Friday, 24 September 2021

Relief for refugees

A BUSINESSMAN from Henley has told of his experience delivering aid to refugees in Calais and witnessing riot police in action

A BUSINESSMAN from Henley has told of his experience delivering aid to refugees in Calais and witnessing riot police in action.

Tom Clark, 26, spent almost three days in the French port, visiting ?The Jungle?, where thousands of refugees are stuck in makeshift campsites hoping to cross the Channel to Britain.

He returned home on Monday but says he would like to go back and offer more help.

Three weeks ago, Mr Clark appealed for donations via the Henley Standard and was inundated with gifts including tents, blankets, clothes, toiletries and food from well-wishers so that the hallway and garage at his home in Crowsley Way, Sonning Common, were full.

He organised his mercy mission through the charity CalAid and left for France with his brother Arthur, 24, and girlfriend Zaneta Lichnova, 23, at 5.15am on Saturday in a Mercedes Sprinter van filled with aid. They drove to Folkestone before catching the Eurotunnel to Calais.

Mr Clark said: ?There wasn?t a cubic inch of space in the van when we left ? it was absolutely full. It was roughly a third clothing, a third tents and a third food bags.?

After arriving at about 10.30am, the trio made their way to a warehouse managed by Le Vestiaire Des Migrants, which helps distribute donations.

There they met other volunteers, and then drove to The Jungle to take part in a solidarity march.

Mr Clark, who runs Rowgear on the Hernes Estate, off Greys Road, Henley, said: ?There were at least 1,000 people there. It was nice to be able to show those who live there that there are people who care about them.

?I?m sure it won?t change the Government?s mind but overall it was a good thing that happened and it was nice to be there.?

After the march, they returned to the warehouse which had only been open two days but was incredibly busy.

Mr Clark said: ?It does mean the message had got through and lots of stuff is arriving.

?Now there needs to be a bit more of a specific idea of what to bring and what not to bring. What?s needed one week isn?t needed the next.?

The trio stayed in a hostel in Calais on Saturday night with other volunteers before driving back to The Jungle at 8am on Sunday to distribute more than 200 food bags. One bag was given to each refugee. ?We were a bit nervous,? said Mr Clark. ?We had a plan in place because there had been stories of things going wrong but they formed a nice orderly queue.

?We weren?t throwing food out the back of a van for them to fight over on the floor. It was done in a nice, orderly fashion and making people feel like people.

?It?s not just so we can feel great about it but so that it?s done at a human level and they are not treated like animals.?

Later that day they distributed between 500 and 700 sleeping bags and carried out a third drop of tents to a group of volunteers that distribute them to individuals.

They also delivered food and clothing to a camp of around 100 Syrian refugees closer to the town centre.

Mr Clark said: ?We had a couple of volunteers from the warehouse and an Arabic speaker which helped. It was more difficult because people want clothes that fit.?

Monday was supposed to start with a meeting to discuss a better way of distributing aid but police had carried out a 5am raid on the Syrian camp.

Mr Clark said: ?They had forcibly removed and marched all the refugees back to the main ?jungle?, then penned everyone in there using riot police.

?They began to destroy and throw away anything including tents, food and personal possessions.

?We turned up at about 8.30am. We parked our vans in the way because rubbish vans had turned up to clear it all away and we loaded the possessions into our vans.

?We did our best to use our van to collect as much as we could for the Syrians before the police moved in and we got most of it to drop at another site where the Syrians could come and collect their things. However, we learned later that the police came to the new drop and threw away most of that stuff too.?

He said the police bulldozed every tent by the side of the road leading into The Jungle.

?It just seems totally unnecessary to have riot police in the first place,? said Mr Clark. ?They could have just turned up and said ?you?ve got a day to move? at which point all the volunteers would have helped out.

?I appreciate they have got to have a hard stance otherwise Calais would turn into a whole refugee camp but they just walked in and threw stuff away.?

Before setting off for the drive home, the trio returned to the warehouse and loaded up with unwanted donations, mostly children?s and women?s clothes, to take back and give to charity.

They arrived home at about 6pm on Monday.

Mr Clark said: ?It was nice to see the Jungle has turned into a small village. There are shops, a medical centre and a school but there?s also rubbish everywhere and large parts of the place are flooded. It?s not a nice place to live. I?m really pleased that we did it. You expose yourself to the situation rather than looking at it through a screen.

?I think what?s required has changed. There?s now lots of stuff but no one there to get it to the people. What they need is volunteers.

?If I was going to go again, instead of a van of stuff, I would take a minibus full of people. Hopefully we can go back at a time when that?s really required.?

Mr Clark thanked people who made donations and supported his efforts, saying: ?I just finished off the mission really, they started it.?

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