From the Jungle to Kesha Niya - Winter in France's refugee camps


19 December 2016

In December 2016, a group of volunteers from Mid-Wales Refugee Action went to work with refugees in La Linière refugee camp in Dunkirk as part of the Kesha Niya project. They took with them much needed supplies of sleeping bags, blankets and clothes that had been donated by people across Mid-Wales. For a week they volunteered with the Kesha Niya, a collaborative project between refugees and volunteers from across the globe that has been working in the refugee camp since it was established in March 2016. As well as providing over 1000 meals a day, the project provides volunteers for the women’s centre, children’s centre, distribution centres and free shops.

This is their report of the trip.

As we watch the horrific scenes from Aleppo of stranded civilians being evacuated and evicted it is hard to feel anything other than desperately sad at the state of humanity. While it is currently Aleppo that is grabbing the headlines, there are many other places across the world where war and conflict are forcing people to flee from their homes.

You would hope that once they had escaped from war, devastation and atrocities, refugees would be able to find sanctuary. The devastating truth is that once people are forced to flee from their homes and country they are ending up in extremely precarious situations as they travel across Europe. Many refugees are trying to reach family and friends who have relocated to different parts of Europe. Since 2002, refugees have been arriving in France in increasing numbers to attempt to get to the UK; in October 2016 the French authorities closed the Calais ‘Jungle’, home to up to 10,000 people.

Many have stayed in the area, scattered in surrounding woods and wastelands. About 20 kilometres from Dunkirk is La Linière refugee camp, which is approved by, but not run by the government. Set up in March 2016 by Médecins Sans Frontières on the site of the former illegal Dunkirk ‘Jungle’, the camp provides safety for refugees attempting to reach the UK. The population of the camp is about 70% Kurdish, mostly from Iraq but also Syria and Iran, with the remaining made up of Iraqi Arabs, Vietnamese and Pakistani refugees.

Conditions during the time that we were working in the camp were extremely harsh. Many of the wooden shelters built by Médecins Sans Frontières are now rotting and are not fit for winter habitation, although Care4Calais is attempting to repair them and make them winter proof. There are around 150 families living in the camp, many children and a number of babies. The remaining part of the population is mainly young men.

Although we were only there for a short time, the project has left a deep imprint in our hearts. Eight of us are going back to volunteer in the camp over Christmas and New Year as the camp is chronically short of volunteers over the winter period. Unlike many other NGO organisations helping refugees operating in the North of France, the Kesha Niya project has at its core principles of collaboration with refugees; they believe that everyone is equal and that working alongside those forced to live in the camps will enable them to have a greater voice and to take back (a little bit) of control over their lives. The name itself was chosen by the ‘Kurdish Brothers’ who work in the kitchen and international volunteers.

The project is non-hierarchical, and work is organised through meetings between volunteers and refugees. It seems to flow like clockwork, from the morning banana smoothies and sweet breads to the 3pm chopping of salads, to the dishing out of the evening meal from the Kesha Niya food truck.

As well as cooking food, the project provides volunteers for the women’s centre, which organises essential support and a safe space for women living at the camp. Another part of the project is the children’s centre, a beacon of light in the camp, with its brightly painted walls, toys, playground and incredibly committed team of volunteers. Kesha Nya also coordinates wood distribution: chopping, sawing and preparing bags of wood that go out on a daily basis to the shelters and community kitchens.

Despite the incredible work of the Kesha Niya project and the determination and commitment of the volunteers, the conditions inside the camp are harsh. Wedged between the motorway and the sprawling rail network, around 300 wooden shelters are arranged in rows. Scattered between them are toilet blocks, community kitchens, the women’s and children’s centres and an ever-improving playground. All of the structures are temporary, built of plywood or shipping containers.

The shelters that were built when the camp officially opened in March are turning mouldy, with a number of children receiving medication for respiratory problems. They have no insulation; a few have paraffin heaters. Built for four people, some shelters have as many as nine people living in them. It was bitterly cold whilst we were there; smoke from fires scattered around the site filled the skyline. Each shelter gets one small bag of wood per night; it’s not enough, but it’s all there is for now.

Volunteers are reporting a significant increase in the number of refugees arriving at the camp in the last few weeks. Perhaps because the weather is colder, perhaps because the smugglers are using different routes; no one really knows the reason. It’s hard to keep tabs on the population, people come and go. Authorities have officially closed the camp to those seeking refuge and so the people that arrive come in illegally, by night. There are proposals to close the camp down altogether in March 2017, leaving the current population in much the same situation as those that were evicted from the Calais ‘Jungle’ in October 2016.

Franck Esnee, head of mission for MSF in France said that, “blocking new arrivals from accessing the camp at Grande-Synthe is all the more baffling given the dismantling of the Calais Jungle. Where should the refugees and migrants who come to the Linière camp go instead? This policy of systematically destroying existing camps and preventing the construction of new ones will lead nowhere. Without alternative plans to provide shelter, individuals, families, and even unaccompanied children, will be condemned to survive the winter as vagrants, destitute and vulnerable to violence."

Since the eviction of the Jungle, refugee support groups say that one in three children have gone missing and while some people have been rehoused around the country, many are still living scattered around Northern France, desperate to make the journey to the UK, where they hope to find safety. It is, say those working on the ground, only a matter of time before another jungle springs up.

There is nothing to suggest that refugees will stop arriving in the north of France in an attempt to get to the UK. Statistics from the United Nations Refugee Agency show a marked increased throughout 2016 in the number of people travelling to Europe from conflict areas. Tensions between the EU and Turkey over Turkey’s accession to the union has seen Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan announce a  reopening of borders between Greece and Turkey. Turkey is currently housing over 3 million refugees, and opening the borders will see a flood of refugees crossing into Europe in search of asylum. With current EU government policies and lack of preparation, such an event could well be a humanitarian disaster.

One thing that is clear is that despite the harsh conditions and the precarious existence, La Linière refugee camp does provide some degree of sanctuary.

I was working in the free clothing shop in the women’s centre alongside some of the Kurdish women. We were sorting out bags of donated clothes and I held up a short, bright pink, low cut dress. We couldn’t talk because of language issues but we all started giggling over the totally impractical nature of the dress for a refugee camp in the middle of winter.

A family of nine were ushered into the shipping container that houses the free shop. They had been travelling for three weeks from Greece; their shoes were broken, they were cold and hungry. The children clutched their mother’s hands, their eyes wide; no one seemed quite sure about where they were or what was happening. Within 30 minutes they had new clothes and shoes, a shelter, blankets, sleeping bags and a hot meal. They visibly started to relax and the children began to run around until someone invited them to the children’s centre, where they would find games, puzzles and books to keep them occupied.

Looking at the camp with its derelict buildings, its shanty town appearance, its stagnant icy puddles and piles of rubbish it’s hard to find the positive. Looking at the woman’s face when a plate of food was thrust into her hands, food that was hot and nutritious, seeing the kids becoming kids again, it’s hard to see this place as anything other than a safe haven for those in need.

Kesha Niya means ‘no problem’ in Kurdish; the name was chosen by the Kurdish brothers and a group of international volunteers that run the project. The words ring out through the kitchen all day. There are no cups one day, but it’s no problem; its -4 degrees, but it’s no problem; families have tiny children in mouldy, wooden shelters with no heating, but it’s no problem; someone pleads for more wood to  warm their family and when he is told there is no more, he says: ‘No problem’.

Perhaps it’s escaping war, torture and persecution that makes having no wood to warm your family on a freezing night no problem. Perhaps it’s because they survived the beatings by the Serbian police (who forcibly shave off beards) or survived beatings by French and Belgium police (volunteers report treating a number of minors with broken arms and bad injuries from police beatings at night). Perhaps it’s because they managed to walk across Europe with their belongings and children, that the sub-zero temperatures are no problem. The resilience, strength and bravery of the people in the camp is extraordinary.

But there is a problem: there is a massive problem and it’s called the British government. It’s very hard to believe that Britain, a first world country, will deliberately and knowingly abandon people to whom they have a moral responsibility to provide safe routes to protection for people seeking refuge in the UK.

Safe routes and protection does not mean hiding in a shipping container with your children, risking suffocation; it is not crossing the sea in an overcrowded boat; it is not off-loading the problem to another country or paying a police force outside of Europe to brutalise refugees. Safe routes to protection means ensuring that human rights and dignity are upheld and that those seeking refuge in the UK can do so by the legal processes that exist to support that.

The volunteers have to leave the camp by 9pm; often people gather for a beer and a debrief in their accommodation outside the camp. It is a vitally important nightly check-in. Often during the day there is no time, just situation after situation hitting you. One night we sit around and we discuss the age and nationality of the volunteers working in the Grande-Synthe refugee camp. Many of them are in their pre and early 20’s and are German. Are there refugee camps like this in Germany? I ask. They laugh, “In Germany  you would not have this situation. It’s far from perfect there but the government would not leave people like this; they provide shelter, warmth, food, and the refugees have a certain amount of money per week.”

It is hard not to feel ashamed of our country, of the right-wing media fuelling hatred and xenophobia, of government inaction, of people arguing against immigration, of our lack of ability to accept any responsibility for our brutal colonialist past which is partly responsible for this humanitarian crisis. It is astonishing that young Germans, some still teenagers, are running a refugee camp in France for people that are seeking asylum in Britain. They are doing an amazing job at it and without them lives would be at risk, but where is the British state support? Where are the big British NGOs?  Where is the infrastructure, legal support and, as so pertinently written on the side of one of the shelters, ‘Where is human rights?’

At the very least the UK government needs to immediately allow families, pregnant women, babies, children and unaccompanied minors safe passage to the UK. They need to ensure that adequate housing provision is made whilst their asylum claims are processed. 

And that is at the very least. Instead of spending 1.7 million to build a pointless wall in Calais to stop refugees getting onto our precious island (a wall that, by the way, ends at a roundabout so you can just walk round it), spend that money ensuring that people are not going to die because of their living conditions in a refugee camp in the north of France. 

It’s hard to look Omar in the eye when he asks me “Why is the British government doing this?” He has recently arrived from Mosul in Iraq, where Daesh took over two years ago, executing, flogging and imposing their version of Sharia law. He is a university professor, a highly intelligent young man whose life in Iraq suddenly and dramatically changed when he woke up to find masked men in the streets smashing phones and televisions.

He and his family had to get out; it was a matter of time before they would be killed, and he knew plenty of people that had been.  “It’s the UK that went to war in Iraq and left it open for Daesh to take over; why aren’t you doing anything?”

I can’t answer him, but I can drink endless cups of tea with him and listen to his story. “What can you do?” he says when I leave. Tears sting my eyes, because I can’t do anything other than this, what I am doing. Which is cook, laugh, cry and work alongside people who are refugees because there is a problem and it’s most certainly not them.

I can sit by the fire and talk about Barcelona playing Real Madrid, explain the difference between Wales and England, I can tell them about my life, my children and the craziness of Brexit. I can use some of my free time to go to Grande-Synthe and work with them. I can listen to their stories and tell them to keep trying, that there is another life out there for them. I can croon along to Adele by the fire, clutching a cup of hot sweet tea, because in the absence of all humanity at a state level, it’s what those of us with some left can give.

One night leaving the camp we saw three men dressed in dark clothing, one being pushed in a wheel chair by his friend. They had their sleeping bags slung over their backs. At night small groups leave the camp, to look for a truck or a container they can sneak into, maybe rendezvous with a smuggler and hand over the little money they have to try and get to the UK to seek asylum. “Good luck, my friends,” we shout as they walk past; they sing back to the tune of Adele’s Hello song: “Meet me on the other side…”

Inshallah.

Mid-Wales Refugee Action is fundraising to buy a much-needed van for the Kesha Niya kitchen so they can pick up and deliver donations and food. You can donate any amount, however big or small, and it will all go to buying a van for this vitally important project. Contact us at midwalesrefugeeaction@gmail.com

Images:

1) Food distribution in Kesha Nya

2) One of the shelters in Kesha Nya refugee camp

3) The women's centre

4) A protest against the wall being built in Calais

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