Last Saturday I travelled to Dunkirk once again with local charity, Just Shelter. As we drove into the wooded open spaces behind an out of town consumer village, which always reminds me of something from a J.G. Ballard novel, we saw an elderly man limping in front of us. He carried a small assortment of possessions, blankets perhaps, and his ill-fitting coat was barely wrapped around him despite the desperately cold and wet February weather. He noticed the car and moved over to the side of the road, and as we passed he thanked us for our patience as we had slowed down for him.
We parked and shortly afterwards one of the Just Shelter leaders went over to another group, a team of volunteers from Holland delivering food and blankets, so she could discuss distributing alongside them. The man we’d seen arrived at the same time and according to my colleague, the kindness of the strangers he met prompted him to break down and sob. He was in pain, hungry and cold. Exhausted. He’d only just reached the location, with nothing except the support of his son. They had no tent or any of the items people who have been there a little longer manage to keep hold of. I say manage because often the police visit and destroy or confiscate everything. Volunteers hand out coats, blankets, and tents and then the police come along a few days later and tear it all down. All that any of us could do for the elderly man was offer him a handful of paracetamol and a single meal handed out by the Dutch volunteers. There were no tents left on the shelves of the local shops and as we were leaving later that day the man was sitting under a tarpaulin in the rain waiting for something or someone because he had come as far as he could go. (continued below)
We were able to move him to a more sheltered space and alert a visiting medical team who went to see what they could do to help. We also asked one of our contacts working in France to find him and his son a tent so he could at least get out of the rain.
I can’t stop thinking about that man, who in the last years of his life felt that living in the country he thought of as home was so dire, it would be worth the momentous and risky journey across Europe in search of safety; a better existence. And while I have no idea where he’ll end up, it seems desperately wrong that Europe should do so little to help him and all the other people who have made the same decision.
One of Just Shelter’s aims is making sure we don’t forget the many, many people living without basic amenities all over Europe, as they flee countries which have become untenable for a number of reasons. At a time when here in the UK we are faced with difficult news on a daily basis, which alarms us and makes us angry about how people in this country are being treated, it is not always easy to find ways to keep this story alive. Understandably, many people are worried about homelessness in the UK, or the fact that workers are being fined for taking sick days and dying as they try to avoid punitive measures. Or how a system has evolved which allows companies to make vast profits while the people working for them sit on pavements in all weathers, often unpaid, until they deliver our pizzas and curries, and with no workplace benefits whatsoever. We are horrified by stories about claims being stopped when people fail to turn up for interviews because they are in hospital. Across the political divide, we are angry that many of our politicians seem so disconnected from the reality of our lives. Thinking about people from other countries when we have so many issues to think about here can seem like too much. But there is a strong argument to suggest all of these things are connected in some way. And perhaps you won’t be surprised to hear, I do not believe refugees are to blame for the world’s ills. (continued below)
The dejected man I saw in Dunkirk reminded me a little of my late father. His life was obviously very different but he too was broken during the latter years of his life. However, he could get out of the rain. He could sit in front of the TV and escape a depressing reality with his favourite soap operas. He could drink and eat what he liked and he could go to bed under a roof with central heating warming up his rather dilapidated flat. These things are such basic requirements and no-one in Europe regardless of how they arrived here should be without a roof. I am well aware that people here in the UK are struggling to pay for heating, but again, it isn’t any refugee’s fault. The man we saw in Dunkirk is not just a story on your social media feed. He’s far more than a collection of pixels. He’s real. He’s a person. And he’s somebody’s father, grandfather, somebody’s loved one. And he’s old and living on the ground behind a supermarket car park.
If anyone is interested in helping Just Shelter either practically or with donations, please get in touch via their Facebook page.
All images (c)SJField 2018