“Open the box, close the box, open another, close it, open, close, open close. It’s pointless looking here and there, we don’t have enough tents, there are not enough tents! What the hell are we going to give them to sleep in now?
250 hoodies size Medium, 135 size Large, 57 dark jumpers, 103 coloured t-shirts, 45, 120, 23 brought back, 76 to be resized. The police? Again? Another eviction? How many people got arrested? They burnt some tents.”
The alarm rings.
I’ve been back home for two weeks now but sometimes I dream about the boxes, clothes, distributions and meetings that have been part of my last two months spent working with Help Refugees in Calais, right next to the border with the UK. Two months that have been really intense, busy, extremely interesting and educational, full of joy and sadness, desperate and tiring, both physically and psychologically. Despite thinking I’m now used to these situations, every time I start working in a new place, I always find myself floored, incredulous, as if it was the first time working in the field.
I decided to leave for Calais once I got back home from Serbia where I’d worked with Collective Aid. I was excited to work in a new environment, in a new European country, and to know new organizations, new people, new ideas so that I could add more small pieces to the big puzzle I’m slowly putting together in my head. I started it just a few years ago, not expecting that its pieces would be so many and so different. Every time I think I’m about to find the hidden picture I realise it’s still just a part of, what I consider to be, a proper work of art with some very dark sides, though others are definitely brighter, full of colours and thousands of shades that always inspire new sensations and emotions in me.
In Calais I worked mainly with Help Refugees, an English association that operates in the field just in northern France but also raises huge amounts of funds to help other grass-roots organisations working with refugees and asylum seekers throughout Europe. I was expecting to find a group of volunteers, but I ended up in a real universe of English and French organisations working together on the same project each with its own peculiarities, virtues and flaws, as well as different aims and operating procedures. Being in contact with these diverse associations helped me discover, get to know and learn lots of things. Working with so many different people gave me the opportunity to observe, amazed and fascinated, the different approaches of those personalities, and the thinking that produced such an impressive quantity and quality of work. Something I would never have imagined.
Before going to Calais, I knew just a little about the situation there but within a few days of arriving I had a clearer view of what was going on. After the evictions from the big official camp (“the jungle”) in 2016, asylum seekers in Calais spread to smaller sites around the city, usually according to their community or ethnic group. Nowadays, there are around 1000 refugees living in the French city. It’s not completely clear what the purpose of the big eviction was, considering the state provided no proper alternative to the official camp. Emergency accommodation is almost always full even for vulnerable people. People living in unofficial camps don’t have access to clear and complete information about the asylum procedure nor how emergency accommodation works. It seemed that the police and the state just wanted people to leave the city and go nobody knows where. The reason people were in Calais or how they could leave the city or sort their situation didn’t really matter to the authorities. The only thing that mattered was that ‘these people’ stopped being “a problem” for the community and the state. It seemed it made no difference if they did it by crossing the border, maybe in the back of a truck or by dying while trying, perhaps because of the cold or suffocation.
Well, not really the mood I expected to find in Calais.
You might be wondering what I’ve actually done in these last two months! I’ll get there soon.
When I talk to someone I often forget I’ve been away for such a long time without properly communicating what I was doing and it happens that I take for granted that the person I’m talking to has seen exactly what I’ve seen and experienced what I experienced. I think it may be a way of protecting myself from what I actually experienced which, as always, turned me upside down. It’s not always easy for me to open up and talk about these crazy events that overwhelm me.
Where were we? Oh yes, what I’ve done. During May and June I mainly worked distributing clothes and hygiene products to those living on sites where most of the people want to cross the border and reach the UK. Working in distributions is way more complex then you can imagine because it’s not just about giving something to someone, it’s a real machine in process with hundreds of mechanisms which need to work simultaneously in order to make everything work.
Everything starts with donations arriving at the big warehouse where I spent most of my time. People who work in distributions have to spend part of their time working in the warehouse, constantly communicating with the warehouse team (amazing crew!). They manage incoming and outgoing donations, they check and sort clothes and other items so that everything can find its place in the warehouse, on top of managing all the volunteers arriving and leaving with their energy and desire to know how things work. In the warehouse I worked with other volunteers checking daily donations to understand what could be used for distribution, or not, depending on the item itself and on our needs. I sized and counted and resized and recounted piles and piles of clothes, always finding very interesting and mysterious items, and moved loads of stuff all over the warehouse.
If I close my eyes, I still see trolleys overfilled with boxes, piles of jumpers, huge crates full of t-shirts, and crazy people running here and there trying to give sense to that beautiful mess.
If I imagine moving around the warehouse on a trolley pushed by another volunteer (as often happened, what a great sport!) I can see sizing tables and crates of all shapes on the left; people filling up shelves on the right; blankets and sleeping bags just over there; alongside all the possible hygiene products; bags; backpacks; open and closed tents; until I reach that magic place, beloved by all volunteers, where angels are sewing and repairing donations that would be perfect if it wasn’t for that unstitched pocket or zip. I’ve never been so happy to see someone sewing and solving all our problems!
One of the things that most amazed me, through these months, was how professional and competent most of the volunteers were, always ready to do as much work as possible, and in the best way to ensure that huge machine worked perfectly. It’s thanks to these fantastic people, who became a sort of new, weird family in just a few weeks, that I discovered the passion and the competence of young people who gather sometimes, even by chance, in a really, complex reality. How they face tough professional and personal challenges, falling into difficulties and making mistakes of course, but always with a spirit and energy I really struggle to find elsewhere. In this environment I could always count on extraordinary cooperation and a sharing energy that made my working day full of fun, music, reciprocal support, interesting conversations, discussions, laughs and cries. The kinds of emotions and feelings that change you, in so many ways.
Once everything is ready for distribution, it’s time to prepare and get ready to distribute in the field. Every morning, before the distribution, the distro team prepares the van, packs everything needed always trying to have the right number of items so that there will be enough for everyone; careful that they are all good quality items and that everything can fit in the van. After packing the team is briefed so that everyone is on the same page, informed about the situation, aware of problems that could arise. Roles are decided, evacuation plans sorted out. It’s time to leave.
There are different types of distribution depending on the site and on the number of people attending the distribution. I’ve usually worked on mass distributions where the team distributes one item of clothing (plus underwear, socks and toiletries) to each of around two hundred people. Distributions are as easy as they are hard to put in practice. Trying to be concise, one or two volunteers inside the van give out one item each to the guys queuing, three or four other volunteers check on those in the line, taking care that everything goes smoothly, talking with people queueing to give information about other distributions or just to have a chat. Meanwhile two other volunteers talk to the guys in the line trying to understand if everything is alright on the different sites, if there are any special needs and to get in touch with new arrivals so that the team can give them a new arrivals pack later in the day.
Everything can work smoothly but there are hundreds of diverse difficulties and that’s why working in distributions can be very tricky both on a logistical and a personal side. While distributing there are several aspects to consider and some of them can be complex. It’s not easy to give out just one item per person when both you and the people you’re supporting know that they really need far more, but there’s not enough stock. It’s not easy to be seen as fair by people of all the different ethnic groups without seeming to favour someone. You have to try to talk to everyone, to answer everyone, but not everybody reacts in the same way when you want to interact and the way to interact with people from one country or culture is different to others. There are always thousands of things to think about while distributing, while talking, while discussing, especially when you have to explain that you can’t give out something everyone needs in that moment because you don’t have it in that moment. It’s not easy to have to deal with people in humiliating living conditions, who sometimes have to fight against alcohol or drug addiction because of traumas they’re suffering. People are living in a legal limbo, a sort of “hanging life” because we can’t really call it life. They are often suffering with severe psychological or other medical problems due to their living conditions.
It’s not an easy job.
I often found myself in very difficult situations logistically speaking but also, and more important, personally speaking. Quite a few times I was on call to take orders for new arrivals and for emergency drops (usually boots, tarps, heavy jumpers and jackets). Those were endless, tense days with no break from the tension till getting back home where I lived with the other volunteers. During those days I had to keep and use the “distribution phone” (I hated its ringtone!) wherever I was or whatever I was doing. It was kept on during the day to receive messages and calls from the guys dealing with new arrivals and emergency orders. Picture this: an Italian, English or other-country volunteer trying to communicate with a Sudanese, Iranian or Eritrean guy to discuss what can and can’t be distributed, but particularly trying to explain why and how to organize a delivery. I don’t know if I feel like laughing or crying thinking about myself on the phone or in person, trying to communicate with gestures (in the end I’m Italian, what did you expect?), or words of English and other languages put together in some way. It looks like a movie.
I think the most difficult part, and probably the major responsibility, is to say no to people. It is one thing to distribute something people like and need, to see that is good for the person you’re working for, to chat, shake their hand, or even hug that person, to know you’re actually being useful and to feel moments of incredible joy and satisfaction, BUT another thing to explain to that person that you can’t give them what they’re asking for.
- To say no to someone asking for another pair of trousers because they have just one pair and they would like to wash them.
- To say no to someone asking for trainers instead of heavy boots because everyone looks at them if you wear them in the city.
- To say no to someone asking for just another hoodie, for another t-shirt, for another jacket.
- To say no to someone asking for a sleeping bag because it’s freezing as hell sleeping in a tent and two blankets are not enough, but you can’t give it to them because you don’t have enough to distribute to everyone.
- To say no to someone who is simply asking to have one tent per individual. One small tent each that you can’t give to them because you’re running out of tents so they have to share one tent between two people, a tent that means everything to them, it’s their home, their life.
- To say no to someone who arrives in the evening and has to wait until the next day to receive something.
- To say no to someone asking for one more blanket because you don’t have enough, and you can only give them to new arrivals. Can you imagine how inhumane it can seem to tell someone that their friend, who just arrived from god knows where, has to come in person to ask for and take their new arrival pack, that you can’t give it to another person on their behalf? As if they were thieves, as if you didn’t trust them, as if feeling cold wasn’t a good enough reason to ask for one more blanket. One blanket.
I perfectly remember those moments, I remember the words, I remember my gestures and my words, I remember their faces, I remember them looking at me and waiting in silence for me to change my mind or find another solution that I could not find. I remember the requests, I remember being asked “please” so many times, I remember disappointment, discouragement, anger sometimes shouted. I remember thinking that person could be my grandad, my uncle, my brother asking me for a blanket I didn’t have.
I remember all the times I didn’t know what to say. When someone asks you why it is good to know five languages if you can’t do anything with your life or why is it you can have a relationship while they can’t just because they’ve been on the move for ages without even the possibility of having one, well, in those moments you don’t know what to say.
I remember all the times I wanted so hard, to have the whole world in that van, all the times I would have wanted to tell them that it wasn’t my fault, that I was trying, that I was doing my best, all the times I wanted to quit because, in the end, you know all of it is wrong.
I think those have been the most difficult moments.
Every time, driving back from those drops I felt sick, because it doesn’t matter if you’re doing your best, even less that you can’t do anything more, because in that moment there’s no excuse and everything seems too complicated.
When you work in those places you really realise how little we know about what’s going on next door. If there’s one thing I desire more than anything else, it’s that your eyes could see exactly what I’ve seen and that you could walk where I walked, through brambles and rats, in those woods where hundreds of human beings are forced to live in conditions we can’t even imagine.
I couldn’t believe what I was seeing, I couldn’t think that I was going back home and there were young people and families closing their tents in that hellhole.
That hellhole where every second morning police evict everyone and take away everything they find: blankets, tents, clothes, personal belongings, and then let people go back there.
The same police that don’t let you in to see what happens during evictions, even if you’re just a volunteer, even if your French. The same police that don’t answer if you ask why they’re carrying on with the evictions and what’s the purpose, that tell you that you have to trust them because they’re the police, they’re the state, there’s nothing wrong going on! The same police that hide their identification numbers so that you can’t tell who it is acting illegally, who has, and still does threaten volunteers and refugees without reason, who it is who cuts tents, and burns backpacks and food.
Sometimes you ask yourself where the hell you are, where’s the world you’re used to. There have been moments when I couldn’t understand anything, I couldn’t find hope, I couldn’t see any light at the end of that fucking tunnel, moments when I’ve been so angry, so hopeless, frustrated and defenceless.
There have also been moments full of positive emotions, instants, that gave me such an overwhelming joy that I can’t find the right words to describe it.
I remember a couple of weeks into my time at Calais, during a distribution, I met one of the refugees I used to talk with in another camp in Bosnia. It had been a couple of months earlier when we’d been in the middle of a very cold winter. As soon as I recognised him, I couldn’t trust my eyes! The guy that always wanted more olives in that damned salad! He recognised me. We hugged.
Another moment that comes to mind was just after my last distribution. A man around 60 years old, always very kind and calm, came to me and asked how I was, thanked me for what we were doing there. He shook my hand and then looked directly into my eyes with a look I will not easily forget, he told me I have a beautiful face, joyful eyes and a peaceful gaze. That moment was worth all the stress of the previous days.
We came home at the end of every day and asked was it a good or a bad one, a long or a short one, and that place was where I could finally take a breath. Going back to the campsite in the evening was always the most important time for me, to find again the faces and voices that made my day, to be welcomed by the hug of that weird family, to cook and have dinner together, those things, together with the voice of someone special, have been the most important support in these months. There’s no need to explain to them how you feel, there’s no need to ask. Those people as well as the handshakes and smiles of those met on the field, are the reason I could find some sense in the whole situation.
I’m always overwhelmed by the huge emotional charges I get when I work in this kind of environment, sometimes they’re sudden other times calm and quiet. I think it’s incredible, and it’s one of the things I appreciate the most, how much you can learn, discover, listen to, and look at when you work with so many new people from all over the world. I deeply love discovering new things and I’ve never been as amused, amazed and full of joy as in the last few months with the people I met and by all the “thinking sparks” they gave me. I discovered emotions, I changed habits, I thought so much and so differently from the way I used to, I opened myself up, and I got rid of some layers I was hiding behind, finding something that was just there, inside me.
Coming back home is always a bit weird, you have to get used to different rhythms, completely different situations from those left behind. I think the most complicated aspect is managing daily life because in a few days you find yourself face to face with another world. Neither of those worlds are unknown to you, just different, detached but at the same time so strongly linked to each other.
Something I really struggle to explain to people and even to myself is how can you live in two different places at the same time, you can’t be somewhere with your body and somewhere else with your mind, it’s not possible, especially if they’re such different places.
I tormented myself so much about it that at one point I started thinking it was the key to solving the problem.
There’s no sense in looking for a solution because the point is, maybe, they’re not different places, different worlds, we’re not here or there, they’re not different lives. We just need to look at the bigger picture, to stop looking at ourselves, at our interests, at our problems (real problems too of course!), at what WE want and WE need, and start looking around, thinking about who’s next to us, thinking about what’s going on just behind us, looking at other people’s needs and I swear to you our perspective will change and while our necessities and our problems may not go away they will change!
We don’t all need to go to Calais, to Bosnia or Serbia to change things (though it is still so easy to do and so needed!). Don’t tell me you admire what I do because you don’t have the time, the will or the courage to do it yourself because what we need to change is not there but here, exactly where you’re reading.
What needs to change is us. Nothing else. And there’s no excuse for saying otherwise because to change ourselves we don’t need to go anywhere, we don’t need more money, we don’t need more time.
We just need to start looking around.