Living conditions, filthy water, and violence.

 Today I’ll be writing about living conditions.

After yesterday’s post about working conditions, some people asked me to (re)describe the living conditions. I wrote about these before:

“The youngest ones have it the hardest here, I think. They’re not that experienced in self-care or in basic survival skills, for that matter (although I can imagine you’ll get up to speed pretty quickly). We’ve seen kids with rotten teeth because they didn’t see the use of brushing their teeth whilst fleeing, nappy rash and jockage because of bad health skills. […] Infections like [scabies] are untreatable for us: It’ll require the patient to get naked, slather Permethrin everywhere for 24 hours and 80*c wash all his belongings. That’s not going to happen in a camp like this, so it’s just antihistamine for the itch, and that’s all that we can do. “

Some have ‘squatted’ some old warehouses, near dunkirk. These areas are really dangerous; as you can see the buildings are collapsing slowly apart, and the floors are ready to fall through!

There are several issues that the problems harder to manage. The temporality of their lodgings makes for terrible housing: It’s mainly tents, some having an extra layer of tarp over.

These are probably the most solid lodgings around. They’re tents, on tarps, with a ‘roof’ made of another tarp. They’re also on a bit of a hill so they’re kind of dry. Still, they’re very vunerable to winds and several were blown to pieces over the last few nights.

As you can see on the photo above, everything is wet and muddy, with no infrastructure in place. There’s no electricity in the camps, let alone lights; Some have dixies placed, so thankfully, diseases like diphtheria haven’t made an appearance (yet). It used to be so that even the Dunkirk camp, at its height a few months ago, used to house 1200 people with no water! People would be forced to drink water from the stream next to the camp if they needed water outside the distro hours. 

It’s evident that this causes a plethora of gastrointestinal issues. Drinking dirty water is positively linked to (among others):

  • Gastrointestinal Problems
  • Diarrhoea
  • Nausea
  • Intestinal or Stomach Cramping, Aches and Pains
  • Dehydration
  • Death

Often found contaminants in ‘open’ water are:

-E. coli Bacteria, Coliform Bacteria, Nitrates, Lead, Fluoride, Arsenic, Radium, Radon, Pharmaceuticals, Herbicides, Pesticides, Chemicals, Fecal Matter, Microbial Pathogens, Parasites, Viruses, Petrochemicals

After recent clearings of the camp in Dunkirk, there has been a period where there was no fresh water at all. For us, this meant an immediate surge in gastrointestinal problems: diarrhoea as the first one to show. People often forget how dangerous diarrhoea is: Every year, 525.000 children die globally of diarrhoeal disease! Diarrhoea can last several days and can leave the body without the water and salts that are necessary for survival. If left unchecked, people (mainly kids) weaken and die. Sick would bathe and drink at the only water source available to them and thus end up even sicker. For us, as a medical NGO, it’s impossible to fight the symptoms without treating the causes: It’s just no use at all. You have to though: otherwise, you’ll end up with dead kids, and it’s a vast and preventable source of pain and a drain of resources. 

As most of the camps are in remote/industrial areas, the (bio)chemical contaminants aren’t really that far-fetched. We see many people with diarrhoea or dehydration, both two absolute killers in situations like these. Not only because of moisture loss, but also because of vitamin deficiency (And their diet isn’t usually too good to begin with) and restrictions on food intake. You can imagine that it’s rather hard to eat two day-old-bread when you’ve got terrible cramps, but sometimes it’s all there is. 

I cannot stress the importance of NGOs like RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen) enough. These remarkable people cook up 1500 meals a day for all the refugees and volunteers in the area. 1500 meals a day! And they also manage to make it nice and healthy, too. Today we had pasta with a lentil-based sauce with broad beans and a salad. These kinds of solid meals make it so that at least nobody goes hungry.

This is an older image, from last winter. This camp has since been cleared and fenced off, so that nobody can get there anymore. It does show how wet the areas are though, and how wind-swept and desolate these grounds can get.

Sadly, the situation inside the city has worsened. There’s a distribution of food, tents, and blankets every night in the town somewhere. This distro is mainly aimed at the new arrivals who, in general, don’t even have a tarp to lay under, let alone a sleeping bag. Imagine you’ve just arrived in Calais, after walking for 30 hours, arrive at one of the camps, and have to walk another hour to get something dry to sleep under. And on the way there, a car stops, six people, get out and start hitting you at the side of the road and leave you there beaten. This happens really very often; just today I treated two young men, new arrivals, who were hit with pieces of steel rebar and left in the mud after. The behaviour of some Calaisiens is absolutely abhorrent and condemnable. We had dixies shot at and with bullet holes in them, last year a guy thrown off the roof of a supermarket he fled to after being chased by men with dogs and bottles thrown from passing cars. Our car’s been broken into; volunteers kicked out of bars and nails thrown in the driveway of the warehouse. 

It’s worth to remember that Calais is a very right-wing city: 52.9% voted the right-wing populist and nationalist party Front National (nowadays Rassemblement National) who are very evident in the streets, even doing marches (!). I won’t say that a more progressive city would’ve treated the problems here differently, but it sure doesn’t help. The demonization of the refugees only serves to cause a deeper rift between the two camps, and nothing good will come of it. 

Light, rain, temperature and pragmatism.

After yesterday’s scream into the void, I’ll write something more light-hearted today: I’ll talk about working conditions and pragmatism!

Our working conditions are, well, shit. As you could see in the picture from two days ago, we usually work from the boot of a car and use little stools for our patients, while we kneel in the mud. (Or on a plastic bag or a bit of cardboard if we’re lucky). Some camps are worse than others. The distribution location in Duinkerke is at a parking lot, so at least we have tarmac to work on. Some of the other sites are in a muddy field and on the side of a roundabout. It’s also really wet! And if it’s not wet, it’s dusty, and that blows anywhere. 

So what does your office look like?

Now that’s it getting winter, other problems are coming up: Light, rain, and temperature. Because it’s getting dark earlier and earlier, our work suffers. It’s quite hard to see what you’re doing by the light of a phone torch! And if you want to properly see what you’re doing, you need light sources from at least 17:00 on. I’ve been using a waka-waka torch the last few days, and those are great: You can put them anywhere, and they’re pretty hardy. 

Temperature is the next issue. Because of the cutting winds, the feeling temperature is usually quite a bit lower than what it really is. It’s a comfy 3* outside with strong winds and heavy rain, so people wear a lot of clothes. Changes of clothes are not really an option for most of the guys and girls here, so we also get problems related to hygiene. People are reluctant to show these issues (like jockage) and will carry them around for quite a long time, until they’re unmanageable and almost untreatable. 

Imagine living here, and trying to dry your clothes while it’s 3*c out and raining cats and dogs.

The next enemy, and probably the worst, is moisture. We get so much trench foot nowadays. Trench foot, for those who are lucky enough not to know what it is, is a condition of prolonged moisture exposure to the feet, which causes the skin to rot and fall off, but not before infecting and making the patient absolutely miserable. These layers of infected skin can get infected by fungi (tropical ulcer/jungle rot) and will usually end up with gangrene. One of the easiest ways to diagnose trench foot is the smell: The smell of death and fungal decay. It’s nothing like smelly feet, it’s a whole new level of terrible. And sadly, because of the moisture, people are driven to “creative solutions” to this problem: They wear plastic bags between their socks and shoes, and will thus fester in the moisture and incubate the trench foot even faster!

You’d better be happy this isn’t smell-o-vision!

The thing is, even with all of this going on, our best weapon is a pragmatic approach to all that happens. Fighting darkness by using the headlights of the car. Fighting temperature by using thermal blankets and copious amounts of tea when people don’t want to take off their shoes to get their feet dried. Using spare socks when we have them and old sterile fields to create a semi-dry environment to work in, and old cardboard boxes for us to kneel on so we don’t sit in the mud while treating. 

The thing is, it’s so hard to prepare for all weather in a windy coastal city as Calais. As it is said in Mary Poppins:

Winds in the east, mist coming in, / Like somethin’ is brewin’ and bout to begin. / Can’t put me finger on what lies in store, / But I fear what’s to happen all happened before. 

And oh: Charlotte, a doctor from the UK, currently working here, asked for a shoutout. Thanks for borrowing your phone Char! See you tomorrow!

To those about to die, we salute you.

I think I saw men going to their death today. At our last stop today, the “big Jungle”, at the spot of the old Jungle, I spoke with an Afghan man who asked for some tape. We chatted for a bit, and it took a moment before I realised what his plan is: They’re going to row the channel, tonight. With five people in a small rowboat. You know, the kind that you use to row on a lake in Central Park. I really couldn’t get them to change their minds, nor make them consider going a different day. Windfinder tells me that there’s going to be 1.8m waves tonight on the Calais buoy, so they’re going to drown. That’s it. It’s as easy as that. When I told him he was probably going to drown, the only thing he had to say “Well, this isn’t life anyway, and I crossed the Mediterranean before. I will reach England, inshallah, or die trying”. 

And we? What are we to do? Here we stand mucking about with our bags of bandages, paracetamol and lemsips, trying our best but coming a mile short. The only thing I could do is write down the phone no. for the French and British sea rescue on his arm in permanent marker, together with his name. Not that those phone numbers are going to do any good, as when you’re out to sea your phone will go out of reach of the towers quickly so you can’t call for help anyway, but it’s the idea that counts. His name is probably most important, so when he drowns and washes up on the shore at least people know who he was. 

This, sadly, is the harsh truth of life here. People are desperate. Increased raids, closing down of the old camp locations push people to the edge, and over it. This apathetic outlook on the future is getting quite the problem. Self-harm, suicidal tendencies and -idiations are going rampant. Literature tells me that the following are early warnings for suicidal tendencies/idiations:

And honestly, it’s no wonder: These tick all the boxes for most of the kids in these camps. It’s worth remembering that around 30% of the refugees here are minors, and up to 70% in some camps!

Some of the camps were raided twice today. The Afghan camp was hit at 03:00 and 11:00 by the CRS(French border police), where they stole and burned tents, sleeping bags, food and personal belongings. Refugees manhandled, some pepper-sprayed and others beat with batons and kicked while down. Refugees tell me they feel chased into the ocean and driven to the desperate, like rowing the channel. 

UNHCR numbers say that in the last five years, over 15.148 are feared drowned in Europe, and are missing. 

15.148 people. That’s 7742 children. 388 school classes full. A city of people, as big as Naarden, full of people, drowned. I just hope I won’t hear about Mehdi and his friends in the news tomorrow.

7742 children drowned, futures washed away by the sea.

Song of the day: Incandescent – Astronoid

There, and back again.

So, it’s winter, and once more, I’m out in Calais. Many things have changed, but even more have stayed the same; I’ve even met people I met last year, over Christmas. He told me that, after many failed attempts, he kind of lost his will to try and decided to stay in the new jungle to see what the future would bring.

One of the things that struck me the most were once again many, many young children. And I don’t mean just young kids, but young kids: We saw parents with a newborns and a ton of toddlers.

The thing is, it feels like the situation has taken a turn for the worse. The CRS harassments have been increasing, with reports of gun violence, daily raids and power abuse. And with winter coming, what could people do? To make matters worse, because of the volunteer harassment our care has deteriorated, too. Just today there was a boy who had many splinters in his hands, that needed ‘digging’ out. Because we can’t carry needles with us, as the CRS will be a pain if we do, we really couldn’t help him and had to refer him to the hospital. For something so small and stupid!

Which, in itself, is a massive pain: The care given in the hospital is sub-par, translators only sparsely available and people just get send “home” with a big strip of ketophen without systematic treatment! I saw a guy with three (literally) half-rotted teeth and had gotten only a bit of ketophen. This is a rather bad idea: Ketophen is rather bad for your stomach, especially when you haven’t eaten much. It’ll make you puke, give you indigestion and diarrhoea.

Even our working conditions have stayed the same, although we do have our own car now! More about Vite, the car, later!

It’s, as we say in Dutch, a “Gebed zonder end”: A never-ending prayer in the hope something improves, but it never seems to do so. The care is the same, although a bit more intense since it’s winter, but for the refugees nothing changes. There are still well over 1200 people in Calais and Dunkirk together, living through the hardships of daily life on the street. It’s the same NGO’s, it’s the same volunteers and the same struggles, and it’s just a question who’ll give up first: The French, or the volunteers. Neither seems even remotely to consider it, so we’ll see. It’s always “we’ll see”.

Some final thoughts.

So much has happened. I’ve been on national television, and in the newspaper. We’ve raised well over 5k in a few days, thanks to the extra exposure, and Calais is finally in the news again. Just today I heard that one of my colleagues will be interviewed by the BBC tomorrow, so it’ s going well.

By now, I’ve been in New York for a few days, and the contrast could not be more prominent. As I walk here past shops with 10.000,- Hermes bags, I cannot help but think back to the situation in Calais. We live a life of over-abundance, of consumerism and easy availability of whatever we’d like at that very moment. Today I’ve had Szechuan for lunch and Mexican for dinner, with Italian ice cream as dessert. Last week, I was working with the guys in Calais, who are wholly dependent on the Refugee Community Kitchen for their every meal.  

I hope that the interviews and the exposure they generate will finally be the pebble that causes the avalanche of outrage that this situation deserves. Although the care we deliver is essential and cannot be stopped, it is only symptomal. It is in no means a solution for the problem, nor for the results of the harsh living conditions: The one thing that is needed is people to step up. To try to make a change in their local politics, to sent a letter to the government to ask attention on the subject. I will not stop until this situation is resolved. And in a few years, when the matter is long dead and buried, reports will come. On how we could have ever accepted these circumstances, on how they were living in subhuman conditions and how they were left to rot by their governments. And in the end, we can say we were there. That it wasn’t us, who left them to die in the mud: But that we tried. That we were there, and did all we could, even though it seemed little at the time. 

What is there left to say? I consider it a privilege to be able to work in the diabolical circumstances that those guys are living in. I will continue to work hard and keep studying because, in this, I have found my true calling. 

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

Day 11: The earth is not a cold, dead place.

“I am no longer accepting the things I cannot change. I am changing the things I cannot accept.”

Sometimes, all you need is a bit of music to get you in the right headspace. As we were driving back from a camp, with a bit of hazy sunlight on my face, a piece of music came to mind. It set my mood for the day, and with Christmas, I thought it would be a great blog post.

You see, the current situation here is absolutely terrible. However, all of the volunteers of all the different NGOs here, they all work for one thing: A better world. They buckle down, day by day, improving the world bit by bit. You can make a change, however small. A pebble is a tiny thing, but enough pebbles will form a mountain. All these volunteers do what they think is best. They come from all places of society: There’s an old army medic in my team, a lifeguard and a paediatric nurse. In both the warehouses I have met lawyers, politicians, and doctors, but also students trying to change the world, girl scouts and road workers.

However different you are, and however your opinions or views may be different, there will always be one thing to bond over. And walking here, amongst all these beautiful people, I think that that one thing may just be a better world.

And that is Christmas enough for me.

And a merry Christmas to all.

Day 10: Sick toddlers on Christmas eve.

We’ve spend our day in Duinkerke, and there was one thing I really didn’t want to do at Christmas eve: Terribly sick kids. Guess what I saw today: Terribly sick kids.

Two three year-olds, one with nasty tonsillitis, the other one with a pneumonia that would’ve booked her a trip straight to the wards back home. And here we stand, on Christmas eve, at night, in the mud, trying to get their parents to the hospital a long fucking way away.

That’s it for today.

Day 9: Languages, health culture and fences.

I’ve decided to learn a bit of some of the languages that are spoken in the camps around here. I’m making little dictionaries!

The languages here are very diverse. Especially in the Sudanese camp, it is no use trying to start writing: Sudan has well over 25 known tongues and languages and many other little ones. Languages I’ve heard so far are Amharic, Mandinga, Tigrinya, (Sudanese) Arabic, Dinka, Pashto, Farsi, Urdu, Kurmanji, Suranji, Russian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, German, and Zazaki. There is no starting logging all of these languages, so I’m going only with the most common ones!

The language barrier is quite significant. It happens quite often that someone will not speak (or only broken) English, and fluent speakers are relatively rare. By now, I’ve become quite fluent in communicating with hands and feet! Quite a large number of refugees speak German (to some degree), and with a mix of German and English, you can usually make do. There is always someone who can translate from English to their native tongue, sometimes through another person. Today we had quite a nice game of “Chinese Whispers”. We spoke German to one, who translated this to Arabic, which was then translated into Amharic (I think). However, there is a second “language” around: Health culture.

Even though I am in no means an expert in health culture, there are a handful of very evident differences in the camps. At the Eritrean camp (mostly Tigrinya, some Amharic) people will very sparsely ask for help, even though they’re quite young. I estimate that well over 2/3rd of the refugees there are under eighteen years old (!) there, and therefore there is quite a hierarchy. The older ones will come first, then the others. If a boy is waiting, and another guy walks up, you can sometimes see them slink away, only to try again 5 minutes later. They are quite well-behaved, very polite, and will wait for their turn quite nicely. I think it’s also a pride thing. Even though these guys must suffer from the same problems as the other camps, we barely ever see any dermal issues, let alone around their privates.
How different the more diverse camps are! Because of the mix of cultures, there is a bit less shame and a bit less pride. People will still band together and stay with their nationals, but they’re also forced to mix. You see friendships between different ethnicities quite a lot, even though they must have many differences. This shows at our ‘desk’ as well: People wait less for their turn and will tap you on the shoulder. It’s never become a struggle, yet when there are several people with more severe problems I could see it become an issue.

There was another thing I wanted to talk about. These fences.

Miles and miles and miles and miles and miles of fence.

They are MASSIVE. Four meters high, topped with razor wire, designed to slice open everybody who tries to come through. It’s NATO Concertina wire: These are double-edged razor blades, designed to cut people and make them get stuck: If you stick your arm in, you can’t pull it out. There are kilometres of the stuff around the ferry/tunnel perimeter, cutting open everybody who tries to climb over.

Earlier, I was in the old jungle. In my album from that time you can quite nicely see the different rows of walls, fences, and concertina wire: And since then, tens of kilometres of these fences have been built. They are not only designed to keep people off the highways: They seem to shout: “You are not welcome here! Go away! We don’t want you, and we don’t care!” Of which there is only one solution:

We’ve seen quite a few of the guys steal the blades, and shave with it. If that’s not resilience, I don’t know what is.

Day 8: They’re just existing, not living.

As I had a conversation with my colleague today, this quote got me thinking. What kind of life are these people living? Just walking, existing day to day, instead of being who they ought to be? With lives on hold, just walking all night, and waking through the days afraid of the police? Most refugees have developed a (very serious) sleep deprivation because of this horrible schedule they’ve adjusted to. Sleep deprivation is a very serious condition that will only exacerbate their psychological conditions; It has been positively linked to suicide, depression and unhappiness. I’ve asked refugees, and they said 4 to 5 nights of sleep on average, which is not enough. In one of the camps today we’ve seen how highly strung they really are. It was pitch dark, and an ambulance drove by, with lights and sirens on. The two refugees that were in the chairs (as we were tending to their feet) were both standing up, others were looking at the car and some others looked ready to run. They have been fully conditioned to run for any kind of flashy light, not to trust anyone in a position of authority and never to trust any police officer again.

There have been reports of fascists attacking and maiming refugees in the street that go unpunished because the refugees are so afraid of the police and retribution. Who will you turn to, when you get attacked? What will you do, when people spit at you on the street? And now, two days before Christmas, it seems there are more CRS on the street than that there has been in the last few weeks. Men walking with guns and grenade launchers, a mobile commando unit at the one bridge they can sleep somewhat shaded from the wind, and 15-year-old Ethiopians pretending not to be afraid.

Some refugees seem just to drop by if only for some attention: Someone who will give them the time of day, someone who will actually listen to their story, that is not one of their peers. I don’t want to think about the massive amount of psychological trauma going around. We hear stories about people screaming in their tents every night, of people afraid to go to sleep and of people who starve themselves. People with no appetite, people who scratch themselves to shit and people who seem to be detached and unable to feel emotion at all.

We’ve seen many, many kinds of self-harm and a lot of scars. Scars from sleeping rough, scars from fighting, scars from infected wounds and scars from cigarettes. Hell, we’ve seen scars scratched on top of old scars. It’s hard to imagine, with everyone wearing several layers of thick coats and hiding their arms and legs, how bad their condition really is. We’ve seen vitamin deficiency, rotting teeth, several untreated dislocations and massive burns. Rotting feet, infected eyes and missing nails. Dermal issues, fungal/parasitic infections and falling trauma seem to run amok. Fighting these infinitely breaking wave of sadness and problems is a Sisyphustask. And here we stand, in the middle of these ruins of humanity, with our little bags of bandages trying to make sense of it all.