We arrived home from the Grand-Synthe refugee camp on the Wednesday at around 10pm, tired both mentally and physically, and generally a bit overwhelmed by the whole experience.
There’s no question it took a few days to get used to being back at work, putting up marquees in the south west of England.
Not least because our time for the three days before, in northern France, was spent building extra space for refugees to live in, witnessing more than 1,500 displaced migrants coping with day-to-day life.
The facts of the matter, though, have been covered and you have heard about what we got up to here, www.archersmarquees.co.uk/archers-marquees-employees-volunteer-refugee-camp-dunkirk/ So now is probably a good time to share some thoughts we all had about the experience.
- Work is Slow
When we put up wedding marquees the day starts at 6 or 7 am, usually at a fast, well-directed pace. At the refugee camp, however, the direction is steered by volunteers with little or no experience. So on the first day a few of us were left wondering when the ‘real work’ was going to start. Of course, the slow pace is justifiable, considering that some volunteers are staying for a long time and so weren’t in quite as much of a rush as us. By the second day we had a much better idea of the pace people worked at, which we countered by loading the materials we needed as soon as we arrived, working as a unit to put up as many ‘porches’ as we could throughout the day. Our best was thirteen.
- All is not as it seems
It’s difficult to fully explain the inner workings of the refugee camp, although it couldn’t be more different than the straightforward (most of the time) process of erecting a marquee. We heard rumors of gangsters selling the cabins to vulnerable families that had travelled from Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan. So the very work we were doing was being exploited, somehow. Our average days are spent systematically building clearspan or traditional marquees for weddings and birthdays, and here we were hearing stories about how our work in northern France was being taken advantage of by criminals. All rumors, of course, but a reality check in terms of understanding the sheer desperation and exploitation that clouds the atmosphere at Grand-Synth and other refugee camps.
The first interaction any of us had with a refugee was when a small Kurdish man asked Alex for his sunglasses. And that kind of summed up, or at least distilled the idea of what these people want. A normal life. They have the basics covered at the Grand-Synthe camp, much as we do with our lunches and uniforms here at Archers Marquees. What many of the migrants really want are the little things that make their lives normal, as they were at home, like hair gel, football trainers and sunglasses. Maybe worth a think if you are planning on donating to the cause.
- Real Gratitude
The people we helped were gracious, helpful and showed enormous gratitude. Our effort, as five men from a marquee company in the southwest, was small but hugely appreciated. And it’s the smiles that tell you. On our first day we dug out some tiny blue wellington boots for a tiny Iraqi boy, out of our big white van. He wore those boots like they had been glued to his feet, showing them off and playing football around us for the entire time we stayed.
In the same area, not far from the entrance, we started up a cricket match on the first night. The field was set as the light faded, and Abdul had taken the crease, faced up by the spin bowling of Alex. Israel covered the stumps at wicketkeeper. Paulus and Liam crouched in at Slip, while, predictably, I had taken up position at Silly Mid Off. The first few balls hit the unpredictable gravel surface, falling safely for no runs. Then, on a pitch surely uncompromising to the batsman, Abdul connected with slog of verve and youthful exuberance, ditching his usual temperate style, to release the makeshift boundary from its services in glorious fashion. The crowd of about three cheered. During the next two days Abdul smiled at us every time we passed his 2.5m X 4m hut, raising his hands like his hero Sachin Tendulkar famously would.