Monday, 15 February 2016

Letter from Dunkirk

Sea front at Dunkirk. Photo: Wikimedia Commons
Bob Mayo is Vicar of St Stephen's church on the Uxbridge Rd, one of relatively few places in Shepherd's Bush where our many diverse and disparate communities genuinely come together.

As part of his community work, Bob recently visited the refugee camp in Dunkirk, where thousands of desperate migrants hope to reach the United Kingdom.

"I spent yesterday at the refugee camp in Dunkirk and I was more at risk from the volunteers than I was from any of the refugees. 

One group of volunteers were giving out apples. Another was driving a van with the horn pressed to the ground. I was slow to get out of his way and he drove the van straight at me. 

Blankets being distributed ended up as a part of the mud quagmire that surrounded the tents. Toys that had been given with the best of intentions were hung up muddy and wet on trees like some macabre festive decorations. 

There was other mawkish humour with one line of trees christened ‘The David Cameron’ and another ‘The ‘Francois Holland Way’.
Migrants outside Calais in 2015. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

I spent my time talking with people and listening to their stories. I talked to a man who had worked for the Coalition forces and had been responsible for a dog that sniffed for bombs. He had been rung on his private line and told that members of his family would be killed.  He and his family had fled in a boat that cracked in half on the open sea leaving them to swim for shore. 

He showed me pictures of his dog and I him of my mine. We were momentarily joined by canine love and I thought of all the dogs left behind by war.

I talked with a man from Iran who was an architect and was proud of how he had put up his tent on two wooden slats to keep his family safe and dry from the mud. Any image of God may have been scarred by all that he had faced but it burnt as strongly as it would ever have done before he left home.

Rev'd Bob Mayo

I talked with a 17 year old who had fled his village in Kurdistan to keep his sister out of the hands of ISIS. He was cold without warm clothes for the winter weather but was quivering with determination for what lay ahead. The vulnerability of him as a child on his own came when he offered to take me to his sister wondering whether that might curry favour for a trip to England. It was heart breaking but by the end we were laughing together at the antics of the teachers in his school that he had left far behind.

We helped one family to put up a tent with the instructions in English and for them quite incomprehensible. I sat in with another family in easy and companionable silence while we watched others slither by in the mud. After a period when I asked people where they were from they no longer told me their country of origin but pointed to another tent. 

Shoes in Dunkirk mud.
I took a picture of a pair of trainers that had been abandoned in the mud. It was a picture of energy and despair together. It was a poignant moment for us to return to England in the tunnel ‘sous la Manche’. There were four of us in the car and the ticket was £60. One man with whom we had talked had been asked to pay £3,000 for the chance to cross the back in the back of a lorry full of chickens. He had no knowledge of whether he would ever have arrived or of how cold he would have been if he ever did.

The situation is not going to change and go back to how it was before. There is political fatigue as people struggle to know how to respond and David Cameron threatens us with refugee camps in the UK trying to persuade us to vote to stay in the EU. There is charitable fatigue with people wanting to do something but not sure what that might be. There is never going to be story fatigue and that was the reason for my being there. People were glad to tell their stories and I got as much from them as ever they from I."

Bob Mayo is the vicar of St Stephen and St Thomas Shepherds Bush with St Michael and St George White City @RevBobMayo / website

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