Clouds gather in mountains. Between Vienna and Innsbruck was constant rain and I mostly abandoned my planned detours to make good time to my years-neglected family visiting. Paul and Ruth now live up a different mountainside, and cousin Roy has a wife and daughter. But he found time to troubleshoot my rear-light (how many Debbages to change a lightbulb?! As long as one of them is a lighting engineer…) And on to Deidesheim, German wine country, to see Alex and Cecile from cycling in Istanbul. Another lovely stop. And on to Ghent, Laurens the Belgian from my little central Asian cycling troop, the velocidroogs we called ourselves. I have been, in Alex's words, digging my past. Almost a week of evenings reminiscing and debriefing. Laura, Roy, Alex, Cecile, Laurens; we all change, but not so much. A little odd to finally catch up with so many old cycling friends now so quickly. Laurens called me out on it almost immediately: I google translated your blog: would you like to borrow a bicycle?
I have a few days off the machine, anyway. A little ambivalent about having finished with it for now….
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Some weeks ago the authorities in Calais destroyed a large, Southern swathe of the Jungle refugee camp. Some of those resident there moved to another large camp in Dunkirk, some to much smaller ones scattered along the coast, some were convinced to move into the shipping containers provided by the prefecture, some - especially unaccompanied children - remain unaccounted for, but most of the residents whose shelters were destroyed remain in the Jungle. There are now over five thousand people living in the camp, with about forty new arrivals daily. By the end of May there will be more people living in the Jungle than there were before March's evictions.
I'm sat at a table in the quiet corner of a marquee pitched in the large yard of a non-descript, semi-derelict warehouse complex in one of Calais' many industrial zones. Behind me is an enormous pile of timber; mainly broken pallet components and dimensioned offcuts. On the other side of the woodpile are two workbenches and two, blunt and failing circular saws. Beyond them a forklift is loading cubic metre sacks full of stove-size lengths of wood onto an old flatbed van. It's 730pm. The forklift driver is Ben, who has worked seven days a week for the last six weeks to coordinate the collection, storage, processing and daily delivery of this firewood to the refugee camp where it meets about one third of the need for cooking fuel; the other two thirds are largely unmet. At this point I stop writing to check if he'd like a hand with the bag handles onto the forks, but I'm too late for the first ten bags. Instead he briefly explains the controls and lets me learn the forklift to load the last two. This is very much in the spirit of the warehouse, which is run completely by volunteers with no hierarchy beyond longevity of stay and skill-set. It operates seven days a week usually employing around 60 people in its daily efforts which include the sorting and distribution of vast quantities of food, clothing, stoves, lights, fuel and sanitary products. The building workshop prefabs shelters to be installed in the camp. Kitchens and community centres within the camp are supplied and staffed. Large crews of single-day corporate volunteers work to clear and level ground for new developments around the warehouse site. Minibuses ferry outreach and pastoral workers the mile distance to the Jungle, past the teams of machine-gun toting national police who control its edges. Most of the volunteers I meet are English. They are of all ages but mainly under 35, they fill the city's hostels and at night one pub in particular. Some come for a day, a weekend, some planned that and have stayed for weeks. Most return. Some have become indispensable, with literally thousands of people depending on their organisational skills every day. The long termers stay in caravans cluttered around the warehouse. They are an exhausted, hugely capable group achieving quite incredible feats of organisation and acted compassion despite their transience and perpetual hangovers.
This morning I went with Ben to deliver the firewood processed yesterday. We were quickly met and greeted by Iranians, Ethiopians, Afghans, Kuwaitis and Eritreans anxious to get a pile of wood for their shared kitchens. Many explained that they had had no fuel for days or weeks. The desperation is great and to avoid too many disagreements Ben has taken to arriving before most of the refugees are up and about, leaving the yard at 730am. Of course there is a high degree of mafiaisation in the camp, and all of the warehouse's distribution activities have to be carefully thought out and constantly reviewed to try and minimise wastage to those elements. Nonetheless, there is a palpable absence of cynicism amongst the volunteers, who emanate the same kind of benevolent anarchism I know from my favourite places at home. I am quickly comfortable here. I arrived on Wednesday and have been mainly working in the wood yard, cutting timber, building work benches, trying to optimise processes for short term volunteers with no experience tasked with producing tons of stove fuel from smashed and naily pallets. I spent Friday riding around the forests to the South, visiting saw-mills and foresters with a Scottish linguist riding pillion, trying to find the golden-ticket company that generates thirty tons of timber waste each week…
But all of the departments here have shortages. Donations arrive constantly in vehicles small and large, but more is always needed. Most of all, of course, money, and time from those who can commit longer term.
A list of current needs is kept here www.helprefugees.org.uk
I'll come home on Monday evening.