David Tatham on behalf of Refugee Action, Hereford explains.
It was a bitterly chill November morning when the first group of Syrian refugees arrived at Birmingham Airport, destined for Hereford. Four families, thirty people in all, were met by members of Refugee Action, the NGO contracted by Herefordshire Council to settle in the refugees and introduce them to their new life in England.
Since then the new-comers have moved into their private rented accommodation and begun to make the arrangements for everyday living which all families in England know so well – appointments with GPs, with dentists, getting to know the shops and supermarkets, wrestling with gas and electricity bills. The children are all placed in schools in Hereford: to start with the focus is on English language tuition and they are reacting with enthusiasm. Helen Richardson, Refugee Action’s manager in Hereford, told me that the young Syrians are adapting with ease to their new environment and there have been no integration issues.
Basic to settling in is knowledge of English and the grown-ups have been equally enthusiastic about the English lessons which Refugee Action have provided. In addition, Harriet Yellin, who runs the Council’s Herefordshire Language Network, has trained up a team of Arabic language interpreters to provide skilled interpreting for interviews and visits to schools and doctors.
A further group of refugees from Syria is expected in the spring. We hope they will settle in as well as this first group have.
Two Ledbury people have just returned from 'The Jungle' in Calais and another refugee camp in Dunkirk. Conditions are beyond awful. People of all ages are living in abject, squalid conditions. There is much suffering. Here Natalie and her partner Doug share their experiences.
"Please forgive us."
The wood burner was now in place in the newly built community shelter in the Dunkirk camp in Grand Synthe (courtesy of the support group in Worcestershire that Ledbury Refugee Support has linked in with). It was time for us to leave and head back to our reality that we call home.
Over the course of the week, Ledbury Refugee Support managed to provide some comfort to the displaced people trying to survive in these horrific conditions - donation runs of much-needed warm clothing for men, women and indeed children and babies. Too many children and babies! Our food run managed to provide one meal for 49 people, including two families. An incredible effort and yet just a drop in the ocean.
There are around 1000 people in desperate need in this camp in Dunkirk. They are in need of the most basics in life. The desperation surrounds you and seeps into every emotion a human can feel. You can see it in the eyes of men, in the eyes of parents and the eyes of the children. You can hear it as you try to provide aid and you can smell it as people try to burn anything they can to keep warm.
A gentleman whose name we can not give, spoke to us before we were leaving. He spoke of the difficult life there and his wish to come to the UK to continue his studies. He was trying desperately to find blankets and sleeping bags for some new arrivals in the camp. He struggles to join the queues to get aid. "I’m sorry miss" he said. "Please give me things. Please forgive us"
Below is an account of our days in their reality they currently call home. Please read and please donate in any way you can.
Day 1. Calais
Hi everyone. Quick update for you all. We arrived at the warehouse at around 11am. We were asked what we had and when I said just blankets and sleeping bags, all labelled, we were loved. As our items were sorted and ready they went straight out with the distribution team. Al ot of people will be a little warmer tonight. Thanks to you!
We stayed in the warehouse today and I have to say it wasn't what I was expecting. We thought (perhaps naively) that there would be a strict efficient system in place. There is not. Believe me, this is not from lack of trying. There are too few volunteers with too much stuff. They really need volunteers. The mountain of unsorted clothes is very daunting to look at. The other side of the warehouse is also full of boxed items not yet sorted. They have to move that stuff into the one side of the warehouse in the next few weeks as the space will no longer be available. They need people and they need it now.
Because of the lack of volunteers or should I say the quick turn around of volunteers, orders of sorting and storing seem to get lost in translation. They don't have enough racking as it is for storage but the way it is being stored in the racking could be more efficient for them. As we both work for a manufacturing company, we are in a warehouse environment a lot (Doug more than me) we have expressed ideas to them and will discuss in more detail over the coming days. What's really great is they are open to any ideas that can make it a more smooth process.
Today we sorted one aisle of racking. It took a while but we managed to get it done before leaving for the day. Tomorrow we will be going to the camp as well as the warehouse. We have decided to go to the Dunkirk camp on Wednesday and they will be having some blankets we kept back as well as the boxed gifts and shoes. We will also be going to the supermarket and buying food for Dunkirk and making food parcels (probably in the car park). Dunkirk don't have a kitchen set up as yet.
All the people volunteering in the warehouse are lovely people but they do need more help. We need you to sort your donations properly before sending over. It is so important. Any bags that just say men or women on it get put with this mountain of clothes you see below. Refugees need aid now not in a few weeks when volunteers have managed to resort. Please please keep this in mind when donating to local drop off points. Item type, gender and size. Small sizes are needed.
Will update you all tomorrow after a visit to the camp… For now it's sleep time
Day 2 Calais
Hi everyone. Day 2 was mostly like yestereday in the morning. We sorted out another aisle of racking and overflow and we put a more firm system in place for the volunteers in the warehouse. We roped off sections, put red tape up on areas with rule lists for storing in the racking. Hopefully this will make it easier and smoother for them to find things when an urgent call is made. They have too many large items and I hope I never see another scarf again. Alas I will tomorrow!!
We were on a distribution team today, whereby we were driven into the camp in the back of a van filled with wellies and moon boots. Our job was to stand at the side of the doors and keep one queue. Anyone stepping in we were to direct them to the back of the queue. Spirits were high but also desperation was in the air which made us a little on guard, plus it was our first time. People were trying to cut in. Shouting (not aggressively) and showing us their wet useless shoes. They just wanted some boots. But all we could do was direct them to the back of the long queue. Knowing that by the time they get to the front they might be all gone.
People were tapping me on the shoulder from behind. Men and women asking questions about when they will next get a blanket. I didn't have an answer, apart from we will try and I’m sorry. One thing has really gotten to me. A young women in flip flops stood in the same puddle as me wanted some wellies. But all the wellies were men’s on this run. I explained that to her and she left. At the end of the distribution, back at the warehouse I noticed a pair of women's size 6 wellies in the van. I didn't know they were there. They shouldn't have been there. Both me and Doug felt terrible. All we could do was try shake it off and say, "next time!!"
I didn't manage to even attempt photos in the camp. We both were focused on the van and the queue and at one point we had to lock arms because people were trying to peer in and cut the queue. I can see how it goes wrong quick for people doing self distributions and what these guys do is really efficient and the best way. We didn’t have time to speak with anyone properly or even turn my head to look around. All I can say is the small area we saw and the desperation is just horrific.
Tomorrow we head to Dunkirk for a couple of days. We will be taking items of clothes from Calais to Dunkirk as Calais have too many women's clothes and large men’s clothes. We will spend time in the camp there. On Friday we plan to spend the day in the Calais camp getting to know people so hopefully we can get some photos for you then.
We bought a few supplies for the warehouse today such as bags, tape and rope. The rest of the money will be spent on food for Dunkirk camp.
There is a storm tonight. It's already started. Calais volunteers are rallying together and sorting tools and extra tents for the camp tomorrow morning. It will be needed I'm sure.
Will report in tomorrow.
Day 3. Dunkirk. All photos taken with permission.
This morning we headed out to Calais warehouse to load up with men’s jumpers, ladies’ jumpers and we took some of the blankets which Ledbury donated. Dunkirk has no charity presence really. The camp is literally on a housing estate in a field. We turned up but unfortunately there was no charity there to help us figure out the best way to get the donations out. We headed down the dirt track to the end. Got out of the car and locked the doors. We immediately had a lot of refugees surround us - wanting to know what we had.
As at the time no one was there to help distribute, we decided to adopt Calais camp approach. We formed a queue and handed out the items. It went well. We also handed out all the boxed donations that the Ledbury school made up. We explained before showing the boxes they were not shoes and they were wash kits. This too went well. They were very grateful for it.
Afterwards, we stood and chatted to a few people in the camp and quickly made friends with two families. One family had a three year old little girl the same age as my own daughter. The other family had a thirteen month old little boy. The mother is four months pregnant and very worried. I spoke with her for some time via her husband Ishram who translated for me. She wanted to know if breastfeeding her thirteen month old was ok with her being pregnant. I reassured her it was totally fine and to keep going. She was also worried that she hadn't felt the baby move yet. Again I reassured her that 4 months can be too early for that and not to worry. I spoke with her about signs to watch out which was more personal and assured her she was fine.
Her husband told me what she had gone through getting to Europe. It was heartbreaking. I asked him to translate that I thought she was incredibly brave and I admire her. She smiled and we hugged. Ishram is such a kind gentle person and had a presence about him. He told me and Doug some of his story. They are from Iraq and made the journey by boat to Greece. They were escaping Isis (although they have a different name for them) who had reached the town next to theirs and they were coming their way. So they decided to make the journey to Europe. I was told how terrified they were. The boat was crammed and people were vomiting and screaming and it was the worst thing they had experienced up until now. Ishram asked me to take a photo of his wife and child, which you can see below. I didn't photo his wife's face, only the baby learning to walk.
Their baby was scared of me. I was told he thinks I'm a doctor and he doesn't like doctors. Each time I went near him he started to cry. They took him to the doctors not so long back because he was poorly and the doctor took him away from his mum and dad to examine him. I don't know why they did that or if that is even allowed but it's clearly had an impact on him. He is crying in the photo but be aware this was because he was nervous of me and nothing more.
There was one young girl around 18 or 19 that was trying to get to Scotland with her sister and mother. Her grandmother lives there. We were repeatedly asked about our government and what the plans were. We were honest and apologetic.1
Lots of little kids were asking for "play games" I was told they wanted toy cars. So I added it to my list. We left for the supermarket and managed to purchase food for 49 food parcels. It was made up of chicken, pasta, tomato pasta sauce, chick peas, cooking oil and oranges. We took this list from the refugees. We also bought toy cars for the kids.
Heading back to the camp we knew distribution of the food was not going to go well. Everyone is starving and we only had 49. We called in Hafsa to help. (Will get to her in a minute). It was still difficult. Three of us against a lot of hungry mouths. It started well but quickly started going down hill. Kids at the front were getting crushed and we had to shut the boot twice and make people move back. Once the kids were ok and everyone realised we weren't going to open the boot again until they got back into a queue we distributed the rest. I kept two family parcel packs behind for Ishram and his family and the family they were sharing a tent with. Leaving Doug at the car I went to his tent and he came with me to collect them. He was so grateful and is looking forward to seeing us tomorrow. While Doug was at the car, people kept coming to him and asking for food saying they were hungry. All he could do was say no more. It's finished. He struggles with that.
Hafsa Sabr is a ray of light for these people. She is there every day taking people to her house for a shower etc., trying to help people in the camp in anyway she can. But she needs help. Volunteers are needed. Food and clothing is needed. Blankets are crucial. There is a family tonight with no tent due to the winds. She's trying to sort out a shelter and as we were leaving more new arrivals were coming in. It was all too overwhelming. She can't help everyone but she is making a difference and to us and the people in the camp, she is a hero.
Tomorrow we will be getting men’s jeans, some milk for an older child and pregnancy vitamins for Ishram’s wife, as well as children's clothes. A little boy about five or six kept asking me for trousers. He didn't understand I didn't have any. But he gave me a big smile and a wave as we were leaving. He was playing with his toy car.
Ledbury refugee support: you fed 49 people and 2 family's tonight. Thank you so much for the cash donations. It's really needed.
Day 4. Dunkirk and calais
Today we were so thankful to have teamed up with Elaine from the Malvern group. We headed back to the warehouse and loaded up with men’s jeans, belts and children's clothes. Elaine had blankets and sleeping bags. I also was given permission to take a six man tent and a ten man tent from the Auberge warehouse. We then headed to Dunkirk. Learning from our distribution the previous day we took one car in with blankets and sleeping bags first. As we arrived, there were vans there. Doctors without borders (Medecins Sans Frontiers) and a charity named Salem were feeding people. Both me and Doug were so happy.
We pulled up. A queue was formed and we handed out the blankets and sleeping bags. All went well. After, we spoke with Nicholas from Doctors Without Borders. He spoke of a warehouse opening tomorrow and the plans they had to organise distributions and get donations. It was difficult for me and Doug not to cry from happiness and I just hugged him. Elaine’s group had also brought toys for the kids. They distributed them and it was really nice to see them smile. Me and doug wondered around the camp giving bubbles to the young babies. It was pouring with rain and so cold that the parents were keeping them inside.
We then moved our focus to the men’s jeans and waterproofs that Elaine had managed to get her hands on. They were highly needed so we decided to not open the boot but open the side door. I climbed in and passed a pair of jeans with a belt to either Doug or Elaine and I would shout out the size. We managed to hand out all of them because for the bigger sizes there was a belt with them. I kept the waterproofs back and gave them to the new arrivals. The overhead ponchos were given to the children.
Kids clothes were next. Yesterday I posted about the little boy who kept asking me for trousers. I managed to find him some in the warehouse specially for him. He was there and he was so happy and so was I. I could finally say yes to him. He left. Then he came back and asked for some trousers. We had a giggle.
As promised, we also bought milk and pregnancy vitamins for Ishram’s family. We also had kids shoes and wellies that would fit his little boy. I kept them to one side until I could find him. Parents came up with their children and they were able to pick some clothes for their kids. We also managed to hand out baby blankets, which were greatly received. Once all gone, I went to find Ishram. He came to the car as did the other family he was living with. They shared the same boat and have been together ever since. We gave them the items. I bought four cartons of the baby milk they asked for as they were on special offer. They kept saying it was too much and they will just take one. They felt guilty that I was giving them four cartons of milk for their son. They too wanted to look after everyone else. I didn't know what to say. I told them to keep them but if they wanted too they could find another baby I hadn't managed to reach and give them one. It became time for us to leave. We got hugs and kisses and the little boy in the tent pictured below (the milk was for him) kept blowing kisses saying "I love you". I also managed to kiss the baby that was scared of me yesterday. We didn’t want to leave them and we will think about them everyday. Hopefully we will see them again.
The final picture of Dunkirk was taken. The picture is of Baireed at the entrance to the camp, holding up a peace sign. Baireed spoke with Doug a lot. He wanted us to take him to England. He spoke about how depressed he was which we won't post here with detail.
We moved onto Calais. It was late when we arrived. Darkness was coming in quick. It was pouring with rain, which made it so cold. We wondered around and there is so much going on. A group of people were moving a building. Doug got in and helped them carry. As did Gareth and Tricky who was with Elaine. It’s a desperate situation. I saw a man and women carrying a baby around seven months old. He was holding a bag over his family's head to try shield them. It really hurts to see. I can’t imagine having my baby in those conditions. No child deserves to be put in that place or even be born into it. A volunteer ran to them and at least we could walk past knowing they would be getting what they needed. There wasn't much we could do at this time to help. We were hungry so went to one of the restaurants. It didn't have a name. The food was amazing and everyone was so welcoming to us. The room we were sat in felt full of love.
Tomorrow we come home. But not until the afternoon. In the morning we will head back out to the Calais camp and see if we can help at all.
For me, I’ll forever remember the looks in people's eyes. You don't need to look around to see the pain. It's deep... And yet they smile. And Ishram, Ishram and his beautiful family.
For Doug, he will always remember the young man who ran up to him yesterday evening and said "I'm new, what do I do?!". Doug couldn't help. There wasn't any charity there to even point him in that direction. Also when people were asking him for food. But it had all gone. He will also remember Ishram offering me his family's umberella to walk around with and inviting us into his home to keep dry.
Tonight we will be video calling with my daughter. Give your children and loved ones an extra kiss and cuddle tonight. We have no idea how lucky we are.
Thank you all for your support with this trip and for everything you are doing. I will try for more pictures tomorrow.
Day 5. Dunkirk.
This morning we went to meet Elaine, Lawson, Gavin, Fraser and Tricky. We decided last night it would be best to spend our last hours at Dunkirk. Calais situation is terrible but Dunkirk is currently so much more desperate.
We loaded the car with men’s boots and jackets. On arrival I jumped in the back and we handed out in the same as the previous day. It went really well. We were feeling hopeful and happy and then a man came up to me with his four month old boy in a blanket. He had no more milk left. I went to his tent with him and he showed me what was left. Not even enough to last the day. They also had one nappy left. We found someone to help translate as I noticed on the box of milk they had was anti reflux. I have some experience of this as my own suffered from the same thing. The mother was breastfeeding but it seemed like she couldn't keep up and the anti reflux milk helped keep milk down. We had run out of funds but we went to the shops and bought a few boxes of milk and around 200 nappies. We also bought a new bottle that helps with colic. Baby was crying a lot.
When we arrived back I was walking through the mud and rubbish to their tent and the baby was really crying. She pulled the tent door back and she was breastfeeding him. A beautiful thing, surrounded by hell. Elaine was with me and she went back to the car upset.
Elaine, Gavin and tricky have done an incredible thing. This morning they picked up the huge wood burner originally meant for Calais camp. One thing that got to Elaine was that there was no communal area that everyone could go too and talk and generally feel safe. There is a building being built in Dunkirk (pictures below). The burner is big enough to heat the entire area. The people of Dunkirk will eventually have an area with warmth that they can all share together. They just gave a heart to a community. Truly amazing.
We are honoured to be working with you all.
See you in England