By Shafirra D. Gayatri
It all started with a kind young man and a lifeless three year old boy.
The photo of Aylan Kurdi, a Syrian child who drowned in an attempt to reach Europe, quickly became a powerful symbol of the dangerous journeys our fellow human beings undergo to flee from Syria and other war-torn countries. As I stared in disbelief at the heartbreaking picture, I recalled another scene that happened to me less than two months earlier.
It was past midnight in Zurich, when out of my sheer stupidity I managed to miss the last train to Vienna before the station was shut for the day. I was so close to tears when a young man next to me offered to help, although it meant he had to miss his own train. Afterwards, he also offered me the shelter of his family’s house. Initially I was hesitant about bothering a stranger, yet he assured me, “It’s OK, I want to help. You’re Muslim, right?”
I later found out that he and his family are Syrians that had just settled down in Switzerland. That night, the whole family welcomed me, fed me with delicious food and gave me a warm bed. I arrived in the country lost and alone, yet I left warm and with a new family… All because of a kind brother who fulfilled his duty to help a fellow Muslim in need.
I then realised I cannot just stand by and not do anything. This brought me to the refugee camp in Calais.
Welcome to The Jungle
An aerial view from a flyover above the camp offers a first glimpse of ‘The Jungle’, a name often used to refer to the refugee camp in Calais, a French city closest to the United Kingdom. Currently a temporary residence for approximately 6,000 asylum seekers, The Jungle is a refugee camp with no high-level aid bodies on the ground and is fully ‘operated’ by small-scale local NGOs, charities and self-funded volunteers.
Making our way into the camp, we can soon understand why The Jungle is called so, allegedly by the refugees themselves. A sprawl of tents as far as eyes could see, The Jungle looks more like a shantytown than a refugee camp. From down below, the view is even more dismal: piles of rubbish, calligraphy with the Arabic script for ‘Allah,’ and graffiti calling for a “free Syria” under the bridge welcome you at the ‘official entrance’ of the camp. Police vans are a common sight in the front and back entrances of the camp. Convoys of French gendarmes in full riot gears march around the camp to intimidate refugees, sometimes using tear gas. Volunteers driving their way into the camp are stopped by the police to have their passports registered. There are only around 50 portable, unflushable toilets for the thousands in the camp, yet they are only cleaned around two or three times a week.
It is a refugee camp where some days are filled with high-spirited optimism, while other days are filled with tears, fights, and fire. It is a refugee camp where 90% of the refugees dream to seek asylum in the UK yet are unable to cross the borders, while British volunteers easily cross back and forth on a daily basis. It is a refugee camp where most people live in tents, despite freezing winter nights. It is a refugee camp where you can experience a whole range of emotions, from joy to frustration to grief, all in a day.
The most surprising aspect of The Jungle, however, is that it is full of contradictions. The camp may look like a run-down slum yet it also has a number of makeshift ‘restaurants,’ shops, barbers, schools, mosques, churches, kitchens, a library, and even arts, entertainment and children’s centres – all built by refugees and volunteers. The area which was once a chemical waste dump on the edge of town has grown from an emergency camp site to a community, where people try their best to cope with the situation and live as normal as possible.
Many come from well-off, middle class families with proper education and distinguished careers, but some people make a huge, ridiculous fuss about how refugees own expensive smartphones, forgetting that they were living perfectly normal lives before the wars happened. They were forced to leave, not because they wanted to. A smartphone is often the only valuable possession they manage to bring—not because it’s expensive but because it contains precious photos of the loved ones they left behind, and the only means to help them connect with their family and friends back home.
My research on The Jungle informed me that it’s full of men. Yet on my first day, I met three little Kurdish girls with beautiful big green eyes and made friends with two Eritrean women, suggesting the larger amount of women and children than what is commonly reported. The following days, I met too many children from various ages playing around the camp, as well as several pregnant women — one of whom gave birth when I was there. While there is a government-run refugee centre nearby, it can only provide shelter for around 50 women and children. As a result, many families with minors and young women are forced to live in semi-permanent shelters built by a local NGO, putting the babies and children in a vulnerable situation and unsafe environment.
Due to the crisis in Syria, I expected to see a camp of Syrians. I soon found out that a lot of refugees come from a number of other war-torn and conflict-ridden countries as well, for instance Sudan, Afghanistan, Iraq, Eritrea, and Kurdistan. We forget that although they’re not covered in the media as largely as Syria, it doesn’t mean that war and persecution aren’t happening and that civilian lives aren’t equally threatened.
For instance, I met an Afghan who used to work as an interpreter for the British Army. He speaks impeccable English with a trace of British accent, despite never having been to the UK. As an interpreter, he could earn thousands of dollars in a month. Yet after his contract was terminated, he was hunted down by the Taliban. He was threatened to be killed on the basis of being a spy, forcing him to leave his family to seek for sanctuary in a safer country. His goal was, of course, England. “But didn’t the British Army offer you protection to guarantee your safety?” I asked him, both fascinated and horrified by his story. “No, they had too many interpreters and they were always looking to reduce us. Once they’re done with us, we’re done,” he replied. Being a translator myself, I was appalled to think that someone in this profession could be killed for merely doing his job.
But his story is just one in a million of similar cases in countries with foreign invasions, and it is just one story out of the thousands in Calais.
Helping Lives in The Jungle
Since the photo of Aylan Kurdi spread worldwide, donations came pouring in into Calais, mostly from the UK, France, and Belgium. However, the one resource that is constantly needed and always lacking is volunteers.
Volunteers, especially long-term ones, are at the heart of the humanitarian work in Calais. The work volunteers do range from building semi-permanent shelters, cooking and serving hot meals, to sorting and distributing donations. Having volunteered for some time in Calais, it became clear how essential and necessary a proper research prior to one’s departure is. Many well-intentioned people act on a whim to come and distribute donations without any doing research or contacting organisations on the ground beforehand, and most of the time it results in a catastrophe. Many charities only come during the weekend, drive into the camp in convoys, drop off (unsorted) donations, take pictures (most refugees hate this!), and drive off, leaving the refugees to rummage through pile of stuff and fight for the valuable items. The nature of every refugee camp or settlement is different, and it is important to understand how the system works in a particular camp before actually going there.
However, this only strengthens my belief in the urgency of volunteers, especially long-term ones. While donations are desperately needed, the ones making an actual difference are those working on the ground. Most of the volunteers I met in Calais are British and non-Muslims, who work hard to help people with whom they share no connection at all. But they still choose to make time in the midst of their day jobs and busy lives to travel across the English Channel and stay for days, weeks, or sometimes months – truly restoring my faith in humanity.
I volunteered in Calais for a total of three weeks, and it was three weeks that completely changed my life. While I came with the expectations of giving and helping, I ended up ‘receiving’ and learning a great deal too. I learnt that accepting the numerous invitations from refugees to share their food is more polite than to refuse. I learnt that we share similar cultures, where bonds are created over chai (tea) and friendships are formed over meals. I learnt that accepting a cup of chai also restores their pride and dignity after being at the receiver’s end for so long. I learnt that sometimes our smiles and poor attempts at jokes are far more valuable than the parcel of donations in our hands. I learnt that most of the time they just need a friend who would offer an ear, respect and time—and sometimes a hug or two. I learnt that our ‘first-world problems’ pale in comparison to theirs.
As a Muslim I feel we have a duty to help our brothers and sisters, and I learnt that the responsibility extends far beyond infaq or money. I learnt that in volunteering, a personal connection is created between both parties; a far better alternative to situating the refugees as mere ‘objects’ of our sadaqah or donations instead of human beings with dignity. I had the opportunity to meet a British Muslim charity from which provides free dental care, some brothers from England who funded and oversaw the building of a mosque, and a Malaysian couple who runs a kitchen—feeding hot meals to around 1,000 people per day. These are only a few examples of amazing initiatives that can only happen with long-term volunteers. And while there have been an increasing number of long-term Muslim volunteers, it doesn’t quite represent the amount of potential of young Muslims who are capable of doing so much more.
So if I am asked what would be the best way to help our displaced brothers and sisters in refugee camps, the first answer would be to volunteer! The steps are very simple: first of all, search for contacts on the ground (usually the local organisations would have websites or Facebook groups which could be contacted), find out what they need or whether we have specific skills to offer, look for accommodation and means of transportation, and contact other volunteers or potential volunteers to go together as a team.
I have discovered that as a Muslim it’s easier for us to bond and engage with the refugees; a simple salaam is enough to do the trick! There are a number of small mosques built in the camp, where people could perform the daily salah, Jummah and Eid prayers. The men are respectful and treat me like their own sister. I was alone, yet I always felt safe. In addition, a lot of them speak Arabic, Pashto, Persian and Kurdish, and for Muslim volunteers with similar backgrounds, their knowledge of these languages is highly valuable.
In short—I learnt far more in those three weeks than I’ve ever learnt in three months of my life, and I would do anything to go back. If you ever felt like you wanted to do something, but you never actually carry it out, or you feel that you won’t make much difference, remember what Chris Bojalian says, “A single, ordinary person can still make a difference—and single, ordinary people are doing precisely that every day.”
Trust Allah — and make it happen!
Originally published in Zilzar Life Magazine and Shaffira’s blog.
Shaffira Diyaprana Gayatri holds an MA in World Literature from the University of Warwick, UK; and a BA in English Studies from the University of Indonesia. She is a full-time researcher at Women Research Institute, Indonesia and a part-time translator (from literary to legal) and teacher. Her passion lies in academia, translations, gender issues, women empowerment, and community involvement.