The experience in Calais changed me . . . dramatically

When people ask why I went to Calais, I answer that I am an immigrant myself. I know what it is like to be a foreigner, and I wanted to help people.

Wikimedia Commons, Author: Nicolas Pinault, VOA


In England, where I live, Calais has been in the news for a long time and it caught my attention because I, myself, am a migrant. I wanted to know what the reality of the situation really was, so I contacted an organization providing assistance in Calais and I went there with my brother for four days in February 2016.

We arrived when they were beginning to demolish the camp for the first time, so it was a pretty extreme situation. We saw brutality we were not expecting. Aside from journalists and riot police, they were not allowing anyone to enter the camp, but we finally managed to get in.

The camp was divided into two parts. It was made up of temporary shelters – little houses made of textiles, wood and tents – but also restaurants, schools, churches and a mosque. It was basically a community – a small town. It was evident that people had tried to build something out of nothing, mainly those who had lived there for a long time.

People came mostly from Afghanistan, Sudan, Ethiopia, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan and Eritrea.

There were two types of people living there: those who really wanted to get to England – they kept to themselves, not wanting to build any ties to the place – and then there were those who had simply given up.

Many people left the camp every evening, trying to get to England. People jumped onto trains, cars, lorries and some even on ships. I knew two people who died traveling this way; one was hit by a car on the highway, and the other by a train. I am not sure about the exact number of victims, but I think around 20 or so people had died this way around the time I was there.

It was very cold in February when I arrived, and so we, alongside charities, distributed gas and warm clothes. Some people had heaters, but most could only rely on open fires for warmth, which created many hazards and caused many accidents. It became clear that warm shoes were the item most needed, and so a sort of black market for winter footwear emerged.

When we returned back to the camp in the evening, we’d see some people selling the shoes we had distributed during the day. Those being held in the camp also managed to set up shops and restaurants on the so-called “main street“ of the “jungle,” as the little “city” established sometime in September 2015, was often called.

Because I was there for a number of months, a few of the camp residents told me their personal stories – why they’d fled their home countries and how they’d arrived in Calais. I am still in contact with one young man from Afghanistan.

He left his country at the age of 16, traumatized after witnessing his father and his brother’s murders. He was granted asylum in Germany, where he was cared for and provided with accommodation until he was 18, when he was kicked out of the program, although he was still struggling with psychological problems. Later he lived on the street, developed an alcohol dependency and tried to commit suicide a number of times. So, even despite having already been granted asylum in Germany, and not knowing anyone in England, he still decided to leave for Calais.

This leads to another big problem. Refugees and asylum seekers often do not have any information or knowledge about how the asylum process works or what the conditions are like in the refugee camps. They are, for the most part, only guided by instinct.

Food, clothes and shelter are of course the first priorities, but we often forget about the psychological and physical problems caused by the trauma many camp residents have suffered. In Calais, when it became warm in the summer, I was very shocked to notice that many people had self-inflicted scars on their bodies. It was horrific. Although I had worked with people suffering from psychological problems in the past, I had never seen self-harm like that. The friend I mentioned from Afghanistan, literally had a hole in his arm.

Naturally, people there were suffering from depression, and many had very serious and long-term psychological problems, but this was not the priority. I met one guy who suffered from psychosis and he asked me for help, and although I wanted to help him, there was no place I could send him to for professional help. You begin to feel helpless. The psychologists and psychiatrists that did visit came mostly as general volunteers; I was not aware of a more long-term program.

Conditions like these would traumatize anyone, even those without prior medical problems. Many told me that, of all the suffering they went through, Calais was the worst. They came with the idea that Europe was a place where human rights were adhered to; a place where they would receive aid. Then they arrived in Calais and had to live in inhumane conditions, alongside their past traumas and their growing disappointment with Europe.

Many had misleading information and very optimistic ideas about the West, therefore their disillusionment was enormous and was made even worse by the dire conditions they lived in for months.

At first, when I was in Calais assisting an organization and also later when I was there by myself, I tried to take part in various workshops, or prepared art projects. As I saw it, it was very important to provide the people there with distractions. When they first began arriving, the camp’s main priorities had been the provision of food, clothing and shelter, but after stabilizing the situation and meeting the resident’s needs at a very basic level, it became very clear that more was needed. Many of the residents told me the art workshops helped them, and this was the most important thing for me.

Many creative people came to Calais, both to work there and to document it. In London, a number of exhibitions took place, showcasing the work from and about Calais. As it turned out, many of the refugees were also very creative.

There was a very close-knit community in Calais; as a volunteer, you made friends with the others very quickly. Many of the people who came on their own to volunteer had no previous experience, and had not expected the situation to be so extreme and to take such a toll. I know at least three friends, who after a number of months in Calais, came back to England and very much struggled integrating back to “normal life.” Explaining this to those who have never experienced it is difficult. It was traumatic, even for the volunteers; it was surreal. In Europe, a place where democratic values and human rights should be enforced, volunteers, many with no prior experience doing aid work, had become responsible for taking care of thousands of vulnerable people. Volunteers should not be left to take on such colossal responsibilities.

When I was leaving the camp, there were around 10,000 people. Some people were aggressive, but you could not blame them under those circumstances, and when the rumors of the demolition began to surface, the atmosphere became simply horrific. I walked to and from the camp every day; it was roughly a one-hour walk from Calais. Only when it came closer to the slated demolition date, did I become afraid to walk on my own for the first time. But I completely understood that it was not because the people were bad – it was simply a devastating situation and people were desperate.

When someone is a victim of violence for a prolonged period of time, they can react unpredictably, even aggressively. The critics of refugees use this frequently, especially because the camp mainly consisted of men. Initially women were separated and accommodated at the edge of the camp, and aid workers could only go there with a special permit. At the end though, when the number of refugees had risen, more women and children began living in the main camp, where we worked with them as well.

When someone became aggressive, the key was staying calm. Often the problem resulted from a lack of communication, or language barriers preventing us from being able to establish what was wrong. This of course created frustration. There were situations when the refugees became physically aggressive, but they were so scarce that the number is negligible.

I was not at the camp when the demolition began, but my brother and some other volunteers were. And although the actual camp has been cleared, many of the refugees still live in Calais and other towns, unfortunately, mostly on the streets.

I am lucky that my relatives and my close friends share the opinion that we should help refugees, although England is divided. Many think refugees are bad for the country and for Europe; they consider them terrorists, and think they steal jobs. In Calais, there were many volunteers, and the majority of them were from England, mainly perhaps because two of the big organizations doing work there were run by English people. As I don’t live in France, I am not able to assess how French people perceive the situation.

I must say that I encountered only positive reactions from the Calais locals. I went to the supermarket along with one of the organizations, to buy fruit for the camp, and I was approached by one man who gave me 50 euros, while another man thanked us for our work. I think we must have been lucky though, because I know the majority of people were against “the Jungle” and wanted it destroyed.

My experience of Calais changed me dramatically. I was there for around six months, and while it was horrible to witness the tragic situation every day, on a more positive note, I was able to bring help. Originally I went there to see the situation firsthand, to understand the crisis, and I was shocked. It was quite the opposite of how the media portrayed it. They often pictured the refugees as economic migrants and focused on the idea that people fled countries that were not really dangerous, which was false in almost every case.

I am very skeptical about what I read now. I take everything with a massive pinch of salt. In my opinion, many journalists committed ethical and professional faults while covering this situation. They took pictures of people or children who did not want to be pictured. I too wanted to document the situation, but I came up with a more creative and ethical solution: I began to draw. This allowed me to document very personal things, but at the same time protect the identities of all those involved.

When I am asked about my motivation for going to help in Calais, I attribute growing up with an awareness of other countries and cultures, and the idea that we should all help each other. I was a child migrant myself, so I have an idea about what it’s like to be a foreigner.

This blog is based on the Sára Činčurová interview, published in Slovak on the daily, Denník N. 1


  1. Slovenka, ktorá pomáhala v Calais: Tušila som, čo to je byť cudzincom, 25.12. 2016,
Dorota Lietavová

Dorota Lietavová

studied linguistics at University College in London and psychology at Open University. She worked as a volunteer in Calais between February and July 2016.