Women of faith working together for refugees
I’d lost any feeling in my legs as I sat on the hard, tiled floor of a sports centre corridor, teaching a little boy to play cat’s cradle. It’s a game I’ve known since childhood, two people make patterns with a piece of wool, passing from one to the other, until one or other is not able to form the next shape in the sequence. It is the simplest of games and is played all over the world. The little boy I was playing with was one of about thirty refugee children that I and ten women from Britain were entertaining in a gymnasium near Dunkirk in France.
The convoy I travelled with was made up of Christian, Muslim and Jewish women who worked together to collect goods for delivery to the Women’s Refugee Centre based in a warehouse in Dunkirk. The warehouse filled with clothes and goods and the handful of volunteers seemed overwhelmed by the scale of the task of sorting the goods ready for distribution to refugees. Our group was pleased to help sort through some of the goods, as well as handing over tents, sleeping bags, tarps, socks and toiletries. The goods that we delivered were all new, in contrast to some of the clothes and shoes there that were in a poor state. Our team had deliberately collected new goods because we wanted to enable the refugees to retain a sense of dignity and self-worth – so much of which has been eroded by their experiences of rejection and hardship.
I was supported by the London District of the Methodist Church in taking a car load of goods and other members of the team represented Muslim Aid, Mitzvah Day, Sadaqua Day and the Penny Appeal – each organisation sending either practical support or cash to be used to buy food and goods.
From the warehouse, we travelled to the local sports centre, which the Mayor of Grande Synthe had donated for use of the refugees during the coldest months of the year. Up to 200 men slept in one hall and in another room, 20 families each had a small space in which to sleep and keep their few possessions. We set up on the floor of a corridor, a space for arts and crafts, face-painting and games. It was a tight space to work in but the children were very excited and their parents seemed relieved to have their children entertained and occupied for a couple of hours.
Later in the trip, we took a shopping list for food, shoes, tents and other goods and used the donations of cash we had received to respond to particular requests from the Women’s Refugee Centre. We then went to ‘the forest’, a local protected park where about 50 refugees are camped out. We delivered food to the people there, who wake up exhausted about 11am, many having spent the night trying to find ways to get across the Channel, however dangerous that might be. The refugees used to camp together in one area but every couple of weeks the local authority move in and destroy the tents and sleeping bags and cooking equipment. Now people camp apart, to hide and to give each other more time to pick up their stuff if there is a raid. This makes aid distribution more challenging for volunteers as finding the tents involves long walks carrying food and supplies.
The sports centre will close its doors to the refugees at the end of March. The families currently staying there will have little choice but to return to the forest. The future of the children and all those who have fled their homes for safety and a better life is frightening and unknown.
We visited Dunkirk as a group of women of faith to mark Sadaqa Day, a Muslim initiative to encourage generosity in action. That is only one day; the refugees in Dunkirk and across Europe need more than ‘one day’ solutions. Britain has a proud history of helping those in need, of welcoming the stranger and the refugee – our response to this situation is not one of which we should feel pride, rather we should feel shame. We have not met our obligations under the Dubb’s Amendment to take in 1,000 unaccompanied minors, we have not met our promise to welcome 20,000 refugees from Syria over 5 years, we have not met our moral obligation to respond to the needs of innocent families who are fleeing wars not of their making but of ours.
When I think of my friend playing cat’s cradle with me on a cold floor, I can hardly imagine what his future holds. I cannot bear to think of him and his family sleeping out in ‘the Forest’, when they have travelled so far and given up so much and all they long for is a safe place to call home.
Revd Michaela Youngson
Chair of the London District of the Methodist Church
President Designate of the Methodist Conference