The volunteers of Calais

In Calais, at the ass end of our sceptred isle, not a hop-skip over the channel from the White Cliffs of Dover, in the centre of Western Europe, is a floodplain upon which the huddled masses of North Africa and the Middle East have coalesced, and which has come to resemble a foreign country.


It is a vast expanse of sodden, soaking, gloopy, swampy land bristling with tents and shacks and caravans packed together like one of Brazil’s best favelas. Downtrodden men in torn jackets and ripped jeans from Eritrea, Syria, Iraq and a muddle of other countries slosh up and down the crude dirt paths, their sandaled feet mud-soaked. It is a pseudo-civilisation painted in graffiti: desperate English implorations to Cameron, quotations from the bottom of the Statue of Liberty, indiscernible Arabic, and a much-publicised picture of Steve Jobs in his iconic turtle neck, a bag of possessions flung over his shoulder. Within this microcosm of a foreign nation is an embryonic infrastructure: worried looking men and boys leaning on MDF counters, chickens rotating lazily on rotisserie spits behind them; smiling, kind looking women peering out from behind curtains further into the family section of the camp; fires burning in empty oil drums and hooded guys with smiles and rubbing hands huddled round damp planks that crackle and bubble black within; kids running out of the doorway of ‘Jungle Books’ – the library – with indomitable optimism in their eyes; and the plywood crucifix of the church standing erect, resolute over the tent points and the corrugated plastic roofs.


And although the people seem optimistic, insisting you needn’t pay for the tea they just made you, singing for you, sharing what pitiful shit they have; above, an oppressive grey lid of a sky bears down and a foreboding grey tsunami of clouds rolls by, and on the outskirts the silently flashing blue lights of riot vans are perennial. It is the people only that turn such a desolate wasteland, such a place of desperation and disgust, into something hopeful.


But enough has been written of the Jungle and its inhabitants, enough has been made of the poverty and enough journalistic voyeurism has been had.


A 10-minute drive from the camp is the warehouse of the charity, ‘Help Refugees’. It is a bustling bastion of solution and a testament to humanity within the drab, Soviet block housing of Calais and the endless roads speckled by lonely booze warehouses.


You walk in through the open double gates, and immediately the taste of a frenetic, joyful, furtive energy bombards one’s senses. Vans are backed up to the open mouth of the warehouse; high-vis guys and girls toss boxes out of them and trot them into the depths of the building, rotating round like a shimmering centipede, back and forth. A group of people stand off to the side sucking on roll ups and laughing and some girls run across the vista to the skip with a couple of black bin bags in their hands. There is purpose and meaning and drive in the air, but tinged with something you too rarely feel back in the City – friendliness, acceptance and collectivism.


To the right of the gates is a ramshackle MDF hut held together with nails and masking tape and topped with tarpaulin, and from within it a friendly looking hippie greets you. “Hey maaan; you guys new?” he asks; his tone pleasant, light and full of friendship. You say you are, and he gives you some forms to fill in. The hippies do bureaucracy apparently.


Once you’ve filled in your forms, the dude palms you off to someone else in an orange high-vis. There’s a hierarchy, you see: orange is a boss, yellow is a grunt.


She leads you into the cavernous warehouse. Past the vans ticking over are cages full to the brim with duvets and pillows and bed sheets – a few guys are sorting through them, removing whatever is stained or torn or generally useless. To the left is the break area, a couple tables where lunch is served, and beyond that the food: piles of tins and bags of beans and granola bars. But straight through forward is where prime time is. Below a cardboard sign demanding you wear a high-vis before going in (again, hippies do health and safety, apparently) is the entrance to a yawning chamber sectioned up by lines of massive metal shelving stacked with clothes and tents and sleeping bags and roll-mats and, down the far end, boxes of toothpaste and shower gel and shampoo and bandages and disinfectant.


The place is an ant colony: people stand over tables measuring the width of jeans and throwing them in the appropriate boxes, someone finds a pair of lacy women’s underwear in the pile and stuffs it in the charity shop crate; cages and trolleys are wheeled noisily up and down the corridors with bags of goods being taken to wherever they need to go; music blares from the speakers as a couple of guys throw bin bags full of clothes to the top of an Everest pile and, over in the corner, shoes get duct-taped together before being put in one of many size-labelled bins. “Mind your backs” is the echo and “where does this go?” the mantra.


At lunch a girl with a voice far too booming for her petite frame calls through the reverberating warehouse and a queue is formed as rice and beans and cabbage and coffee is dolled out into waiting bowls and mugs held aloft. People sit about, mill around, eating and chatting and discussing politics or TV or their plans.


The place is a maelstrom of diversity. Some of them are there for the weekend, professionals in PR jobs or the banking sector who felt it no skin off their nose to help out for a few days. Some are pure, unadulterated, unfiltered hippies with unwashed hair and who actually, thoroughly believe there should be no borders – because economics and the path of national development and international relations and resource disparity and cultural diversity can all be washed away with a hashtag. Some of them are just principled people who feel a connection to humanity and want to help, solely because they want to. Some were like me, there out of a mixture of curiosity and a feeling that our Governments are fucking up a long term plan and in the short term, were it not for the heroes that are those volunteers, those people in the camp, in disgusting limbo, would be fucked.


You see, whatever your politics – unless you’re a white-pride, Britain First troglodyte – you cannot deny that it is impossible to fault the people sacrificing their time and their jobs and, at least for the foreseeable future, their lives, to try and improve, at least fractionally, the situations of the desperate and the weary and the beaten.


When I sat in the local bar in the evening getting wasted, which was heaving with volunteers, I felt something I hadn’t expected to feel: an overwhelming sense of pride. To look around and hear so many British voices, as well as those of a multitude of other countries, and to know my compatriots had seen the undefended and come to defend them. To hear the passion and the urgency in their voices and to see them in the knowledge they were there to do a job, that they weren’t proving a point; they were there to try and dredge humans out of the shit and they were fucking well going to do it.


There is a dire situation in Calais. It is bearing witness to the fallout of man’s arrogance, it is suffering under the strain of human consequence, and the refugees there have felt the full force of governmental haymakers. But within it all, bursting through the gloom, there are the volunteers, and they are heroes with an utterly impressive organisation, and they need to be recognised.

5 thoughts on “The volunteers of Calais

  1. Transcript of a recent speech given by a resident of Calais, Simone Héricourt :

    “My name is Simone and I live in Calais. I am of Calaisian stock. My parents lived in Calais. Calais is my life. It’s where I grew up and I’ve always lived there.

    Calais used to be a very pleasant town. I used to love going on walks. We had tranquility and safety. There were always a lot of visitors, both in the summer and in the winter, even though God knows our summers are never that pleasant; the weather is never great here. But the place was alive.Some time ago refugees came to Sangatte. Sarkozy decided to shut down their squatting zone there, and the refugees arrived in Calais. At first, even I considered them unfortunate people, deprived of means and ill-informed, whom we could perhaps give some help.

    And I couldn’t tell you how it happened, but from one day to the next, we had thousands, thousands of migrants. Currently they number at 18,000 in what is called the Jungle. 18,000. It is horrible. They’ve downright made a city within the city. They’ve got a discotheque, businesses, schools, hairdressers… They even have… [pause] — I wouldn’t allow myself to say this, but I think you understand it concerns the needs of men. Of course.

    They’ve made streets. They’ve given names to these streets. They elected a mayor. [Audience expresses shock] Yes! The police cannot at all enter what they call the “Muslim neighbourhood.” It’s forbidden.Up to that point, we perhaps might have been able to endure this. But we can’t endure the unendurable, when we see riots taking place during the night, every day, constantly.

    They turn up in the centre of the town, numbering 2,000, 3,000, 4,000, all over the place. They smash cars with iron bars. They assault people; they even assault children. They rob and they rape. What we endure is unimaginable. They enter the homes of people, while people are at the dinner table, because they want to eat. They take what they want; sometimes they beat up the inhabitants. They steal what they want and smash what they can’t get. And when you defend yourself, the police get on your back [Audience expresses dismay].

    For a long time now the police refuse to register complaints. My own son got assaulted. He was out on a walk in the town center, listening to music on headphones. Someone tapped his shoulder and he turned around, thinking it would be a friend. Three “clandos” were facing him — excuse me, clandestines. He got hit on the head with an iron bar. My son is quite tough and managed to defend himself. So they got beat up.
    But then he heard noise on his side: thirty migrants were now going after him. Being bold but not suicidal, he fled. When I saw my son return home my thought was that they could have killed him.He isn’t alone. They assault kids on their way home from school, or on their way to school, to middle-school. They go so far as to get on school buses, with the kids.

    On January 23rd, they did a big riot in Calais. It was horrible. It lasted the whole afternoon and the whole evening. They went so far as to tag the statue of General De Gaulle. They wrote “Nik la France” on it [“Fuk France”, sic], with the ISIS flag underneath.

    What else can I tell you about what we endure? They demonstrate to protest the standards of the welcome they have received. But the more you give to them, the more they ask for. It’s never enough. Never, never. When we cross their paths, it’s always “give money”, “give phone.” And if you don’t give, you get beaten up. And don’t count on the police to help you. As I said, they don’t even register complaints anymore.

    When we want to demonstrate, the police get on our backs. When we get assaulted, they tell us at the police station: “What do you want us to say; they all look alike. There’s nothing we can do.” I promise that what I’m telling you is the truth.

    I used to love going to visit what I call my son’s tomb: the sea. I lost my son and we dispersed his ashes into the sea, in accordance with his wish. One evening I asked my husband to take me to my son’s tomb, because I needed it. This is something I can’t do anymore. Merely crossing the town centre of Calais during the evening means exposing yourself to danger. As soon as it starts getting dark, it gets dangerous. I can’t go where I used to like to go anymore. It’s not possible anymore. I’m scared. And there are many of us like this in Calais.

    What I also don’t understand is the attitude of the Calaisians. Yesterday again there was a demonstration. There were perhaps ten people from Calais participating. Where were all the others? Fear does not steer us clear from danger. The Government has abandoned us. They’ve decided to doom Calais. If we from Calais don’t react to this, all the migrants in France will end up gathered here, and we’ll be done for; we’ll be dead. The Calaisians are like sheep. I don’t understand them. Yesterday I participated in this demonstration. I was in the middle of it, with my husband, with my son, with friends. General Piquemal was there [Long round of applause].

    After what I witnessed yesterday, I could not sleep, because I kept reviewing those scenes in my mind. The television, radio, and newspapers haven’t said what happened there. We saw him get arrested and mistreated like a racaille [street thug].
    The man is a French icon; he deserves the respect owed to his rank, and he got treated like a racaille. They manhandled him to the ground and a policeman placed his boot on his neck. We saw it happen; I promise as I stand before you. Then they picked him up and dragged him; his feet weren’t even touching the ground. And then they charged us of course.I was lucky, because my husband, in a clever move, took us behind the vans and the water guns of the CRS [riot police]. Otherwise they would have detained us and I’d still be in jail today. And what offence did I commit? I had come there. I had come to protest the massive and invasive immigration we are subjected to.

    Do you realize that local shops have lost between 40 percent and 60 percent of their business? Before this, Calais used to be thriving, lively, gay. Foreigners would always come during the summer vacation time, and during the end of the year festivities. Today, nothing is left of that. Nothing.The shops in the town centre have shut down, one after the other. Calais is a dead city, because of the clandestines we have there. When they descend upon the town armed with iron bars and even Molotov cocktails… Yes, they were caught fabricating those… I don’t understand why they don’t get punished for that.

    Why do the police let them go so quickly, when they catch them? [Round of applause.] If we, the French, the Calaisians, step out of line, we immediately get detained and subjected to interrogation. We have no rights left. Let’s also talk about Natacha Bouchard. [The audience boos.] I call her the snail, because she has gotten fatter and fatter since she became mayor. She has done nothing for the inhabitants of Calais.

    She received millions of Euros of help destined to support the local economy. The first thing she did with that money was to build containers to house the migrants. And those containers did not even come from Calais, they came from Brittany.

    The only jobs she created in Calais, and I know this through a friend who was offered such a job, were fifty long-term positions to clean up the migrants’ refuse in the Jungle. Those are the jobs offered by Madame Bouchard. She has banned me from her Facebook page, so I can’t leave comments there anymore. She doesn’t like me. The feeling is mutual. [Audience laughing.]

    As Pierre said, I’m not an intellectual. I didn’t get a higher education. I lost my father at a young age and had to stop school early in order to help with the business.
    But that doesn’t mean I’m an idiot. I see what’s going on and I know what I’m talking about. We live under it every day.

    There’s been a new development recently: the No Border activists. They are the worst racaille on the face of the Earth. They are the ones inciting the clandestines to riot in Calais.
    It’s even worse than that. They post themselves across the town and coordinate riots using walkie-talkies.

    I’ve seen the CRS [riot police] give ground to the migrants. That made me weep. I felt this wasn’t normal. We’re at home. This is our country, our town. The migrants should have been the ones retreating, not the CRS.

    Why are they demonstrating? They want 2000 Euros pocket money per month. [Hilarity among the audience.] I don’t have that, personally. They want a car, and also a house, naturally.

    So let’s talk about housing. Madame Bouchard has expelled people in Calais from their homes because those were situated in the Dunes area, close to the Jungle.

    Indeed this proximity meant that they were being robbed and beaten on a regular basis. So she expelled them, even though they were paying their rent.I myself am being thrown out of my house next month. My house is being confiscated, even though we’ve always been honest people. It would be too long to explain. A court decided to sell the house, even though we’ve done nothing wrong. My husband is suffering from cancer, but that doesn’t change anything. The French must be crushed and thrown out, their property seized to make room for the racaille intent on colonizing us. [Round of applause.]

    The racaille, we are being told, will be a source of cultural enrichment for us. But I wonder where their cultural wealth is. If what we need is to wreck, destroy, steal, and rape, and this is the short version, well then the French are quite able to do this on their own. You just needed to ask us. [Round of applause.]

    I speak with my heart and my words.”


    • I can’t comment on the veracity of this speech, only to say that I didn’t witness anything like that when I was there. But taking it all as true, it is sad and it makes me angry. The needs of the French citizens need to be balanced with the needs of the refugees and, indeed, there is an argument to say that the needs of the French citizens outweigh the needs of the refugees. But this post wasn’t meant to be political and it wasn’t meant to be an argument that the French people are bastards and they need to help the refugees more, I would have no right to make such an argument, whether or not I agree with it. The article was meant, solely, to highlight the work the volunteers do while our governments fumble with a long term solution.


  2. The speech is available on YouTube. Painful to watch a deeply upset working class lady whose life has been destroyed by the new arrivals & their bestial behaviour. And she’s not even a white-pride, Britain First troglodyte…….


  3. Not sure about the speech thing… I go through Calais a lot and I’ve virtually never even seen a fugee in town! So I’m not really sure where it came from.. Wouldn’t be surprised if it was just Le pens propaganda working??


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