Dunkirk Bridges: My Month Volunteering With The Dunkirk Refugee Women's Centre

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They were four and five years old which they told me by holding up their little fingers. They had matching light green Minnie Mouse sweatshirts but they kept telling me it was Mickey Mouse. The only English I heard from them was singing Happy Birthday, counting to twenty, and “Mickey Mouse!” Their hair was always in their face because it was at that length where it wasn’t quite long enough to put in a pony tail but long enough to fall in front of their eyes. I kept trying to braid their hair back but the bangs stubbornly fell into their face. Finally I bought little hair clips with bows to match Minnie’s and pinned their bangs back so we could see their big beautiful brown eyes. These sisters were living as refugees in Grande-Synthe, France.

The first time I met the sisters we were inside the woods where the makeshift tents were built. It was much cooler under the trees than out in the barren field between the one-lane road and the ravine at the bottom of the motorway. It was my first day going so far into the camp. I say camp but what I really mean is people living in a park under bushes in tents fashioned from tarps and tree branches.

I was volunteering with the Dunkirk Refugee Women’s Centre and the more experienced volunteers were checking on the families they knew and getting lists of items needed. I didn’t know enough yet to help so I just play with the kids. There are about half a dozen that came over to investigate when I sat down in the dirt with the sisters. We started counting with our fingers and they learned to count to twenty. Over and over we counted, the game never getting old for them. They would take turns sitting in my lap or sitting in front of me counting in English and holding up their little fingers. Although they had been a little shy when I first came into the camp they warmed up to me quickly. It was hard to walk away at the end of the day.

A week later there was a raid at the camp. There were probably two hundred single men and fifteen families scattered throughout Poythouck, the park in Grande-Synthe. We suspected a raid was coming. There was a particularly hot day, the first of the year, and none of the other volunteer organizations had brought drinking water to Poythouck yet. I was horrified that in such a rich country like France there were so many people living without drinking water.

I went with two other volunteers to Auchan, the large local grocery store, and bought three hundred two-liter bottles of water. We took two car loads back to the park. When we arrived there were French riot police (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite- CRS) wandering around the camp. There were also a couple of black sedans and men in suits walking through and observing the scene like they were at a zoo.

The more experienced volunteer said we couldn’t hand out the water we brought while the riot police were there because distribution to refugees was illegal. My chest tightened and my nose tingled. I took a deep breath and swallowed my tears. “I have moral issues with withholding drinking water from people,” I said. I knew she was right but thirsty people were crowding around my car full of bottled water.

Looking at the men in suits, who were obviously in charge of the riot police, I thought about what their life experiences must have been: privileged, like mine. If I was struggling to see so many people without water I suspected that they would struggle too. It is not an easy thing to see and I was willing to bet that if we started handing out water the suits would not have the stomach to stop us—or let the riot police stop us. Whatever cruelty they were willing to order from behind their desks, I did not think they would be able to handle watching the officers take water out of people’s mouths. I was right. We passed out the water and no one stopped us.

That night, the riot police came and demolished the camp.

Most of the families were sent in buses to “welcome centers” all over France. We knew many of the families would not have wanted to go—they were trying to get to the UK. It reminded me of the child’s board game “Shoots and Ladders.” Each player was trying to get to the end of the game by climbing the ladders. If you landed on a “shoots” square you would slide back down to an earlier level or even the beginning of the game. If a refugee got picked up by the authorities they would send them somewhere far from the English Channel. The refugee would have to work their way back from whatever part of France they had been moved to.

We heard rumors that when families refused to get on the buses, riot police would threaten to deport the father. The single men weren’t relocated to welcome centers; they were just told to “go.” Go where?

After the raid there were almost no families at the camp but within a few days they started walking back. One of the first families to come back was the family with the two sisters. The first night they came back they were so tired they didn’t interact with us at all. I wasn’t even sure it was them. They looked like completely different children. I shudder to think what those few days had been like for them.

The next day, after a full night of sleep and some breakfast they were energized. When I arrived at the camp they ran up to me for hugs. They were in their Minnie Mouse sweatshirts again. When you carry everything you own on your back your wardrobe options are limited. Their adults—mother, father, and two other adult males who I assumed were uncles—washed the family’s clothes in lake water with the detergent we had given them. The girls giggled as they beat the clothes across boulders by the water’s edge.

A few days after the raid, the riot police came around during the day, driving through the park and making everyone nervous. I had parked my car at the entrance to the park and left my purse inside. Why would I need my purse to walk around the park? Two other volunteers and I had gone to the lake to check on the sisters and their family. While we were talking to them three officers pulled up. We decided to stay to make sure they didn’t harass the family. So they harassed us instead.

They demanded IDs from us. The police don’t need a reason to demand ID in France. They don’t have to have probable cause or even suspicion of wrongdoing. It is a system set up to encourage profiling and harassment. I handed them my Pennsylvania Drivers license. They said it didn’t count as ID in France. I explained that my passport was in my car at the entrance of the park. Their response was “I could hold you for four hours in detention for that.”

My personality is not well suited to receiving threats. Any authority figure, who has had the misfortune of having to tell me what to do, will tell you that I am defiant at best and insubordinate at worst. My natural reaction to this threat was to say, “Do it. Waste four hours of everyone’s time and give yourself a lot of paperwork over nothing. I can’t imagine that will be a comfortable call to the U.S. Embassy. The U.S. and U.K. press will love this story. Detain me. I dare you.”

But I held my tongue because the best way to continue helping these families was not to sit in a French jail. So I stood quietly trying to look respectful and meekly thanked the officer when he handed back my ID. Four months later I can still feel my blood pressure rise when I think about that day. They didn’t bother the family, though, and that was my primary goal so I will consider the interaction a success.

Meals were the most chaotic time in Grande-Synthe. There were often separate stations for water and food. When I wasn’t part of the distribution, I played with the sisters while their parents queued and then ate. Outside of the forest where a little tent city was beginning to form again after the raid was a small, barren field at the bottom of the highway ravine. This is where the one-lane road in and out of the park went through and where people gathered for meals.

There was a little ditch running through it that was small enough for an adult to hop over but large enough to pose an entertaining challenge for the sisters. I straddled the ditch, planting a foot firmly on each side and extended my hand as a safety net. Over and over the sisters would run toward the ditch, grab my hand at the last second, and leap across to the other side. Ever delighted with their triumph, we repeated this game until they wore themselves out and their mother collected them for a nap.

With no common language it was hard to say goodbye. The sisters wouldn’t know that I meant goodbye forever instead of goodbye until tomorrow. I hugged them both then watched them run back to their uncles, laughing and leaping into their arms. My only comfort in leaving them was that I never worried that they wouldn’t be well cared for. Their parents and the men who travelled with them were attentive and loving. They would protect the sisters with their lives and I only feared for the day that might become necessary. I hoped they would be lucky enough to make it to the UK.

A month after I returned to the United States I received a message from one of the other volunteers in France. It was a picture of the sisters in new dresses standing in a large, lush, green garden and holding their arms out as far as they could. The note from the volunteer said “The family made it to the UK. They are all together.”

Article by Claire Ryder
VERVE Operative USA & Humanitarian Activist