When heading to a refugee camp, you prepare yourself to see a lot of sadness and suffering.
You imagine that the first few moments will shock you as you acclimate to your surroundings.
But as we took our first steps into the campsite just minutes from the Port of Calais, what struck me the most were the piles upon piles of rain-soaked clothes that lined the border of the “Jungle”.
Of course, you saw scores of tents and makeshift shacks scattered among heaps of litter and human excrement, but since the picture of Aylan – a Syrian three-year-old boy of Kurdish descent laying still on that Turkish beach – circulated the globe, there has been an influx of well-meaning, but poorly-researched aid at places like Calais and others.
That was the aim of Hull Help For Refugees’ latest trip: not so much to deliver aid, but to get an understanding of the items that are really needed here.
The group couldn’t come empty handed, however. A small van of tents, sleeping bags and wooden pallets was packed and as we drudged these items to a central distribution area with the mud squelching beneath our feet, the things desperately in demand became quickly clear.
Men shuffled around in shoes that had their backs folded over, wearing them like slippers and had you not known better, it would have been easy to think it was the Jungle’s latest fashion trend. In reality, shoes that fit were in short supply and most had no choice but to expose their blistered heels to the damp, cold air.
It was also hard not to notice several of the men that walked around with blood-soaked towels wrapping around their shins or bandages around their hands. Real medical treatment was a rarity.
We would soon learn these types of injuries would be from making “the jump” – the camp’s nickname for the dangerous attempt to break into the ferry terminal or to board the Eurotunnel through a labyrinth of fences and barbed wire.
When the rain started to lash down and we scuppered into a little shelter at the invite of a Kurdish family, we would learn that three men died attempting that crossing just the night before. Their expressions casual and matter-of-fact as the raindrops drummed against the tarpaulin.
Despite these abysmal conditions that the refugees lived in, there was a feeling of normalcy, even beauty, to the place.
The lack of electricity, internet and technology on the camp meant there was as a sense of community and togetherness that was uplifting and heart-warming to see.
Families huddled around one another; sharing meals, coffee and cigarettes, while kids fearlessly sprang about treating the Jungle as their playground – their smiles uncorrupted by their surroundings.
Groups of people were often seen building together and mosques, churches and libraries had popped up around the camp.
Enterprising Afghanis had even set up shops and restaurants. One man was supposedly building a hotel.
In some sense, that was the real sadness and tragedy about Calais.
The crossings to the UK had become so well patrolled and risky that only the able-bodied could try. For the women, children and elderly, it was out of the question and they were here for the foreseeable future.
The Jungle had become a limbo and for many, their only way out is a political change.
That’s why the first thing many asked as we handed out aid was “what’s the news?”
Their lifeless stares pierced us in the gut when we said refugees were only being accepted from UN-recognised camps from countries such as Jordan and Turkey – countries they have travelled thousands of miles to avoid.
The reality was, not only have these people fled the devastating conditions of war, it was likely they had also been taken advantage of by smugglers that didn’t have their best interest at heart.
As the last of the hats and scarves were handed out and we packed up the van to leave the camp, a heavy thought burdened our mind: winter is coming and many more will die here. Not because they are trying to leave, but because they are stuck here among the wet and cold.
We finally drove away towards the ferry terminal at about 15 miles per hour, as if we were reluctantly being dragged away
Although a simple passport is all it took for us to get through, mentally, it was a hell-of-a-lot tougher than that, knowing that a lot more needed to be done.