25 November 2015
So now its my turn to reflect on my time in France.
I am a humanitarian and not a politician, I do the job I know.
Where to start is difficult - when did this need to help first start in me?
The lorry that was discovered with several dead people inside earlier this year is what triggered something inside me - I watched the news in horror and could only imagine what must have been going through the minds of these desperate people to make such a dangerous journey - they must have been going through hell before hand. Those needlessly lost lives were a catalyst in my heart - it was in pain again - but I tucked it away and did’nt act on it. I had also heard news of the flow of refugees coming into Europe and saw a documentary about one family who had braved the journey and were living in Denmark.
The news stories started to become more urgent and there were continuing deaths at sea from people who sadly attempted the dangerous crossing in Turkish waters that made the news. Suddenly this was becoming more talked about and it all seemed more urgent. I had read on FB of friends of friends who were going to Calais to help in the Jungle. I did some research and the news I discovered I did’nt like - I dug a little deeper and asked friends in other countries and the news I was getting was making me very uneasy. I kept at my research - all the while the media were printing stories and suddenly everyone was a terrorist - all refugees were terrorists in the making - I was not happy - it was clearly scaremongering at its worst.
A friend sent me some video of the Jungle - I heard all sorts of things - but what I did hear was enough for me to act, was there were people in dire need of humanitarian assistance - and that is what I do! I thought at last I can do something positive and NOT turn my head away and say this is not my problem.
In fact I think this is a problem for us all - after all we live on one earth which we are supposed to share - this is turning into one of the largest humanitarian disasters of our time. So should we look the other way and hope it will go away? No I dont think so - I personally believe that I am lucky to be born where I am and at any point it could be me in trouble and I would want people to help me if they could.
Things moved fast and I set up a new branch of Bridge2 - I called my friend Borja in Spain from the Samu Emergency Medical service and asked him if he would come with a team. He said yes and promised there would be 6 of them. Wonderful news. 2 Dr’s 2 Nurses - a Spanish Journalist and him - I was thrilled. I held a meeting to see what the feeling was, inviting only the people in favour of helping in Calais - we had a full room with standing room at the back - many volunteered to collect and sort clothing and food stuffs - others offered their vans and after we set to to start the project we soon had 10 vans and enough stuff to fill 9 of them to the brim with useful items for the refugees, the other one was a tipper truck.
There were sleeping, bags, tents clothing of all description, some shops had dump bins so when you shopped you placed an item or 2 from a list into one of the bins. Volunteers emptied these and sorted them out in a store donated by 7 Day Self Store - we soon needed a second and Nerine Trust stepped up to the plate to fund it for us. There was some opposition to what I was doing and the keyboard warriors took to their computers complaining about me on line, however not one of them has ever been brave enough to come to speak with me - so I am ignoring them - in the beginning I tried to reason and reply but it soon became clear that we would never agree so it was important not to lose focus, there was work to be done.
The machine that is donations - Guernsey people donating - sparked into life and my band of trusty volunteers sprung into place. The goodies came in thick and fast and the very first day we took in items we counted about 50 cars - how on earth would we manage to sort everything?
I need’nt have worried - I had Kirsty on rota duty and Caroline masterminding the store intake - I just upped and left them to it and went to Sri Lanka on a pre arranged trip to work! I came back to total organisation and a slick system that needed no interference from me!
Back on the rock on the 26th of October and I needed to make some plans and work out just how we would proceed. I had already planned to leave on the 9th November with the team but with the media frenzy of misinformation I needed to go and see for myself and decided to do a reckkie trip - Tom Dallos who was coming on the trip and had volunteered with me in Nepal agreed to come with me.
On Friday 30th October we put my car on the ferry and headed up to Calais staying just 2 nights but giving us enough insight to make plans ahead of the team arriving next week.
We stood and listened to the stories from various people who had fled their country with tears in our eyes – the stories were all different but at the same time the same – ones of pain, fear and oppression, violence and aggression – the stories were told by teachers, nurses, lawyers, one man owned a driving school – not once did we feel threatened or uncomfortable – well we did feel uncomfortable but that was because we couldn’t believe this was happening on our doorstep – we were ashamed. We left in silence and I confess to nearly breaking down with the pain of listening to these desperate stories.
I am very aware the Jungle is classed as an illegal camp – HOWEVER it is there and no one can deny that – there are people there, men women and children who are compromised daily – the winter is drawing in and I am 100% convinced there will soon be news reports of death by hypothermia – then we will have serious blood on our hands. The toilets are overflowing and the water is not safe – there is human excrement everywhere as there are not enough facilities for them. The rain and cold winds blowing directly from the sea at Calais, are relentless and the temperatures at night are already well below what a normal human being should be sleeping in – outside in a flimsy tent! Goodness only knows what they will be in 3 to 4 weeks time.
If dogs were kept and had to sleep in amongst excrement and they had contaminated water to drink there would be an outcry and prosecutions would be forthcoming!
Where are the big charities?
Why is the Jungle busy with individuals who feel so compelled to act?
I can tell you why – because they are horrified that this situation is allowed to continue and as they don’t see any professionals in the camp they are moved to go themselves – some of them pensioners no less!
In all my years as an emergency aid worker I have never seen the like before.
I was led to believe that Britain and France were going to, at the very least, get together to build some decent structures to get this ever-growing band of desperate folk inside out of the wind and rains for the winter.
What has happened to that proposal?
It needs to be now, not in a few weeks time as some will die before then. It seems Britian has spent a huge sum on a fence to try to keep them out instead. There is no denying that they will simply not just go away if they are ignored – I am convinced we have a moral duty to help them as fellow human beings in extremis.
I am proud to say I took a team of volunteers totaling 21 there for a week last week – included in the team were 5 professional emergency medics from Spain, a Spanish Journalist, an architect, builder, a carpenter, a welder and other wonderful people. We built 2 kitchens from timber – one for a lovely lady from the UK who has come into camp and cooks a hot meal once a day for 1,000 people – she is a shining example of the compassion that is needed so very badly.
We are proud to support her going forward with food supplies, as the people need to be fed hot food daily. We helped another amazing kitchen too, the Ashram again run by people from the UK meeting with Leon who is the driving force behind its operation.
One day I and the medical team responded to a call for medical help for the refugees in central Paris - we responded and treated around 80 patients many of them with scabies who had’nt showered or washed for 3 weeks. One man was so ill Samu hooked him up to a drip and I bought him a full set of warm clothing - the man was so cold sitting in only a thin coat and trousers - I bought another 2 sleeping bags. We were there the day before the terrible bombings and the scene in Place de Rebublique was so sad to see - men and women under the trees with no place for real shelter and all soaking wet.
Another day we did a distribution further up the coast from Calais where the circumstances other refugees were living in was worse still, with mud everywhere - so exposed and open that the tents regularly blew away. The medical treatments there again were many and varied with chest infections, and injuries - one man who had been run over by one of the Government Officers on a notorbike, had a heart attack while the Samu crew were treating him! another had such a deep wound they both had to be admitted to hospital.
We took supplies, as do many others from the Uk to help the men, women and children too. They are the angels in this horror story and horror story it is, as mark my words, if this humanitarian crisis is not resolved soon, there will be an explosion and this time it will be not made with gunpowder but human anguish and pain.
It is pitiful to witness and makes my heart physically hurt, I am truly ashamed to be British and seemingly condone this situation! I listened to the most tragic stories of government brutality of young boys whose parents were shot in the forest in Hungary. I heard of professional men who had been beaten so badly by the Government forces, they will suffer for the rest of their lives. We saw so many injuries at our medical clinic from sheer brutality from the Government forces it made us all gasp in horror. And this is when they are in Europe never mind the terrible hideous atrocities they have experienced and are fleeing from in their own countries!
I personally witnessed an ordinary volunteer be subjected to totally unacceptable level of ‘body search,’ again by the Government forces, it was horrific. Where has decency and compassion gone? This is not France’s problem alone it is a world problem – our world. It is part of a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions and will be even worse when deaths occur because we look the other way.
We seem to have totally lost our way - the world seems to be spinning out of control - we must help people who are suffering it is our moral duty.
Some thing needs to be done and NOW.
Am I glad I went? yes and so very proud of the team that came with me too!
Sarah Griffith MBE
Founder of Bridge2
Wed 25th November 2015