Ordinary people putting their lives on hold to help refugees

Emily Commander tells the moving stories of three groups of people from different parts of the country who decided to do what they could to help.

22 December 2016
By Emily Commander

The Jungle camp in Calais made daily headlines on both sides of the Channel in the days and weeks before it was evacuated at the end of October 2016. 

But it was just the most notorious place in France where refugees fleeing conflict and deprivation ended up. 

Welcome to the Jungle

Everyone has heard of the “Jungle”, the sprawling makeshift refugee camp occupied by about 9,100 refugees according to a ‘census’ carried out by volunteers in September 2016, although this number is contested by the French government.

The camp was made up of an ever-changing assortment of refugees of all ages from some of the most troubled places on the planet. When they arrived, they were exhausted after travelling thousands of miles, sometimes on foot. Many saw it as a halfway house; a place to rest and regroup before beginning the next stage of their journey.

It was a source of political wrangling and controversy. Some of the town’s inhabitants said that it disrupted local businesses, and led to increased crime and social unrest.

The far right seized upon its presence to demand a reduction in immigration levels. Some argued that the UK should deal with it, since the final stated destination of many of the refugees was Britain. None of this, as volunteers were quick to point out, changed the grinding hardship of the daily reality of its inhabitants.

It was so large that it was difficult to see what meaningful difference anyone could make there. And yet, individuals of different political and world views from both the UK and France put their own lives on hold to try to improve the circumstances of the camp’s inhabitants.

Carpenter Alex Moran first visited the camp after meeting someone who was travelling there. It was winter. “The scene was apocalyptic,” the 37-year-old said. “There was thick mud everywhere and people were staggering around in it without shoes.”

The camp was built on an old landfill site so the mud was ‘quite toxic,’ said Alex. “It looked more like a third world slum than a refugee camp,” he said. “Everything was ramshackle and makeshift.”

Having thought he could only achieve a limited amount in a single weekend, Alex was struck by how much the volunteers accomplished: “People turned up and someone found them a job,” he said. “There was always too much to do and volunteers there barely had any time to rest, but somehow food got served, blankets distributed, and shelters, schools and places of worship built.”

The camp existed in a legal grey area, so it was difficult to set up effective permanent organisational structures, but two main volunteer associations – l’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees – and the refugees themselves managed to create some semblance of order. The camp was organised into zones based on nationality – there was an Eritrean area, a Syrian area, an Iraqi area, and many more. Each had own facilities and distinct national flavour.

Micaela Bogen, 23, a British volunteer who lived in the camp between November 2015 and June 2016, worked on the build team. She said it was an environment in constant flux.

In March 2016, refugees in the southern half of the Jungle were evicted and their shelters bulldozed. “We hoped it would not happen,” saidMicaela, “but we woke up one morning to riot vans, tear gas and rubber bullets.

“The refugees lost what little they had. We saw shelters that it took days to build demolished in an instant. You learn that nothing is really valuable and that you can’t hold on to anything.”

Before November’s orderly evacuation, when the refugees were taken to centres across France, forced evictions were only one of the difficulties the inhabitants faced. Fire ravaged the camp in May and destroyed not only shelters, but also supplies of tents, sleeping bags, blankets and hygiene packs stockpiled by volunteers.

In such a temporary environment, it took determination to keep on building. It also required skill, the right equipment and decent facilities. During his first two-day visit, Alex said he noticed that ‘the workshops in the camp were very basic and largely staffed by unskilled volunteers’. He saw an opportunity to make a difference: “I thought with a big, well-equipped workshop and some skilled labour in the UK, it would not be too difficult to build some basic structures.” On his return home, he launched a crowdfunding project to raise money to build wooden shelters that he could flat-pack and transport to assemble in Calais.

He was surprised by how easy it was to raise the necessary funding. “The scale of the project was modest to begin with but increased once we realised that we could raise more money,” he said. “I think people are wary of giving money to big charities because they don’t know exactly how it is spent, so they were grateful to be able to contribute to a tangible project.”

Alex and fellow contributors worked at evenings and weekends for months to make the flat-pack shelters: “Sometimes there were just three of us, and then progress was slow and laborious,” he said. “It was a huge commitment, bigger than I had realised.”

Nonetheless, in May, he was ready to transport six shelters, each capable of accommodating six people, to Calais.

Once on site, it took a day to assemble the first shelter. All six were erected in four days. As soon as they were built, the shelters were allocated according to a waiting list organised by volunteers. “The list always grew more quickly than the number of shelters,” saidMicaela.

Alex’s hard work – and that of those who worked with him - meant that 36 more refugees had shelter from the elements. “When people have nothing, the little that you can give has a disproportionally big impact,” he said.

Mothers’ love

Calais was always an obvious location for a massive makeshift migrant camp. Annecy is a less-obvious destination for refugees, and yet they also find their way to the Haute-Savoie town. Many come from Kosovo, Serbia, Albania, Angola, and Ivory Coast, having travelled alone or in family groups.

In 2015, a group of mothers was moved to send 2,000€ worth of clothing to a refugee camp in Austria by the photos of a drowned refugee toddler on a Turkish beach. Shortly after, the group realised there were refugees living much closer to home, and so turned their attention to those in Annecy. LakeAid was born.

Every year for 60 years, French law has observed a five-month period known as the “trève hivernale”. During this “winter truce”, which runs from November 1 to March 31, local authorities are obliged to offer additional shelter to homeless people at night. Last winter, in Annecy, the mothers who formed LakeAid discovered refugees were staying in a local shelter. During daylight hours they were obliged to leave the warmth of the shelter, only returning when night fell. On 1 April, they would be evicted altogether, and left to fend for themselves until the following winter.

At first, the mothers of LakeAid focused their attention on the refugee children living in the shelter, setting up a homework club between 6pm and 8pm on Mondays and Tuesdays each week.

Felicity Fallon, 43, founder of My English Family, said: “Many of the mums aren’t French, so we know how tough it can be to help your children with their homework when you don’t speak French perfectly yourself.”

As well as providing practical support, the homework club enabled the volunteers to develop relationships with the refugees. Gradually they became both friends and advocates of the people sleeping in the shelter.

Help with homework turned into donations of clothes and food, and soon a Facebook group was set up. “I think the Facebook group served as a wake-up call for healthy, wealthy expats,” said Felicity.

The group serves as a means to coordinate support for the refugees. Each week a list of urgently-needed items is posted, and members of the group add things here and there to their weekly shop to meet that need. “We have never all met up together,” said Felicity, “and some are more active than others, but we are all doing what we can.”

Although the group tries not to get involved in legal issues, as the March 31 expulsion date neared, members decided to try to help the refugees under threat of homelessness.

Without papers, the refugees are unable to leave the country or obtain accommodation via the state. “When the winter ends, the children end up sleeping in car parks, garages and playgrounds,” said Felicity. “My biggest fear is for the teenage girls, who are vulnerable to getting involved in prostitution in order to survive.”

LakeAid helped the refugees write an article in French telling their stories and explaining their plight. The children took copies to school, and their teachers handed them out to other pupils.

The document successfully garnered local support for the refugees, 60 of whom, including 40 children, felt emboldened with the support of LakeAid and some local associations, to remain in the shelter after the end of the winter truce. As Felicity said: “Officially, the refugees are squatting in the shelter, but to look at it you would never know: it is beautifully run and spotlessly clean.”

The shelter has since been sold to property developers, so the refugees are under threat of eviction at any time. “We’ll keep helping,” said Felicity. “We want to show the friendly, welcoming side of France, just as we ourselves were welcomed here when we first arrived.”

The refugees have extended their own welcome in response, cooking a delicious meal to eat with everyone who has offered them support.

One family at a time

Every French town of significant size hosts a largely ignored community of Roma migrants, often wrongly referred to by the derogative term ‘gypsy’.

Roma people constitute one of the largest ethnic minority groupings in Romania, comprising approximately 3.3% of the population in that country. In Romania, they face discrimination and economic hardship, the legacy of their slavery there, which only ended in 1856. Since Romania’s accession to the European Union in 2007, many Roma have been forced to travel west in search of a better life.

In Lyon, many Roma people end up living in one of several bidonvilles, shanty towns constructed out of rubble on the periphery of the city, or even in a neglected angle of a motorway junction. Without the necessary paperwork and often lacking the French language, it is almost impossible for these migrants to find formal work, so many end up begging on the streets.

Nicola Germain, 37, a quality of life researcher, first met Bianca sitting in Part Dieu station in Lyon with her young baby boy, Iacov, begging for money. Describing herself as having a “marshmallow heart” and disturbed by the plight of both mother and baby, Nicola approached and asked what they needed most: the following morning she returned with nappies. Nicola began providing regular support to Bianca, then 21, and her young family. This eventually led to a visit to Bianca’s “home” in a bidonville at Vaulx-en-Velin la Soie.

Bianca first travelled to western Europe as a teenager, following members of her family who had previously settled in Paris. She lived for a while in Spain, where her daughter Natalia was born, before travelling to Lyon in 2010. Unable to find work or a place to live, she and her husband were forced to do what thousands of other Roma people in Lyon do: build a shelter in a bidonville and to beg for money for food.

“Some people think that it is lazy to beg,” said Bianca, “but they should try spending an entire day in the cold on a hard floor to earn a single Euro, which is not enough to feed a family on.”

Bianca and her family lived in several bidonvilles, moving each time because of evictions, fire or violence. Conditions were invariably squalid: “there were some nights when I did not sleep at all because I was frightened that one of the huge rats living alongside us would bite one of the children,” Bianca said. Nicola described one bidonville she visited as being “covered by a thick sheet of mud”.

Despite the difficulties, bidonville inhabitants feel a strong sense of community. “Nobody will go hungry, because if someone does not have any food one day, a friend or relation will feed them,” Bianca said.

Nicola was also frequently impressed by the ingenuity of the shelters she encountered, which, though built from rubble, ‘often had curtains, or porches, or decorative touches’. “Visi has a real talent for building a house from nothing,” laughed Bianca. “He could be a master housebuilder!”

Over the years, Nicola has provided practical assistance to the family whenever she can.

Sometimes this consists of donations of food, clothing or money. Sometimes she has helped them negotiate labyrinthine French bureaucracy to get the children a school place or access to healthcare. Education has not always lasted long, partly because the family has been forced to move so often, but partly because living in a bidonville complicates the school run. “In a bidonville you have nothing,” said Bianca, “which means no alarm clock, no oven to cook breakfast, no running water to wash: everything takes much longer when you have no roof over your head.”

Nicola’s breakthrough came earlier this year when her representations on the family’s behalf finally led to them being granted a one-bedroom apartment in Vaux-en-Velin.

With an address, the children obtained stable school places. The family’s pride in their new home is palpable: they proudly show off their shared bedroom, which they have painted pink, and take pride in offering guests a seat on their donated sofa.

When asked what difference Nicola has made to her life, Bianca laughed: “Without Nicola, there was nothing. Every time we need something, she helps us out. It is because of her that we have a home to live in.”

Nicola is more modest about it: “Not many people in France have time for the Roma people. I do what little I can for a single family.”

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