I don’t speak Arabic, so I was struggling to talk to a group of Sudanese refugees about what they needed in today’s Calais distribution. Then a young man came over and kindly offered to help me translate between French and Arabic. We started chatting, and that’s when I found out he had been sleeping in Calais for days without a tent despite the freezing cold and pouring rain.
His thin jacket was covered by one of the rainproof ponchos we had just handed out as the rain hammered down at a site next to an old Napoleonic fort. The refugees sleep in small groups nearby, under the awning of a disused furniture store, in the woods and even in the moat at the back of the fort. There were more woods before, but the French authorities cut down all the trees to deny people shelter and make living conditions yet more hostile.
The young man told me he was from an African country wrecked by a vicious civil war, an authoritarian government, and an appalling human rights record. I asked how long he’d been in Calais and he said this was his third day. When I asked where he was sleeping, he pointed to the remains of a tent a few metres away, probably destroyed by the police.
Despite having almost nothing, he asked me for just two things: a small tent and a pair of gloves. I met him later and gave them to him. He smiled, gave me a hug and said: “This tent will save my life tonight.”
When I left for work the following morning, my phone read: ‘Temperature 2 degrees, feels like minus 2.’
People ask for tents all the time in Calais and Dunkirk. Some are for new arrivals like the young man I met. More are for people whose tents have been destroyed or damaged by police. I know this because I’ve recently taken tents to a group who were evicted three times in a fortnight. I’ve seen tents leave our van this week for two dozen people evicted from under the overhanging roof of a sports centre. I’ve seen tents under the canal bridges in town held together by tape because their sides had been slashed with knives. Nobody deserves to live like this, especially not in winter.
For just £12, we can provide shelter to two people sleeping rough in the bitter cold. To contribute go to care4calais.org/donate