World Refugee Day 2016: La Linière refugee camp in Grande-Synthe

Who has ever heard of Grande-Synthe? A village on the northern-most tip of France where all men seen outside on Sunday mornings are heading towards the community’s one tabac; where the poverty level is among the highest in the country; and where a little part of Kurdistan is alive.

The refugee camp La Linière in Grande-Synthe was built and developed jointly by Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the mayor of Grande-Synthe, as a more humanitarian alternative to the previous muddy and disease-prone tent camp located at a nearby site. The camp initially housed approximately 1,400 individuals, but is now down to around 500. The vast majority of the people are Kurdish, although there also are families and individuals from Iran, Egypt, and Vietnam.

After having tried to mentally prepare myself – to whatever extent possible – for the hardship of volunteering at the camp for two weeks, it was difficult to know how to relate to my first impressions: that the camp was well-functioning. That a community had formed. That it reminded me of the beautiful student housing co-operative back in Edinburgh. It was difficult to accept that a community can seem to be so ideal[1], when the very reason for its existence is the near impossibility of fulfilling what is the primary intention of each individual in the camp: leaving.

As with everything, there are so many layers. There are the worries about waking up too late to get fruit salad, about chopping wood in the wrong size, and about whether we are getting our trainers too muddy if we choose the wrong path to the supermarket. And there are the worries about keeping your baby daughter healthy so she doesn’t cough in the lorry so the driver can hear you after having been sleeping quietly for six hours. And, often, the levels of worry are intensely, intimately, coexisting.

Another volunteer was playing hide-and-seek with a young girl. Connecting quickly, closely, over a game they have both played hundreds of times. They are playing in a container used for the storage and distribution of clothes for women and children. The volunteer says, “It’s your turn to hide”, and starts counting. The young girl pretends that the container is a lorry.

You are a child. You play the same games the volunteer played when she was little. But this time, hide-and-seek is played in containers with volunteers during the day, and hide-and-seek is re-enacted throughout the night when your parents need you to keep absolutely still and absolutely quiet, to hopefully be in another country in the morning.

On my third day, I learnt that everyone with a limp had been injured by a lorry. If it is more difficult for you to reach the tea tent today than it was yesterday, something went seriously wrong when you were trying to cross last night. And that knowledge startled me. And then it becomes a fact. When I went to the supermarket the next afternoon, a 12 year old blonde French girl passed me on crutches, and my immediate thought was the same – lorry. Then, I realised how absurd that was. Then, how ridiculous it is that it is an absurd assumption in the supermarket, but a reality in the camp, less than a kilometre away.

Towards the end of the two weeks, I was standing around the charging point with two friends – one of whom was a volunteer, and the other living in the camp as a refugee. One of our friends, who we had played cards with the night before, walked past, stopped, and told us he had decided to try to go to Belgium. My volunteer friend and I laughed it off. He told us again. We asked him if he had had lunch already. He showed us his packed bags. And we were speechless. We made sure he added us on Facebook, had our emails and phone numbers and water and anything necessary we could think of. We asked to go with him to the bus station in Dunkirk.

My volunteer friend and I understood the situation as such: One of our friends is leaving and trying to start a new life in Belgium, and we don’t know if it’s the last time we will see him.

Our other friend at the charging point understands it as such: His friend is trying to go to Belgium to start a new life. Hopefully he will make it, and he has to make sure to be careful. But, probably, he will be back in the camp tomorrow. Our friend says that the man he shares a shelter with tries to leave almost every night. Our friend says that one of his friends has tried to get to England 85 times, and counting. He says, if we want to follow our friend to the bus station, of course we can. We are volunteers, in the camp for only two weeks. But you can’t follow your friend to the bus station or to the port or to the lorry 85 times.

After two weeks, I left the camp and took a bus to London. My friend from the camp, a refugee, asked me to text him when I arrived to let him know I was safe.

Bracelet given to Nannie by her 7-year old friend in the camp

Bracelet given to Nannie by her 7-year old friend in the camp

[1] Although each day we would learn something new to erode a little bit more of the illusion. About the mafia. About ongoing religious persecution. About prostitution.