La Chapelle camp.
I decided to go and volunteer in France following September’s ‘Refugees Welcome’ march in London. I am a medical student taking a year out of my studies and had planned to spend the latter half of Autumn studying Spanish in Granada, however as I stood in Parliament Square listening to peoples’ experiences it became immediately clear the only thing to do was to try and help. I’m normally incredibly indecisive but the moment the idea dawned on me it seemed so obvious I was embarrassed not to have gone before. Some months later, standing on a balcony in Paris, I was speaking to my flatmate about how, if at all, she felt her time volunteering had changed her. She replied that she did not feel it was the period of volunteering that had been the source of change but in fact that moment of realisation, when not going suddenly becomes so much more painful than going.
I had originally planned to spend 6 weeks just working in Calais however the Jungle evictions changed this and after a week there I moved on to a new camp that has been built in the north of Paris. By total coincidence the day I arrived turned out to be the camp’s official opening day and so I worked there right from the very start. Though undoubtedly challenging this was a fascinating experience giving ample opportunity to help improve systems and be truly involved in the camp’s operations. I was working for one of the two charities running these systems, Utopia 56, the other being a much larger charity called Emmaus which is famous across France for its work to alleviate homelessness. Utopia were in charge of clothing donations and distribution as well as queue management. This latter activity was particularly problematic in the early days of the camp as communication difficulties between the two organisations as well as clashes with the police led to people queuing for hours only to be turned away until the next day, different information having been given to those outside the camp and those allocating the beds for that night. Thankfully things rapidly improved and a month in the process of allowing people to enter the camp had become markedly more fair and orderly.
My activities in the camp centered on clothing distribution, a process that involved each camp resident receiving 2 sets of clothes during their stay. A set of clothes included: 1 short sleeved t-shirt, 1 long-sleeved t-shirt/shirt, 1 jumper, 1 pair of trousers, 1 pair of socks, a pair of pants and then depending on availability, a hat, pair of gloves and a scarf. Those without a good coat or shoes were also entitled to replacements however this was where things began to get tricky. Shoes in particular became a key point of contention, most people wanting a new pair whether or not they already owned some – as one man angrily pointed out, we (the distributors) all have more than one pair of shoes, why shouldn’t he? Despite wholeheartedly agreeing with this sentiment, the fact of the matter was we simply didn’t have enough shoes for everyone and this remained an issue for the entire time I worked there.
Frustrated by the helplessness I began to feel in the face of dwindling stock and ever more ludicrous shoe arguments I set up a crowdfunding page entitled ‘Essential Clothing for Refugees’ to allow people to send me money with which I would go out and simply buy the things we needed. I set the target at an optimistic £1000 thinking this would look encouraging but in no way expecting to reach it. I was therefore astonished when, 12 hours later, I checked on the page to discover £840 had already been raised. Not only that but money continued to pour in ending up at an incredible £1340 which I used to buy 1800 pairs of gloves and 420 pairs of pants. This may seem an odd choice given the issues that had inspired the page were primarily to do with coats and shoes however I quickly learnt the underlying crux of most of these arguments was dignity. When we only had old, worn out items to offer, people seemed to feel we were commenting on their worth as individuals, gatekeeping better stock for others that we considered ‘worthier’. This was of course totally untrue but simply stating this made absolutely no difference. What did help was having just one or two new items to offer within each distribution. It showed people that when we had good things, we gave them and helped ease the realisation that unfortunately our stock of trousers really was all wide-legged corduroy slacks. Though we continued to spend at least 50% of our time debating irrefutable truths, the arrival of new stock saw the tone of these discussions soften and it was a relief to us all to see such an increase in the number of people leaving the desk happy.
Alongside distribution I began a side project, building a charity shop to sell unsuitable donations to volunteers in the camp. The idea came from Calais where it works fantastically well to generate money for appropriate action and, having run this shop for some of the time I was there, I felt able to bring a similar space to Paris. Several pieces of wood and a genius builder later I had my shelves and rails and set about filling them with the bizarre but lovely things sifted out of the sort room when boxing stuff ready for distribution. Though not totally understood at first, a little publicity saw the shop gain traction and it now runs on an honesty basis with the proceeds going to hostels for unaccompanied minors without anywhere to sleep.
Though if someone had told me my main activity for 5 weeks would be giving the same items over and over again I would have found it difficult to imagine anything other than mind-numbing boredom, I can honestly say this was far from true. This was thanks to the incredible people I was working with, both volunteers and refugees, who kept me amused, and sometimes infuriated, so that the days passed much faster than many I’ve spent on more objectively stimulating tasks. I was especially touched by the camaraderie between those living in the camp, something I think is sorely lacking in the narrative of the news stories produced on the crisis. By summarising people as ‘refugees’ I feel the western media, whether sympathetic or condemnatory, often eliminates their humanity, making their lives relevant only in terms of their immigration status. With this in mind, a friend and I gave out 15 disposable cameras to people living in the camp with the aim of diversifying the perspective with which this issue is covered. We got 8 cameras back with various reasons for the 7 lost including police brutality, an issue totally underplayed in the press and experienced by people horribly often. The ones returned have now been developed with very exciting results and we are hoping to exhibit the photos later this year, both to platform those involved’s views but also to serve as a reminder that despite the Jungle clearance, help and aid is still very much required across Europe.
Though I would highly recommend the experience, I think it is essential people do not go at the persuasion of others – the work is challenging and I think if the resolve to go had come from anywhere except myself I would have either given up immediately or just had a terrible time. Instead, though it feels a strange way to put it, I genuinely enjoyed my time in the camp. It was tiring, frustrating and sometimes distressing, however the rewards of directly acting to change, even in tiny ways, the lives of those you have watched from afar outweighed this by miles. Utopia56 is a fantastic team of people and they’re always searching for volunteers so if you’re interested in getting involved definitely look them up!