Carry on caravanning

calais-1

The mobile homes set for Calais camp

For the past few months, local residents have been achieving remarkable things by bringing together piles of donated clothes, copious skeins of wool, the odd litre of Windolene and great big doses of compassion. It’s all part of an on-going and ever-expanding effort that’s sending refurbished caravans laden with provisions to help those stranded in the refugee camp at Calais.

Humanitarian groups estimate that close to 9,000 people live in the camp – that’s been dubbed ‘The jungle’ – half of which was demolished earlier this year. Heartbreakingly, it’s thought there are around 1,000 unaccompanied minors at the site.

calais-3The original local Wilcumstowe Wagon project aimed to send two caravans, but those two soon turned into three and spawned a new Village-based group led by Debbie Bliss that is also sending four-wheeled care packages across the Channel. Local resident Linsey Wynton coordinated the original Wilcumstowe Wagon with support from Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy after attending a meeting with Lord Alf Dubbs, who came to the UK as a child refugee during WWII from the former Czechoslovakia.

“As a mum of three young children, I am immensely concerned about the plight of child refugees,” says Linsey. “The idea of the caravans is to provide safe and secure accommodation for the most vulnerable child refugees – there are more than 800 unaccompanied minors in the Calais refugee camp. The caravans also offer a home to vulnerable families who have health problems or who have young children or babies.”

As many of the refugees’ temporary shelters were destroyed in a fire, and with winter approaching, Linsey says the caravans provide much needed secure accommodation.

A crowd-funding effort this summer provided enough money for the group to purchase three caravans from an organisation called Jungle Canopy, that buys them second-hand from places like eBay, gets them into shape to be used by groups like Wilcumestowe and then delivers them to the camps at Calais.

This summer the three were parked up in East Avenue where scores of volunteers armed with Hoovers, rubber gloves and cleaning products set to work making the caravans fit for purpose. But the effort wasn’t just spent on the inside. Wood Street Walls assisted in decorating two of the three caravans with the artist Elno, armed with her spray cans, transforming one into a work of art complete with white roses, all being done to honour the murdered Labour MP Jo Cox.

calais-2Meanwhile, over at the Waltham Forest Community Hub in Orford Road, other volunteers including MP Stella Creasy, who helped Linsey coordinate the entire project, set about sorting through the generous donations that came from across the borough; everything from pots and pans to children’s toys and bundles of clothing. In the end, there were enough donations to fill the three Wilcumstowe caravans, as well as one that a local church had purchased and another that local resident Natalie Sloane had funded. (Since then,Natalie has pulled together fundraising to send another as well.)

But the local caravan drive didn’t stop there. Enter Debbie Bliss, a gang of knitters and even more caravans. Debbie and her group were already making blankets to send to the refugees in Calais when they heard about the Wilcumstowe caravan project and decided that placing a blanket in each of those caravans was a perfect delivery system.

calais-4“With each of the blankets we attached a label that says, ‘every stich knitted with love for you.’ We wanted the people who got them to know that it hadn’t been knitted randomly; that we made them knowing where they were going and we are aware of their circumstances,” says Debbie. “Blankets are not just about warmth; there’s something very comforting and ‘hearth and home’ about them. They’re about security.” So far Debbie and her intrepid knitters have made 10 blankets for Calais and they are still clacking their needles at the Queen’s Arms every week to add to that number.

But it didn’t stop with the blankets. Debbie, working with other local residents, has now raised enough money to send two of their own fully stocked caravans to Calais.
“There are lots of rumours that they are going to close down the camps so the need is even more acute,” says Debbie. “The thing is they can be towed away very easily and there are lots of people involved in aiding the refugees who could help tow them away. They don’t know where to, but better than having no place to live at all.” That could prove important. Recently, France’s President, François Hollande, announced a plan to close the camp and move the camps’ inhabitants to reception centres where their cases would be examined over a period of four months.

Debbie recently returned from a visit to the camp and says,“It was incredibly moving. I went with my husband Barry and Stella Creasy. We visited the three Wilcumstowe caravans. We met a lady who now lives in one of them who was eight months pregnant and desperate to leave the camp and get to England. Stella was able to send a picture of the caravan decorated with white roses and dedicated to Jo Cox to Jo’s husband Brendan who was then able to show it to their children. What stays with you is the tragic stories, but also the resilience of the human spirit.”

And the group is not letting the momentum flag. After a successful curry quiz fundraiser for Help Refugees UK and Refugee Community Kitchen, the group is having another event. On Monday 21st November there will be an Art/ Design Auction in the Queens Arms, starting at 730pm sharp. So get ready to bid!

This article first appeared in the Autumn 2016 edition of “The Village” magazine.

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