I am as European as I am English, and what happens in Europe touches me. An earthquake in Italy’s Medolla, a flood in Fréjus, a rail accident in Germany, a news item about happiness in Denmark – these are things that affect all Europeans. Having published so many books about delightful and special people all over Europe, I can hardly feel detached from them.
So when I went to Calais to see for myself the conditions in which lived thousands of refugees, I first spoke to local people to find out how they felt. I was moved by their tales: how one man could no longer keep bees because the police, in their efforts to thwart the refugees from hiding while escaping France, had cut down most of the vegetation in the area. Another told me of his family’s reluctance to use the local swimming pool because so many refugees did, and of the general fear of the unknown. Another Calais resident spoke of houses impossible to sell, and the rise of the Right. Calais, it seemed had been left to deal with such things by Government. Then I went to the camp, to learn of the far more desperate plights, and to feel my own helplessness in the face of the overwhelming need. Chats with the young volunteers there revealed their own sense of helplessness, given the enormity of the task and the sheer misery they were confronting every day. They, too, had been left to get on with it alone, without government support and precious little from the big charities.
I puzzled long and hard over how we could contribute, and meanwhile asked a local to come in to talk to the office staff about his Calais work. Toby then got together with Tom, of Canopy & Stars, and the two of them met a Bristol volunteer and saw a very moving film about Calais and Dunkirk. They decided that, given how many Sawday’s users and readers travel through Calais every year, we should get involved. That is how our successful fund-raising project began, with a focus on connecting the work of Canopy & Stars with the need for shelter in the camp. The genius of the project lay in engaging our owners, a diverse and talented bunch. Many of them gave us free nights as prizes, so we combined fund-raising with an unusually seductive ‘draw’. This worked, and we put in an extra sum from the company’s ‘charity fund’.
As a result we are able to fund the building of solid, semi-permanent shelter for up to 400 people. It was heart-breaking to watch video footage of the French police bulldozing the fragile structures that the refugees had managed to erect, or had been given. Anything better than a tent was a blessing, especially during the winter cold and rains. For the women and children, especially, it must be a nightmare to subsist in such misery, and this in one of the richest nations on earth. By creating structures that are stronger, bigger and warmer than hitherto, I hope that Help Refugees, the charity we have carefully chosen to support, will provide a little relief and comfort to those who have come to the end of a very long and arduous road.
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