From Mud to Wood: Refugee camp of Dunkerque, France

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The farewell could have been in fact a typical start, if it had been a different kind of trip. As I went to say goodbye to Malte and his spouse Miriam at their “home”, they invited me in for tea. They now have a dry wooden floor on which they laid enough blankets to make a soft surface on which to sit during the day and sleep during the night. On top of the blankets they have a gas heater and, on the side, a pallet and some self-made shelves make a tiny integrated kitchen and storage, stockpiling the donations they have received these last days: Blankets, clothes, some shoes, flashlights and food. The still naked walls will probably be decorated soon with colourful blankets or tissues, as I have seen in other wooden cubicles in that new camp.

They are living in Dunkerque since 5 months. They passed here all winter. They arrived with the objective of crossing over to the UK, where they say they have some cousins. They fled from the Iraqui Kurdistan. They say that Iraq is not a country anymore, that it is broken. They hold no hopes of ever coming back.

“-Do you like the tea? It reminds me of my home, it’s the same tea I used to drink in Kurdistan.”

5 months in the refugee camp admitted to be with the worst conditions of the world (although it seems it will be soon surpassed by Idomeni). In a tent in the middle of a cold bush field. They could never build solid structure because the Gendarmerie controls the access and confiscates all construction materials the refugees and the volunteers try to smuggle into the camp. But the worst, what makes the camp a nightmare, is the mud and accumulated water. The whole camp is a swamp of liquid mud that mixes up in a big pool with rotting food and human waste in general, creating the most health-threatening slush you can imagine. And this slush covers all shoes, socks, pants, of the inhabitants of the camp. And it spreads to the interior of the tents, to the walls, and it ends up by covering everything in mud, including the people.

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Hairdresser in Dunkerque's jungle

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Main street of Dunkerque's jungle. Refugees and volunteers carry still usable objects to the new camp.

In order to free two thousand people from this horror, the organisation Utopia, with the help of Medicins Sans Frontieres and the Mayor of Dunkerque, have built a new refugee camp in an area free of mud, establishing 3×2 meters wooden houses that can allocate either families (which forms approximately 40% of the people in this camp) or groups of 4 single men. A special mention to the mayor of Dunkerque, who has allowed and supported the new camp to exist, against the wishes of the Préfecture, which wanted to forbid it, and already now plans to demolish this new camp.

I met Malte the day they opened the camp and I was volunteering in the bus arrival to lead the refugees to the registration process. Malte arrived alone claiming he needed a house for him and his wife. He was not the only one. But he would not be given a house until they both showed up together. It took me time to convince him that it would be useless to “lead him to the person who gives away the keys”, as he was asking; but that he had to head back to the jungle as soon as possible to find his wife and come back together. I talked to the driver of the bus he came with for him to be returned to the jungle.

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Refugees registering in Dunkerque's new camp

I worked for three days in this camp, one in the jungle, and one in the warehouse. Just a few days, and the wooden cubicles have been enlarged with pieces of tents or even wooden structures. The space between cubicles has been covered and turned into small storage rooms, and the interiors have been decorated with blankets and stuffed toys. In the streets, the first businesses start to flourish, with tables selling cigarretes, and some already plan to open a restaurant (in the style of the Calais Jungle, which I will explain some other day).

“-Are you going to Calais? I have to go to Calais. I have to find a smuggler that puts me and my wife in a truck to go to the UK”.

I don’t dare to speak against his words. Will he be in better conditions in the UK than in France? I doubt it. They are not wanted, anywhere. Both governments see them only as a disturbance which they hope will magically disappear. Perhaps if they destroy their “homes”, they think. If we break these weak four wooden walls and forbid them to “establish” anywhere else…

The most stressful task in the camp is to be at the men’s distribution point. Boxes with donations arrive, all sorted by clothes types and sizes. There’s a lot of variety, but they all want exaclty the same, which they shout all crumped in the window of the metallic transport container in which we stand, alternating some “my friend!”, and “please please!”. They want tracksuits and jackets. And they all have the same size, which is the size of a grown-up child in Europe (except one lucky guy who will enjoy as many “big european” size pants as he can take). If we receive shoes, it all goes mental. And we’ll run out in a matter of minutes. There’s no break in the 3 hours I spend in there in the morning. And still have to repeat in the afternoon.

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Des de dins d'un contenidor de transport, oferim roba als refugiats del camp.

So this is why the tea at Malte’s place feels like an Oasis. This same afternoon, he also dropped by the men’s distribution point, but not to ask for shoes, as he already has, but to help me spread the message of what we have run out of, which I was failing to convey. His contribution has considerably helped in reducing the shouting voices.

I relax with the hot tea in my hands and laying my back in the wooden wall, and I realise that connecting with the refugees here is not like in Lesvos. There, after seing them for a day or two, I would wave goodbye with a smile, their faces full of hope, and wished them good luck in their trips. I was telling myself, perhaps purposedly trusting in the energy sparking in them, that everything would be alright. Here, when I tell Malte that I am leaving, I can’t but feel disappointment in his eyes. I will go, but he will stay. He’s here since 5 months, and who knows how long he will be here for. And whenever he continues, where will he go? Their hope is badly wounded, but in these people, it never dies.

“-I’ll write to you when I reach the UK!”
“-Please do so! And I’ll come visit you immediately, my brother“.

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