What prompted you to start the charity, at the age of 45?
It was a bit of an accident. My life beforehand was totally different. I’m an accountant and was working in a corporate environment where you work really hard and it was very competitive.
I was totally unaware of the refugee situation and I knew nothing about world events and politics. I lived at home with my husband in Liverpool and one Saturday morning, I read something online about refugees drowning in the Mediterranean.
I thought that didn’t make sense because obviously all these countries in that area have lifeboats and navies. I tried to find a charity to donate to and I thought it was even more strange I could not find one.
While I was Googling, I found out about a small group going to Calais to take supplies to refugees that had come from the Mediterranean.
I decided to go.
What happened then?
When I went into the camp I got the shock of my life. I had never seen anything like it. You don’t expect to see that in Europe.
People just living in tents and shelters made out of wood on dirty bits of sand. I remember a man coming up to me and asking for a few crisps or biscuits because he was really hungry.
Then another man came with a baby in his arms and said, ‘Will you take my baby? She’s a really good girl. Please take her’. I was horrified. I drove home the next day and tried to explain it to my husband, but I couldn’t.
I waited until Wednesday and said ‘I’ve got to go back’. I packed a little backpack with a spare pair of jeans – and five years later I am still here.
Was it difficult for your husband?
It was very difficult because I literally walked out and didn’t come back. He would phone me and ask how long I was going to stay. I didn’t know. I had no plan, but I couldn’t walk away and leave these people.
But my husband is amazing, really amazing. He has supported me through it and the charity has cost us a fortune.
What was your first idea?
I really didn’t understand the political background. All I thought was, we’ve got to get some food and blankets and keep these people alive.
I thought somebody important would come and fix it. I really thought this was a temporary thing. I never dreamt I would find out that governments don’t care. It was a massive learning curve.
You arrived with nothing; you didn’t speak French, so how did you set up the charity?
First, I met a guy who used to be a warehouse manager for Tesco and he said to me a warehouse was what we needed.
People were coming from England and just dumping their donations outside the camp. It was really wasteful and it was not always getting to the right people.
So we got a warehouse and within three weeks it was full and we had 60 volunteers. They wanted to help and were waiting to be told what to do. The whole thing needed project management and from my corporate experience, I knew how to do that.
The situation was desperately crying out for the exact skills I have. So I would say ‘you stop doing that and you go over there and let’s have a system for this’.
I had to learn social media fast. I worked all day in camp and at night I posted on social media with what we did and didn’t need, and how to get it to us.
When you started how many people were living in what was called the Calais jungle?
I arrived in September 2015 and there were about 6,000.
It was the year it just went crazy. In April 2015 there had been 400 and by the autumn it had grown massively.
There were lots of volunteers turning up. But what they wanted to do was find five or six refugees, make friends with them, find them everything they needed, and get a really good feeling from it. But that means 30 volunteers are only helping around 200 people.
With a system in place those same volunteers can help 6,000 people.
Volunteers don’t really want to load 400 sleeping bags in a van and come back later and put 400 jumpers into a van and go out again and put 400 pairs of jean into a van.
So I had to be quite strict with them and say you’ve got to think about what we’re trying to achieve. It wasn’t always popular. It was difficult, but it was very, very necessary.
For how long were there so many refugees?
It kept creeping up until 2016 when there were around 10,000 and then came the announcement they were going to close the camp and some started to leave.
By the time it was dismantled in October 2016 there were about 7 or 8,000. The previous evictions earlier in the year were really quite violent but by October we had learnt how to manage it and it wasn’t as bad.
What is the situation now?
For a year it has been constant, with numbers around 1,000.
But, the last few months have been really gruesome because so many more people have been crossing the Channel.
I just don’t have words for how brutal and inhumane I think both the British and the French governments have been. There have been multiple forced evictions.
They have been cutting down the trees so people can’t hide in them anymore. They have actually banned food distribution in the town. Charities are fighting this decision in the courts. We’re in Europe. It can’t be right to say you can’t distribute food. I keep thinking it cannot get worse, and then it does.
Where do most people come from?
It changes all the time. At the moment the largest group comes from Sudan. We have got quite a few Syrians and Iranians. In Dunkirk there are quite a few people from Iraq. There are Afghans and Eritreans. A couple of Ethiopians. Some from Yemen. They are nearly all fleeing conflict, other than the Iranians who are escaping persecution.
We get a lot of families from Iran and Iraq and some from Syria but they are mostly men. Sometimes families are given social housing but never the men.
There is a cold plan – so that when temperatures drop below zero for more than two nights they have to open emergency shelters. But as soon as the temperatures go up again, they are back outside.
What do you think is the solution?
Personally, I think the UK should take them but that they should process them here at the border with the UK in Calais.
If they have a right to asylum they should let them go to the UK legally. Then these people would not have to risk their lives on a boat or in a lorry.
They are just ordinary people who have probably never broken the law in their lives and suddenly have to do this dangerous, illegal journey. They don’t want to. If there was a way for them to avoid it, they would obviously take it.
France takes far more refugees than the UK.
People in the UK don’t understand the situation, and I probably wouldn’t have done so if I hadn’t come here. Also, many think the people in Calais do not have a good case.
In fact, in September, evidence given to the Home Affairs Select Committee into Channel crossings, migration and asylum-seeking routes showed most of the people who have crossed in small boats in the past year are likely to get refugee status either in the UK or another European country.
What is a typical day like for you?
It is crazy because I am doing three jobs at once.
We have started working in the UK now as well with newly arrived refugees so I am running that remotely as well as the French charity, and we have started a legal arm helping people get access to legal advice in the UK.
Our normal routine is to spend mornings in the warehouse to sort out items for distribution. In the afternoon we go out with the refugees. We deliver the aid – food packs, clothes and sleeping bags. But we also do activities with them because the mental trauma is a really big deal and getting them through the horrors of being in Calais is hard.
We do things like giving them haircuts, English lessons, mobile phone charging, games like football and volleyball, cards and dominoes. We talk to them and have tea and biscuits.
We just try and spend a bit of time with them to let them know someone cares. We take out our sewing kits and mend their clothes if necessary and that is a really nice one because it is a really good way of saying, you matter, and that not everybody sees you as a nuisance.
They can quickly get dehumanised because they know they are not welcome. We get a lot of depression and self-harm and even suicides.
In the evening I do phone calls with groups and people we want to work with all over the UK, and all the tasks necessary to keep the charity running.
Do you always need more volunteers?
Yes, we do. We have about 30 in Calais, the same in the UK logistics team plus five hundred all around the UK working with refugees when they arrive.
Right now we do need more people in Calais. Confinement means people have to stay for at least a fortnight, which is more difficult because before people often came just for a few days.
I think there are plenty of people who want to come but it is always difficult to make that happen.
Are there other ways to help?
In the winter our priority is coats and waterproof boots.
The police take away their sleeping bags and tents again and again, but at least the refugees will hopefully still have their coats to keep them alive. We have seen people wearing three at a time.
There is a map on our website of places where you can drop off items for us. Most are in the UK, but there are five in France.
Do you have any stories of any of the refugees that have particularly marked you?
The ones that are hurting me right now are the Syrians who have been deported by the UK and have come here to go back to the UK to try again.
I met an older man from Syria the other day and he told me he was politically active when the war started and he was put in prison.
He said he was put in a really small room with 45 other men. They could stand but there was not enough room to sit or lie down. He was kept in that room for weeks and they would take them out and torture them every day.
He showed me the scars on his body. He finally managed to get away and he travelled across Serbia, where he said horrible things happened to him, and all across Europe. He got to the UK and they deported him.
They get put in a detention centre and it is a horrible process. He said to me that he didn’t care anymore and he wanted to give up and die. But he can’t because his wife and children are living in a tent in a refugee camp in Lebanon and he is the only hope they have got.
What do you feel about the future?
I just have to keep going because I do not see it getting any better at the moment. I have no alternative.