On Saturday 26/09/2015, a team of seventeen Muslim Hands staff and volunteers set out from London at 4.30am to deliver food items and hot meals to refugees and migrants in the Jungle, Calais. We were all tired from the early start, but as the minibus set off there was an unmistakable buzz of excitement about the day ahead.
At 8.30 am (local time) we alighted from the Euro Tunnel shuttle and made our way through the beautiful French countryside to Wierre-Effroy village where the MH France office had arranged the use of a warehouse and large kitchen.
There we were greeted by volunteers from the organisation, L’Auberge des Migrants, which has been facilitating the delivery of urgent aid to refugees and migrants since 2008. After a much needed caffeine fix we got stuck in, sorting clothing from the big piles of donated items in the warehouse and loading MH bags with food items like rice, oil, fresh vegetables and tinned chickpeas, sweetcorn and tomatoes, as well as tea, milk and biscuits.
In addition to our team working in the warehouse, there were volunteers from France and across the UK, all with the shared intention of providing much needed relief to those in the camp. The owners of the warehouse and kitchen, an elderly French couple, not only allowed us to use their facilities, but didn’t mind us traipsing in and out of their house to use their toilet either!
As the France team arrived with over 2,000 pieces of fresh halal lamb, all given through Qurbani donations, some of us moved onto helping our chef in the kitchen. With four big bags of onions needing to be prepared we soon had an assembly line of peelers and choppers going. There were tears aplenty, but it wasn’t long until the onions were in the pot and we were onto packing bags of halal sweets for the camp’s children.
By 3pm we were on our way to the camp in vans loaded with food items, hot lamb stew and rice. Still half an hours drive away, we spotted a group of men walking along the roadside. Their clothes were dishevelled and they carried their meagre belongings with them. It was obvious that they were heading for the Jungle.
As we neared the camp all we could see was barbed wire and security fences. Passing over an abandoned railway line to cross into Jungle territory I couldn’t help but feel that the railway symbolised the status of those living in this no man’s land, stuck between two countries, without any certainty for the future and forgotten by the outside world.
The resourcefulness of the inhabitants can be seen through the transformation of tarpaulin ‘buildings’ into small shops, barbers and even a shisha café. With night time temperatures already dropping to minus one, we could also see people using scrap wood to try and construct sturdier buildings for the fast approaching winter.
After distributing bags filled with items that the camp’s inhabitants can cook on open fires we began setting up our gas cookers for the stew and rice and disposable barbecues to grill the remaining 1,500 pieces of meat.
A few of the Syrian men from the camp volunteered to get the barbecue going while our chefs looked after the cooked meals and it wasn’t long before queues were forming. Refugees and migrants had a choice of stew or grilled meat, both served with rice and bread.
The Syrians were really in their element as they fanned the flames and called out to other Jungle residents, all to a soundtrack of Arabic nasheeds blaring out from one of the aid vehicles.
Dates and chocolates were given to those waiting in the queue and some team members travelled further into the camp to distribute the bags of sweets to the children.
As people approached us you could see that they are in need of many things, besides food. Skinny young men were sporting oversized suit jackets, children struggled along in slippers two sizes too big for them and both men and women were asking if we had gloves they could take.
As eight o’clock approached you could feel a considerable drop in the temperature. By now, the meat was finished and over 2,000 people had been fed. Then it was off to the make-shift masjid at the beginning of the camp to pray Maghreb, before boarding the coach.
A volunteer from L’Auberge des Migrants told me that the overwhelming majority of people he had come across during his work in Calais were fleeing devastating conflicts and serious violence. Arriving back in London, our thoughts were still with the Jungle. How were people settling down for the night? What would they do once the winter came? And what did the future hold for them and their families? Not only did visiting the camp make us more grateful for the comforts and opportunities we have been blessed with, but it also proved just how important the support of our donors is, in providing much needed relief to refugees and migrants in Calais and across Europe, many of whom are seeking refuge from horrors we can’t begin to imagine.
By Tijen Horoz, Senior Communications Editor