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Calais - 48 hours in the jungle

You can't ignore what has been happening in the news these past few months, tens of thousands of people fleeing their homes and traveling thousands of miles by foot, overloaded cars and rafts to find some kind of safety. Many of those fleeing have ended up in the infamous refugee camps in Calais, Dunkirk, and Sangatte. In these cramped, squalid conditions people are tired, sick and broken. I have watched the news stories, I have read the articles and been shocked by the images of lifeless bodies being dragged from the cold winter seas. I like many have sympathised but not much else, it's easy to distance yourself when you have the security of a home, family, money and your health. But really what could I do? Sitting at home one night, mindlessly browsing Facebook, a post popped up on a podiatry group that I follow looking for volunteers. Podiatrist putting their skills towards a cause helping people in a terrible situation. People who have walked many miles over many months would most certainly have developed problems with their feet. So a group of 8 individuals all with a particular set of skills got together to do what we could. I met with a few of the 8 at Gatwick airport and we made the short drive to take the Chunnel across to Calais. Meeting my new colleagues for the first time was rather nerve wracking but we quickly broke the ice and got to know each other. We met the rest of our group at the Chunnel terminal, over coffee we discussed our nervousness and eagerness about the trip. We did the usual professional posturing and to my surprise I was one of the most experienced podiatrists in the group. I did feel a certain level of expectation from the others but we all agreed that we really didn't know what we were about to face and we were all there to help and support each other. After the short train journey to Calais our first port of call was the distribution centre, this was the operating hub for charities to accept and sort donations of clothing, foot wear, toys, toiletries, first aid supplies, tents and sleeping bags. This was also home to the kitchens, where an incredible smell of cooking and spices filled the warehouse. This provided at least one hot meal a day to the refugees. After our short tour of the warehouse we headed to the camp to familiarise ourselves with the route and to get an idea of the set up. I didn't know what to expect, news reports had been full of stories of unrest and heavy handed police tactics in the past few days. A ring of heavily armoured police officers surrounded the camp, their faces obscured but staring menacingly at anyone who held their stare too long. This was not a camp, this was a mud hole with poorly constructed shelters out of wood, tarpaulins and any spare scraps of materials. The place was very busy with people (mostly men) meandering through the "camp" with little direction and a haunted look in their eyes. As we moved further into the camp there became fewer dwellings but make shift shops, cafes, restaurants, and even a "3 star hotel" despite the helplessness of these peoples situation there was still humour. It always fascinates me that even in the darkest of situations we use humour to help us get through. This is when it struck me, these are people like any other people. I felt a bit ashamed that my preconceptions had been that they were all somehow different. They were business owners, shop keepers, chefs, all people who had regular jobs and regular lives. Finally making it to the first aid caravans we were to be working in over the following days, we were met with yet another mud pit with two shabby caravans at the centre of it. They reminded me of all wet childhood holidays spent in a dingy caravan in Skegness. Skegness seemed a much nicer option at that time. We met with a lovely Afghan man who was to be our interpreter for the next few days, his story had been very moving and I still think of him regularly. He worked in IT in Afghanistan, well paid and from a loving family. He showed us pictures of his home and his family. His English was excellent and he explained that he had worked for the U.S forces in Afghanistan as a translator. After the U.S withdrawal he was targeted by the Taliban who stabbed and left him hospitalised. On his discharge from hospital he fled with nothing more than the clothes on his back. He traveled for 4 months mostly by foot and crammed into a car with 10 others. He finally made it to Calais with the hope of getting to England where his older Brother has lived for 30 years. Feeling rather humbled we went back to our accommodation in a small beautiful sleepy seaside town. We all mucked together and cooked up dinner and we all got to know each other much better over food and cheap French wine. We came from all sorts of backgrounds with some of us even from families of immigrants. We talked of the reactions we had had from family, friends, patients and public. Some came across quite horrible reactions, one girl Tash who was mixed race and her father was an immigrant from Bermuda had some nasty remarks from patients who had no idea she was from a family of immigrants let alone mixed race. Another of the podiatrists Ben's Grandfather was a Jamaican Immigrant and because of Bens white complexion he has had to endure at times people's casual racism. Day 1 - I was first up and feeling pretty nervous, we sat down to a quiet breakfast of tea and croissants and we loaded up the cars with our supplies and a lunch for our translator. We had been advised to pay them in meals and a small monitory contribution, as theft was rife. We were advised not to carry any valuables. The first hour was slow, mostly requests for tissues and cough drops. Our translator informed us that most people would sleep late as most of the refugees would make attempts to get on boats and lorries in the early hours of the mornings. Also the previous day there had been some violent outbreaks in the camp, riot police and deployed tear gas and many had been severely beaten. Late morning came and slowly the numbers attending the first aid area increased. Traumatic injuries were rife, people falling from lorries, caught on razor wire and beaten by police. We cleaned and dressed many cuts, strapped up sprained ankles, splinted broken bones and even a severe leg burn. We were soon in a good flow of assessing and treating people who all showed us much gratitude and told us about their life' they had met and most had the desire to return home. Although day 1 was such a mixed bag we endured we offered foot advice, due to the wet and cold conditions it was essential people kept their feet warm and dry which has its challenges when most are from cultures where sandals are worn and take their footwear off several times a day for prayers. I am not a religious person and my beliefs were cemented seeing these conditions, there was no god there... And yet people still held onto their faith, they prayed and even constructed places of worship, I guess their faith was the last thing that they had. Day one came to an end as darkness fell, we were advised the camp was not safe after dark. The journey back was quiet as we reflected on our day, our first priority was to shower and scrub ourselves. Hygiene was non existent in the camp, people were very grateful and insisted on shaking our hands. Colds and flu spread rapidly through the camp, hand sanitizer was worth its weight in gold. Tired, weary and contemplating our experiences we headed off to bed to rest up for the next day. Day 2- the nervous mood within the group had subsided on day two, we knew the situation and were ready to get down to work. Now that word had spread about there being foot experts in the camp we were much busier with foot related problems. The female podiatrists were taken to the woman's centre in the camp to attended to any foot problems there, in comparison there were very few woman and children in the camp. Of the few children we met, they were smiling and cheeky. Despite their hardship they were putting a brave face on it. One boy who was only 11, had lost his parents on the journey and was solely responsible for his 6 year old brother, he had learned English by reading Harry Potter books. This lad acted as a translator in the woman's camp and even escorted the girls back to the first aid caravans. He was rewarded with warm socks, hats, scarfs and sweets for him and his brother. There has been more attempts at crossings that night and further scuffles with the police, used tear gas cans had littered the camp and reports were coming through they had been used on woman and children. There was never a reliable conformation on this, each person you spoke to had a different and sometimes more colourful version of events. One young lad who was 17 had been caught up in the previous day's clashes with the police and had his wrist broken. He turned up at the caravans with some nasty cuts on his fingers. He only wore jeans and a t-shirt, shoes with no socks, and blue with the cold. We soon patched him up and from our donations of clothes we managed to get him some jumpers, gloves, scarfs and socks. A warm coat was found and I even gave him my woollen hat. A huge smile broke out on his face and a few tears in his eyes. Our time was coming to an end in the camp, the experience had been eye opening, you couldn't say enjoyable but we felt our work was of great benefit. As we packed away and said our goodbyes we had clubbed together to buy a small chess set for our wonderful translator, he had mentioned how much he enjoyed chess and hadn't played it in over a year. The goodbyes were emotional and on our part a bit guilty as we were heading back to our safe lives. The experience certainly had a profound effect on me, I did have a quiet moment to myself and had a bit of a cry and think about my loved ones and made sure they all got that extra hug on my return. However you feel about the situation in Calais weather it be that of support or not, these people have been through tremendous difficulties that most never will. They are people first and foremost, most were just people who had found themselves in horrendous situations. Yes there were some chancers, and not so nice folk but that can be said for any groups of people. The Foot Project will continue and has several more trips lined up and hope to expand to other refugee camps. We aren't changing the world but just trying to do what we can. On behalf of The Foot Project I would like to thank everyone's words of support and kind donations. We helped a lot of people and it is thanks to donations from those kind people, we know that times have been difficult of late which makes us all that more appreciative. We don't know what the future brings us be it good or bad, I encourage you not to put off that phone call to a loved one, hug them that bit tighter and appreciate all the good in your life.