In early November, Glasgow University PhD students Mary Anne MacLeod (Urban Studies) and former Policy Scotland intern, Sarah Hamlin (Scottish Literature) spent time volunteering in refugee camps in Lesbos and Calais respectively. Over this blog series they will be sharing different aspects of their experiences. This first blog post deals with some of the unexpected, uplifting or challenging experiences they encountered while volunteering.
1. People are capable of extraordinary generosity of spirit, even in the midst of great adversity
On setting out from Glasgow, neither of us knew what to expect. Each of us received warnings from friends and family to say safe and be wary of situations that could turn violent. There’s no doubt that in times of desperation, such situations occur in the camps, but what struck both of us about our time in Calais and Lesbos, was the patience, kindness and generosity displayed by those in distressing circumstances. The day’s only meal would be unquestioningly shared, in any job we were doing we would immediately be aided by camp residents, the seat closest to the fire would be reserved for us and no one would go near it if we were there. When we were put in the gut-wrenching position of having to tell someone with only a thin covering in the pouring rain that we could not give them an extra blanket, we were met with patience and thanks regardless. Neither of us could imagine being so patient in such circumstances. We hope that, faced with such adversity, we would rise to the challenge, but when robbed of all comfort, we weren’t sure we could be as generous as those we met in the refugee camps of Calais and Lesbos.
2. There is no typical refugee
In keeping with No. 1, we were largely heading into the unknown, without any idea who we might meet. The reality is an extremely diverse community with many different languages, places of origin, ages, social standings and backgrounds. For Sarah, spending a significant part of her stay as an English and French teacher in the Calais ‘Jungle’s’ school, hearing people’s former occupations was a common occurrence; electrician, architect, doctor, lawyer, business owner, technician, teacher, researcher, chef, student… If you imagine Glasgow needing to suddenly empty, and a small, random selection of Glaswegians making their way to the same foreign port, it does make sense that you’d struggle to find two people from the same walk of life. But somehow it goes against our presumptions about what a refugee community might resemble.
3. Volunteers are the front line of response
There is a distressing lack of the kinds of international bodies or NGOs that one might expect to find at refugee camps full of all kinds of emergency situations caused by international crises. In Calais for instance, the only visible NGO working in the Jungle, Médecins Du Monde, left the site on November 17th.
A lack of coordinated crisis response is particularly startling in Lesbos where families on inadequate vessels with inexperienced pilots are rescued almost daily by the local coast guard. While Mary Anne was there a wooden boat with over 300 people on board sank. While some small medical charities were present, it was volunteers (including her partner who is a GP trainee) who were called upon to help provide what emergency medical treatment they could in the harbour that day – many lives were lost.
Much of what provides shelter, nourishment and any kind of knowledge about where to go from here comes purely from donations and those who, like us, are fortunate enough to have the time and the funds to travel and volunteer. Most of these volunteers are under the age of 30 and the majority are female. Ordinary European citizens are filling in for the responsibilities of their governments, and this is unsustainable.
In addition, the majority of camp residents are also doing the work of full-time volunteers, despite being malnourished and almost constantly exhausted; building shelters, cooking food for large groups, welcoming new arrivals, picking up rubbish, anything and everything that needs done.
4. There’s no place like home
Most opponents of the kind of xenophobia far too visible in the press (conscious or unconscious) will agree that no one would make such a risky journey without powerful reasons. What we did not fully understand until we were on the ground however, is just how much many have left behind, and how loyal to a homeland one remains, even when in flight from that homeland. For most it is not a life of destitution but a life of prosperity that has been left behind, perhaps with multiple homes, a respected position in the community and friends and family going back generations. W. B. Yeats wrote that ‘one can only reach out to the universe with a gloved hand – that glove is one’s nation’. However changed one’s nation, it is still impossible for most of us to separate that place from our own identity.
5. This is our problem
In 2015, over 3000 people have died in the Mediterranean trying to reach Europe and the hope of a life free from fear. In Calais, 6000 people wait in an impossible limbo, rejected by successive European nations, trapped between the fences of two countries that refuse to welcome them in. Since 2010, the UK has spent £200 million on closing the doors. On fences, dogs, security checks, and assisting a French police force who commit acts of brutality on a daily basis, sending tear gas unprovoked into areas where families were asleep only two weeks ago.
The UK and Europe are faced with skilled, qualified, hard-working adults accustomed to working 12-hour days and willing to work in jobs far below their pay grade or skill set, happy to live in struggling communities, rural areas in desperate need of working-age adults. Faced with this, The UK and the EU spend millions, hundreds of millions, on fences and dogs. This is not the responsibility of a far off nation, of another government, of citizens of somewhere else. There is nothing but our own law-makers standing between the survival or the manslaughter of innocent people. It is our responsibility, as Europeans and citizens of the UK, to stop this situation, and no one else can.