“Day trip to Calais” –
So I have just got back from Calais – a trip to the refugee camp. I get out of bed a little slower than normal as I have given myself a day off after what I thought would be a harrowing and exhausting experience. I have a shower and as I take the various products necessary to do this one by one I realise how easy our lives are, how much we take these things for granted. I go down stairs and take two eggs from a basket and fry them for a late leisurely breakfast which I eat in the peace of my own beautiful greening garden. How easy that was. I sit and contemplate my experience in “the jungle” at Calais and realise that we have a very easy life here, which many do not really appreciate. There is no anxiety, wondering what the day will bring, worrying about aches and pains or illness that I cannot deal with as I have no medicines or creams. I am safe in my garden, welcomed home by my husband and awaiting the return home from school of my children. I may not know what to cook for dinner but I know I will cook something and there will be no problem buying the food I need to cook it. There is no price that can be put on that simple security we feel every day.
To be quite honest I was dreading my trip to Calais. I had signed up to the Homeopaths for Refugees cause in a rash moment of willing enthusiasm – something I do all too often – only to reconsider my decision and wonder if I really had it in me to deal with what I had heard was a harrowing situation across the Channel. I had been camping in the mud before, at festivals, and I knew how grim it could be, even for just a couple of days with friends and a few beers, so I had every sympathy for those who had been there for months, with no friends and no idea how much longer they would be there. I also knew that just one day would be hard in such conditions and had been told of the camps at Dunkirk, a mire of deep mud, human faeces and rats. A couple of people couldn’t come due to family problems and I wondered if I too should drop out as my children were struggling with exams and I felt bad leaving them to deal with everything as I headed off to help others.
I couldn’t drop out though – once I have committed to something that is it, on top of which people had donated a lot of stuff for me to take over with me – Weleda had donated over £600 worth of products to take and other people had kindly gone out and bought hygiene products in bulk for me to take.
I stayed the night before at a friend’s house and was picked up at 7.30am by Tim Lloyd a fellow homeopath who I had never met before, and en route to the Channel Tunnel at Folkestone we got chatting about our backgrounds and our journeys into homeopathy. He is ex RAF, and the Vice Principal at the College of Practical Homeopathy who has been to the Dunkirk refugee camp once before and has also volunteered at the Botswana homeopathy project for a few months. At Folkestone we hooked up with 6 other homeopaths, Nikki Redmond, who had co-ordinated the trip and Mary Ellis, Lindsey Puddifant, Helen Allen, Sian Collister and Anjali Hariharan.
I was a little anxious at this point as now there only remained the half hour tunnel between me and whatever I was to face at the camp. As we drove onto the train my imagination shocked me with a terrible vision, the long metal cargo train suddenly became a transportation train from Nazi Germany travelling to a Concentration camp – I felt sick and berated my imagination, but couldn’t help feel that some part of my psyche was tapping into the refugee status in all of us.
I had been warned not to drink coffee as the toilets in the camps were dire and to try to avoid a visit to them at all costs. This was a particular issue for me as I find that I tend to get the urge to visit the toilet even more when I am anxious!! A part of me was becoming increasingly excited however as I do have experience of visiting poorer areas of the world and always been rewarded by them – I worked at a Street Kids Charity in Colombia years ago, lived in Peru and have also visited India on a few occasions – so I felt equipped to deal with that side of things. As ever it was the unknown that was the root of my fear.
As we drove off the train and into Calais to find the refugee camp I was warned that the French police could sometimes be aggressive and to tell the truth this was the thing that I feared the most. I find that some people in such positions when given a uniform or a little power can enjoy using that in order to offset whatever lack of control they may have over the rest of their lives. We were lucky today though as we just drove straight into the camp without being challenged. The sun was shining and I couldn’t help feeling lucky as I had arrived on a pleasant day in May instead of one of the more grim, cold and rainy days of previous expeditions.
As we drove in I was instantly struck by the many little “shops” that had been set up selling basics such as biscuits and small bags of oranges as well as one advertising 2 Tandoor Naan for 1 Euro!! These were basic structures built of scavenged wood and tarpaulin and I immediately felt like I was in the poorer areas of India or South America once again – I felt quite at home!
We found a small caravan marked “First Aid”, one of three, where Doctors and Paramedics based themselves and met a Medical Herbalist called Catherine who had been in the local hospital all night with a couple of the refugees. She briefed us on the main complaints in the camp which were Hepatitis A, Active Tuberculosis, Scabies and general trauma from accidents trying to board lorries and fights etc. We also met a paramedic called Ben who was here on a week’s annual leave from his day job! Everyone was in good spirits and it seemed there were plenty of medics that day and no room in the First aid caravans for us so we left some supplies of Honey and Herb Cough elixir, Arnica balms and body washes and Skin Food which had been donated by Weleda and went off to find another possible base for our mini-clinic at an “Ashram” that Helen knew of.
Little Ashram was more of a tented kitchen – the sort you get at festivals – cooking up healthy balanced meals twice a day. One group of three homeopaths went off to do outreach work in one of the family areas with women and children who are rarely seen out and about. In the meantime we got our remedy kits out, as well as our posters to explain homeopathy in English and Pashto. It was very helpful to have the posters in Pashto – translation was kindly sent by the Afghanistan Homeopathic Medical Association who we found on Facebook – this helped to reassure some of the refugees who were suspicious of any strange medicines and wondered if we may be using them as guinea pigs. We were however able to assure them that what we brought was entirely natural and would not lead to any harmful effects and of course there was no obligation. Some still asked for Tramadol and other painkillers but most were very happy to try the remedies we provided, once again alongside the cough elixirs, Skin Food and Arnica that we had.
I went on this trip to find out for myself exactly what the Calais Refugee camp was really about – to meet the people and talk to them, to find out their stories and get a sense for myself of what this place is all about. We were welcomed with open arms mainly – people grateful for our care in a place that does not recognise their refugee status and therefore has no established voluntary organisations going in, other than Medcins Sans Frontieres. This was part of the reason we were able to go in as homeopaths and as such I was grateful for the opportunity, however I wonder how organisations and governments can turn their backs on what is a humanitarian area of need. Without the input of casual committed volunteers this place would be a mess. It did not seem to be so however and through the tireless work of several volunteer groups they are able to provide some sort of structure, food, medicines and other essentials.
I met a lovely young man from Syria, N, who told me his name meant “Unique” or “Special”, and as he told me his dreams of joining his cousin in England having left his family in Raqqa. I told him to hold on to his name and remember what he had been given by his family and to take it forward with him. We are now friends on facebook!! We met a lovely unassuming guy called J, also from Syria who acted as translator for us as we were overwhelmed with people asking for help with their various illnesses – mainly flu like symptoms –aching bones, fevers, coughs and chest problems – some of which were highly indicative of the trauma they held in their bodies. We also treated many people with Scabies, giving them remedies and creams that had been prepared beforehand.
Another Syrian with his rucksack on his back and a smaller one in hand looked ready to leave at any moment – well kempt, and intelligent looking with glasses – it was hard to believe he had been in the camp for 10 months and hard to see how he would get any further with such a gentle smiley demeanour. I was told that there were actually very few, Syrians in the camp – about 150, as most had headed to Germany and the majority of the camp here were made up of those from Afghanistan, Sudan and Eritrea. One young boy named W, from Afghanistan, had met Nikki and some of the other homeopaths before and it was lovely to see them reconnect again.
Many of the men I met seemed to be on a last ditch effort to make something of their lives, having given up on their homeland, they were seeking opportunity elsewhere. Whilst some may be entitled to refugee asylum status it was obvious that others probably wouldn’t be. However, whatever their situation it seems to me that you would have to be pretty desperate to exile yourself in such a place in the hope of a better future, and this fact should not be ignored. Another thing that struck me was that these people were ripe for abuse on so many levels – we had heard stories of 274 children going missing from the camps recently and, whilst we obviously had good intentions, our van was allowed in and out of the camp with no checks and it dawned on me that this meant that anyone who was so inclined could take advantage of this open door policy to use and abuse the “residents”. Whilst our governments feel they are doing the right thing by ignoring this situation it strikes me that they could be fuelling a much larger fire – one of international crime and abuse – which will only cost us more in the long run.
I will definitely be going back to Calais to help these people, probably for an overnight stay or longer in order to be able to do proper follow up assessments on the treatment we gave. I would also like to do more outreach work there with the women and children next time. As a homeopath it is wonderful to be welcomed and to be able to offer help without the usual judgment or prejudice we sometimes face. As I lay thinking about it this morning I felt that in some way we too feel like refugees of the medical system here, constantly fighting to be recognised and that Calais had accepted us too and given us a place where we could feel useful and share what we had to offer.
As we drove through to the Channel Tunnel on the way home through the English Border Control in Calais (!!) the lady gathered that we were all work colleagues and asked if we had had a nice trip as we all seemed to be in such good spirits – “have you been on a work retreat or something?” she asked. “Something like that” We replied, smiling – not wanting to go into any greater detail for fear of a full in depth search of our vehicles!!!
“The purpose of life is not to be happy. It is to be useful, to be honorable, to be compassionate, to have it make some difference that you have lived and lived well.”
― Ralph Waldo Emerson