Nannie Sköld, who works for LIVED (www.livedprojects.org/) and is a former delegate of the International Young Scogland Programme organised by the SR team, is responsible with a colleague for running the school for children over the age of eight at France's first-ever internationally recognised refugee camp at Grande-Synthe. She will be sending SR regular despatches from the camp.
Being in a refugee camp for an extended amount of time, there are certain absurd things you get used to, other absurd things you didn’t realise were absurd until someone explains the meaning behind it to you, and other things that take you completely by surprise and make you doubt everything.
It is frightening how quickly you get used to hearing stories about people you see every day risking everything at night to get to the UK. You hear stories as you enter the camp and meet people on their way back from trying, stories as you are standing in line to get lunch, and stories as you are sitting down with friends in their homes and they tell you what really happened last night.
And then there are things you didn’t understand at first, but come to realise the true extent of. When we first started working in the children centre, Alex and I were overwhelmed. It happened very quickly and unexpectedly, and everything was new. But we had never worked in children centres before, and had very little to compare it to. We were told that volunteers with a background in teaching often find the situation more shocking, because they can compare the children's behaviours to those of the children they have worked with before, and realise how big of a difference there often is.
For me, this realisation came from individual stories. Two art therapists came in to volunteer for a day and were taken aback when they saw how the children were painting. It’s not normal for children to use so much red and black paint, they said. Children almost always choose bright colours. In the camp, they saw children using bright colours and painting happy pictures, and then taking the red and black brushes, and destroying what they had just painted. The first painting I saw a child make in the school was an A4 piece of paper, completely covered in thick, black paint.
There has been more tension than usual in the past week. Things are changing, quickly, and often for the worse. It is difficult to know what is happening and why – there is a fine line between information and rumour. Through friends, we learned that there was a big fight last Saturday evening. We learned that there was gunfire on Sunday night. We learned that more people were shot on Monday night.
We are told that it is fighting between smugglers and between the mafia. We are told that you are safe if you stay away from trouble, at least if you are a volunteer.
Yet, entering the camp, everyone you meet seems more on edge. There are more reports of men beating their wives. And for women living without a husband, it can be even worse. Families are scared to let their children out of sight when night approaches. Children realise the changes in behaviour, and the anxiety of people around them. Children become more agitated.
Coming into school on Monday morning, we found the glass from the window shattered and the whole building perfectly covered in a layer of fine, white powder. The kids' weekend adventure had been to break into the school and set off the fire extinguisher.
For most of the day, we were sweeping and dusting and washing, trying to restore the school to its former state. Many children wanted to help, and as two children, three and five years old, were soaking magnetic numbers and letters in soapy water, a girl a few years older insisted on helping us sweep up inside. Perhaps the mischievous adventurers realised the consequences as well, because six days have now passed without a break-in.
The last few days have been above 30 degrees, sunny, and full of bubbles and water games. Tuesday was the first day of the heatwave. Probably entirely coincidentally, Tuesday was also when we started hearing about several of the children having successfully made it to the UK. All in all, this week has been a good one.
Thanks to a new volunteer, the school was given a water rocket. Although standing in line and taking turns can be a struggle, it has been immensely popular. We like to think that the children are learning about physics, but any excuse to play outside with water is welcome.
One afternoon, two girls pulled me away, saying: 'Come, my friend, come! Little black eat!' Confused but curious, I was led to a hidden corner of the camp full with blackberry bushes. We started picking and eating and trying to avoid the thorny branches.
One of the girls then found some cardboard and made an improvised box for us to put the blackberries in to bring them back to all the friends at school. (Side note: we found a beautiful shady spot on the way back to take a rest, and ended up coming back to school full but empty-handed.)
If any readers are interested in volunteering, please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org