Helping? (Volunteering with Care4Calais)
Today (29.3.17), at team brief, I was asked to go with another volunteer to visit refugees held at the Detention Centre in Calais. Two of the students volunteering with me had visited on the previous day and had returned with a daunting story of police officers, body searches and waiting.
My first job was to phone the three zones in the Detention Centre to collect names from the refugees detained in each zone; there are phones in the communal areas and any of the detainees can pick up and answer. I was advised to try and get at least three names and to ensure that I obtained exact spellings as the Police could refuse entry if names were spelled incorrectly. This was my first challenge. The guys answering the phone were from Ethiopia, Albania, Sudan, Ukraine and all of the obvious language barriers were made even more challenging by us trying to communicate over a mobile phone with crackling reception. I managed to get details from three men and a list of needs – simple things; socks, pants, toothpaste and biscuits. My colleagues and I packed bags with supplies and I felt a familiar sense of me taking for granted the privileges I had.
The Detention Centre is a bizarre place – this is a high security police station located in Cite Europe, a huge shopping park on the edge of Calais. I found its proximity to a huge ToysRUs store particularly unsettling. The Centre is a forbidding building with razor wire and electronic gates and we stood outside watching vans with members of the Police Nationale driving in and out of the compound. We had to ring a bell then speak into a camera, telling the desk that we were from Care4Calais and requesting to visit. My colleague spoke fluent French which made this easier but at each ring, at 10 minute intervals, we were met with a very curt ‘You wait!’ After an hour we were escorted through the gates.
The pat down and physical search we received was thorough. Our passports were taken and our bags searched and the biscuits removed ‘Food is forbidden!’. We were escorted downstairs and locked into a small room with chairs and a table. This looked out on to a small courtyard and we watched as two young men, Jaroslav (Ukraine) and Yassine (Ethiopia) were led across the courtyard to our room and locked in with us.
How do you start a conversation in such unreal circumstances? Through broken English, a little French and many gestures, we learned that Jaroslav had been detained for two weeks but was unclear about the reason and any likelihood of release. Yassine had been detained for three days and was due in his Court hearing the following day. Both men were heading to the UK, and both told us they were fleeing war, bombings, shootings and fear. When I asked about family, Yassine answered bluntly ‘Dead. Father dead. Mother three months after, dead. Small brother and sisters, I don’t know. Sudan. I don’t know.’ At that moment, I found his pain and grief raw and overwhelming and had none of my usual social work (offering advice and support) or counselling responses (reflecting, paraphrasing) to shield me from that raw grief. All I could do was sit and feel some of that pain and I found it nearly impossible to meet his gaze.
We were allowed forty minutes to sit with those bewildered, lost young men. We heard that they slept four to a room and had no access to interpreters or language support. We learned that they were given one meal a day and that this was usually inedible. We heard that the French police were curt, autocratic and unwilling to speak. We tried to offer reassurances about contacting Legal Services and apologised for not having biscuits to offer and we handed over socks. This was all I had – pairs of socks – to support these young men to deal with the awful circumstances that caused them to leave their home, family and country to travel miles on foot or stowed in trucks only to be caught and detained by French authorities. I felt helpless and utterly useless. I felt completely tied by my lack of language and the right words to use. I was torn by guilt that I had the freedom to walk away, get food and sleep in a safe bed whilst these men, with none of those freedoms, were looking to us to help. I could offer socks. Ridiculous.
My learning from this is my way of shielding myself from feeling during counselling is how I use my words. I can skilfully reflect the feelings away from myself and back to the client. This protects me, makes me feel useful and allows me to feel like I’m helping. Walking away that day feeling useless, and now, after returning to my very safe home and my personal counselling, I started to understand that I had done ‘something’ very small. By being there and willing to be present for his grief I had allowed a brief connection. I cared. I allowed myself to feel for someone I knew nothing about without any of the shield I would usually employ. The socks are small, but as a symbol – useless in themselves, a drop in the ocean of this man’s grief, but backed by real and genuine human care that drives the organisation and the volunteers in it, they are a message that humanity is still present and available for this man and all of these people. I can do ‘small’ and offer ‘big’ and remember that I am human.