Stories from a camp

It is hard to describe my days in the Dunkirk Camp both because of their intensity and because feelings and experiences are hard to explain in words. However, I feel that telling about my adventure is a necessary step for it to be continued by other inspired people who care about humanity. One of the first messages I want to communicate is that what we hear on the news or read in papers about the refugee crisis and about refugees themselves is just a small part of the picture, often badly painted with lots of misconceptions. This is because the focus is on the politics of immigration and the effects of this on society, rather than on the individuals and their stories. I do not intend to get involved with the politics at all, but rather bring a human touch to the matter. With this in mind, I left my safe, comfortable student life in Cambridge and went to volunteer in the Dunkirk La Linière Camp, spending most of my time in the classroom and the children's centre.

Going to the camp early in the morning for the first time is an overwhelming experience. At one point you are in a warm car driving past a big shopping centre and at another you are in a cold, quiet camp where all you see are wooden huts, rubbish on the floor and some tired faces of people who have just come back from an unsuccessful attempt to smuggle on a truck to get to the UK. However as the day passes, the camp wakes up and by 11/12am you see a multitude of children riding their bikes, a few women around and lots of men just walking up and down the long stretch of the camp or chilling. Added to this, there is a constant presence of volunteers, of state-funded workers, of security and occasionally of police. This variety of people makes it so that even as an independent volunteer I did not ever feel scared or unsafe because there is always someone around.

The camp could be described as a small ecosystem: a community of very different living organisms and non-living components of the environment all interacting together as a system, as a mini society. It takes a few days to understand the workings of this society and to familiarise oneself with its components. However, one of the best ways to accelerate this process is to just walk around the camp. This allows to discover the more than 250 huts in which people live, the kitchens, the medical centre, the tea and coffee tent, the distribution areas, the toilets, the adults' language school, the women and children's centre, the laundry and finally the children's classroom and the children's centre. All of these spaces represent the environments where individuals from all around the globe carry out their daily activities and in which they share their stories, their experiences and their feelings.

One of the general feelings from spending just less than two weeks in the camp is that the material conditions are not as bad as one would think. Indeed there are lots of resources distributed every day, there is running water and spaces to cook warm food, there is a service for washing clothes and blankets and everyone tries their best to keep the camp as clean, healthy and safe as possible.

In my opinion, some of the greatest problems are the poor psychological and emotional conditions of the people in the camp. These are all individuals who have lost their identity and are just classified as one big, homogenous group of 'refugees'. It takes a few conversations to understand that they are all unique people. They all come from different countries and for different reasons, they have abandoned everything, have travelled for months all across Europe and have arrived in the camp in the final hope of trying to get to the UK. On these endless journeys they have lost the meaning of life and they are confused about who they are and what they dream for their future.

Therefore I felt one of my greatest contributions, as well as those of other volunteers, was to provide the opportunities for these individuals to express themselves and to tell me their stories, as well as sharing mine with them. One could think that the language would act as a barrier because the levels of English are generally low and there are a variety of other languages spoken: Farsi or Kurdish the most common ones. However, I discovered that if there is an intrinsic interest to communicate then this is possible through the universal languages of the body, of facial expressions, of gestures. These not only help to open up and share different worlds and experiences but also add a deeper and more emotional dimension to the conversation; so that the relationships that are created are natural and powerful.

I feel like the camp is the centre of many untold stories of people who are stripped of their name, of their identity and are often at the centre of pointless debates. However it takes very little: an open heart and an interest towards humanity, to encourage these people to open up and become storytellers with a name, a face and with their own personal emotions. Personally some of the best stories were those told to me by the women while drinking tea in their huts. The women, who are not much seen around in the camp, are very vulnerable and suffer most from their situation. Therefore it is fascinating to see how they react when they are given the chance to be themselves. Many of the women I met showed me pictures of their previous lives; they would share the details of their journeys to arrive to France and would try to express their present worries and thoughts. More than once a few of the women I spoke to would start crying whilst in the middle of telling their stories. I believe that this spontaneous expression of feelings is one of the most evident and powerful signs of the creation of a human connection. The physical dimension of sharing a hug is also very important as it allows those who share it to connect through both their feelings and their senses.

Similarly I spent some time in the art tent for teenagers and adults, set up by two amazing volunteers who I can now happily call my friends. There I was able to listen and see the men's stories in their drawings, in their poems and to share some meaningful time with them. One of the advice I would give to any volunteer thinking of going to the camp is to just be yourself and to not be afraid to share your own stories and your own weaknesses, strengths and interests. Personally I love dancing and so I decided that a way to connect with the teenagers and young adults was by teaching them to dance Salsa; and I have to say that it could not have been a better choice. This is not so much because of the activity itself but because I decided to share a part of me with them and encouraged them to bring their own individuality in it.

My time at the classroom run by Edlumino Education Aid, a collaboration of teachers and people interested in education, was very enriching; especially given my interest in becoming a teacher. The classroom is very well resourced and it is beautiful and aesthetically pleasing. This is extremely important given that the camp in itself is unattractive in terms of aesthetics and architecture. Children from about 7+ of different abilities and with different previous experiences of schooling go to learn when they want all throughout the week. Depending on the number of teachers and volunteers present the children are taught in small groups or one-to-one tuition and the content of learning and teaching is mainly English and maths. Many children go to school for just a short period of time, most of them manage to stay for an hour. This is facilitated by the 'bracelet method', in other words after an hour of learning children receive a paper bracelet as a form of reward and as an entry-pass to the play centre just opposite the classroom.

It was an amazing experience to help out in the classroom because many of the children arrive and are eager to learn, it is just about finding the right way for them to do so. This therefore requires a lot of flexibility and the ability to use existing teaching skills in completely new ways. The greatest challenge is to find ways to motivate the children and engage them in learning. This is especially the case because many of them are tired as they have been awake during the night trying to get on trucks, or alternatively they are influenced by their environment and by the other children. However it is not an unachievable goal: I myself experimented teaching using different techniques such as flash cards, visual and sensory objects, alternating some learning games to more structured learning.

Teaching in the camp is a stimulating experience for anyone interested in education and it encourages all those involved to share different teaching and learning approaches. All of these approaches seem to work as children return to school and their improvements are easily noticeable. I would hazard a guess that this is because everyone teaching is interested in the children as individuals and as learners. Added to this there is a shared recognition of the wider role of education: in other words education not just about the teaching of skills and knowledge but also about the development of feelings, behaviours and attitudes towards oneself, the environment and others.

I had a wonderful time at the children's centre, opposite the classroom, as I had the opportunity not only to become a child again but also to organise entertaining and educative activities for children of all ages. In particular the centre is the camp's safe space for children: from the small babies to the more exuberant older ones. There they can play and be themselves and rediscover their innocence and their abilities to dream. In it the children have the opportunities to explore and learn using different toys, art materials, sports equipment, books. The presence of teachers and volunteers means that each one can focus and spend time with smaller groups of children and organise games and activities. Having said this it is almost impossible to continue one activity for long because there is so much going on around. Consequently it is always important to have one eye in the game and the other on what is going on everywhere else; this is both to avoid brutal fights or stone throwing and also to make sure that none of the children are left alone or unsupervised.

A typical day at the centre starts around 10.30/11am when the children who are too small to go to the classroom are brought by their parents or by their older siblings. In the morning usually a creative activity, like playing music or some art work, is organised and then the children have a small snack time followed by free play. The centre closes for a lunch break around 1.30pm and the children then come back from 3pm to 5pm. In the afternoon, depending on the weather, the children either do some sports, physical activities or simply play outdoors. During my time at the centre a group of volunteers had just planted lots of flowers and plants so the children took over the responsibility to water them, something that they greatly enjoyed. I also attempted to do some dance routines and simple yoga/fitness exercises with the children. At first it was hard but then I realised it is all about consistency and about adapting the activity so as to suit the interests and needs of the children. It was wonderful to see a group of 10/15 children, who after many attempts, managed to sit together in a circle, do some stretching, make coordinated noises and take part in group interactions. The smallest satisfactions of volunteering with children derive from the simplest things: for example when a child says please, thank you, sorry or comes to give you a hug. All of these small gestures make you feel like you have achieved something great and unforgettable.

I spent most of my time moving in between the classroom and the children's centre and it was interesting to notice how they both operate differently with different objectives. However despite this they both successfully achieve the goal of providing children a safe space just for them where they can come and let out their energies, learn, spend time with other children and with adults who care about them. All the teachers and volunteers that I met are inspiring people and it is fascinating to listen to their stories. In particular the long-term volunteers who have been in the camp since it was first opened explained how they have seen the changes from children learning and playing in very small improvised tents, to larger ones to the complete, inviting and well-furnished buildings in which they are now.

What I have learned through this experience is that teaching in the sorts of conditions present in the camp requires a different approach to education: it requires people who are enthusiastic, sensitive and who are able to connect to individuals by catering for their needs of love and affections. The children and their families should be the core centre around which everything is done. Only when the connections between human beings are encouraged and safeguarded can true and meaningful changes of the individuals' psychological and emotional conditions be made. To conclude, volunteering in the camp is for me about trying to reach the hearts of people and allowing everyone to reclaim their identity.


by Elena Natale

The call of the refugees in the camp seems to be 'Love is all we need',

This is something through which each of us can be freed.

Love manifests itself in many ways,

And it is one of the powerful tools for brightening up everyone's days.

The school and play centre in the camp are children’s safe spaces,

Where they can be themselves and in which they are not afraid to show their faces.

Children are taught basic English and maths in school,

And they start to recognise that learning can be fun and cool.

They then can let out their energies and play in the children's centre,

And in these spaces the world of childhood, creativity and dreams they can enter.

Children go to these knowing that there they will find people who care,

People who treat them as individuals in a way that is just and fair.

As a teacher in the camp you don't know what to expect,

So as a starting point you can focus on teaching kindness and respect.

The education that the children receive is more than just the provision of skills and knowledge,

It is also about empowering them as individuals and helping them to develop courage.

The greatest problem in the camp is that that the refugees feel like they lack an identity,

That is why it is necessary to provide ways for them to reconnect to humanity.

Education is an efficient way to achieve this as it provides learners with a a sense of infinity,

Learning thus transforms into a lifelong journey through which individuals develop their dignity.

Caring about education becomes a sign of love towards the Other,

A way through which individuals come together and connect with one another.

Elena came out to support the education projects in Dunkirk for two weeks, happily committing to the 2:30am pick up from Cambridge to get to the ferry port at 5am for the 6am sailing. She taught the children during the day, lead dance lessons in the evening and was constantly positive. She has just completed her qualifications at Homerton College Cambridge, and will undoubtedly go on to be a wonderful teacher.

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