It was late January when Luca Bruijstens (19), Kevin Kootstra (22) and five other Tilburg University students stuffed their weekend bags into a rental car and set out for a road trip to Northern France. “We had to make a small detour to stop by my house first, because I forgot my passport”, Luca says. She smiles, adding: “Yeah, I was that person.”
The students—all participants of the university’s Outreaching Honors Program—weren’t departing for an ordinary getaway. Their final destination was Calais, the French port town that came to be a painfully visible sign of Europe’s inability to cope with the migrant crisis. “As students of the Outreaching Honors Program, we participate in community projects. We can join organizations that are involved in giving back to society”, Kevin explains. “Luca and I both joined Lend a Hand, a non-profit organization founded by Tilburg University students. The organization focuses on helping people from less fortunate backgrounds and vulnerable groups, such as refugees.”
Closer to home
Since its establishment in 2015, Lend a Hand has set up projects in Rio de Janeiro and South Africa. “Our project is called Closer to Home. We don’t go to Brazil or Africa, but to more nearby locations where help is needed”, Kevin says.
Only a three-hour drive from Tilburg, Calais qualifies as close to home. And although the overcrowded and badly maintained refugee camp near Calais—notoriously nicknamed the Jungle—no longer exists, help is still very much needed. Refugees continue to arrive in Calais, hoping to make the cross to England. Luca: “Now that the camp is demolished, refugees live on the streets. They sleep under bridges and by the sides of the roads. They often don’t even have a tent, because tents get taken away by the police.”
Plagued by protests, riots and disease, Calais’ controversial migrant camp was bulldozed by French authorities over a year ago, turning the Jungle into an empty grassland. But the demolition of the camp didn’t stop refugees from coming to Calais in the hopes of getting to Britain. With hundreds of uncared-for migrants now wandering the streets of Calais and competing for routes into the UK, one thing is certain: for the refugees, it’s still a jungle.
“The refugees live under the constant risk of being arrested and deported”
“For the refugees, the situation definitely became worse”, Luca says. “And perhaps things became worse for the residents too. The camp was located on an empty terrain outside the city, so you could say that the residents of Calais weren’t bothered by it. After the camp was destroyed, the refugees who stayed in Calais were scattered across the entire city.”
Cat and mouse
French authorities fear that a new encampment will arise in the area of Calais. As a result, an endless cat-and-mouse game has developed between police and homeless migrants. Luca: “Refugees are not allowed to gather in groups of more than seven people. When they put up a tent somewhere to sleep, their tents get confiscated and they’re driven away by police. They live under the constant risk of being arrested and deported.”
Kevin vividly remembers seeing a group of migrants being chased away by police. “We saw a group of refugees clustered together under a bridge, near a parking lot for truckers”, he recalls. “The police had pepperspray and weapon sticks. They were driving the migrants away. It really looked like they were pushing a herd of sheep up the road.”
According to Luca, migrants don’t receive a humane treatment in Calais. “They’re treated like animals, almost”, she says. “And that’s also how they’re depicted in the media. Some of the refugees we talked to were so smart and friendly. To be honest, that surprised me a little. I was expecting to see some small fights over people skipping the line at food handouts and things like that. But people were politely waiting their turn. One man even moved all the way to the back of the line so that others could get food first.”
“I never felt unsafe, not once”
According to Kevin, the refugees wandering the streets of Calais are not the troublemakers that the media sometimes lead us to believe. “When you hear about the refugees in Calais on the news, it’s always something negative—fights, riots, problems. But in reality, they’re just ordinary people”, he says. “They don’t mean any harm, and they’re very grateful for the work that the volunteers do. When we were walking the streets and we ran into a group of refugees, I never felt threatened.”
“I never felt unsafe, not once”, Luca says. She was moved by the way the migrants look out for each other, despite living in appalling conditions. “You’d think that under those circumstances, when you’re hungry and cold and you’ve lost everything, that you’d only think about yourself. I guess that’s just survival instinct. But people were so kind and loyal and selfless. That surprised me.”
Without facilities provided by the authorities, migrants must rely on the work of volunteers for basic necessities such as food, clothes, blankets, tents and sleeping bags. Volunteers from all over the world work to provide life-saving support to refugees in Calais. It’s not an easy job, as Luca and Kevin quickly discovered. “The work is pretty demanding, both physically and emotionally”, Kevin says.
The students worked at a warehouse, where donations are collected and sorted and where food is prepared and distributed in town twice a day. The warehouse volunteers are extremely dedicated, Luca says. “There’s a group of fulltime volunteers. Some of them have already been there for two years. They sleep in a caravan, they wear clothes that are donated and they eat the food that’s prepared at the warehouse. They gave up their jobs, their whole life, to help these refugees.”
“The volunteer work is pretty demanding, both physically and emotionally”
Food distributions are carried out by the more experienced volunteers, as it’s the most complex and risky part of the job. “We did a field training, during which we learned the dos and don’ts on a food distribution. We were told what can go wrong, and how to react in certain situations”, Luca says.
The students were instructed how to deal with police and how to interact with the migrants that come to collect a meal at the food handout. “For example, some questions are a no-go”, Kevin explains. “You shouldn’t ask the refugees any questions referencing to their identity. Because they’re illegal immigrants, they could be deported. You should also never take out your phone, because that could create suspicion among the refugees—you might be taking a picture, or calling the police.”
Two weeks after Luca, Kevin and the rest of the group had left Calais, things went terribly wrong during a food handout. Clashes broke out between Afghans and Eritreans. Four teenage migrants were shot, leaving them in critical condition, and more than a dozen others were injured. “I read in the newspaper that there was a fight”, Luca says. “I was shocked.”
Still, both Luca and Kevin warn that we should remain critical of news reports on Calais. “What you see on the news is by far not the whole story. Things are blown up, and the refugees are depicted in a very negative way”, Kevin says. Luca: “Of course the situations shown on television are real. But they only show that part. It’s framed very negatively. By telling others about my experiences in Calais, I hope to change that a little. For every person I tell about Calais, I think: that’s one more person that doesn’t have this negative view of refugees.”
After witnessing the migrants’ daily struggle with biting cold, hunger and uncertainty, the students returned to Tilburg with a new appreciation for the things most of us take for granted. Kevin hopes that by sharing their experience, they can make others—like the readers of this article—more aware of how we live in completely different circumstances and often take this for granted.
“A lot of things that we take for granted are not available to refugees”
“A lot of things that we take for granted are not available to refugees”, Kevin says. “Maybe you’re sitting on your couch as you read this article—those refugees don’t have a couch, they don’t have a roof over their head. Maybe you’re reading it online on your phone—they don’t have a phone, let alone access to the internet. You’re probably warm as you read this—these refugees live in the cold twentyfourseven. It’s very easy to create an opinion about refugees based on what you see on the news, but you can’t really know the conditions under which these people live if you’ve never experienced it. I hope we all become more aware of that.”
For Kevin, Luca and the rest of their group, the trip to Calais was an eye-opening experience. The students plan on going back later this year, perhaps as soon as June, and this time for a longer period. Luca: “Help is still very much needed in Calais. Every day. If other students feel like they want to go and volunteer, they definitely should.”
“Getting involved is really easy”, Kevin adds. “You don’t have to follow any trainings, there’s no minimum of time you have to be there and Calais is easy to reach by train or by car.” He does have one important piece of advice: “Dress warmly.”