My new year’s resolution was to take the Whistle Art Stop out to areas that had little or no access to the arts. I was mostly thinking of rural villages across Northumberland and packing all my workshop resources into a horse box. Little did I know at the time of making that resolution that I would be sitting here reporting on a trip to the refugee camp in Calais, known as “The Jungle”.
It started in November last year with the image of little Ayden Kurdi’s lifeless body in the arms of a Turkish policeman and the reality of a terrible situation in another part of the world that was largely going unnoticed. A call for action across the country and Haltwhistle responded in their usual generous way. Seven vehicle loads of donations collected between Haltwhistle and Hexham headed on a convoy to Calais. The donations continued to pour in and the inevitable trip to the Jungle became a reality.
Six months later, the plight of the refugees fleeing war torn countries fills our screens more than ever before. Social media, the press and people like us have launched us right into the horrors across the world and in particulate to Calais, so close to home. Only a few miles from the English coast, we are neighbours to an atrocity and the desperation of so many seeking asylum resulting in risks that often result in tragedy.
The news came in that the French had bulldozed half of the Calais camp that houses thousands of migrants, of which over 400 were unaccompanied minors. Then the news that over 100 of those children were missing after the bulldozing, jolted more aid action. How can we ignore these children?
Arriving in Calais late on Friday night, another sleepless night due to trepidation and a strange mix of excitement, an early morning visit to Care4Calais warehouse where we delivered building materials and several boxes of clothing for youths and the reality started to hit hard. Two warehouses were bursting with boxes that needed sorting and then distributing by eager volunteers, who had travelled to Calais to do anything they could to help. Eagerly showing off the van load of art materials and resources that I had transported as a result of the crowdfunding that raised £675, gained much interest and discussions that later led me to meet a very special artist living in the camp.
I was on site soon after this, while most of the camp were still asleep, thus allowing time to photograph some of the buildings. Entering the Jungle was surreal and yet at the same time it seemed natural to be there – but I was glad I had my cousin Richard with me, as he has years of aid work experience under his belt and guided me through the protocol. Struck by the way this waste land had transformed into a town with a high street, rubbish collections and porta-loos on street corners shocked me with the realisation of a third world situation on European soil. I felt ashamed and embarrassed but glad to be doing something to help.
However, the atmosphere was friendly and warm, with the universal greeting of a smile and the wave of a hand, bridging the many language barriers. We soon determined how the camp was laid out and where the education centres were based around the recently demolished area – a sorry sight that infused anger in me. The Care4Calais camp builder had described how he had cemented the goal posts in place the day before and there it was – a full size soccer pitch! The amazing theatre and the old school were gone, but rebuilding had been fast and I was so glad to find that organisations were still there, relentlessly delivering educational and religious needs.
Eager to start distributing the donations and resources that we had collected, we started unloading the van and soon attracted the attention of a French film crew who spent the next 30 minutes interviewing me. They were interested in why I wanted to bring art there and particularly keen to understand why bringing mobile phones for the unaccompanied young people could save their lives. I described the work of the amazing Liz Clegg, who ensured that as many young people as possible had emergency call facilities and that it had recently saved a container full of asylum seekers who had reached the UK and then handed over. The driver had left them locked in the back and the air was running out and one text from a seven year old with one of those phones resulted in their lives being saved.
Starting with Jungle Books new Kid’s Area, to which we delivered two six foot folding tables, 20 stacking chairs and a camping sink for the kids to wash their hands and their paintbrushes in. Also boxes and boxes of art materials and books.
Then to Hummingbird, a wonderful project reaching out to so many with learning needs and we dropped off several boxes of art resources vowing to return and help deliver art classes. We spotted one of the caravans next to the information centre that had been sent down by our neighbour group in Carlisle, Jungle Canopy. Right alongside was the Baloos Youth Centre. Our plans to do a spray painting workshop quashed by high winds and the realisation that much more planning was needed. The reality of the jungle was starting to hit hard.
Then further on to the School where we encountered a very special building with lessons going on for adults and children and I signed up to do future art classes with the kids. Children around the age of five were in the classroom with French teachers who had just got them settled in. It was lovely to see. Then the children were all lead out to cars and returned to their homes by the teachers.
At this point some of the refugees started to arrive and took great interest in what we had to donate – particularly the fresh fruit and the case full of cereal bars. Three young men asked me if I had walking boots “for the long walk”. The impact of that took 24 hours to really sink in. I asked them if I could take a photo of them and here it is with one of the school volunteers! A reminder that asylum seekers do not want their faces revealed by us.
Soon after this, I was introduced to Abdullah and his art. Overawed by his talent and tenacity he proudly showed me all his paintings and drawings. I presented him with an easel and case full of drawing and painting materials for him to continue his work that we had carried from Haltwhistle knowing that there would be one person in that camp who would really need it. Words surpass me here.
The visit continued with deliveries of art materials and food to the Belgium Kitchen and back and forth to the warehouse with requests to fill. One run for gas bottles for the school as they reported they had been without cooking gas for weeks. That seemed like an important thing to help with. We cleaned out the local Carrefour of their fruit and vegetables, much to the grumbles of the locals (who did not know that I can understand French though am a bit rusty speaking it). Although there is some animosity towards the camp in the town, it was underlying, after all, the economy is definitely being boosted by the aid relief.
And so the whistle tour of the Jungle was over and the reluctant long trip back to the north of England, wishing that I had planned to stay much longer. But now time to absorb, contemplate, revaluate and plan. There is so much that we can do to help, but it has to be done professionally where we can make a real difference and where we are valued for what we do. And so a great feeling of achievement and many plans for the future.
Please help us achieve those plans by donating £5 to
Financial report for this trip:
- £290 crowd-funding through Just Giving
- £365 cash donations
- £935 donated goods (valuation)
Total = £1,590.00
- £302.14 on art materials, art packs & resources for workshops
- £119.12 on camping gear for education organisations including gas bottles
- £681.98 on equipment – computer, IT, tables, chairs etc for schools
- £115.16 on food – dried and fresh for young people
- £81.35 on mobile phones and top ups for unaccompanied young people
- £273.11 on travel costs ferry, accommodation and fuel
- £14.50 on fee from Just Giving
Total = £1,587.36
Balance to c/f = £2.64