Having no idea what to expect, and nothing to equip us other than a strong sense of injustice for the refugees, a friend and I jumped at the first chance we had to do something helpful. We hopped on a ferry with a car packed full of clothes and food and arrived in Calais just after Easter, ready to do whatever was needed for the thousands of people who have been displaced.
Before the end of the week we’d find ourselves teaching in a tent, but we didn’t know that as we cautiously drove towards L’Auberge Warehouse on that first morning. We’re both secondary school teachers of English. Our innate passion for- and belief in- education ignited a hope in us that somewhere during our time in France we’d encounter some young people we could work with. We’d never heard of Dunkirk Camp or Edlumino; it seemed only The Jungle and Calais got media attention at home. We were told on the first day that there was no need for teachers in The Jungle. We accepted this, and got on with sorting clothes in the warehouse. The next day we asked again if we would be needed in a school or to work with young people and again we were told we weren’t. Instead, we helped in The Jungle, cleaning out and organising a couple of medical caravans which were providing first aid. It was an eye opening and exhausting day.
That evening we were having dinner in one of the pubs of Calais when we got chatting to a couple more volunteers. They told us about Dunkirk and the school where “teachers are desperately needed”. Our ears pricked up. The school, our new friends explained, which served the whole of Dunkirk Camp (mainly Iraqi and Kurdish families), was entirely staffed by volunteers and always needed people to teach. They told us a bit about Ginny and Rory and the work they had been doing- numbers, phonics, telling the time, learning the days of the week and colours and the alphabet- and encouraged us to join them. “You can follow us up in the morning”, they said, and it was as easy as that.
We arrived the next day after a 30ish minute drive. It was freezing cold and raining, the skies were grey and the wind was wicked. Dunkirk was totally different to The Jungle: it was quieter, more organised, there were streetlights, rows upon rows of neat wooden huts, gravel underfoot, large and clean toilets. There were specific points for electricity and running water. Everywhere were children and young men, greeting everyone “hello” and “bonjour”. It was safe, welcoming and desperately sad. I could not help but be moved by the dignity and stoicism of everyone we encountered.
The school- a large white tent with desks and chairs inside, books strung up on the walls and a couple of small bookshelves of resources- was where we met Ginny and Rory. They gave us a quick rundown of the challenges they faced and the work they did. One by one, children arrived. In coats, wrapped up warm, ready to learn. Because every child had different levels of English, I found it almost impossible to teach more than one child at a time. There are lots of repetitions, drawing images, acting thing out, anything to communicate with the children and young people, but it works. My first day there was beyond rewarding. I met some wonderful children who were cheeky and friendly and so clever. Despite the surroundings and the wind whipping through the tent, it was a joy to teach pupils who really wanted to learn and who were so motivated to simply get it right.
I met a lovely little girl who learned the word “monkey” and, quickly, she was calling everyone “monkey” and giggling away. With me, she learned subtraction for the first time, and showed an insatiable appetite for maths. In two days we went from her never having done it and starting with basics (5-3 = 2) to equations (6-3+ 10- 9= 4). Pages and pages of sums; no sooner had she finished one lot, she wanted more. Just before I left, we started on division. She was equally as enamoured with that as she was with subtraction. Her treasure was a red nail varnish, gummy and almost gone. She carried it in her pocket and she carefully painted it onto my thumbnail, her face full of glee.
Another pupil was one of three sisters and it was her first time at the school. She’d been out of education for eight months asher family travelled across Europe. She was eleven. Immensely clever, she could speak superb English, some French, some German, Kurdish and some Arabic. She could barely contain herself that there was a school for her to attend, and when I told her that (as it was Friday) school would be closed tomorrow, she looked devastated. The only way I could cheer her up was to write out pages of English words for her to learn, and sentences and sums which she promised she’d do before Monday. Her catchphrase was “thank you teacher, thank you teacher”. I have never known a child to be so excited about learning and it was heart- warming to see.
I was teaching another pupil words for family members; mum, dad, sister, brother. She was drawing pictures of her family and naming them. In the drawing of her mum, she pencilled five tiny teardrops from each her eyes. ”Always”, explained to me, “she cry, cry, cry”. Before long we went on to maths. We counted together up to thirty, and I had to try to explain why it was “fifteen” not “fiveteen” which I had no answer to! After we’d counted she said, “your turn” and began trying to teach me Kurdish, helping me pronounce each word and write each symbol on a whiteboard. I was useless!
Each day we came back, looking forward to whatever the day would throw at us. It was a fun and rewarding experience, one which showed me a different side of teaching. I could never have that experience in the UK. After meeting these amazing children and their families, I’d have given anything to stay. Honestly- anything. They really need a handful of consistent, regular educators who can be there for at least a month at a time, to give the children some stability. As much as I wanted to be that person, I had to return to England. I can say without doubt that I gained so much from the experience of volunteering, that I will certainly be back in the summer holidays. In the meantime I’ll keep donating and fundraising for Edlumino and the essential work they do, and encourage every teacher I meet to go over and get involved.
Bonnie is a Secondary trained English Teacher from Bedminster Down School in Bristol who came out in the Easter holidays with her friend. They were both sensible, passionate and willing to get on and do whatever was needed to help educate and motivate our children and keep in a freezing cold week of French weather.