From York To Calais: We talked to students heading off to help refugees

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Preparing for their 300 mile journey south, the York to Calais team collect, sort and then place hundreds of items into vacuum bags ready to be sent to The Jungle.

This is the scene (pictured right) a few days before they take to the road with a rather larger load than expected.

“We have over 300 toothbrushes and 300 toothpastes. 500 bars of soap. Around 50 sleeping bags and 3 sacks of socks amongst the 3 vans and 2 car loads we are taking,” says Emma Bilson, a postgraduate social work student. “It’s just incredible.”

When Emma thought up the idea of collecting for the 3,000 men and women inside the Calais camp – who live in makeshift shelters and have no sanitation – she never expected it would take off so rapidly.

Now the group, who originally consisted of Emma and her three course mates Grace Redmore, Alex Musto and Miki White, are having to reject donations because they have just become unmanageable.

“The project became bigger and bigger, more people have joined us, and even more supported and helped us,” she says. “It has become much bigger than we ever anticipated.”

Emma had the idea of starting the York to Calais campaign after seeing negative posts on social media.

“My first instinct was to go there, give the people there just a little bit of humanity, and to say no matter what, these opinions are not representative of us all,” she says.

“It’s easy to rant and rave about politics until we are blue in the face, but it is not easy to do something.

“Hopefully if people see me, someone with no experience, not part of a group or organisation, a full time student, full time mother to a toddler with nothing more than a few good friends, and a car. If I can do this, anyone can. It may not be perfect, or a solution, but it is something.”

The reaction to the group’s project has been phenonemal. Since they started, not only have the donations been pouring in but national news crews such as ITV’s Good Morning Britain have asked to follow the group.

Emma says: “I am not an overly confident person, and it was hard to put myself in the spotlight. Although the positives outnumbered the negativity tenfold and that was worth it. We have been running this campaign since July and have felt an enormous change in attitudes. The public are starting to see people in Calais, not a group of migrants waiting to storm the tunnel.”

Inside the main packing room, Nick Greening, 22, also a postgraduate social work student, is busy sorting the items into sections.
He got involved after the group called out for more volunteers.

It is 8pm on one of the group’s final days before they prepare for their journey. Nick has been sorting items since 10am.
“I am motivated by helping the refugees,” he says. “Not for any sort of payment.”

One of the problems the group might encounter when they approach The Jungle is that the charity at the base may not wish to take in and hand out the group’s collected donations. “That would be a shame,” says Nick. “But even if these people did come direct to our car, they are fighting for survival. We must sympathise with their situation.

“Hopefully if it comes to it, we can organise some sort of system.”

The base where the group have been allowed to keep their donations is St Columbia’s Church on Priory Street.

For the past month, they have been collecting donations and placing them in the large room to the right on the corridor, where they sort the items and then arrange them into sections. Afterwards, they vacuum them into bags so they can be placed into the transportation vehicles more easily. “We’ve bought tents,” says Nick. “So the refugees can cook inside them.”

Once vacuumed, the group carries each of the bags into the smaller room on the left, where they stack them up.

Joanna Frith, 28, is not a student but is from York. She got involved after being inspired by the group’s work.

“I was helping with a similar group called No Borders,” she says. “I’ve always wanted to go to Calais so it seemed right to get involved.”

Joanna has a disabling muscle condition. But she tries not to let it stop her.

“If I get to go outside and get to do what normal people do, then I can’t take that for granted,” she says.

Fasil Demsash, 43, is a PhD student in the University’s department for education.

He fled his native Ethiopia after taking part in student demonstrations at his university there.

“I think the refugees will be delighted to see me,” he says. “I lived like this.”

We sit by the main room in the corridor. I ask Fasil to elaborate.

“They [the refugees] live rough on the streets and under a rock. Most importantly, they live day in and day out with fear. The fear isn’t of security or being settled in other countries, it is that they are unloved and unsettled.

“Interacting with them and for them to be able to see people like me with all these volunteers will show them how they are connected with us. It will increase their confidence and reach into their hearts.”

He adds: “When I lived in a refugee camp in Nairobi, Kenya, the most difficult part was that I had nothing. I was in a refugee camp. Journalists or the media didn’t give me anything like blankets. They didn’t give me any thought.”

Back in the main room, Emma is finishing the final few bits.

“My favourite donated item was the zebra onesie, as I can only imagine the comments if the news filmed someone wearing it in the camp,” she says.

The students began their journey on September 26.

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