Why Our Efforts to Help During the Refugee Crisis Must Continue
Written after a period spent volunteering at the Jungle in Calais, January 2016
As I write this, I’m sat in my apartment in the historic Old Town of Ibiza. The fading sun is shimmering through the French windows and birds are chorusing the soundtrack to a poetic pink sky. I’m content after a week spent barbecuing with friends and reading at the beach, and overall, I should feel pretty at peace - I live on this beautiful Balearic island, and I’ve never been more aware of how lucky I am to have the freedom to travel and work as I please within Europe. And yet, on the precipice of a fourth season, I couldn’t be more conflicted about life on the White Isle.
Something changed for me this winter - as the clock struck midnight on 31 December 2015 I wasn’t ringing in the new year with champagne and party poppers, but rather, grappling with a face full of tear gas at the Jungle in Calais - getting a taste, literally, of what life is like for the thousands of refugees who’ve descended on the French port town in the hope of crossing to the UK in past months. This moment was the culmination of my first volunteering trip to Calais, one that threw up so many unanswerable questions; introduced me to people who I’m sure will be friends for life; and made me reasses my own predetermined truths about the refugee crisis.
I’ve been back several times since - to help out in the warehouse, the kitchen, the camp itself, or in neighbouring Dunkirk - and I’m still staggered by the range of emotions that surface with each trip. From shock, outrage, desperation and despair to hope, humility, admiration and defiance - it’s a roller coaster of anguish and optimism that’s amplified when you consider that of course, it doesn’t begin to compare to how refugees themselves feel as they strive to deal with displacement, lost homes and fractured families. Astonishingly though, these people somehow manage to remain buoyant - convinced that one day they’ll make it to their chosen Promised Land - while somewhere in the Mediterranean, I ponder the current impossibility of such longed-for dreams.
Perhaps what makes me feel defeated is the news MPs voted against accepting 3,000 Syrian child refugees who are currently alone in Europe, or that hundreds of refugees drowned last week en route from Africa to Italy. Or maybe it’s the memory of an Afghan teenager in the Jungle clinging to my arm in search of comfort. It could be the remembrance of a 15-year old Eritrean boy I met who arrived in Calais alone, and now under the wing of friends, still seems lost among his adult peers. Maybe it’s the announcement that 129 unaccompanied minors somehow disappeared during the eviction of the southside of the camp, or maybe it’s simply that I feel helpless because these tragedies continue to occur as I go about my perfectly pleasant life a short two-hour flight away. If I closed my eyes and blocked my ears, I could easily pretend all of this wasn’t happening, and that perhaps, is the most frightening thing of all.
There is a real danger that as this crisis continues to gather pace on our doorstep, not nearly enough people remain engaged or galvanised - or worse, individuals have become desensitised to it. It’s so easy to go about our daily routines - no one can be blamed for that - while forgetting there are thousands of people just across the Channel who have fled conflict, instability and poverty. These are people who have experienced unimaginable horrors and now, having reached Europe, are almost happy to be living in the sub-standard conditions of the Jungle because it allows them some form of respite and the comfort of community. There is an assumed consensus that if this is as good as it gets, then perhaps this will have to do.
But we cannot allow ourselves to fall into the same trap of acceptance - we can and must do better. Humanity may appear broken but you only need look at people surviving in the Jungle to regain some semblance of hope and a reminder that life continues. And while it’s easy to turn a blind eye to another story that’s appeared in the news, trying to dismiss a connection you’ve made with a fellow human is harder to shake - it seeps beneath your skin and stays with you: it permeates your thoughts wherever you are in the world. So volunteer in the UK or in Calais - because help is still desperately needed, lobby your MP, make a donation, and try to fight the apathy that sets in as these tragic tales become a mainstay in our daily news agenda.
As the sun sets on another day in Ibiza, I’ve put aside any misplaced guilt for what I realise, more than ever, is a privileged position. Instead I pledge to keep the refugees I’ve met at the forefront of my mind, and to do everything I can to ensure their voices are heard. We are all greater than the sum of our stories, but until the day we’re all valued as much as each other, these are stories that need to be told. We must make sure we are listening.