I am just back from spending a day helping volunteers and women in a refugee camp near Dunkirk, in the North of France.
I am in shock, and I am finding it hard to find the words to express the multiple layers of emotion this trip elicited.
I started planning for this trip months ago, before the summer, by collecting as many cheap or donated baby carriers as I could. I knew women would find it easier and more comfortable to move around using slings to carry their babies rather than their arms or pushing buggies over bumpy ground.
The opportunity presented itself at the last minute, thanks to a client giving birth to her baby earlier than expected, and me being off call, allowing me to accompany my colleagues on the trip.
I travelled with Maddie McMahon (and her teenage son Daniel), and Lindsey Middlemiss, who are both breastfeeding counsellors as well as doulas. Lindsey had already done quite a few trips to provide breastfeeding and infant feeding support to both women and volunteers.
In a human crisis situation, such as this refugee camp, is it extremely important for women to breastfeed their babies, because it is nearly impossible in such conditions to prepare formula feeds safely. So education on the matter is paramount (read this if you want to know more).
I went with the hope of helping women carry their babies more comfortably. I am a babywearing consultant and trainer so this is something I am skilled in and was looking forward to helping with.
I fully expected to see squalor and human misery, and to be upset by it, but I also hoped to see moments of grace, of human connection in the adversity. There weren’t any, really.
Mostly, I feel anger, shame, and awe.
Note: there aren’t any pictures of the refugees because volunteers asked us not to take any to protect their identity. Taking pictures was tricky anyway – the police accosted me whilst I was taking a picture and told me it was forbidden to take any (I wonder if this is to avoid the news of the bad state of the camp being publicised?), so we could only take them when no one was around.
I feel angry at seeing fellow human being treated like animals. In the La Liniere camp, based in Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk, families of 2 adults and 3 kids live in tiny, 6 square foot non-insulated wooden huts (see pictures below). They have a small fuel heater inside, but it cannot be used all the time, and people are cold at night. The huts are made of thin wood which hasn’t been treated and is starting to show signs of rot. It is damp, it is cold. The camp has basic toilets and shower blocks (squat toilets with shower heads above them), but again those buildings aren’t heated. Going for a wee in them was uncomfortable enough as it was freezing. I can’t imagine having to undress completely to shower.
The camp was built without any provision for food, community spaces, or anything else than those huts and toilet blocks. All the other buildings were all built by volunteers. The community spaces are very basic and again, unheated. I spent a day in the Women’s Center there (see pictures below) wearing lots of layers, a thick coat, hat and gloves, warm boots with wool socks, and I was still cold.
Yes I know this camp is an improvement on the previous muddy camp with tents that was there before (see pictures here), but it still doesn’t feel like bearable living conditions, especially for young children and babies. At the time of our trip we were told they were 9 babies in the camp.
Whilst I was there I saw the police arresting two men. Being French I could hear everything they said, and they were unkind for no reason. They were rough with the men they arrested, one of them made eye contact with me, and as I tried to convey compassion in my gaze, he said to me “I am not an animal”. The police and the camp guards’ body language I saw was superior and contemptuous.
The French association managing the camp, Afeji, provides guards and cleans the sanitary blocks but that’s it.
Everything else is in the hands of volunteers. Problem is, they are all very young (mostly in their early twenties, students on their gap year) and inexperienced. There is no NGO overseeing the whole camp, and they lack training, management and supervision. It was very obvious whilst I was there that there just aren’t enough volunteers to go around, and that they are mostly fire fighting because they aren’t enough experienced people managing or overseeing the whole operation. There is also a very high turnover of volunteers, so people learn to manage things their own way. This makes for a very chaotic place.
There is nobody providing support or mentoring for these volunteers as they struggle to manage the constant demands put on them and the mild conflicts happening all the time. On the morning of our visit, there was no electricity in the Women’s Centre. This meant that women couldn’t access clothes (stored in a dark container) or charge their phones (the only source of electricity being in that building), which led to frayed tempers. Some of the volunteers were close to breaking point.
There were lots of kids around, but not much for them to do. Some volunteers organised colouring and drawing, but there weren’t enough people to keep them occupied the whole time. They were eager to learn and some wrote series of numbers down, asking us to correct them. There is no official school at the camp.
The whole place was bleak, damp and cold.
I imagined myself trying to raise my children in these conditions and shuddered.
The people I spoke to had mostly come from Kurdish Iraq, had been there for months desperately trying to cross over to the UK. They told of harrowing experiences trying to board lorries illegally at night, risking their lives, with their children (including drugging babies to keep them quiet).
The women I saw and spoke to looked broken and sad, with dark circles under their eyes.
They were none of the moments of grace, of human connection I had hoped to see in the middle of the pain.
I felt ashamed of my native country for treating people like this. I felt ashamed of my resident country for not doing anything about it either. I felt ashamed of being both a French citizen and a UK resident, I felt ashamed that almost all the volunteers were British – where were the French volunteers when this is happening on their doorstep?
We took a trip to the local supermarket to purchase much needed milk and nappies for the Women’s Centre distribution centre. There I felt shocked at the contrast of luxury and warmth and people going about their week end shopping, oblivious to the crisis happening only a few miles away. There weren’t any collection boxes or anything like that at the supermarket. I couldn’t help but wonder if the local residents knew about this camp and just didn’t care, or if they simply didn’t know it was there.
This was the first time I became so acutely aware of my privilege, and I felt ashamed of it too.
When I finally came home in the evening, I felt ashamed of my nice warm house, which suddenly felt so luxurious and spacious compared to the conditions I had just experienced.
Despite the squalor and bad conditions, the small team of 30 or so volunteers manages to make do amongst the chaos and deliver hot meals to several hundred residents, twice a day, every day, as well as supplying essentials like clothes and toiletries. This is no small feat.
The various camps around the area are receiving supplies from a huge warehouse called L’auberge des migrants, which receives donations of food and clothing etc and has a huge group of volunteers running the operation.
All these people, who turn up and give their time and effort for cold and drudgery, for so little reward, is just amazing.
So what did we achieve?
We came to deliver breastfeeding support training and babywearing training but I could see from looking and talking to people that it was very likely that the volunteers we trained wouldn’t be there for long. They were very grateful for the learning though, as they had no idea that formula feeding was so unsafe in these circumstances.
Maddie and Lindsey trained the volunteers in the importance of exclusive breastfeeding and safe formula feeding. Most of the mums there mixed fed, and the volunteers had no idea for instance, that powdered formula couldn’t be prepared safely on the camp due to the lack of proper water heating and sterilising facilities.
I thought I would help the mothers wear their babies, and I did help a couple. Doing this I soon realised that with the language barrier, and with the cold and hurried atmosphere, there wouldn’t be time for the gentle and slow way I am accustomed to teach. It had to be very basic, and there was no time for my usual safety and ergonomics talk, and for the lovely gentle paced approach I am used to. It had to be sharp and straight to the point. The women I helped didn’t hang around.
When I got slings out of my bag, many women just grabbed carriers and disappeared with them straight away, so I didn’t have a chance to help them use them appropriately.
It also became very evident that the women there weren’t keen on the more comfy carriers I had, like Meitais, because they just didn’t know how to use them (neither did the volunteers), so they strongly preferred the high street type carriers that they recognised instead. It was a big lesson for me, because I am so used to steering away from these carriers. But here, given the circumstances, they might actually be a safer choice.
I quickly realised it made more sense showing the volunteers how to help the women so I spent some time showing them how to use the donated carriers they had, and also how to make an emergency carrier using a scarf. The volunteers were delighted because they had all these donated carriers but didn’t know how to use them. Again it had to be very quick (because our session with the volunteers kept being interrupted by women and children needing something), so there was none of my usual lengthy explanations. It was a very useful learning experience for me in being “straight to the point”.
Mostly I am trying to raise awareness about the plight of the refugees in the camp and see how best I can help.
I’m contacting French people to find out how much locals know about the camps and why there aren’t more French volunteers in the camps
I’ve been in contact with French people trying to find local breastfeeding support.
I’m going to keep on collecting baby carriers with a view to donating some more.
Maddie suggested I make laminated picture tutorials for the volunteers. It makes more sense because unless I can translate all the carriers instructions manuals into the various languages spoken by the refugees, it isn’t going to help much. I will do this and ensure the documents find their way to the Women’s Centre.
What can you do to help?
First, please share this blog or Maddie’s one widely to help raise awareness.
Second, please consider donating money- Lindsey has created an infant feeding team fundraising page
Third, please consider going and volunteer to help at the camp- you can contact the women centre here
Fourth, I will carry on collecting slings to send to them-if you have some you can send to me, I will gladly accept them.