By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
“Until you see it in real life, you can’t really believe it,” said Ann Garton after setting foot in the mud-caked refugee camp known as “The Jungle.”
The St. Ambrose University nursing professor spent 11 days volunteering at the asbestos dump refugee settlement in France in December, and was disheartened to see that conditions were even worse than they appeared on BBC television network broadcasts. “I thought it couldn’t have been that bad. … I have friends whose guinea pigs and rats live better than these people. That’s not right.”
Many of the refugees are highly educated and speak multiple languages, including English. The refugees Garton met included a professor, an interior designer and a group of medical students who were forced to find asylum because they had protested in their country of origin.
Garton fondly recalls an 8-year-old boy, Everest, telling her about his dreams for the future. Fluent in four languages, he hopes to be a chemistry professor when he grows up. “He was smart, funny and I truly enjoyed visiting with him and learning from him,” Garton said. She brought a Flat Amos on her trip and gave it to the young Christian as a token of friendship. Delighted by the gift, Everest told Garton that he’d pray with it every night before going to bed. (Flat Amos is a cut-out illustration of the Davenport Diocese’s Bishop Martin Amos.)
The 6,000 refugees in the camp hail from conflict countries including Eritrea, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan and Syria. Living in tents and crude structures, the men, women and children are in limbo as they wait and hope for a chance to find permanent asylum in Great Britain. Meanwhile, European governments are tightening their migration policies, reports London’s The Daily Mail.
Garton, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish-Davenport, believes there is little reason for people to fear the residents of the camp. Despite living in rough conditions, the refugees were “lovely. I never felt in danger; I felt welcomed.”
She shared tea time with refugees several times during her stay. One was an artist whose drawings Garton admired. She tried to buy the drawings but he refused payment, instead offering them as a gift. “These people were just born in the wrong place,” she said. “I would invite any of them to be my neighbor.”
Adult refugees often use their skills to contribute to the welfare of those in the refugee community. The former professor, for example, runs a shanty school so that the children in the camp can receive an education. Makeshift churches, mosques and kitchens are also part of the camp community.
A fellow volunteer told Garton that the conditions in The Jungle are worse than those in the slums of India. Resources and sanitation options are scarce. The sole source of water in the camp is a thin pipe with less than a dozen faucets. Lines for amenities are long. Residents of The Jungle feel safer there than in their country of origin, Garton observed.
Until recently, France paid little attention to the unincorporated camp. Now the French government is reaching out to the refugees with plans to construct a more sanitary facility for them nearby. The Guardian reports that the refugees are wary of the government’s intentions.
The government is now threatening to tear down part of The Jungle, forcing one-third of the refugees to move into the new structures. This has caused the refugees to become even more distrusting of the government, The Guardian reports.
Generally, most of the people who volunteer in the camp have been British citizens who spend anywhere from a couple of days to a few months in the camp on France’s west coast. Recently, a few relief organizations have come to provide assistance as well.
Garton utilized her healthcare background to help sort through medical and pharmaceutical donations during her 11 days in the camp, organizing beneficial items and disposing of those which could not be used. When volunteer doctors come in to offer care and vaccinations, they use the supplies to help refugees.
During her stay, Garton slept in a local hostel. She was grateful that her husband and 12-year-old son sacrificed Christmas with her so she could help the refugees.
Getting involved helped her to gain a wider view of the world. “I thought I had an understanding, but I learned much more by being involved. I think that’s key for all of us. Not all of us can go to France, but we can learn more about what we can do in our own community. We can all learn from each other.”