I got my first BlaBlaCar down to Calais. In true French style the driver was an hour late but we made it. Despite the horror stories of the app, we also made it there alive! Arriving in Calais was really quick from London. The atmosphere however was a little strange. It turns out that residents not only don’t like refugees but volunteers struggle as well. When my friend and I were walking around with our backpacks it became clear very quickly that we weren’t welcome. We were stared at constantly. It was so uncomfortable.
The first thing I quickly realised was just how much I love my sit-on-yo’-ass day job. The volunteering was mainly in the warehouse, making kits for new refugees or for those who had recently lost their home when it was bulldozed. Work included bagging clothes, heavy lifting, moving trolleys between warehouses. For someone who is lazy, it was definitely hard going.
The most important lesson of the day though, was learning to be vulnerable. I’m an only child with a single mother family. You bet your arse you learn to be independent in those circumstances. But as someone without a licence or a car, I had to ask for help to just get there. Luckily everyone else in the volunteering community had the same issues. Everyone had to ask for help one way or another. Besides everyone there was there to help people, it wasn’t exclusive to refugees.
For the main app that I’m working on, HerStory didn’t seem to be something that makes sense. We were told to never ask anyone their stories. You have no idea what they’ve been through and you can’t just go around bringing it up. It’s retraumatizing. What was good to see was another volunteer who wasn’t technical making an app. This was more down the legal route of informing them of their whole options, rather than just the UK. As someone from the UK it was interesting to hear their opinions about this “promise land”. The primary reason for people was that they had family already in the UK, promising to help them. Then it was usually because they knew the language already. There’s also an unspoken responsibility about keeping the hope that’s in Calais. When refugees are travelling they have hope. The Jungle is like living in limbo. You can’t just go around saying how bad the UK is and then share your story of how you live there and you have a job that’s paying for your volunteering. It’s everything that most of them want.
When you arrive at the camp it’s quite overwhelming. Not by the place itself, but by the French police authorities, CRS. You have to have ID on you in case they check who is coming and going. They patrol everywhere to increase tensions and pull pouty faces at everyone. A volunteer who I went with had a damaged shoe because she had been tear gassed. During the recent bulldozing of half the camp, they simply went in, tear gassed everyone and cleared the area. No one was even allowed to collect their belongings. They put containers in the camp to offer “proper” housing over the tents and make-do huts elsewhere in the Jungle. The catch? You have to hand over your whole handprints to access them and it’s setup like a prison. Of course any evidence that you’ve been elsewhere in Europe can hurt your chances of claiming asylum in England. It’s not even worth it.
The camp itself was a lot more advanced than I thought. There’s a school for teaching English and French. There are restaurants with amazing food. Spicy Afghan eggs, fried chicken, Afghan style red kidney beans; Lobia Masala. There were churches and mosques, and even a B&B! You can even go learn to cook food in the Ashram kitchen. On the way out of the camp we were greeted by a guy who was struggling with credit. He hadn’t spoken to his family in 3 months. The long-term volunteer pointed him to a Credit for refugees service and explained we couldn’t do any more than that.
Today was a little slow. I didn’t get to go to camp but I got to spend quality time with the volunteers. I was really proud of how quickly I built up rapport with people. Although coming to the camp with a reason and it not being volun-tourism really helped! I was given contact details for the women and children’s centre.
I met a photojournalist in the same hostel. Ella had amazing pictures. Photographs from India, studio photoshoots. When I said I was a photographer I just had photos of my dogs. It turned out she was having the same issues as myself. It was very hard to get your intentions across to people with a language barrier. You have to have an incredible amount of patience while you gain their trust. Some of the refugees also know that if people take photos of them in France, it can really hurt their chances of claiming asylum in the UK.
Since most of the food is Vegan, a serious highlight of the day was the chocolate digestives on the snacks table.
Since most of the food is Vegan, a serious highlight of the day was the chocolate digestives on the snacks table.
We woke up to realising the hostel had under booked us by a day and so we needed a place to stay Saturday night. Because this week already I hadn’t been needy enough.
During the morning Paula and I spent a few hours in the warehouse charity shop. Honestly, some of the things people donate are hilarious. I’m talking top-notch fur coats, a parker that was worth €600 and a zebra print lycra dress. Which yes, we did model for you. Believe it or not we actually made quite a few sales!
Some of the types of people you get are hilarious. In the charity shop a French woman tried on a Von Dutch hoodie, and refused to pay any more than €2 for it because of how expensive it was just to get here. She also had a friend that I had to convince (multiple times) that makeup did not go in the shoe section. Every time that I saw those 2, they weren’t doing anything! The other weird group of people who turned up was a big group of fat French chavs. They came, did a minute of work, a shit tonne of giggling and then left. Although to be fair, there is nothing else for them to do in Calais.
For the rest of the afternoon I was sorting through shoes, with a Portuguese family from Lisbon. It was definitely one of the most monotonous jobs in the warehouse. But I was learning Portuguese!
In the evening we managed to hike a ride to Dunkirk. In Dunkirk it’s run differently, just due to the fact that it’s now recognised as an official camp. Before recognition, people were living in holes in the ground or in camping tents. When we first arrived, it was like a staring contest. They stared at us, and I sincerely stared back. You can see the baggage in their faces, and their eyes were so piercing. I hate staring, and I felt so uncomfortable being stared at, but I could not take my eyes off some of them there.
The first two guys we met there were stood around a laptop. Some of the volunteers there were working with them building a map of the camps for Open Street Maps. One of them was called Zach*, who had studied IT back in Kurdistan. He was 24 and travelling alone. He invited us to his wooden hut and introduced us to some of his refugee family. I also learnt some Kurdish and spoke to everyone who walked past. It wasn’t long before someone replied with… terms of endearment in Kurdish. I didn’t understand them, but Zach definitely got a laugh out of explaining what they were saying! There was a young girl from the hut next door who seemed really interested in us. Unfortunately it seemed she was too shy to say anything or come over for something other than stealing Zach’s chocolate. All she did was stare and wave at us with a smile.
* The name has been changed to protect identity
While we were talking about his plans for the UK, there wasn’t a question of what he shared. He shared everything he had with us. Tea, coffee, cake, cigarettes (not for me!) and chocolate. Zach explained how Kurdistan wasn’t a country, and how they had been fighting for independence. With bordering so many countries, it’s a prime location to fight over. The war never ends. You can’t walk down the street holding someone’s hand. He was headed to the UK because he had a brother in Nottingham who had promised to help him once he got there and he already knew English. He also explained how every night he tried to get into lorries. He described how this was not a life and he would rather die trying than stay here. It was hard not to share a realistic view of the refugee situation in the UK of getting there legally. Instead we simply said nothing.
On the way back everyone said hello, asked how we were and where we were from. Their faces lit up with glee when I chanted UK. We were quickly serenaded from a guy riding up and down past us on a bike. We headed to the children’s centre, where it was refreshing to see paintings of flowers. However over in the far corner of the camp you could see worn out paths in the grass. At the top of the hill, a road. You could see groups of black hoodies disappearing. This lead us to a personal dilemma. During sorting we were told that black items are in higher demand and anything neon tends to get sent back. Obviously if you’re trying to stay hidden in the back of a lorry, you’re not after bright yellow Adidas trainers. So if you know they want black clothes, does this mean you should make them a priority when sorting and when you give donations? Is that encouraging them to do it? It’s breaking the law doing this. Yet when you see these people you learn just how desperate they are to do that. On the way home we drove alongside a lorry going at 90 kmph. It’s insane! They’re going to do it anyway, but do I want to feel like I’m encouraging that? Do I personally agree with them coming into the country this way?
Just before it’s time to go home, I ask if we can ask around for the Hababy app. I was introduced to 3 women, all with children. I make my first mistake by saying “we have something for pregnant women”. That may be true, but the prototype hardly worked in the middle of nowhere and it wasn’t something physical that I could explain. It started to rain but they came right out and said they weren’t answering questions without makeup to trade. Mistake number 2 was having no script, nothing to fall back on and expecting these people to help for free. This was also my first exposure to actual in-field cross-cultural research. Zach did his best to translate but even without using technical language, that was the feel of the conversation. It just was not working.
We did find out that people in the camp didn’t share phones. Everyone had their own. Most of them had been smashed though. This is so that when police ask you for your phone you can say it doesn’t work. He then got to ask us why so many people bring cameras. It was definitely something that he just couldn’t wrap his head around.
Zach, Paula and myself exchanged Facebook names, told him to be safe and headed our separate ways. We both felt weird after getting back to the hostel. We felt so anti-social and needed to time to wrap our heads around things. Despite Dunkirk being in a much better state that Calais, the time with Zach felt more intimate. Back in the pub we treated ourselves to some steaks.
On the way home we were called over by a French volunteer we knew. It was pouring it down with rain, but he had bumped into 2 Arab guys trying to get to the Jungle. It seemed like it was there first time there. They were an hour and a half away walking. Even though they were well dressed and clean, they had socks for gloves. Neither of them spoke any English. The only thing helpful I could say was “I don’t understand” in Arabic. Huge mistake. They took it as though I could speak Arabic! The only word in English they knew was “Jungle”.
Thankfully with Network 3’s Feel at Home, I was able to pull up Google Translate. I told them to take a photo of the map we had on the other phone and warned them of the fascists who would eagerly wait for anyone going into camp.
We volunteered to take part in the beauty day that’s held for women once a week. A few of the women in the camp were beauticians and here we provide the tools so that they can help each other feel better. These people know they are refugees, they didn’t need to look like tramps to know that. There was also a trained masseuse volunteer who had brought her own oils. The women there were predominantly from Eritrea and Ethiopia. One of the Ethiopian women was heavily pregnant but only 6 months along. One of the volunteers said up until about 2 weeks ago she was still trying to jump on lorries and trains to get into the UK. She was so tired she had now decided to head to Frankfurt to a friend who said they would help with the child. She pointed out her friend who was also 5 months pregnant. Sadly she did not look as happy.
Halfway through the afternoon, Grazia magazine turned up. What a joke. They were interrogating both the refugees and volunteers. They wrote down everything anyone said to them and it was so uncomfortable. You could literally see the poor woman hardly understand and start to retreat into herself. Their notes were bare minimum and they left after 5 minutes. As someone who has to work with people in the same way and research like a UX-er, they were pathetic.
In terms of sharing their story it wasn’t something that seemed to be a necessity. It seemed to be about building a connection with the volunteers already there. I don’t know if it was me, but painting someone’s nails and not knowing what to ask or how to communicate in their language well made things really awkward. In addition, some of the women were the rudest people I have met. To put it into perspective, a majority of the refugees in Calais were rich back in their country. It costs thousands to pay smugglers to get you to this point. When you’re the one painting their nails, they’re the ones used to talking down to you. I never speak to service staff such as waiters like shit anyway, but my God that was a wake up call. They get treated like dirt.
No, I don’t like it. Do it again.
No, I don’t like it. Do it again.
One woman went through what felt like every nail varnish colour we had. After 4 colours including base coat, she settled on a colour and 5 minutes later was removing it in the corner. Needless to say my nailbar was not busy. The next woman though was a really nice Iranian woman who had her 2 year old with her. It was a little awkward when she boshed out her boob to breastfeed her child, but I had to lean into her direction to reach her hand.
The best person by far who I met that day was a little girl. She was from Syria and had lived in Germany for 2 years. She spoken perfect German. She attacked me with her makeup palette. I got my own back but the little bugger managed to find the makeup remover before I did. I was informed that it looked like I had been punched.
Still the highlight of the day was my friend being commanded to sit while the beauticians attacked her face with threading. She then tried to throw me under the bus and point out my eyebrows. She took one look at my face and said it would take her a week!
I finally got to eat the food from the camp! It was incredible. I’m not 100% sure what I ate, but it was amazing. The food I had was of Afghan origin, and was kidney bean based. I absolutely cannot stand beans, but I’m so glad I tried the sauce. I really need some more.
After lunch we stayed for another 2 hours or so. Towards the end of the day we hardly had any stuff left. They brought bags with them to stuff things inside. Even the tissues that had fallen out of my pocket. But really, after everything they’ve been through, watching nail varnishes vanish was the pettiest thing in the world. What I did have a problem with was after the day had ended, my shoes had been stolen. In addition, the woman who had driven us there had left us stranded. In the Jungle. With my passport and camera in the back of her car. Unamused does not cover it. Within the space of 5 minutes, things just went tits up.
No shoes. No passport. No lift.
Getting angry over them stealing my shoes seemed petty to the other volunteers. It was just “self-distribution”. But that wasn’t what I was getting angry over. Someone just left me stranded in the Jungle and after hours of back breaking work, painting the same nails over and over, they stole my shoes.
They must have been pretty.
They must have been pretty.
I did not need my sense of style confirmed by having my shoes stolen! You’re damn right I got stressed. Granted these people didn’t know me. But I was heading home the next day. I couldn’t just wait to see this woman again to get my passport back. What was I supposed to do with no shoes?! I say this, in front of a refugee who had trekked it across more countries I’ve visited.
I’ve never felt more like a diva in my life.
But why my shoes?! Especially when it turned out that another volunteer was supposed to be safeguarding them. It wasn’t the first pair of shoes to go missing!
Anyway, I take some other shoes we find on the bus. They arrange for Superman John to pick us up. Meanwhile I ring anyone at the warehouse to find the woman with my passport and camera. When I got back I was ready to blow my lid. It just wasn’t worth embarrassing myself like that. I told enough people that she had left us stranded anyway. There must be a volunteering code against that sort of thing.
After getting to the warehouse and retrieving my things, I went to find new shoes from the warehouse. Then headed straight to the pub for a steak. By the end of the night though I was exhausted. Someone mentioned that a refugee they met seemed like they’d be smelling plastic. I was so confused, I picked up the menu and sniffed it. I’ve been surrounded by plastic my whole life, what on earth… she meant the fumes from burning plastic. I looked that bad, that the staff asked me if I was okay.
We left early in the morning, for my 10:01 train. Despite the months it takes for people to get into the UK, it took me barely over an hour door to door. One of the volunteers who had been there for quite a while turned out to be on my train home. I showed her my log of the days I’d spent and explained in more detail about my reasons for being there. She gave me a few contacts and answered some questions I still had. It was great for some confirmation in what we are doing is going to help. Not only refugees but the volunteers helping refugees.
When I got back to my flat though, everything just felt weird. My partner hadn’t tidied the flat. After a week in hostels with ants and a shower that changes its temperature more than I change my mind in a minute, I wanted a clean place. Upon reflection I learnt to temper my stress levels. We arrived without a place to stay. On Saturday night we didn’t have a place to stay. I was failing in my UX research. I actually managed to stay positive through it all. It went tits up when I lost my shoes and passport but I had been making progress!
At home my mind was in a numb state. I had a lot to take in. Now I didn’t have the manual labour to keep me distracted. Would I go again? I haven’t decided. Being in between jobs and wanting to travel, makes it hard to plan. Am I glad that I did it anyway? Absolutely. This scenario proved to be the ultimate test. For my patience, my rapport building, my communication skills. Everything a damn good UX-er needs. It was nowhere near as bad as the media points makes it out to be. There are bad bits, I’m not naive because I had a positive experience. But the media is way off the mark. If Grazia’s research is anything to go by, it’s no wonder! I’m not convinced I achieved all I wanted to, but it was innocent of me to think within 4 days I could do so much. Instead I learnt things I never expected and it highlighted huge gaps in my skill set. I wouldn’t trade my experience for anything. Not even my shoes.
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