The scale of the migrant crisis across Europe and the Middle East has to be seen to be fully understood. Reporter CATHERINE MUSGROVE speaks to a group of volunteers who helped spearhead a mercy mission to Calais and were confronted with the horror thousands face.
“IT’s impossible to believe that what I experienced was actually taking place in France,” said Asif Muhmud, of Drive For Justice.
Last week, the group of 50 volunteers and eight vans set off from Lancashire, collecting donations from pick-up points across the county, including Preston and Chorley, and made their way through the Channel Tunnel.
They were spurred on by the images of Syrian children washed up on beach after drowning trying to reach a Greek island as they flee their wat torn country.
Asif said: “We knew we couldn’t sit by and do nothing.
“It took 10 days to organise, and to be honest, we were overwhelmed. At first by the generosity of people of all races, religions and nationalities, and secondly by the sheer task.
Utterly desperate people were fighting each other, their hands reaching out for a bottle of water or a pack of food that would last them no more than a few days.
“We didn’t envisage some of the issues we came across, such as getting insurance, getting drivers and sorting out drop-off points.”
The group took clothing, non-perishable foods, gas stoves and bottles, tents and blankets.
“We got to the stage where we were turning aid away”, said Asif. “We just couldn’t fit any more in the vans.”
Maria Hussain, also from the group, describes the shocking scenes she saw when they arrived at the ‘jungle camp’ in Calais as “Europe’s dirty little secret”.
She said: “Utterly desperate people were fighting each other, their hands reaching out for a bottle of water or a pack of food that would last them no more than a few days.
“The absolute gratitude of a woman who asked me for a pan to cook in, who couldn’t stop kissing me when I gave it her, breaks my heart. A pan I would have never given a second thought to.
“A little girl who saw a group of us standing waiting to get back into our cars came and hugged every single one of us, as though she had known us for years. It was a real, genuine embrace. She didn’t ask us for anything, or say a word. I wonder what she was thinking.”
She added: “Pregnant women were going through the boxes of clothes we’d taken, what’ll happen to them? Will they give birth in those tents? In those conditions? And how will their babies survive in a place where there wasn’t even a toilet?
“A place you have to queue up for water and packets of dry foods. A place where the ground is so dirty your shoes need washing after walking from one side to the other.
“I saw a man walking back from our distribution trucks, he held a toddler in one arm and items he’d taken from the truck in the other. He was holding trainers I’d donated, trainers I’d seen online and liked, but had changed my mind about once they’d arrived.”
She said: “I met happy, cheerful people, full of hope regardless of what they’d gone through to get there, what they were going through at the camp, and what might be to come for them in the future.
“They were proud, dignified people, their living conditions may have been the worst possible, but they stood with their heads held high. It’s a test, they said, a test from God, and it seemed they had accepted it as just that.
“They told me they wanted nothing from me, what they wanted was what was owed to them, their basic human rights. They asked me why my government was doing what it was doing, why it had closed its borders on them, are we not human?”
She added: “They asked us why our government was acting the way it was. They were highly intellectual, deep-thinking people, discussing Europe’s so-called pride on its upholding of human rights, asking why the theory wasn’t being put into practice.
“I could feel that these people had hearts of lions, I couldn’t hold back tears, but none of them were crying. We had no answers to their questions, so all we could do was offer another bottle of water to those who were willing to accept.”