Volunteering as a first aider in the Calais ‘jungle’
I have been thinking about what I should write about my experience in the Calais Jungle for about two weeks. But it was the hardest thing I’ve ever done, and the most awful place I’ve been to, so I knew that my words alone could never capture the experience.
I could start with statistics, the charity Help Refugees’ census as of 1st April found that 4946 people are still living in the Calais Jungle. 4432 are adults, 514 are children, 294 of which are unaccompanied minors.
In March 2016, I went to volunteer with the Refugee First aid team in the Calais jungle, with three herbalist colleagues. During the three days that I worked as part of the Refugee First aid team we saw over 500 people, that was with a team of seven medics; three junior doctors and four medical herbalists.
On the first day of our trip we accidentally parked in the wrong part of the site and that meant we had to walk through the demolished Southern part of the refugee camp. Seeing the sheer expanse of the demolition and the feeling of desolation was a chilling first sight.
As we entered the Northern part of the camp we saw only a handful of people, and we walked past shops and cafes on the main street.
We got a little lost as we didn’t have any landmarks to navigate by, but we soon found the caravans that form the first aid centre on the camp.
There was already a queue and unfortunately the caravans had been broken into the previous evening, an often weekly occurrence, toilet paper and socks were taken but the drugs were left untouched.
We spent the first few hours in shock but getting to know the basic medical supplies available and how to work around the things we didn’t have. Our herbs were used instead of the stepsils, and paracetamol that were usually given out, mostly because the former were in short supply and by lunch time, completely gone.
Respiratory conditions, bronchitis and ‘jungle lung’ were common conditions, and unfortunately when living in a tent and sleeping on the floor, there was little hope that the conditions would resolve quickly. Thankfully we only encountered a handful of more serious cases of pneumonia and they were referred to the free medical clinic for refugees.
It was a pleasure to work alongside three junior doctors who were not only excellent physicians, they were very open to working with medical herbalists and we each shared skills, equipment and medicines. The Dr’s would often ask for a herbal medicine to be given to their patient and in return we would ask for a particular drugs to be given to our patients. It was a harmonious relationship that really helped in such a demoralising situation, as we were only ever going to be able to help some of the symptoms that people came to us with.
After the shock of the first day I was more prepared for another extremely busy day the following day. Many of the young men we treated had tried to jump onto trains the night before and we had a lot more bruises, torn ligaments, and some broken bones. We did what we could and recommended rest but they said they could not do that. They had to try and jump again that night, they would take a chance and jump, even though it meant risking their lives.
On our third and final day we saw fewer people but they were more in depth cases needing examinations, tests and referrals to the medical clinic. Our two excellent interpreters (refugees in the camp themselves), really helped with the more complicated cases, and I got to know them a lot better.
I was really moved by how thankful everyone was for help, even if it was only something small like a clean dressing or some more cough syrup. Our help was really valued and that made it worth the trip.
We had to get a ferry straight from our shift on our third day and we were sad to leave, finally getting into a rhythm and feeling comfortable in our roles. Although it was a difficult place to be, I was glad to have helped some people there, even if it was only help for that one day that I saw them. I wish fervently that I could have done more for them.
Returning to the UK was shocking, the things we take for granted so easily; a roof over our heads, a job to go to, family around us. All of the things that people only 20 miles from the UK do not have.
Since returning I’ve felt helpless because I don’t know what I can do as an individual to help thousands of people across Europe who are struggling to survive every day after being forced to leave their homes and families.
So I have been thinking about not only what I can do, but what you can do, whomever is reading this. Because if we don’t help these people no-one else will.
So here is my list of what individuals can do to help the refugee crisis across Europe:
1. Donate to my friend Catherine’s fund, she is regularly taking herbal medicines to Calais and beyond. https://www.gofundme.com/acsrxpgk
2. Donate or volunteer with Calaid. http://www.calaid.co.uk/
3. Volunteer with your local group helping raise money or sort clothes etc for refugees across Europe. As far as I know there isn’t a UK wide list of these but a quick google search should show you what you’re looking for. For those near me, there’s a distribution warehouse in Taunton called RAFT https://www.facebook.com/rafttaunton/?fref=ts. You can volunteer with them most days, and the people there are lovely.
4. Petition the government to allow more refugees into the UK, look at Germany’s example.
Thank you to Helen, Dafydd and Carol for their support during a difficult time, and for the use of their photos.