Mud, fire and floods: A weekend in refugee camps in France

Post written by Barney, Clapton fan

We arrived in France on Friday 13 November the Paris attacks were being carried out; the border was closed immediately after us.  As we drove toward Calais we saw a bright flickering light in the distance and realised the camp was on fire. It felt like the end of days.

Some of our group had already been to the Jungle and were worried about friends, both residents and volunteers. Another fear was of retaliation from the far right both fears turned out to be unfounded.

The inferno destroyed around 50 homes for roughly 150 people was caused by a simple candle – displacing the displaced once again. People are desperate for warmth and light and rely on candles and fires.

As I reached my bed for the night at a hostel by the beach I felt shaken and confused by what I had seen and was still wondering what I would find in the jungle the next day.

I imagined dramatic scenes of injured, starving and exhausted after travelling thousands of miles to escaping from war-zones across the world.

I imagined sky-high fences guarded by vicious dogs and their even more vicious handlers preventing refugees from stepping on to our precious British soil.

I wondered how the residents would react to me would they be hostile or suspicious of me?

I know now I wasn’t prepared for the scale or severity of the conditions in the camp. Things that we all take for granted warmth, shelter and even food are hard to come by in the camp.

Our first stop was the halal butchers in town, we had ordered 30kg of chicken in advance. We planned to deliver this to Kitchen in Calais, a free kitchen run by the formidable Sofinee Harun and her husband Jamal. The husband and wife team, aided by volunteers including residents of the camp, cook every day feeding up to 1000 people. The work they do, along with the other free kitchens, is vital to ensuring residents get the bare minimum of food the need to stay alive.

After buying fresh vegetables for Sofinee’s kitchen and for Ashram, we headed to the camp. My first walk around the camp was shocking; the rain that followed the fire had flooded many of the paths and tracks.

People struggled on worn bikes (god knows how far they had been on them), others in flip-flops or ill fitting plimsolls- all totally unprepared for a North European winter that was rapidly closing in.

As we opened our van to deliver meat and vegetables to Sofinee people crowded around to see what was inside. With shouts of ‘no line’ that quickly spread through the crowd, the residents quickly dispersed allowing us to pass through and even guiding us to where we needed to go.

I saw solidarity and tenderness amid the brutal reality of life in the camp. Men worked together to rebuild what had been obliterated by the previous nights fire,
In the family field, we handed out children’s blankets to mums and their babies shacked up in crumbling caravans while volunteers got silly with the kids, urging them to juggle, dance, to forget for a brief moment where they were.

But I saw one little girl who sticks in my mind. She stood alone. She was angry, lashing out at anyone who came near her, refusing to join in with the other giggling children. I wondered what she had seen to make her this way.

Dunkirk camp
After handing out some food we headed to the camp in Dunkirk to meet a young woman named Hafsa. Operating from a number of small garages in the town, Hafsa along with her friend Zeinab visit the camp every day, helping the refugees as best they can.

Only a 30-minute drive away from Calais, the conditions were even more stark. Unsuitable flimsy festival tents were being blown away, or collapsing into muddy heaps.

I was surprised to see the number of families with young children, including babes in arms.We met a father desperate for blankets to keep his wife and three children warm in the deepening winter. While we were talking to him a group of residents, 400 or so strong, marched out of the camp holding a banner a loft which read “The refugees cry with the French people. A humbling display of solidarity in a place that France and Britain has turned its back on.


I am not sure how I feel about the existence of the camps, even now, weeks later. They are awful squalid places, yet amid the suffering, gloom and mud there is still hope, humanity and solidarity.

We head back to France on Friday 4 December.


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Non-league fans in solidarity with refugees Follow us on Twitter @dulwich2dunkirk

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