I received a text from my friend Liz yesterday,
“Wanna see you. In Totnes for one night”
I was there in a flash. I haven’t seen Liz in over 9 months, since she filled her truck full of useful tat; the detritus left by the affluent and carefree punters of Glastonbury festival last summer and set off to the Jungle refugee camp in Calais. She saw a need and went to fill it; I don’t suppose she anticipated how great the need would be, nor how integral she would become to the effort to support the residents.
Before I begin, I must be clear. It would be all too easy in the course of this article, to canonise my friend Liz, painting her as a saint. Liz is a dear friend and I am immensely proud of her and her daughter Inca, whom I have known since she was a button nosed, tangle haired seven year old. I don’t want to put them on a pedestal.
So for the sake of realism and as her friend I tell you Liz is multi dimensional and flawed. She’s abrasive, crass and stubborn, she’s tactless and outspoken and she swears. A lot. She’s angry and can be intolerant towards the more sensitive souled inhabitants of the world. She doesn’t edit herself for anyone; she is as she is and unapologetically so.
To be honest when I first met her she scared me.
However, when I hear about her involvement at the jungle camp in Calais, I can’t help but feel a strong sense of certainty, rightness. I really do see that Liz has found her calling and that there’s nobody better placed to be doing what she’s doing right now. Every aspect of her history culminates in this. She’s perfectly equipped and situated to do what she’s doing and there’s a pleasing poetry to that as an onlooker.
You need to be a force of nature to take on what she’s embarked upon.
Liz has lived a fairly extraordinary life often at the fringes of society living on traveller sites and festival sites in some converted horse lorry or vintage caravan or another. She’s definitely a radical alternative type, but don’t make the mistake of picturing her as a flaky dreamer. Liz is definitely no hippy.
I hope she writes a memoir one day because that woman has some tales to tell. I’m not about to tell them for her, that’s not my business here, but suffice it to say that she knows a thing or two about basic survival and has seen enough of the underbelly of this world to lend her a dark sense of humour and a hardness born of necessity.
She’s intelligent and open minded and endlessly practical. Liz sees something that needs doing and finds a way to do it. Resourceful and innovative, here is someone used to building a home from the tat that others have discarded and making do with basic resources, without heating or running water, with very basic electricity systems and little space. She’s also skilled, capable with power tools, adept at construction and creating functional infrastructure. She’s used to doing things herself, self sufficiently.
Some might describe Liz as a woman of masculine traits; she’s a chainsaw carver and fire fighter, she hoicks about great lumps of wood and tinkers with old lorries and swears like a trooper. Did I already mention the swearing? The truth is that tells you more about limiting societal expectations of womanhood than it tells you about Liz. She is a woman through and through, complex, tender and fierce. One of the people I wanted to draw energetic inspiration from when it was time to birth my baby (I confess I myself am a bit of a hippy).
As a mother, Liz knows about raising children in adversity. When she gave birth to her first child her situation was completely unfit for a baby, she was unequipped and had to pick herself up out of her incongruous life to raise the beautiful, confident and capable adults her children have become. She’s struggled through the challenges of effectively loving children who are in the throes of phases of unmanageable behavioural outbursts. For all her edges, this is a loving, affectionate and patient woman.
Having worked myself with young people with a history of trauma through Social Services, I can begin to imagine the emotional and behavioural difficulties the refugee children of Calais are battling with.
She’s emotionally pragmatic too, Liz knows that the last thing someone in the midst of traumatic crisis needs is pity, she’s compassionate and deep feeling, but she won’t leap into the pits of sobbing despair with you while you’re in emotional meltdown, she’ll be your rock to rest against and when you’re all done and ready, she’ll pull you out again, brush you down and give you a bit of a cuddle.
I’ll be honest, I was nervous about seeing my friend Liz.
I’ve known her for fifteen years or so. I met her and her two young children through my boyfriend from college (now the daddy of my child) who’d been living on a traveller site with her and later I came to be their neighbour too, living on a rutted rural green lane in the outskirts of alternative Devonshire haven, Totnes.
My apprehension was borne out of a sense that I might as well be about to meet for coffee with someone who was on a brief visit home from Mars, I didn’t know what I would meet, it’s bound to impact you, right, living in a refugee camp encountering who knows what kind of trauma and horror every single day hearing stories of rape, drowning, beatings, bombings, death, fear and loss? What would she be now, my friend Liz?
I have heard tales through social media and the broadcast media. We all saw the shocking image of little Aylan Kurdi washed up on a Turkish beach, just three years old, somewhere between the ages of my niece and my daughter.
She is living with these people though, in the thick of it. While most volunteers (probably wisely) stay off site, Liz lives within the refugee camp.
I was also aware of the weight of guilt across my shoulders, a little tightness in my throat, because I’m safe at home, living an idyllic peaceful life, introducing my toddler to lambs and primroses, my greatest challenges are sleep deprivation, the fickle English springtime and a bit of a tight budget.
Meanwhile desperate mothers drown with their babies, or choose one of their children to smuggle to safety at a significant cost and my friend Liz forgoes all comfort to make a tangible difference in these peoples lives, while I only shed tears and share petitions on Facebook.
I say the Calais refugee camp because the distinction is crucially important. Officially this camp is described as a migrant camp, the crisis as a migrant crisis and it is this distinction that allows government agencies, charities and international bodies such as the UNHCR to deny their responsibility to people suffering and struggling, dying in their thousands fleeing from homelands that have become untenable, a living hell.
One of the things Liz talked about was how much more degrading and shocking it is for these families to find themselves living in The Jungle than it is for her,
“I’m used to it aren’t I? I've lived in mud and chaos before. They’ve come from comfortable, wealthy lives where they’re all posh and tidy in their nice houses”.
The people flooding the shores of Europe are not the destitute poor, they’re respectable professionals, doctors, ex military, often those who’ve worked alongside western organisations such as translators, made all the more vulnerable to being the target of attacks by fundamentalists because of their affiliations.
These are the people who can afford to pay the smugglers. They risk the voyage in the desperate hope that once they reach a place of peace, their peers, professionals, civilised societies will see the extremity of the lives they have fled and offer them sanctuary. If it was I and my world was destroyed, my home no longer safe, I would hope that someone would help my family. Wouldn’t you?
Europe is morally robust, humane. We have the UN convention on human rights; there are charters in place. Europe is civilised. Isn’t it?
Liz recognises the importance of dignity. All the more so when people’s lives have been so decimated. She talked about how they get the ladies together and attend to small things, like having a manicure, things that may seem frivolous given the magnitude of need at the camp, but which remind them they are human and dignified.
Running the Unofficial Women and Children’s Centre, Liz has found herself responsible for the care and provision of 290 unaccompanied children. Not one single government agency, charity or United Nations agency is taking any responsible for those children or offering them any care or protection. The children of that camp are unregistered.
I know it’s hard to believe but by calling this a migrant crisis, official channels are shirking responsibility
Good benevolent people who contribute to charity and trust official organisations to uphold our civilised principles hear this; official channels are ignoring the lives of these children because of semantics.
Meanwhile there are the children themselves.
Liz showed some photos on her phone, surreally it was a little like looking at holiday snaps from a trip to see friends.
6-year-old Ahmed, who snuck into Britain under the cover of night, who would’ve suffocated in the back of the lorry if it hadn’t been for Liz furnishing him with a cheap mobile phone, knowing he intended to take the risk of crossing into the UK. He sent her daughter Inca a text explaining “no oksijan driver no stop” and they were able to alert the authorities. The text was traced and Ahmed was rescued along with fourteen other people
Another boy of about eleven from Afghanistan, with a twinkling cheeky smile, his face scarred from an attack by the Taliban in which his school was burnt to the ground.
Liz, a former fire fighter has trained residents to contain the fires that break out frequently across the camp. The causes range from candles in shacks, cooking inside on open fires, “like I said these people don’t have any experience of living in these sorts of conditions, they’re used to houses. Little ones like that (gesturing towards my now sleeping toddler) with carbon monoxide poisoning from having open fires inside shacks. Nightmare”
There have also been incidences of arson from outside the camp, she tells us.
“Firebreaks” she says. “We had to drive my truck into one of the structures, a restaurant because it was too well built to tear down! The fire was so quick there wasn’t time for anything else. Why are you tearing down my restaurant? Says the owner; it’s not on fire! Now they get it. Firebreaks are the only way.”
There's no heating or electricity on site in the jungle, “so you know, it’s been cold” says Liz flatly. She’s matter of fact about the basic conditions. “At least there are porta-potties now”.
Laughing she adds, “Don’t ever get stuck in a porta potty when there’s a tear gas attack because they fill up!”
She jokes that they aren’t as bad as the toilets at Glastonbury, but at least you don’t get the tear gas there.
She goes on to describe having to drag reluctant teenage boys out of bed because the CRS-French security forces had thrown tear gas into the camp, without incident or provocation and the caravan they’re sleeping in is filling up with it. She chuckles at the twisted absurdity of it. The image of rousing drowsy adolescents any mother of teenagers would recognise all too well, except for the tear gas.
The CRS make no concessions for the children. When they catch them trying to cross the border they spray them in the eyes and mouth with pepper spray.
Another picture, a young boy of eleven who made it to the UK on his first day at school in his uniform. A selfie he sent to Liz, as proud and awkward as any eleven year old. A kid like any other.
Another smiling boy stands against the fence, “he’s a sweet lad, speaks good English.” Says Liz “He’s missing”.
He might have crossed into England, but who knows. Droves of unaccompanied children are rich pickings for traffickers. An estimated 10,000 unaccompanied refugee children have gone missing across Europe.
The stories of their journeys to Calais are devastating; going unfed for days, being drugged or beaten by smugglers to keep them quiet during transport, being raped, being locked in containers alongside dead bodies. They are the survivors. Children, who were already being raised in stressful, perilous and traumatic warfare conditions in which most have lost family and loved ones and witnessed or been victims of violence. On top of this they have then suffered unimaginable horrors on their journeys only to find themselves abandoned by the officials of Northern Europe, where their mothers prayed in desperation they would find safety.
So now my friend Liz has inadvertently become the surrogate mother to hundreds of lost children, caught in a limbo created by bureaucratic technicality. She finds herself doing the job of multiple agencies; finding them suitable shoes, acting as their advocate, petitioning government officials, expressing her pride when they start a new school, making sure they have eaten, appearing on televised interviews to spread awareness, dressed in a smart jacket borrowed from the donated clothes in an effort to smarten herself up at the insistence of her daughter, grieving them when they die on the road because they have no real alternative choice but to take the risk and try to reach safety eventually.
The Jungle is no safe place for a child.
I told Liz about my feelings of helplessness and guilt, ‘I wish I could do something Liz” I choked.
“What you’re doing is important though; raising children who understand that this stuff is not ok. Making them aware that we can’t let this happen”
How can we help to change this scandalous failure to protect the rights of these refugees if we can’t walk away from our lives, roll up our sleeves and move into The Jungle?
Make sure people know what is going on. Educate people you know who do have wealth and influence about the reality of the situation, so they know that the charity they donate to or the government they vote for aren’t necessarily upholding the values they claim to or taking proactive measures like they might assume them to be. Speak out against xenophobia and challenge opinions to counteract scare mongering. Be pedantic about language: These are refugees, not migrants. Put pressure on those who make decisions and ask questions.
And how is my friend, Liz, visitor from Mars?
“We have a check against burnout for volunteers” she says
“Are you still crying sometimes? Tick-Good
Are you crying all the time? Tick-Go home.
294 members of parliament including my local MP, Sarah Wollaston, MP for Totnes, voted against allowing 3000 refugee children into the UK in the Dubs amendment this week.
This decision will be reviewed next week; there is time to contact your local MP with your full name and address to ask them to reconsider.
Our grandparent’s generation provided sanctuary to almost 10,000 refugee children on the Kindertransport during WWII. We as a nation hold a lot of pride in the efforts and sacrifices of that generation. Let’s ask that the current government honour their memory.
For South Hams residents, email:
The number of refugees arriving at the camp is increasing all the time, yet donations are dwindling. There is no organised aid provision, so food, clothing and supplies are needed. For up to date advice about what is most acutely needed and how to donate, please visit:
With LOVE and thanks to Liz Clegg for her story and for permission to relay details of our conversation.