Two Saffron Walden girls spend a week in the Jungle and find migrants with manners

Fran and Karen in the Jungle

Fran and Karen in the Jungle - Credit: Archant

Fran Baker and Karen van Hees, both from Saffron Walden, went to The Jungle in Calais to help the refugees move their tents and shelters head of the French bulldozers. Here is their story.

Fran Baker’s Jungle Diary

Day One: We woke up and took ourselves to the 9am briefing at the warehouse. This is where all donations arrive, all distributions start from and all shelters are built. The warehouse manager, another volunteer, did the briefing and she told us the centre, L’Auberge des Migrants, (Help for Refugees) relies on volunteers.

We got sectioned off into different roles, and we began as “rackers” in the warehouse. Donations come in, sorters sort, boxers box, rackers rack and then any excess goes into storage. The amount of donations is huge, but there are plenty of useless donations – high heels, wedding dresses, vintage women’s clothing – when its minus three and raining on the mud.

That afternoon there was a state of emergency where all volunteers were needed to go to the camp as the French government had announced they were sending bulldozers to clear an area, around a third of the camp, so we had to move as many houses as possible.

It is incredible how people are living in the camp. Some are in tents with a blanket for limited warmth, some in tarpaulin wrapped around twigs, some lucky ones are in shelters made by volunteers and even that is not good enough.

I peeped through someone’s tarp shelter front door, around four feet high, and they had a few pairs of shoes lined up, “curtains” draping a non-existent window, making it home.

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There’s huge community spirit. Kurds with Kurds, Afghans with Afghans, people sharing a language and a culture.

The people living there are very resilient, and entrepreneurial. They have a nightclub, (a tent with light and music) a library, shops, a school, and cafes. They are people from all over the world, from major conflict zones, living together.

Day TWO: We spent much of the day moving more shelters ahead of the proposed bulldoze. We met a 15-year-old boy who was alone and helped him move out of the danger zone. His home was a tent covered in tarpaulin. He was unsure why he needed to move (as were we) but he was grateful when we explained, and told him we would come back later.

We met two 18-year-olds from Afghanistan who had walked from Paris the day before. They had no where to sleep so we took them to the “new” peoples caravan to get them a tent and set it up for them. They are from hot countries and do not choose to camp in the rain for fun like Brits, so did not know how to set a tent up. It is freezing in the camp. We set them up in the only space, near to a river.

We had lunch in a kitchen cafe that was delicious and massive.

We met a Haroon, a 24-year-old who spoke to us about his journey. He is the youngest son with an older brother and sister and mum in Afghanistan. He said he left because of Daesh. His family had moved to another province in Afghanistan and sent him to try to get to his uncle in Scotland and if he got there to bring them.

“He travelled to Turkey and ran out of money so he worked for a few months until he could afford to continue. He then got a dinghy boat across the sea before making his way to Calais. He has built himself an incredible home with minimal resources – a room, a seating area. His four old roommates made it to England.

He is very gently spoken and kind and helpful. He graduated from school. He is very cold and has no money. He and his close community cook one meal a day together from the distributions. It did not look substantial. Then every night they try to get to England – ferry port or train. He spent 16 days in a detention centre for being in Calais centre. He cut his hand on barbed wire and he said that a police lady cried when she saw it. He asked if we liked Muslims in England.

We saw an incredible site on the main road by the Afghan Square, of Friday morning prayer – people lined up with shoes off and prayer mats down.

We helped moved a few more houses.

Then we went back for the young guy. He was asleep in his tent. You could see the police inside their van on the motorway from where he was. Far too close. We woke him and told him the situation. We asked him where he wanted to go and gave a few options. He packed his belongings and we helped him take the tarp and pallets to his new area, near the families as he is alone and 15. As he was being re-homed, he got a new tent. We set it up for him by torchlight as it was night-time by this point. He was very grateful, shook our hands and asked for a picture with us.

Day Three: Another great day, beauty day at the women and children’s centre. There are five women working there on Saturdays and it is the one day where no men are allowed. The women can come and bring their children, have their nails painted and their bodies massaged, a cup of tea and a chat. I played with one of the ladies’ one-year-olds, and he was very quiet and unwell. His feet were freezing. The women’s area is really a safe haven – a place to feel normal for the women.

One of the ladies who works at beauty day is a refugee. She is very well educated, a teacher, who is in the jungle with her husband who is an engineer. She had a beauty salon in her country before having to flee, so she cuts the other ladies hair for free.

Another woman told us she was in the Jungle with her husband and that she fled the Taliban who would cut women’s ears and noses off if they were not covered up. She wants to wear what she wants and live in London as she loves it, and be free of danger. She was very happy and smiley and had a beautiful young son.

Day Four: Our task for the day was litter picking and clearing old tents ready for re-settlement ahead of the bulldozers coming to clear an area, for what reason we still don’t know.

While clearing, I met a 14 year old with his baby brother, a one-year-old. I held the baby for a while as he held his arms out to me. His brother was talking about his journey. He wants to go to the UK as it is safe. They had to leave Afghanistan because of the danger there.

We met a man who had just arrived, who had worked as a translator for the British Forces. He resigned when his friend, an English soldier, was killed in a bomb explosion on the tank they were travelling in. he said he knew he would never get into England, so wanted to apply for asylum in France, as he couldn’t live in camp for a year and wanted to provide a better life for his wife and children, still in Afghanistan.

A friend we had met a few days earlier took us to his home. He had put fabric on the walls to look like wallpaper and was clearly very proud of it.

In summary, this was an incredible time meeting incredible people, making the best out of very difficult circumstances.

Karen van Hees’s Jungle Diary

We arrived in Dunkirk and drove the 30 minutes to Calais. Along the motorway we looked down at the jungle stretched out around us, blue tarpaulins and wooden shacks crammed close together. I was still new to driving on the right so I didn’t look too closely.

We went straight to the L’Auberge Warehouse to drop off our donations and were asked to reverse in through the gates. There were lots of scruffy people in hi-vis jackets looking very busy. Immediately, people were carrying our donations into the warehouse and were seemingly pleased that we had labelled everything correctly. I was to find out why the next day. We set off for our modest and cheap but comfortable hostel ready for an early start the next day.

Day One: The hostel provided a free breakfast of baguettes, butter and jam with a cup of tea and coffee. We soon learnt how important it was to be up early enough to eat.

We set off to the warehouse with some fellow volunteers from the hostel in tow. We arrived in time for morning briefing from a long-term volunteer called Hetty. She did some exercises with us and stressed the importance of us being in Calais this week.

She said that they were in crisis mode as the French authorities had stated that they would be clearing and bulldozing 30 per cent of the camp, and they only had a couple of days to safely move the refugees and their shelters or tents with their belongings. This included many women, children and unaccompanied minors.

As we were new, we spent the morning sorting through donations in the warehouse and categorising the boxes. It was incredible to see how generous people have been and how effective a system can be when you realise that volunteers are processing the massive amount of donations coming in every day.

We had some lunch provided by the open kitchen who had been busy preparing that morning and we were about to tuck in when Hetty shouted that they had now in fact reached crisis level and needed as many volunteers as possible in the camp.

Fran and I shoved the food down our throats and went to change our shoes. We joined everyone packing two vans with tents and sleeping bags, squeezed into a van with other volunteers and set off.

The van pulled up to the main entrance of the camp, just on the turn of a main road that passes underneath the motorway. The gravel road leads between packed tight shelters on either side covered in blue and white tarpaulins with wooden frames.

Small doors lead into the dark rooms and the ground is soft mud. People are milling around and chatting, walking with purpose or looking out of the doors at what we were doing. We had to transport tarpaulins from the van to another van deeper into the camp. We all took our fair share and set off into the Jungle.

I became aware that I was walking down a high street and that there were shops and restaurants on either side of me, just made out of wood and plastic. We gained the attention of lots of young men. They must have been 15 or 16 with tanned skin and bright green eyes.

They asked us if they could have some tarpaulin for their shelters or their tents, we had to say no. Some left us to it and some hung around waiting to see what we would do with them. My hat kept being pulled back slightly on my head but when I turned around there wasn’t any one there. After the third time, I pre-empted it and spun around in time to catch a young man in the act, he giggled naughtily and blushed which made me laugh.

He stayed with us for a while, helping and talking with us. We were quickly briefed that we had to ask everyone in a marked area if they would like to move, where would they like to go to and could we help.

We set off to ask the hundreds of people who had made a home in this particular area. Fran and I walked up to a man and his friends who were busy dismantling a shelter they had made themselves out of tree branches and tarpaulin woven together with string.

He was glad of help and loaded us up with branches, sticks and pallets and showed us where he wanted to move to. He took us back out to the road and straight over it between two shelters, down a path of pallets to protect people from the deep mud and between two occupied tents.

Behind that were more tents we had to step around. There was a very narrow space available between the two other tents. He said this is where he could move to and we laid down his tree branches and went back for more.

After five or so trips we had moved him and his belongings. He was amazed at our strength and tried to only let us carry one branch at a time, we had to insist we could manage and he was very grateful. He thanked us profusely.

We were then set the task of moving a built shelter which was the size of a small shed set on pallets with a lockable front door. The man who owned it was called Mr Imran and he was from Afghanistan. He looked very ill and thin, he was walking slowly and was wrapped in a blanket. We had four people on each side and on the count of three we lifted it.

The ground is littered with debris and sink holes. Dangerous metal poles from discarded tents stick up and there is all sorts of waste. Navigating this terrain while carrying a man’s house was one of the hardest things I’ve done.

He was trying to direct us to his new plot but as everything is so tightly crammed together, it was almost impossible to find a way through. We took a break by a shop with windows made of plastic sheeting and plywood walls, it was full of Fanta and chocolate bars.

There was a small cut out hole in the plastic sheeting, I poked my head in an said hello to the owner and he smiled broadly and gave me two Snickers bars. I’ve never been so happy to see chocolate.

Eventually, we managed to get Mr Imran’s house onto a small hillside created by the earth being moved and cleared for more shelters and tents. Mr Imran thanked us each individually and asked me where I was from. When I told him, his whole face lit up. He said: “I love British people, they the best. They are so kind, they help us here in the Jungle.”

We carried on moving people all afternoon, we were especially concerned for a young man who looked about 15 or 16 who was alone and camping in a tent that was in poor condition, we promised we would be back to help him.

We looked around and saw a big church covered in white tarpaulin with a wooden cross perched on top. There were men, women and children walking, tents wedged into the mud, people with no socks and useless shoes.

There is a dome tent for arts and entertainment, a pink caravan for new people to get tents and sleeping bags. An Ashram (volunteer) kitchen that provides a hot meal everyday, a legal centre that helps the refugees with their asylum claims, a vaccination centre, a library, a school with three classrooms and a playground, solar panels and toys.

It is a whole community built into the mud scattered with portable loos and taps that provide freezing cold water to wash in. Everyday, new people arrive with nothing but the clothes on their back and have to establish themselves in their new home for the foreseeable future.

After the sun had set and we were waiting for our ride home, a volunteer ran past us screaming for fire extinguishers. We stared at each other blankly but she had run off. Fran and I quickly ran into the businesses and called for fire extinguishers but there were none. I then saw the smoke rising behind the line of shelters, suddenly a man came running past with two in his hand and then another man did the same. They managed to stop the fire in time thankfully.

Day Two: Morning briefing and then straight to camp again. Moving more shelters and tents from the area that is overlooked by the motorway and the military vans.

Fran and I were trying to establish whose shelter it was that needed moving and we asked two young men who had approached us. They said they had arrived that day from Paris.

Their names were Essan and Ali and they were 18 and from Afghanistan. Essan said he did not know what to do and had not eaten in several days. We took them to the pink caravan and got a tent for them, we told them what time they had to be back to collect their sleeping bags and blankets and showed them where they could get food.

We helped them choose an area to set up their tent, as so many people were being evicted that space was limited.

We found a patch in the Afghan area which had just been cleared, it wasn’t ideal as it was exposed and next to the lake on recently dug ground, so it was damp and cold.

I then realised that they didn’t know how to set up a tent as they probably haven’t been camping for fun before. We went into Girl Guide mode and in no time had erected the tent for them and secured it with heavy rocks we had found and made it water tight with some extra tarp we had also found in some nearby rubble.

They were so grateful and thankful, and quite amazed at our skill. We shook hands and hugged and wished them good luck. We met their new neighbour Haroon who promised to look after them for us.

We carried on, finding nails for one man and a plaster for another who had hurt himself. We stopped for lunch in an Afghan restaurant called the “Three Star Hotel”. It was made of plywood and had a raised platform where you could take off your shoes and sit comfortably.

They gave us hot chai tea and the biggest chicken leg I’ve ever seen on or off a chicken. It was hot, delicious and cheap.

We then heard about the music statement they were holding at the dome, where people were taking turns to sing about themselves. We went to have a look. There were lots of refugees and volunteers there admiring the paintings and having a go themselves, we went to sit and watch the singers.

One young man reminded me of an overgrown puppy, he looked about 17 with bright eyes and floppy hair and got very excited once he had taken to the stage, he started to sing and dance and laugh at himself.

He liked the limelight a lot and performed for about 40 hilarious minutes. We then went back to see if Essan and Ali had settled in OK but they weren’t there. Their neighbour Haroon invited us to sit with him and have tea. He had built a connecting space between a caravan and another shelter which had a table and bench to sit at.

We chatted to Haroon and learnt that he is 24 and has travelled here because he is fleeing from the Taliban and ISIS. His family had to move to a different province in Afghanistan and he has spent three months travelling to France to try to secure a safer life for them.

He crossed the sea from Turkey in a rubber dinghy. He has an uncle in the Highlands he wants to join. He has spent 16 days in prison because he was caught trying to get to in a lorry. He cut his hand badly on the barbed wire fence. He was so gentle and softly spoken and kind. He invited us back the next day.

We returned to the unaccompanied young man alone in his tent and helped move him, he was asleep so we had to wake him and explain the best we could the urgency of the situation.

He shoved his belongings into a sleeping bag and carried it over his back.

I found a religious hat wedged between his tent and the tarpaulin but he said it wasn’t his. I wondered about the person who owned it. I carried his pallets and we went to get him a new tent. On the way, a very old man with one leg watched us and stuck out his crisp packet in offering as we walked past.

I picked out a nice tent for the boy, David, and we walked to the family area to set it up for him. We set to work and in no time he had a nice new tent with a tarp covering so it stayed dry. He was in a safer area and among other young people and their families. As we said our goodbyes, he asked us for a photo. He stood in the middle and a friend took a picture of us all in front of his new tent. He thanked us and we left him, he was 15.

Day Three: We were very tired and sore from the heavy lifting so after our morning briefing we stayed at the warehouse and sorted through donations.

The volunteer coordinator Ben asked if anybody was good at massages and beauty therapies. I raised my hand and was led to a woman called T. She was young and British but came from an Arabic background and could speak several Arabic languages. She said that she leads the beauty day at the woman’s shelter and needed female volunteers to help her. I got Fran and we set off with her to the Jungle.

As we arrived, a woman knocked on the car window and spoke to T she said that JJ had made it. T started crying with happiness, she later told us that this woman was a refugee who had been at the camp for five months and helped the volunteers at the woman’s shelter. Her fiancé had managed to get the train but she had been left behind, she had been trying every night to join him in England but had been unsuccessful, she was pregnant and was becoming very depressed. The night before she came to them and said that she was going to make it tonight and they all sat and prayed for her, she rang them from England the next day to say she had been successful and that she was joining her soon to be husband. It was very touching to see how this news affected her friends, they were so pleased for her and they all sat and cried with happiness at her fortune. The shelter was large and attached to it was a caravan where T slept with a very young unaccompanied Afghan boy she was looking after. We rearranged the inside of the shelter and placed carpets on the ground and covered up the children’s toys. There was a log burner to keep us warm and drinks and biscuits were put out.

One by one the women turned up. There were Afghani women and Syrians, Eritreans and Iranians and other nationalities I didn’t know, sitting together and gossiping having their nails painted and laughing with T and the other volunteers.

They brought their young babies with them who crawled around and got their hands on the nail varnishes. One child was ill and didn’t have any socks on in his Elsa wellies. I sat and massaged his feet till they were warm.

I gave massages to the women, I massaged their feet, their heads and their backs. They had limited English but managed to convey so much.

One woman told me that in her country the Taliban make her wear a burka, she said she didn’t want to and they threatened to cut off her ears and her nose. She said how much she loves London and wants to walk down the street wearing whatever she wants to.

Another woman who was threading eyebrows said she was an architect and a teacher for 10 years, she was also a trained beauty therapist. She had to flee the Taliban too.

One woman asked if I had a car, and could I take her to England? When I said I couldn’t she said she understood and asked me if I could massage her shoulders.

Another volunteer was on the other side of the shelter doing yoga with some women while the babies crawled around and nails were being painted and chatting was done. Our friend Nikki sat in the corner and did illustrations of the scene. It was so inspiring being with such educated, beautiful and resilient women. Though language was an issue we all communicated with each other in our own and effective way. This continued for some blissful hours until time was up and the women and children left.

Day Five: With a combined effort, we had managed to move all the shelters and tents and their occupants safely. This day was about clearing the rubbish and litter picking, there are a lot of clothes dumped as there is no way to wash them.

There were a lot of children playing around and being looked after by their big brothers and sisters. The kids asked us for plastic gloves and then helped us picking up rubbish and debris and moving it.

One boy was called Abdul, he said he wants to be a teacher when he is older and said he had learnt his English from being in the camp (which was remarkable) he said he had been teaching another volunteer Kurdish.

I drew a very crude map of England on the ground and he asked me where certain cities were. I tried my best but I probably gave him some poor information. He translated for a woman who wanted to know where Cardiff was, she had family she was trying to reach there. He wanted to know where Hull was and Newcastle, and what Birmingham was like.

We met two men who said they had arrived two days previously but had slept rough. We found them a tent and gave them the information they needed about the camp. One of the men told us that he was a translator in Afghanistan working for the British forces.

The truck he was in got blown up and his British friend died, after that he resigned. He was targeted by the Taliban and had to flee, he spent 13.000 dollars reaching France. He said he was going to try claiming asylum in France because he couldn’t spend a year In the Jungle trying to reach England while his wife and daughters were still in Afghanistan and unsafe.

We went to have tea with Haroon, he showed us into his caravan where he had laid out a fleece blanket and pillows for us. He brought out a paper plate with cashew nuts and walnuts for us. He boiled water on his fire and gave us tea.

His cousin joined us and we chatted about their lives and how they find the Jungle. He said the Taliban were persecuting his family and he had to leave, he had just spent the night in prison again for trying to get on a lorry.

His cousin said that his whole family are in Britain and that over Christmas they came to visit him, he became emotional and we changed the subject. They said that they keep themselves to themselves and that they work on their shelter, they are builders in their country. Haroon said that he thinks Afghanistan is beautiful and he can remember being six-years-old before the fighting started.

They said that the camp gets dangerous at night and they had witnessed fatal fights. They said it gets unbearably cold and that they miss hot water showers. They said that a lot of refugees break their legs and badly hurt themselves trying to climb the fences, he said they get tear gassed by the French police and some people are beaten to death. I said I hoped I’d see him again one day and wished them both well.

The camp is full of educated, kind and desperate men, women and children. Though they have an arts dome and a library, there is no sanitation or warmth. I placed myself in their shoes and wondered if I could get up every day not knowing what I would be facing.

Not at any time did I feel scared or even uncomfortable, I was inspired by the will to survive and the hope. I am so grateful for my trivial problems and hope that I never have to flee my home, and if I do, I hope I have somewhere to flee to.