Archers Marquees employees volunteer in refugee camp in Dunkirk

Both vans were packed up on Friday with donated clothes, food and some building materials. All of which we got from local people in the Radstock and Frome areas. Thank you so much for your help.

So on Sunday morning we set off at 5am, five men in two vans with absolutely no idea what to expect at the Dunkirk refugee camp.

Our first stop, after the ferry crossing from Dover, was to the Help Refugees (www.helprefugees.org.uk) warehouse somewhere on the industrial outskirts of Calais. It had taken us 3 and a half hours to navigate the width of England. It took us a further 3 hours to move about 5 miles from the Calais ferry port to the donation warehouse. The city is riddled with one way streets and aggressive fences, which lean their curling barbs out towards the sea. Essentially, the local government has built a maze within a city.

After a while our contact in Dunkirk gave us a call, asking what was taking us so long.

“That’s the wrong address,” he said. “You need to go in completely the other direction.”

Well at least we all knew Calais inside out now!

At the warehouse the smell of cooking filled the air as we reversed the van into the depot. Volunteers of every shape, size and nationality greeted us with smiles, forming a chain and shovelling off the donations to their correct shelves. It was surprising to learn that the refugees don’t ever eat pasta, so we kept hold of ours. Even more surprising, though, was the tight, albeit rudimentary, organisation of the warehouse. Colored signs hanging off-center from plastic drawing pins directed us to the right sections, inside a warehouse the size of the Radco Cooperative. People in high-vis jackets, with thick rimmed glasses or brightly colored trousers milled around like rainbowed worker ants.

There are specific shelves for yeast and marzipan, and a whole row for kidney beans. The refugees love to eat kidney beans. The volunteers loved the pallets and canvas we brought.

“Thank you so much guys,” a crisp-thin Englishman said. “This canvas will be perfect at the ‘Jungle’ Camp in Calais. You won’t be able to use it in Dunkirk though because they have built a new camp and there are lots of rules and regulations.”

Rules and regulations at a refugee camp? Turns out he was right.

Our first day in Dunkirk was spent building temporary structures, which was obviously not the worst thing in the world for us. Rather than beams of aluminum and canvas, though, we were using big boards of laminated MDF, which had long batons of wood screwed into the sides. Four of these boards was enough to build an ‘extension’ at the side of the wooden huts already on the camp. Really they were porches, used to store shoes and food, creating some space in the main huts which are just 9m squared. The size of a modest garden shed. The building process wasn’t too bad, and was a bit like putting together flat-pack furniture. Luckily there wasn’t a Swedish instruction manual to confuse us, just a lumbering French carpenter, Julien, who wore his all black uniform and a felt cowboy hat. He was a nice guy and basically just let us get on with it after that first morning.

As we worked, the refugees, almost all of whom were Kurdish, walked along the main drag of the camp, heading to nowhere in particular but trying to keep busy. Young men cut each others hair, others shaved themselves in cracked mirrors, and we even saw a short man dressed in a Manchester united shirt threading his friends eyebrows. Suddenly you realise that these people just want to live a life as they did before. That the basics of food and medicine are vital but so are sunglasses and nice shoes, leather belts and hair gel. Normality in an alien place.

Hopefully, with the new porches we built, a small part of normality was returned to a small number of refugees, but of course the job is a huge one. Some of us are already considering going back, armed with sports shoes, conditioner and other items that are as vital for confidence as food is for sustenance.

Ryan Child

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