In the winter of 2017 a group of 6 people from a Welsh organization, Mid-Wales Refugee Action, went to volunteer in “La Liniere” refugee camp in Dunkirk. Apart from bringing a load of much-needed donations, they spent a week working in the camp alongside Kesha Niya, an organization which among other things provides daily meals, heating and cooking wood for refugees, as well as volunteers helping in the women’s centre and children centre. More than 1000 migrants live in the camp, mostly from conflict areas in the Middle East. They live in small wooden shelters built one year earlier, by volunteers from Medecins Sans Frontieres.
The following is a short piece describing their experiences and feelings while working in the camp.
Written by: Giulio Mescia
Every day, before the sunset, I give myself time to walk towards the sun, along the only straight road that splits the camp in two halves. It runs East to West, to the end of the camp. Walking step by step, I feel the air, and I let my mind flow while my eyes wander towards shaded faces, wooden walls, gravel and open fires.
After a few steps I meet Ali, his eyes pointing at the ground. He’s particularly shy, but he cannot hide his kind soul. I’d like him to open to me, and it takes me various efforts to make him talk. He’s been living there for 17 months, with his wife and his 9-year-old child. He’s got no money and no one able to send him money to pay for his trip.
Another family, just like Ali’s one, used to live next to his shelter. A father, mother and son, they just got to the UK. 30 grand, 10 grand each. It’s the amount you need to access what they call the “guaranteed” way. The less the money, the higher the risk. In any case, a lot of money, money that feeds and empowers criminal organizations, the real beneficiaries of Western immigration policies.
He tells me about his past life in Iran, while he was working as an interior designer in Teheran. He wanted to give his son a better life. It’s hard to find positive conversations when talking to Ali, but I try, because I think it is important to believe, anyhow and anywhere, that life is beautiful and nature is the proof of it. So we talk about animals and plants, and the contrast that exists between them in the East and the West. We talk about the great landscapes of Iran, one of the world’s most mountainous countries, the only one to have access both to the ocean and to the largest lake in the world, the Caspian sea. The conversation changes tones when I name the Caspian sea. He stops me, “yes, the sea is great, but we can’t use it, Iranian people can’t use the sea”.
He offers me a cup of tea in his wooden shelter, his home. It is an unusual one. It’s a welcoming place, and every surface is decorated and painted. A colourful piece of fabric covers the rotten wood by the bottom of the shelter. There are some toys for his child. A strawberry plant, some mint and some sage pots placed carefully by the front of his shelter. He’s trying to give to his present life a better look.
I keep walking, the sun shines from the West, straight in front of me. At a certain point, I see Almut walking towards me, a big guy with a great smile on his face. It’s easy to see that he is shaken or afraid of something. He’s just arrived in the camp. A few moments of silence, he keeps smiling, almost paralyzed, shivering. I smile at him and I try to talk to him quietly to make him relax. Suddenly, he stops me, and, all at once, he spit his desperation out. “I miss my mum”. Four words. We hug each other and he let his pain drifting, crying.
I’m glad to see him released. He needs few minutes, his breath slows down and he starts feeling more comfortable. He introduces himself to other Kurdish guys around us. As I say goodbye to him, he wants to tell me something, something that I will always remember: “Thank you. I feel much better now. I was feeling oppressed and alone just a minute ago. Now I feel better and I feel I can have friends here.” I wish Almut good luck, while I realize how important is just to be friendly with people. It’s important to provide these guys with what institutions don’t provide them, such as a shelter, food, and firewood for the winter. But at the same time, it is really important to consider the psychological side, simply being kind and open with people. Food and wood helps relax their body, to smile helps relax their mind.
The shadows of the shelters keeps widening, and the wind moves big scattered clouds which at irregular intervals cover the light of the sun. Here comes Ranko, with his proud walk. He’s only 22, and speaks good English. I wonder how, so I ask him. “I’ve always loved cinema and books since I was a child. I learnt English by watching many times the same movies while I was in Kurdistan. Jane Austen is one of my favourite authors, and I love to read out loud Shakespeare.” Ranko has got a friendly attitude and a particularly good mood. He enjoys helping volunteers in the wood shed and even if he doesn’t look very skilled with the axe he looks really keen to learn how to split wood.
It’s just 34 days that he’s here, and, he tells me, 25 nights of which he tried to hide himself under or inside a lorry. He come closer to me and shows me some picture from his phone. “Look, this is me under the lorry, yesterday night. I took a selfie. And, look, this one was a week ago, I was under a lorry carrying bananas. It had a good plank to lie on, which was luxury. Usually I have to hold myself on really small axis.” At that point, a bit surprised, I stop him “Ranko.. sorry.. but.. why do you take selfies while you hide yourself under lorries!?” and he, laughing at me, probably because of my extremely astonished face, tells me, “because I’ve got an idea. I want to make a film about myself when I will be in the UK!”
I think Ranko is a special one. Probably because he is so young, probably because he likes Shakespeare, but his approach is absolutely admirable. I invite him to visit me at my place in Wales, and he, smiling at me “I’m gonna come, don’t worry my friend!”.
Working in a refugee camp often means to be outdoor the whole day. Sometime it’s hard, you have to deal 10 hours per day with the cold, if it’s cold, with the rain, if it’s raining, and with the wind, if it’s windy. Refugees experience it every day, 24-7. “where are human rights?” and “anyway I have hope” are some of the sentences painted on the outside of these wooden boxes where people live. They hope for a better tomorrow. In the same way, I really admire those who, in this desperate situation, also give importance to their present, by making a rotten shelter tidy and welcoming, by smiling with no reason, or by being creative and trying to find the good in everything that surrounds you.
There is a small bank of soil, which rises up a few meters above the flat area of the camp. I like to end my walk up there. There are also some refugees, not too far from me, staring at the horizon. From up here, every day, we can enjoy the sunset together, and the amazing colours that it sometimes makes.