Women Without Borders: A Day Serving with the Refugee Women’s Center in Northern France
It’s 7am and I’ve already been up for two hours. I’m sitting around a burned-out campfire in the remains of the Dunkirk Refugee Camp. We, the Refugee Women’s Center team, are here to be human rights observers in the case of a police eviction, and save some tents if we can, but it looks like the police are sleeping in this morning. The refugees are sleeping as well.
One woman, however, is wide awake. Azeb* grins her familiar toothy grin as she lights her campfire. There’s a sudden plume of tar-black smoke. The discarded plastic crate she’s lit blooms into flame. I choke back a cough and bury my nose and mouth in my scarf.
“Azeb, why are you lighting plastic on fire?!” Allie, my fellow volunteer, whispers urgently.
Azeb, who I’m pretty sure understands a lot more English than she speaks, grins mischievously.
“Plastic makes fast fire” she explains simply. And it’s true – in just a minute it’s already a fully formed bonfire, the tea kettle thrust deep within the flames to boil.
The refugees living in Northern France are incredibly resourceful – which sometimes means burning plastic so you can get warm. When you live in a place like this, you need to have priorities, and surviving now is more important than the future years lost off their lives from poor sanitation. And serving guests tea? That’s about retaining an identity, a home, and self-esteem. It’s worth some melted plastic.
I’m brought back from my train of thought as a rusted camping mug is passed to me, filled with suspiciously toxic smelling water.
In Kurdish culture, it is indescribably offensive to reject an offering like this. I know well that Azeb has limited tea bags for her whole family, because it was me who distributed them yesterday. Despite this, she is choosing to give her tea to us. So, with a smile, I drink the bitter liquid. Azeb beams.
I’m leaning over the toilet in Auchan, the French supermarket by the camp. I’m never ever drinking that stuff again, I tell myself as my stomach churns, although I know that faced with the same situation I would find it hard to offend a refugee, especially Azeb, who has been living in this forest for over a year.
Auchan is always bustling, and incredibly clean. Endless rows of frozen food and toiletries and fresh vegetables. Three rows just for cheese. An entire section devoted to breads: baguettes of all sizes.
It makes me sick (even more than the tea) to see society moving along in such ignorance, just a mere parking lot away from the muddy forest where hundreds of refugees sleep, starve, and are intimidated by police. The supermarket is literally thriving off the refugee crisis, happily taking the refugees’ little money for bread, and the volunteers’ money for activity supplies, medicine, and milk for the children.
I sit in the van with the other women I volunteer with. It’s our fourth time driving into the camp today, with the exact same contents in the van. We hand the police our IDs, and while one inputs our information into a computer in their vehicle, another pokes around the back of the van. It’s packed with plastic bags, labeled with the names of women living in the camp. Each bag has a woman’s order in it: shoes to replace broken and soaked ones, clean socks to try and control the first outbreak of Trench Foot in France since World War II, coats, blankets, and more.
Satisfied with our van contents and ID’s, either that or satisfied that they’ve wasted enough of our time and intimidated us enough, the police let us drive into the camp.
We are almost done distributing clothes to the women. There is one new family, though, and I’m in the forest with Allie trying to get their information and see if they need anything for tomorrow. They have nothing – not even a tent to sleep in tonight. I try to ask the new woman, Shaya, if she needs a coat, but language is a barrier. I point to her sweater, trying to make a connection.
“You have a pretty sweater,” I say. “Jwana,” I try, one of my few Kurdish vocabulary words. Shaya’s eyes light up in understanding.
“You like?” She asks. I nod firmly, and smile, pleased with this one successful communication. Then… Shaya begins pulling off her sweater, and hands it to me.
“What?” I stutter, “I can’t accept this.”
Shaya’s eyes darken. She looks around, confused. “For you! You like!” She says firmly, when I try to give it back to her. I remember the deep sense of honor and hospitality in her culture. Allie, who’s next to me, whispers, “You can’t give it back.”
I shake Shaya’s hand and her smile returns. I know that tomorrow I’ll be hunting through our warehouse to get Shaya the best coat and the best tent. Part of me wonders if, in some way, that was part of her plan. Not that it matters. Like I said, you have to be resourceful to survive here. And there are more dangerous ways of being resourceful than giving away a sweater.
I’m back at the campervan, wearing Shaya’s sweater and filled with a glass of wine. I’m here volunteering, and living, with the Refugee Women’s Centre, who support the particularly vulnerable women and children living in the camp. With the lack of other consistent volunteer organizations, recognized NGO’s, and government support, though, we are often the only volunteers on the ground. A team of six women working from a rusting Honda and temperamental van to support the over 500 refugees needing complex physical and psychological care? All in the face of a police presence that often commits human rights violations and destroys our donations? Yeah, it’s difficult.
But as I fall asleep in my cot in the Refugee Women’s Centre campervan, listening to the rain patter on the roof, I know it could be a lot more difficult. I’m thinking of Shaya and Azeb, and the other strong women, children, and men sleeping in the jungle.
And I believe that even though it’s difficult, it is my duty as a woman to support other women, especially those fellow women caught up in the refugee crisis facing our world.
A bit about the Refugee Crisis in Northern France…
Since the Dunkirk camp burned down almost a year ago, its official “refugee camp” status was rescinded but it has remained a hub of refugees. Hundreds of people, including many families with young children, live in the muddy forest we call the “jungle.” They are all trying to cross the UK border, to escape war, torture, political persecution and other dangers in their home countries.
Why I volunteered…
I was assigned a work placement during my Masters at a refugee resettlement center in the UK, which was my introduction to the refugee crisis. I became very passionate, and after helping in the resettlement phase, I wanted to volunteer in the French camps, where help is most needed. I applied for a grant through my university, which funded my time there, although it’s very possible to be self-funded. Time is the major inhibitor to people volunteering, and I was able to volunteer because I was long-term traveling after my graduation. It was important to me to work with the RWC because I know that women are particularly vulnerable in refugee camps. As a feminist, I saw it as an opportunity to support and empower other women.
It’s difficult to describe the experience volunteering in the refugee camps, or call it things like “rewarding” – because it was also difficult and chaotic. It seems condescending and misplaced to talk about its value in my own life, because I know that after I left, there are still hundreds of refugees living in terrible conditions. I do, however, think the work is incredibly important. There were many moments of joy, and my worldview is forever changed. I would recommend the experience to other women traveling long-term, not because it’s “amazing,” but because it’s essential.
How you can help…
- LEARN. Want to learn more about why travelers should support refugees (and who refugees are)? Read my blog post here.
- VOLUNTEER with the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Center. Contact them at firstname.lastname@example.org. RWC provides accommodation at €5 a night, and after one-month accommodation is covered.
- BUY from special fundraisers. I am running the ‘Women Without Borders’ campaign, selling merchandise (T-shirts, hoodies, travel mugs, phone cases, stickers, etc.) designed by the RWC team, with all proceeds going to RWC. Ships worldwide. Buy here.
- You can also buy a zine, with art made by RWC volunteers and refugees, here.
- DONATE your money or your old clothes!
- DO A DONATION TRANSPORT if you’re in Europe! Collect donations in your town, or collect discarded tents at a music festival, and drive them to the camps.
- FUNDRAISE by running a race (I’m running a half marathon in April), hold a bake sale, a garage sale, a dinner party, or set up an online shop.
- SPEAK OUT! Don’t be afraid to share posts on social media (like this one!), start conversations around the dinner table, and more.
*All names are changed to protect identities.