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La France

There but for the grace of God… part 2

LanguedocLiving, Oct 16

By Rachel Caldecott-Thornton 2015

It wasn’t without a certain amount of trepidation that we prepared our trip to the No Borders Camp on the French Italian border; after all, none of us had done this sort of thing before. It seemed logical to go there because: a) it is closer than Calais and Calais is well supported; b) , I speak Italian and French and c) the people huddled on the rocks would be particularly vulnerable to the vagaries of weather and sea. However, a few days before we were due to travel, Italian police bulldozed the camp and removed everything and everybody. Some of the refugees were carted off by plane to Bari while others managed to make it back to the Red Cross camp in Ventimiglia.

Thanks to a few well-timed and very generous monetary donations I was able to shop for, and stock pile, a huge amount of food, medicines, hygiene stuff, camping gear and cleaning products. Then, after spreading the word via Facebook and Languedoc Living <A migrant's view>, gifts of clothing and food started arriving from generous people around the region. Our living room and courtyard soon started to fill up with bin liners of clothes, until a local friend lent us the use of her garage. As I have said before, not all reactions to what we were doing were favourable. There is, and probably always will be, a small minority of nasty-minded, short-sighted, ignorant, fun-sucking bigots out there. Our immediate neighbours, for example, when we explained happily that the bags were full of donations for the refugees, simply responded with a harsh, “Let them drown!”

Luckily (for my morale and my sanity) I had joined a few of the amazing Facebook communities such as: Languedoc Solidarity with Refugees, Refugee Aid Cote d’Azur, Calais and Beyond – People to People Solidarity and others. These forums are populated by hundreds of wonderful people. They are generous, kind and empathetic and it has been a joy… an absolute joy… to get to know them.

These groups have set up their own collection hubs around France, where people like me are busy sorting donations and transporting them to the camps. Sometimes to lighten the mood we compare notes about what we have been given, as not all donations make much sense. I’m not only talking about the strapless silk ball gowns, and Armani suits, the tiny bikinis, high-heeled broken sandals, stained and unwashed sheets, and the carrier bags full of much used lace thongs; but the ice-skates, fancy dress costumes (Wilma Flintstone to be precise), human teeth and finally the heartbreakingly tiny pair of toddler’s swimming trunks which arrived a day after the photo of little Aylan Kurdi went viral. Giving the donors the benefit of the doubt, I can only assume that they intended these items to be sold to raise funds.

We packed the van on Friday and set off to Ventimiglia on Saturday 3 October, chased all the way by the worst storm the region had seen for years. Then, after six and a half hours of driving rain, zero visibility, and the often terrifying gusts of wind which seemed determined to impose a diagonal trajectory on our vehicle, we arrived at The Seagull Hotel. Several police cars and vans were parked rather untidily outside, as if left there in a hurry. “Murder” and “drugs raid” sprang to mind, but it turned out these were police sent down from Genoa to “deal with the migrant problem” and in any case, they always parked that way.

We pulled down the shutters and slept through the rest of the storm, waking bright and early to blue skies, sunshine and calm seas. Caritas and the Red Cross were closed until Monday morning so we decided to treat Sunday as a day of fun and took our son to Monte Carlo.

The drive along the Riviera is fun, even in an elderly blue transit van. Azure water and exotic vegetation worked their magic. But Monaco/Monte Carlo is something else entirely. After barely two hours there we all felt vaguely sick, rather like geese waiting for their livers to be extracted.

The absurd luxury and abundance is, quite simply, revolting. Yes, many of the buildings are beautiful and indeed yachts, like F1 cars, are superbly crafted pieces of engineering, but in the great scheme of things they all mean nothing. Do I need any of this opulence? Does anyone? No. Would having any of it improve my life, make me a better person or make me happier? I think not. Are they using their wealth for the good of others? It doesn’t look like it. It is all, what I can only describe as ‘eff-off money’. So after a sandwich and a drink we did just that and effed-off back to reality.

Back at the international frontier between France and Italy we paused. This was the site of the No Borders Camp. Here had once stood a kitchen, a classroom, library, office and dormitories. Now the only sign that people had ever passed this way were a solitary pair of broken flip-flops and a tartan scarf left forgotten on the rocks.

We found three weary men sitting on the sea wall. My husband Chris sauntered up to them and struck up a conversation. Only one spoke some English, none of them spoke any French. They were from Bangladesh, Pakistan and India. I have no idea of how or why they ended up on that Italian wall gazing so longingly at France, but they looked dead beat and hungry. “We are going to France… we are going to France,” the one English speaker repeated like a mantra. We looked over our shoulders past the armed border guards to pretty little Menton and sighed. “How? Do you have papers?” He shrugged his answer. “Where else can we go now?” With the memory of the heartless Riviera glitz still fresh in our minds, we wondered what sort of welcome they would find there… if they got that far. Perhaps some kindly, benevolent Russian oligarch would employ them? Feeling suddenly totally useless we gave them the picnic food we’d brought with us and left them sitting there, heads bobbing in thanks for our tiny gesture of good will.

Back in Ventimiglia we heard there was a “No Borders” rally happening at the railway station. “I just hope they don’t destroy the shops, like they did in Genoa,” said someone ominously. The rally, it turned out, was peaceful and considerably smaller than I had expected. While the police staying at our hotel all looked small, young and harmless, the authorities had clearly been saving the big, scary ones for use in crowd control. Helmeted, shielded and armed with automatic guns, batons, tasers and tear gas they had every exit from the square covered. The few refugees and migrants who were at the station were spectators like us. Sensibly they were keeping well back and silent. The only people making any noise were the enthusiastic Italian activists, who banged drums, sang, chanted and made speeches rendered incomprehensible through hand-held megaphones.

We left the demonstration soon after. Either it was going to develop into something quite unpleasant or it was going to continue to be a rather ineffective display of noisy bravado. I say that quite cynically, because to be honest I couldn’t really see who the activists were supporting. I got the feeling that just like in ancient Roman, where professional mourners were hired for funerals; these were professional activists eager for any cause. I wondered whether they had given any thought to what the needs of the refugees really were.

Since returning from the trip many people have asked us whether our donations were appreciated and whether they actually reached the people who really needed them. I imagine media reports of discarded (or burning) donations have worried many people. One lady said, “All they want is money; they are not interested in clothes. They already have fancy clothes and smart phones. In Calais they are burning all the donations!” (The author of these informative statements then went on to confuse me totally by saying, “Why do they have to build golden bloody elephants all over the place? I’m English and like England to be English. I don’t want to see golden bloody elephants!”)

All I can say is this:

We made two drops on Monday morning. The first to Caritas consisted mainly of clothes, shoes, toiletries, detergents for washing clothes and a drying rack. Stan, our son, with the help of a volunteer called Miroslav, happily ferried load after load of donations, past the inconvenient road works, to the waiting charity staff. The Caritas stocks were running low. I heard one gentleman say to a Caritas worker, “Please, lady. Do you have shoes? I can’t walk. My feet are so painful. Look.” I looked down at his bare feet, crammed in to ill-fitting dress shoes. The Caritas volunteer looked at me sadly and said, “We’ve run out, I don’t suppose you brought any shoes?” I can’t tell you how good it felt to be able to show her the boxes containing at least 30 pairs of new or nearly new shoes, trainers and hiking boots. Within seconds I had pulled out a pair of brand new socks and Stan’s favourite pair of trainers. Francis – the man with the sore feet – put them straight on. His smile was enough for us, but he thanked us repeatedly and went off happily; if not exactly skipping, at least no longer hobbling.

As she checked though the bags of jackets, t-shirts, jumpers and other items the boss of Caritas started to cry. “I’m sorry,’ she said, “I do this every time we get a delivery. You are all so generous. You have brought exactly what we need. Thank you, thank you.”

The second drop was to the Red Cross.

This time we managed to drive straight onto the forecourt. A troop of Red Cross workers efficiently emptied the van of all our remaining donations: food, medicines, bedding and assorted camping supplies (tarpaulins, tents, sleeping bags, ropes, tent pegs, mallets, wind up torches, etc). Walter the boss came down from his office and showed us round the facility. We saw where all the goods are first logged into the database and then kept on well ordered shelves until needed. There were lots and lots of empty shelves as the daily demands are constantly depleting supplies. Food and medicines are checked for sell-by dates and these are noted both on the outside of the storage boxes and in the computer log. We saw the dormitory where Red Cross staff sleep and were even offered the chance to visit the refugee camp itself. This last offer we declined, all of us reluctant to engage in ‘poverty tourism.’ There was nothing to be gained for the refugees from a visit from well-meaning little us and no value to us other than to make us even more aware of the enormity of the problems facing them all.

So we said our goodbyes and received hugs from Walter and his secretary Patrizia (who also became a little tearful with gratitude) and were ceremoniously given three rather splendid commemorative t-shirts, before hitting the long road home.

* * *

I would like to say that my trip would not have been possible without the support of my husband, son and the donations (both material and monetary) of friends and strangers. Thank you all.

Finally, the problems of these displaced people are overwhelming, I can’t deny that. But we must not use the enormity of the problems as an excuse to do nothing. So, my advice to anybody interested can only be: Do what you can. Think Global and Act Local is as true for a humanitarian cause as it is for an environmental one. It is worth doing. Extending a hand of friendship and kindness is always, always worth the trouble. You may not be able to solve everyone’s problems, but everything you actually do will help someone.

If you feel that you can’t get aid to people far away (although donations to charities would help), then help someone locally. For starters, here is a good, local cause:

A handful of Syrian families are squatting in abandoned flats in Beziers, without electricity or water. The mayor has told them in no uncertain terms where he’d like them to go. The local Facebook group Languedoc Solidarity with Refugees has put an article up - please read it.

[We will be featuring an update from Languedoc Solidarity with Refugees about what's happening in Béziers very soon.]

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