FBU East Midlands regional secretary Adam Taylor on a solidarity visit to refugees in northern France
When we arrived in Dover before our ferry crossing to Calais, many conversations were shared about what we expected to find at the refugee camps we were heading to. It would later become apparent that many of our expectations were not accurate, nor what the government and media would like us to believe.
We were heading to the Care 4 Calais (C4C) warehouse, on a mission of solidarity, not just with the many volunteers at C4C, but more widely with workers of the world. Firefighters, in common with many of the refugees, are workers. We wanted to show solidarity with people of the same class.
The C4C warehouse is a surprisingly well-oiled machine, considering that it is run primarily by short-term volunteers. We met volunteers and hosts before getting stuck into tasks preparing for the daily trip to a refugee camp in Dunkirk. Before we set off, we had a well-informed briefing and were each given tasks to undertake upon arrival.
We had a van full of long-sleeved tops – it is getting cooler at night now – a car full of children’s toys and sports equipment, medical equipment to set up a makeshift medical walk-in centre, as well as tea and coffee making equipment.
I was a mix of emotions about what to expect from the individuals we would meet: How will they greet us? Will they trust us? Should they trust us? After all, it is governments of the West that have continually invaded countries, causing much of the conflict in the lands from which refugees at the camps come from.
On arrival, we were greeted by refugees from a camp that consisted of around 600 people, this being the largest of only a few left in northern France.
There was clearly a buzz surrounding our arrival, from both adults and children. They knew that our visit brought not only necessities and materials, but also that, in some perverse sense, it brought hope – that they are not the forgotten people of the world.
My job was to front up the queue for the handing out of long-sleeved tops, a role that required more eye contact and smiles than that of a typical security guard.
I wanted to try to gain the trust of the many Kurdish men waiting to get their hands on the donated tops which would provide much needed warmth. It quickly became clear that a smile is internationally recognised and goes a long way to start earning trust.
Despite the difficulties in language, I shared many jokes and laughed with the queuing men, all incredibly grateful for the work of volunteers. After the distribution, some of us participated in a game of rugby, with the rules applied very loosely, but with a mixture of firefighters and refugees on each team, the sides evenly balanced. All enjoying the opportunity to experience comradeship, something that we can take for granted in the fire service.
I met a young boy whose birthday it was. He was too young to realise the sacrifices his parents were making, the dangers he has unwittingly faced in the country where he was born and the journey he had taken to get to the camps.
The camp in Dunkirk, like others, is a community, a community like one you and I are used to. A community is not brick-built houses, high-rise flats, cottages with village greens.
A community is built and focused around people, people who respect one another, people who welcome others into their community, people who respect the land in which their community is based.
People laughed and shared jokes with each other, greeted each other with smiles and chatted like any one of us would with our neighbour.
This was a community full of pride, where etiquette matters, and while most of its members could be forgiven for thinking they were at the lowest their life could possibly get, there was an air of positivity and happiness, perhaps caused by the optimism brought to them by the wonderful volunteers.
During the two days, I learnt so much about what forces people to leave the country they were born in, where they grew up, had good jobs, and where they left family behind.
Some are fleeing conflict, fleeing for the fear of persecution for having differing political beliefs to that of the establishment, similarly for religious beliefs, some for the fear of being open about their sexuality, and many are fleeing to escape being forcefully recruited into ISIS and Daesh.
All of the above come with the seriousness of facing death. Many only had memories of loved ones who were not so fortunate as to be in a position to leave and flee the dangers they faced.
I spoke with Hamed, a 15-year-old boy, a boy who witnessed both his parents killed by ISIS for their refusal to join the organisation. Hamed managed to flee with his older brother, but he lost contact with him when they were split up on their journey. His English was good, one of the reasons he wants to ultimately get to the UK. He speaks very little French and life in France is difficult.
But there are many reasons why migrants want to go to the UK, including the ability to speak English. Many have family already here, many left behind jobs but want to use those skills in the UK and, for some, after being mistreated and hounded out of countries they have previously travelled to, they see the UK as a more tolerant and fairer society.
We would probably do anything for the happiness of our loved ones, their safety and their survival. Migrants, forced to leave a life behind in a dangerous land are doing so in order to survive. Why should we deny anyone that opportunity?
■ For information on the work of Care4Calais visit care4calais.org
■ If you would like to get involved in a future delegation, please contact your local FBU officials