By Alex Monro
John and Emily O’Connor, who have lived in Cheltenham for more than two decades, first heard about life at the refugee camp in Calais (dubbed ‘the jungle’) through a local Gloucestershire network and decided to lend a hand.
A retired teacher and midwife respectively, John and Emily had always been drawn to humanitarian work and, with three sons in their twenties, they might have volunteered much longer-term, had it not been for other family commitments. A trip to Calais last year offered an immediate way to help.
“We pulled up and parked in front of the camp in the rain and the first thing we noticed as we walked in was the smell, which was a mix of raw sewage and rotting food,” said John. “It was shocking to see the state of the place and easy to wonder why they weren’t looking after their camp better, until you realised that it was due to inadequate facilities.”
Tents quickly became waterlogged and mud got everywhere. There were only a few standpipes and portaloos for the 6,000-plus residents. Sometimes fires were set off because cooking facilities were too close to the tents.
“We were moved to tears on our second day by the sight of a patch of ground with some fifty tents that had burned down overnight,” said John. “Already the refugees were at work on reconstruction.”
John and Emily’s job was to push wheelbarrows through the site, picking all kinds of rubbish and detritus out of the mud, much of it sodden blankets and clothing.
Yet amid makeshift huts and a few rundown caravans, the different communities – Sudanese, Ugandan, Afghan and others – managed to provide some kind of education for their children and even to set up simple restaurants and shops. (John had to insist that the refugee-run restaurant accept his lunch payment.) Huts were constructed with a frame, tough white plastic sheets, and black tape to hold them together. There was even a domed tent for volunteers to run plays and drama workshops. Then, earlier this year, the camp was closed down.
“I feel angry that the UK has not been more generous here,” said John. “We met with Alex Chalk (the local MP) to try and persuade him that we should take more refugees in Britain – he just said we’d ask for more however many the government took. But the UK allocation is way below other countries and there are plenty of people here willing to offer help. All the talk is about OUR problem with refugees, when it should be about how we address THEIR problem.”
Calais may be closed, but John is deeply cognisant that the problems remain – and that many other camps still need help.
“There are camps in Dieppe and elsewhere, and there is a huge need to alleviate difficulties in Italy and Greece – there is also a need to lobby MPs,” said John. “One woman we met at the camp had a two-week-old baby she’d delivered at hospital in Dunkerque before returning to the camp, and she had contracted mastitis. There is a serious and imminent humanitarian crisis.”