I arrive at the edge of the camp: a barren place situated between a motorway and a railway. As I arrive on foot, the police in the riot van take no notice. They seem to be concerned only with those arriving in cars. It appears anyone can just stroll in. In the four days I spent at the camp, I had my passport and bag checked only once.
At the end of a long, desolate road is the entrance to the camp. Foreboding green gates warn against bringing in guns, gas or alcohol. A small container holds the Utopia56 volunteer office. On the left I pass a large wooden structure that appears to be the centre of the community, at least for the young men there. A small number of people use the electric hook ups to charge phones whilst others warm themselves by a fire or kick a football around in small groups.
Just around the corner is the food distribution area. A ‘Snack Shack’ van is parked next to a large white tent offering tea. A sign on the van says that three meals a day are served, albeit at largely varying times. A mishmash of wooden benches and tables adorn the area around.
As I continue down the gravel path, I notice that the previous nights storms have inflicted damage on the makeshift village. A main pathway is completely flooded – volunteers drag offcuts of wood to make an impromptu bridge. The camp itself seems eerily quiet.
Once past the communal areas and over the substitute bridge, is the residential zone. Wooden huts line a long gravel road, as far as the eye can see. Having only recently visited Dachau, the sense of deja-vu I felt was strikingly poignant.
As I walk farther into the camp I become more aware of the reality of the living conditions for the people there. Each family or group live in small plywood huts that are raised off the ground. Each hut has a number to distinguish it from the other 400 and two small plastic windows. They have no proper heating or electricity, just gas burners for warmth. Some have personalised their huts. Many for practical purposes – adding a second room or providing extra shelter under a tarp. But a few have painted emblems, phrases and flown flags. These people have almost no jurisdiction over their lives; by personalising their environment they regain some control.
After a few minutes of walking I arrive at a small, water-logged white tent. It is completely flooded. As the water seeps in through my trainers I make a mental note to wear wellies for the rest of my time at the camp. Inside there are tables with a few children sat around them. I introduce myself to their teacher, she appears positive despite being ankle deep in water, and I ask if she is the person I am looking for. She introduces herself as Ginny and informs me kindly that the person I am looking for, Mimi, is in the next tent along.
The tent next door has fared much better after the storm. The path to the door is flooded and once again palettes provide the only dry route in, but this tent has been built on a raised platform and so the inside is dry. Here I meet Mimi and her mother Luana. The first thing I notice is the similarity between them both, Luana has a fantastic head of dark brown curls, Mimi today has chosen to restrain hers under a wooly hat. Mimi informs me this is her third week at the camp and that her mother has used her holidays to come and support her for the week. Whilst waiting for children to arrive, we discuss our lives back home and I ask many questions, but Mimi keeps being pulled away. Having been at the camp a mere two weeks she has acquired the role of head of the play school. Luana informs me that Mimi’s boyfriend, who has been at the camp for the same amount of time, has also got a lot of responsibility at the camp. It becomes apparent that those that can give an undetermined amount of time as volunteers quickly find themselves in positions of great importance.
Slowly, the children trickle in, dressed in many layers of clothing. Mimi knows almost all of them by name. She explains to me that there is a problem with sharing for a small amount of the children. They will fight over a new toy, play with it for a short while and move onto the next new thing. Others like three year old Maisaa happily play with whatever is around.
By late morning the play school is quite busy. A young boy named Malik comes in like a tornado. He plays with everything and nothing, and we can see he is becoming quite agitated. I take him outside to pay frisbee, but with the high winds and giant puddles everywhere we end up soaked, much to his amusement. A noise comes from one of the communal structures to our right, Malik drops the frisbee and runs over there. A group of clowns from The Flying Seagull Project has come to visit the camp. We sit down together and watch. They bring much laughter and relief to both the children and the adults.
Soon it is 1pm and the play school closes for lunch. Children aged 5 and 6 take themselves back to their huts, whizzing off purposely on their donated bikes. A few mothers and fathers come to collect their younger ones. Maisaa however is still with us. Communicating a lunch break to some of the parents can prove difficult – time doesn’t have much authority in the camp.
In the afternoon the playschool reopens. It is quite quiet, possibly lunch is still being handed out, so I make my way outside to see if I can help at the school for older children. The small, sodden school tent is now vacant – they have moved into the large white tent next door. Inside are mismatched tables and chairs, washing lines hold exercise books between the poles. Adults sit at tables with a young child or two, practicing basic English and Maths.
A friendly looking man in green wellies comes over an introduces himself. He is Rory, who with Ginny, the lady I met earlier in the day, runs the school. Before his latest career move, Rory was an Executive Headteacher, Ginny his deputy. After visiting the camp and noting the lack of any educational facilities they made the decision to do something about it, and Edlumino was born.
It is like no school I have ever experienced. Children come in and out as they please. Some are dropped off by parents, most arrive on bikes. They walk in, whichever teacher is free works with them on a one-to-one basis until the time that the child either gets up and leaves or is collected by their parents. As Rory says; "It is the easiest form of performance management"
The weather also plays a big part. In Dunkirk, if it is raining all day or cold, often a lot the children don’t come to school as it is warmer in their huts. If it is sunny, a lot of the children prefer to play outside. Obviously there are many determined children who turn up every day without fail, but on the whole, weather has an impact.
Children playing on the small supply of wood for building
A lot of the time it is just Rory and Ginny, teaching around 60 different children over the period of a week. Retired teachers, part time teachers and those working supply volunteer for differing amounts of time. In the school holidays, some teachers like myself make the journey to support them.
Both Ginny and Rory have given up their well-paid jobs (Rory for good, Ginny is on extended leave) to work in sometimes sub-zero temperatures inside a rickety tent, to ensure that refugee children still have access to an education. They both travel from from their homes England each week to open the school from Monday to Friday in Dunkirk, returning home to England late on Friday night. They take no wages and cover all their own costs. By any definition these people are saints.
There are some 300 children in the camp, only 1/5 of them are coming to the school on a regular basis. Rory and Ginny hope to reach all of these children, but to do this they need more space, stability and regular teachers. They are currently fundraising for long term qualified teachers here. The Brighton Shelter Build Project are also making headway in tackling this, by building two new fantastic buildings that will incorporate classrooms, a baby and toddler room and an outdoor learning and play space. You can donate to their causehere. These are the types of projects that will bring a sense of normality to otherwise fraught lives.
The first of the children’s centre buildings- still under construction
To say that my time at the camp has had a profound impact on my life is an understatement. Speaking to the people there and witnessing their courage and kindness, I can’t help but feel humbled . One man described his families journey across land and sea from their village near Mosulin Iraq. A journey that took him, his wife and three children twenty one weeks. Eventually they made it to France, now they are safe.
But life in Dunkirk Refugee Camp is far from home.
The author is a qualified teacher in the primary phase and a subject leader who came out to help in Dunkirk for a week and is returning in the summer. As well as being brilliant with the children, she brought her Farsi speaking father to help in the camp.
We are so looking forward to her return...