Like many people, I have been following this European Refugee Crisis, probably closer though than most, because of my radio commitments.
I have known for quite some time that I would have to be in the UK for a couple of weeks in late September, early October and so I began thinking about, from there, heading over to Europe to have a look for myself particularly by walking and being with the refugees.
As this thought hardened I began to study the situation more closely, particularly after that photo of that dear little drowned boy, his sneaker covered feet falling from beneath his blanketed body being so lovingly held by a rescuer, so moved the world. Being who I am, I thought it would be easy to find someone who would ‘help me get over there to be with the refugees’. I should have known better! All overtures to charities in Australia seemed to come to naught. That didn’t worry me so much as I felt it would be easier in England.
Well, that didn’t happen, either!
What I learned in England was even more concerning. I was told, amongst other things, was of killings, raping and sexual violations of young girls etc., that snipers were also shooting some of the boy children in the legs so that they could not return one day as soldiers and fight ISiS or any other group. I was also told that about two million refugees were expected to be in Europe by winter and if not substantially more aid was given, many would die from the cold. It quickly began to dawn on me that this is the greatest crisis the world has experienced since World War II.
I began to realise that the sheer scale of what is happening is leaving governments in meltdown as to what to do. In situations like this paralysis sets in as bureaucracies freeze up and governments find themselves in exactly the same plight as the non-ending flood of refugees. Imagine, hundreds of families leaving their homeland every day. That is every day, day after day, hundreds of extra families turn up to already overloaded refugee centres needing help. These centres are already overloaded and seriously underfunded. No one can cope with that!
Let alone politicians! They like to be liked by everyone and this is a lose, lose situation. Not everyone will like any decision made.
So, exit the politicians from the scene amongst much finger pointing and blame being thrown around.
All this made me even more determined to go and visit, and if possible, walk with the refugees and see, smell and experience their plight for myself.
However, in London, time was slipping by and I had still not made contact with anyone who I thought could get me to where the refugees were.
Soon I had only three days to go and the realisation had set in that I’d probably have to do it myself. I’d read a lot about the refugees in Calais trying to get on the trains to England and how many had died in the attempt and figured that would be a good start. I’d also read a lot about Croatia and checked the plane timetables, etc.
I was sitting in a London Cafe looking at my phone when an old London religious contact just popped into view. On the off chance I rang him. He immediately suggested a person who knew all about the Calais Refugee situation. In fact he was involved in it up to his armpits. He gave me his number and also said he’d make contact with others in Austria.
So, I rang my Calais contact. “Yes. The situation is bad here. No one here can show you around as we’re too busy”
“How do I get there?”
“The best way is to take the train to Dover, then get the ferry to Calais and if you can get a taxi to take you there, ask to go to “The Jungle”. They probably won’t but get them to take you as close as you can and walk there. Head for under the motorway bridge.”
So now I knew what to do.
So the next morning as I hadn’t heard from my Austrian contact, I headed for Dover.
Whilst on the train my Austrian contact emailed me with the following message which showed just how serious the situation was there:-
Thanks for your message. I do not really know what to advise. Indeed this is the biggest crisis since WW2. Calais might be meaningful.
Here in Austria refugees arrive day by day at the Hungarian border – but they are put in busses to emergency shelters and from there by busses to special trains to Germany. Not easy to access for outsiders. My only thought would be to go to Salzburg, around Salzburg station are refugees queuing to enter Germany. Maybe you could be around there? Vienna makes no sense – I tried myself to get access to an emergency shelter, but this was very difficult (and you are a foreigner!).
May God guide you and bless you”
At the same time my Calais contact sent this out:-
“And so the scandal of the Calais jungle continues. The latest report from Birmingham University reveals not just the squalor but the health and other risks resulting from the shameful conditions – indeed there is now a risk of cholera and other diseases. In parts of the jungle there are one or two toilets for 500 people and these are often full to overflowing. The refusal of the French authorities to provide any litter collections means that there is potential for yet more disease. And the UK government is not likely to press them into any further action.
And as the winter comes on there are still no plans to install any of the most basic of infrastructure – people will be dependent on candles and the like – some people are having to walk up to 6 kilometres in search of a little firewood. ”
It was when I was in the taxi taking me to The Jungle (he agreed to do it) that I realised how vulnerable I was. But it didn’t matter. I’d forgotten to change any money and had only one ten and one fifty euro note on me. Luckily the taxi only cost me 10 and I had the presence of mind to ask the driver for his phone number so I could ring for him to pick me up. Which he agreed to do. It would have been a long walk back to the Ferry terminal.
I knew I was getting close by the numbers of people, some individuals and some walking in groups, walking in (kind of lines) in both directions along the road. And then, suddenly, I was there. I got out of the taxi and into the wet, smelly mud of the camp. There were people everywhere. Tents, one man and more. Shacks, canvas, heavy plastic, anything to keep out the rain. There was no hope of keeping out the cold or the smell.
Then, as it always does, the miracle happened. I noticed a young woman who seemed to be giving an interview. “She must know something about here”, I thought.
“What do you do here?”
“I’m a charity worker” she said. We talked for a few minutes and then she said “Would you like to walk with me?”
How lucky is that”, I thought.
This world is full of angels and Claire is one. An accountant who specialises in tax she came to here in Calais weeks ago and literally has never left. She knows so many of the people by name and simply does what she can. I’m in awe of people like her and come across them all the time. I lost count of the number of people she hugged and helped. We went into one largish, hessian and plastic, and God knows what else “room”,and sat and chatted with the occupants. As we were sitting in the gloom, the “room” was being enlarged with windows cut into the hessian and adding plastic to the roof.
In there I met ‘Ali’.
“How old do you think I am?” he beamed.
I made a kind guess “45?”
“No, I’m 38. I’ve got four children. I have not seen them for over a year. In my religion we have to say Thank God for everything and then make the best of it”.
“All governments and politicians are liars” he says.
Dear reader, I could tell you story after story of the people here but you know them. You’ve read so many in the newspapers. I take many photos and they all ask me to pixilate their faces so their family members can remain safe.
I am offered a cup of tea. It’s strong and warm and freshly made and I sip it gratefully.
Claire is sitting next to me and talks and talks. She tells me how much she loves the people there.
“They have come because they believe in democracy” she says, “Even more than we do. They are good people. They have been through such horrors and hardship and God knows what else to end up here. They are kind and respectful, not at all like the media says. It makes me so angry. They are so nice”.
She is close to tears most of the time and the stress and care and compassion shows. I tell her of how I can be sitting in a meeting in Sydney and all of a sudden tears will fill my eyes and I’ll think, “What the XXXX am I doing here when I could be doing real stuff!” and for a moment our souls touch.
“They are human beings,” she says. “I feel so safe here. Safer than in my own suburb.”
I suddenly realise I feel completely at home, too. Here I am in this refugee camp that has such a reputation and I feel as safe, cared for and protected as if I was in my own home with my own family. I’ve often felt that in the most dangerous areas and now no longer feel alone in feeling that way. We go outside, another young man is talking to Claire. She looks shaken and tells me he said to her “I’ve been four months here….trying to get on the train to England. What do I do? I’m starting to lose hope.”
All through the camp there are lots of males, in groups and some alone, walking thither and yon. There are some on bicycles wheeling around everywhere. But there seemed to be an air of optimism evident and I worry about what will happen if that fades. As we walk through the camp I notice how many people come up to Claire and talk with her. Many of them she knows by name and I notice how many of them reach out to touch her, as if to confirm that she is real.
I notice there are other Angels too. Every now and then I come across a group of caring people doing their best. I hear the major charitable agencies won’t have anything to do with this camp as “It’s all so political, they don’t want to get on the wrong side of anyone. So they simply stay away and leave these poor buggers to suffer”.
I meet a Muslim Chaplain, Adam from England. He like so many, if not all of the Angels I met, simply came here on their own to help and stayed and stayed and stayed. They came because they simply could not stay away. They listen to their soul and their soul told them to go, and they did. That to me is real compassion. It’s not safe at all but it’s real and it’s not done for glory or in the name of some “branded” charity. Charities have a “brand” to protect. These people know and give and share love.
“You guys are signs” I say to Claire. “You’re signs that this world could be a better place if we all did what you did and cared like you do.”
I feel Claire is unimpressed.
“I wish it would be more concrete than that” she sniffs. “Like, governments would welcome and bring these lovely people in”.
“Often all you can do is sit or walk with people in their time of need. Just being with them and sharing with them and crying and taking time with them is all you can do. To them that is a huge thing because they don’t feel so abandoned and all alone. To them you are a sign of hope.”
I can see Claire would like to be able to do more. Just being there with them to Claire is not enough.
Outside it’s starting to rain and the wind is cold. There are large puddles in the mud and it sticks to my shoes and I have to be very careful not to slip. The cold reminds me that winter is just around the corner and I wonder how many will die in the snow and the ice. One little girl is very sick and Claire is worrying how to get her into hospital and medical attention. I notice some Medicine Sans Frontier people and wonder how they cope with all the illness.
All through the camp there were lots of signs. People had painted them on the plastic and whatever they could. For me the most moving one was “WHEN I DIE BURY ME IN PALESTINE AND WRITE ON MY GRAVE I AM NOT A REFUGEE ANY MORE”.
But it’s the smell I will always remember. The piles of rotting garbage. The constant fear of fire. A major fire would kill so many. There’s no fire protection. As if by ESP Claire hurries off to her car as she has brought some fire extinguishers to give to people.
I meet Salim, described to me as the “Father of the camp”. He spends his time cleaning up and trying to pile the rubbish in one place.
Many of these people, Claire tells me, have been brought up in a totally different environment. They have a strong sense of family. They all fit into a family structure. Many are not like us, they can’t navigate alone. It’s so hard for them.
Adam offers to drive me back to the ferry as I have to get ready to return to Australia. On the way he introduces me to Gul Baker Khan, an Afghani who smilingly immediately invites me inside for tea. I say I have to go and he smiles knowingly and friendlily and says I must come for tea next time I’m there. I readily agree. It’s that kind of place.
Islamic music is playing in Adam’s car on the way back. We immediately become firm friends. I tell him of my love for the Islamic poet Rumi and quote some lines. He tells me of his friendships with clerics and peoples of other faiths and we become just two guys with a common sense of compassion doing what we can for all our brothers and sisters we share this earth with.
We hugged goodbye and I headed up the ferry walkway. As I did, I felt a real sense of accomplishment. I’d gone over there on my own, not knowing what I’d find or how I’d get back. What I found were a whole lot of persecuted lovely people who really did not deserve to be treated as they were being treated and whole lot of Angels, who, just like me, had made their own way there to simply do what they could.
Too right they are signs.
I didn’t only walk with the refugees, I also walked with the Angels who bring light and hope to a world run by politicians who should all, every one of them, feel really ashamed of themselves.
And I have a photo of the mud stained soles of my shoes to prove it.
Maybe I’m asking too much but it would be a very good thing for some of these politicians to walk with the refugees and the Angels, too and then maybe a solution to this “Refugee Crisis” would be found overnight and bring these people in.