DUNKIRK. A small French coastal town, yet its name is seared into the consciousness of generations as the place of rescue for thousands of troops during WW2. Again, today, rescues are taking place as thousands flee from conflict. Today, rather than an armada of little boats, the rescuers arrive in cars and vans.
As we drive from the Eurotunnel terminal to our first stop at L’Auberge des Migrants, the evidence of past conflict is gradually healing, as grass and trees replace trenches and bomb craters, new roads and buildings rising from the rubble of war. Yet we are here to fight a new battle – a battle against hunger, homelessness, and despair.
L’Auberge, hidden in the industrial hinterland of Calais, is the energy centre of the effort to provide the very basics of life for the real human beings who have lost all they have, all they knew, during their flight from fear and destruction in their homelands a continent away.
Here, is a ragtag band of volunteers. Some – like us – are day trippers; others come for weeks or months, to commit their time and compassion to the service of their fellow men, women and children. They sort clothes or tents. They chop food, chop wood. They do their best to distribute insufficient supplies to increasing demand.
Back home, countless unnamed individuals have given shoes, clothes, food, toiletries, medicines. They have emptied garages and attics of tents, cookers, sleeping bags.
We, around thirty of us, are the tip of that iceberg. We are church members, students, friends. We probably would never have met, were it not for our common commitment to relieve the unheard suffering in the refugee camps here in northern France, as do others in similar camps across Europe. In our meeting we find strength, mutual support and friendship. Love has even blossomed!
All these thoughts are put aside as we pull in to the derelict warehouse. We are greeted by familiar faces; young people, seemingly lifted from pop festivals, are performing remarkable mental gymnastics in coordinating untrained but enthusiastic workers, giving safety briefings doubling as motivational talks to stir us into recognising the great good our small efforts can do.
We pull our vans in, and start to unload food. At this point the kitchen coordinator, a lady who provides hot meals daily to around 7,000 people, is in tears. She had run out of cooking oil that morning. She could not cook. We were able to change that; a joyous matching of charity with need. Fresh fruit, tinned goods, rice, flour. Hundreds of welcome packs of toiletries and food, invaluable to the 70 plus daily new arrivals at the camps.
We check the condition of the walk in chillers and industrial oven, donated by the Church, which have transformed their cooking capability. “Ah!” is the greeting we get from new volunteers when a link is made to these assets. Church humanitarian efforts have impact.
We are soon unloaded and on our way. The 50km journey up the A16 road to the Grande-Synthe region of Dunkirk gives time to reflect on the sheer joy that we have felt in those few minutes. We are soon looking down the embankment at Sortie 54 at a grey space, reminiscent of the railway sidings they adjoin. Except here, the lines of train carriages are replaced by lines of temporary wooden shelters, each housing a story, a narrative of displacement, of suffering, sometimes of tragedy; each story uniquely human, collectively incomprehensible in our peaceful civilised existence at home.
It is in this wasteland, this forgotten acre, that we aim to do good.
The week leading up to this day, and days like it, is manic. A frenzy of logistics; days are long, nights short, or non-existent. We always feel the Lord’s hand in what we do. We know with an absolute testimony forged through trials that we could not do it without Him. Tired minds are kept clear. Peals of laughter down the phone between organisers who have come to love and trust each other completely, where there might have been frustration or disagreement. We are One.
We walk to the entrance of the camp, negotiating the layers of administration with our school French and smiles, and the fortuitous arrival of our dear friend Alain, from Lille Stake, who with a Gallic shrug and eloquence opens doors that ‘les Anglais’ perhaps could not. We are home.
To explain: it is impossible to work in these camps without feeling a great compassion for the people who call it home. As that compassion extends, so does our love for them. As the love grows, friendships blossom, we share stories and experiences. We are invited into these humble but clean and beautified shelters. Their homes are opened to us, and we become family. So when we return, we come home.
A month ago, we had helped transform a small school which had been built by another volunteer group. On that visit, our materials arrived hours late, permission to build was withdrawn, and tools were unavailable. But we still got the job done. Overcoming obstacles is what we do. This time, we were to continue with that work, to brighten and secure the school.
A few weeks ago, the weather was cooler. Today, the June sun burns down on us.
We have a variety of tasks to do. Some will repair and extend fencing, others will be painting, yet more will be levelling the play area, and adding sand and a soft bark covering. Some sisters will cross the road to the women and children’s centre, to set up sewing groups, and provide some gentle pampering to remind these women that they are still human, not just refugees.
The many children while away their days on donated bikes, or play with donated toys. They will clamber on buildings, and risk their safety up and down rubble banks. The parents among us wince. We have to remind ourselves that to a child brought up in a war zone, daily risking bombs and snipers, then crossing Europe largely on foot; for these traumatised children, this is no risk at all. We give thanks quietly for the blessings we take so much for granted.
As the hours pass in enthusiastic labour, many of the refugees offer help – many were highly skilled back home, and the chance to do something constructive in such a demeaning situation is welcomed. Even the children are happy to wield a paintbrush, even if the results are somewhat artistic!
Much of what we do is strategic – bringing food or clothing, building. But there are moments of individual support which humanise the people we help.
Within feet of the school is a donated swing set for the children. On a swing sits a young girl, maybe 8 years. It’s hard to tell; trauma, malnutrition, and the sheer grind of the refugee existence add years, take childhoods. This little girl, in the dust of a faceless camp, is wearing pink. She also wears a crumpled sparkly tiara. Today, she is the Princess of Grande-Synthe. She reminds me of Cinderella.
Our Princess is Kurdish. Her people’s homeland straddles the borders of Iraq, Iran and Turkey. Kindness is unfamiliar to her. Many interactions between residents of this camp are aggressive, sometimes confrontational. That has been their only currency of survival. It’s a tough place to be a Princess. Her face reflects fear, mistrust, the deadening of senses necessary to survive this inhumanity.
In the morning, a young American couple had visited the school. The wife, a Human Rights worker at home, had tried, with the gentleness of one who through experience understands the refugees, to engage with Princess Grande-Synthe. Her efforts were rebuffed. Visibly shocked by the explanations of camp protocols (no photos without express permission) and the reasons for our efforts and those of our associated relief groups, they take home with them a deeper understanding of the reality of this existence; we wish more could see for themselves.
One of our volunteers, Catherine, is a first timer. She is from Britannia Ward, the singles ward at Hyde Park chapel in central London. She has travelled with fellow Singles from across England. We count members from across the world in our group.
Catherine is typical of our group; willing to do whatever is needed to make a difference, bringing whatever talents she has to the work. We are not hand-picked: we take all comers. That is our strength.
On this morning, while she pulls wood from the van, wields a paintbrush, and retrieves tools from inquisitive ‘helpers’, Catherine has noticed Princess. Using the international language of eye contact and smiles coupled with gentle persistence, she gradually breaks down the walls of mistrust. Catherine doesn’t notice me noticing her. This is all utterly unselfconscious. Catherine is reaching for the little girl in her, to reach the little girl in Princess Grande-Synthe.
As the day passes, Catherine works hard on our practical tasks. Everyone is committed here – to get up before you’ve gone to bed to travel to a wasteland to serve those who will not remember your name, but will remember your humanity, you must be drivingly self-motivated. But she does not forget Princess. Smiles turn to swing pushes, which turn to hugs, which relight the sense of love inside one of God’s children, lost, wounded and forgotten on the dusty road. Catherine is her Latter-day Samaritan, and seeks no more thanks or reward than her biblical example.
This story was repeated that day in countless other ways, by all of us, and by all of those who helped propel us here, for we are the tip of the warmest, most loving of icebergs.
We returned home tired, dusty, a little burned, paint splattered and full of joy. There is no experience like this. There is nothing I, we, have experienced that so fills the soul with love of our fellow man, woman and child. Our blessings are vividly contrasted against others’ lack. We are grateful for our imperfect lives. We are driven, spiritually driven, to repeat this. We will go home again. Soon.
Catherine will likely never meet Princess again. Princess will likely go back to her life of caution and uncertainty. But that is the great lesson in this – if we stopped to consider the limited scope of our efforts, if we listened to those who described those efforts as futile in the face of overwhelming need, we would not hear the still small voice, which says “love thy neighbour as thyself”.