Saturday 25 March
Less than a week ago, my flatmate and I made plans to go back to the refugee camp in Dunkirk – where we've both previously been volunteering for several months – to volunteer and visit for a week.
Tonight we have just arrived in Calais and realised that we've missed the final train to Dunkirk. The next bus leaves tomorrow at 3pm. We fell asleep on the ferry crossing the Channel, sleep-deprived after having spent last night on a megabus from Glasgow. In Calais, we're pointed to a cheap hostel where we eventually decide to stay. We go out in search of falafel, and end up sitting in a restaurant with fluorescent lighting, beneath a TV blasting French chart music.
In some slightly twisted way, it feels like it shouldn't be too easy for us to get to the camp. The contrast between the freedom of movement that we possess by virtue of our European passports compared to the Iraqi, Afghani or Iranian passports (or complete lack of passport) of individuals in the camp is stark enough anyway.
We have organised a lift to go to the camp at 6.40am tomorrow.
Sunday 26 March
We were dropped off outside the entrance to the camp at 8am. The clocks had just turned forward, the sun was still rising, and the suburban town of Grande-Synthe was absolutely silent. We knew that no one in the camp would be awake at this hour, save for the individuals and families slowly trudging back into camp after a night of trying to get into the UK in a lorry.
We walked towards our accommodation, a short walk from the camp, and decided to come back a few hours later.
Outside the children's centre, two children on top of the slide recognise us and quickly slide down and run to hug us. They ask us where we've been, and if we are coming back to the camp for good now. They ask us about volunteers who were at the centre during the same time as us. Are they coming back too?
A six-year-old boy who is always expertly dressed rides up to me on his bike. He opens his jacket pocket and takes out 20 glass marbles. 'I have five,' he says. Doubting that it's only five, I ask him to count them as he puts them back into his pocket. Each time he reaches the number five, he starts over again.
My flatmate and I walk around, amazed at both what has changed and what hasn't. Since we left, the women's centre burnt down, but has been rebuilt. It looks nicer than ever, but the winter has been rough. We pass shelters where we used to visit friends, some of whom are now in the UK, or in Germany, or missing.
We meet friends we are overjoyed to see again, but who we were hoping we would be seeing in the UK. Some are friends we met for the first time in May last year.
A young boy who adores Barcelona football team had his 10th birthday this week. They celebrated in the children's centre with cake and presents. I remember that I asked him last September when his birthday was, and after thinking for a while, he came to the conclusion that it was in March. But, he said, he will be in the UK for his next birthday. His dad told me that the celebration in the children's centre was very nice, but that they have been in the camp for almost two years now.
In the evening, we met a close friend who has been in the camp for several months. He is an unaccompanied minor, but his chances of getting to the UK legally diminished significantly when the Home Office made changes to, and later scrapped, the Dubs amendment. Several nights per week he is trying to get to the UK by lorry.
This evening, he is the happiest I have seen him. He is happy that finally we are meeting again, but mostly he is happy because he has started looking after a toddler in the camp. It is the second cousin of the friend he shares a shelter with, and he cares for the young child deeply.
We are invited to dinner in the shelter of the toddler and his parents. While the parents and our friend are cooking, my flatmate and I play with the toddler. He turns up the music, jumps up and down, claps, and grabs a shirt from the laundry pile and starts waving it in the air when he is dancing – Kurdish style.
Monday 27 March
One of the reasons for coming back was to visit friends and see how they are doing. Another reason was to set up a letter project.
Together with the Glaswegian charity organisation Refuweegee, I am setting up a letter exchange between people in Scotland and individuals currently living in Dunkirk refugee camp. The aim is to foster personal connections between people, which will hopefully lead to greater understanding and empathy.
On Monday, I led the conversation class in the camp's adult learning centre. After we had all introduced each other, I presented the eight letters – written by individuals in Glasgow and Edinburgh – that I had brought. We split into small groups, each with two or three letters. In the groups, the letters were passed around, with each person reading a few sentences out loud.
I asked if anyone wanted to write a reply. People looked around at each other. Maybe it's too difficult.
I suggested that we could write letters together; one letter per group. We got started. Slowly, people started splitting off, paper and pencil in hand, and began writing their own letter.
I am bringing seven letters back, filled with stories of childhoods in Kurdish towns and hopes for the future.
Hopefully the letter project will continue and letters from Dunkirk can be made public (where the sender wants this to happen) through exhibitions in Scotland.