19th-20th DECEMBER 2019, Calais & Dunkirk
I’ve often been asked by little ones, ‘Miss! What are your aid convoys like?’ My answer is always: ‘Each one is so different I can’t quite say!’ Because in the plus-four years of our works, I can honestly say that no two aid convoys have ever been the same – simply because the people we meet, or the tasks we are handed, are never the same.
On this trip, after we had finished delivering what gifts we had for the amazing Mobile Refugee Support and Refugee Women’s Centre (RWC) teams, we made our way to the Maison Sesame farmhouse – temporarily converted into additional winter housing to aid particularly vulnerable refugees. Most especially those with young children or babies.
On arrival, we found our beautiful refugee families cooking a special dolma dish. A treat that could only be gifted to us at all because the fire had been lit on private land – the luxury of fire and a hot meal not being permitted to those refugees being forced to live on public lands.
Getting to sit down with our families to taste every delicious spoonful, felt like a dream. And to be able to hold Baby M as she sucked on my hand (she’s now seven months old and teething but didn’t have any teething rings), and to see her healthy and warm and being cared for so lovingly by the RWC volunteers, was definitely not a moment I will ever want to forget.
But ever so occasionally, something I do want to forget will happen, and forces me to question the world all over again.
After the wonderful meal with our families, and a deep night’s sleep, the following morning, Yasmin and I headed out to the local shopping centres to purchase what we we had been asked for by our families (from teething rings for Baby M, to bowls to eat from, to waterproof trainers for 7-year old Anoush (‘pink pleeeeease!’)).
Whilst in Auchan (a huge French supermarket), we also decided to search for hot water dispensers. With temperatures now reaching sub-zero levels, the RWC team were desperate to begin distributing hot drinks to refugees having to bed down in the surrounding parklands.
Now, I am very grateful to say that I don’t encounter racism every day of my life. But when I do, it is all the more striking and painful.
And unfortunately, this convoy was to hold just such an encounter – one that lasted for no more than twenty seconds. But which still hurt. And all because a rather horrible French shop assistant not only refused to aid me in my simple quest for a tea urn, but rudely walked away whilst I was in the middle of my attempts to ask for a ‘distributeur d’eau chaude’.
On any other day, I would have gathered that it was my very bad attempt at speaking French which drove her away.
But I knew instantly from the look she gave me that she didn’t like me. Well – not me. She doesn’t know me. But that she didn’t like the look of me. Or the colour of the skin and headscarf that I came wrapped up in.
Yasmin, who had witnessed the brief exchange, felt as downhearted as I did, and we headed back to our van with the few goods we needed.
It’s never nice to be reminded that you aren’t welcome somewhere on the planet because the colour of your skin is offensive to a particular pair of eyes.
Even when those eyes ironically, belong to a lady wearing a ‘Joyeux Noel’ badge – a badge marking the birth of a refugee baby, born in the Middle East, who would go on to be killed for his simple, compassionate message of loving all of humankind.
As we clicked our seat-belts into place and got ready to head back to base camp, we heard a tapping on my side of the van. I looked over to see a middle-aged, serious-looking Caucasian man staring back at us.
I rolled down the window with a heavy heart, thinking the worst. But as soon as I asked, ‘Yes?’, the man broke out into a smile, and held out a 10Euro note.
‘I saw the signs on your van – and I just wanted to help,’ he said. Taken aback – but in the best way possible! – I asked for his name.
‘It’s Jeffrey,’ he said, as he let me take a photo of him, and then left us to get back to his car and family.
As he walked away, I doubt Jeffrey could have known the significance of his action for both myself and Yasmin. For as small as it may have seemed to him, his act of kindness, in that single instant, reminded us that for every small heart filled with hate that we may encounter, there are a thousand kind Jeffreys, waiting to help.
So thank you Jeffrey. For so much more than that 10Euro note. (And I hope you get to read this one day, and realise how Rather Wonderful you are.)