Reflections on Volunteering at the Women’s Centre, Dunkirk Refugee Camp

I’m just back from a week volunteering as a massage therapist and general helper at the Women’s Centre in Dunkirk Refugee Camp. The whole experience was made even more meaningful because it was supported by friends and family, and shared with Sue Cooper, a fellow therapist with a very generous heart. I’ve been struggling to find the words to describe the confusing emotions of the week, so here are ten of my most poignant personal memories. written from the perspective of a woman.

The bleakness of the camp with people crammed into tiny wooden huts known as shelters. There is no electricity in the shelters so they rely on paraffin heaters and torches. Refugees sleep on second-hand blankets on the floor and cook on make-shift cookers or open fires. The chilling coastal wind scatters the rough, barren ground with litter and exacerbates the harshness of living conditions. The only view is more huts..

The isolation of the women. We spoke to female bank managers, university graduates, beauty therapists and musicians – people just like us – who have been forced to leave their homes suddenly and endure long and dangerous journeys across Europe. Some are single, some married, some pregnant, some with children – women of all ages and from a range of war-torn countries. They showed us photographs of their friends and families back home. Happy family gatherings, stunning scenery, colourful clothes. And there are women, stranded alone and vulnerable on the camp, while their husbands and children are in the UK. They find so much joy and comfort from contact with their loved ones, even if it is only an occasional phone call when they have sufficient credit. We soon realised the importance phone credit, not only to stay in touch with their families, but for essential safety reasons if they get stuck on a lorry or stranded miles from the camp.

The strength and resilience of the women. We spoke to women enduring exhausting and lonely lives in the desperate hope that their children will have a stable and safe future. Love for their family is their incentive for getting up in the morning and facing the monotony of another day in the camp.  Some are seeking asylum in France and others are waiting for legal entry to the UK, but many have put their hope entirely in the hands of traffickers. We heard from women, many with babies and children, about the regular night-time ritual of packing a few belongings and a fully charged phone in a rucksack or bin liner then walking to a car that takes them to a lorry park to be smuggled into the UK. They are disappointed time and again. Either there is no suitable lorry for them or they are caught by the police. They walk back to the camp, dejected, and try again. Many have been trying for several years. All they have is hope…

The vulnerability of the women and children. The number of refugees living on the camp changes daily but it is estimated at 1,500 people, including only around 150 women and 200 children. In such a male-dominated environment, where traffickers hold the power, few women or children feel safe going to social spaces, such as the phone charging points. At night, when the volunteer organisations have left the camp and electricity is turned off, the frustrations, tensions and anger on the camp all to often erupt into frightening violence and sexual assault. The Women’s Centre has recently organised locks to the female toilets and showers but these are often tampered with by predatory men. We saw spy-holes punched in the toilet doors. Many women feel confined to their shelters and rely totally on others to complete essential tasks such as queuing for food and supplies or taking clothes to the laundry.

The compassion and dedication of long-term volunteers on the camp. We worked alongside Indi and Maja, who were running the Women’s Centre during our visit. They listened to the needs of the women and worked tirelessly to help maintain dignity and self-respect – whether it was providing a donated saucepan for cooking a family meal or organising for women to attend a local Kurdish New Year celebration.  The Women’s Centre has become a real sanctuary where women and children can find support and relaxation, enjoy activities and meet other women and friendly volunteers. Long-term volunteers from the Women’s Centre also visit vulnerable refugees, men, women and children, in their shelters and work alongside other organisations to do all they can to provide for their basic needs. We saw the pleasure on Indi’s face when she was able to source shoes for a male refugee, whose footwear had been taken from him by the police when they caught him trying to get across the channel. “Now he can play basketball tonight,” she said with a kindness that brings tears to your eyes, “People’s donations matter so much.”

The warm welcome in the Women’s Centre. The day began at 11 and finished at about 5.30 – and there was never a moment when we were not well occupied. We massaged, cleaned, decorated, shopped, made crafts, played with the babies and children, and sat quietly with the women as they shared their heart-breaking stories in equally broken English. We also laughed together, shared food and enjoyed learning a few words of Farsi and Kurdish Sorani. My friend, Sue, also brought cushions and throws from the UK to create a beautifully colourful quiet space within the Centre where women and volunteers can take some ‘time out’.

The power of touch. We offered hand massages to the women and felt so rewarded by the almost instant relaxation in their faces and bodies. We gave head massages to some of the women and volunteers. And we taught some of the volunteers how to give a hand massage. We had not expected the children to join in – but they craved nurturing touch and were so happy and focused when massaging each other’s hands. A lasting memory of the camp was massaging the hands of a Kurdish lady whose eyes showed the depth of her suffering and daily grind. During the massage there was a real sense of human connection. Afterwards, her eyes were bright and her smile was so radiant. She said ‘Thank You’ over and over. Those few moments made the whole trip so worthwhile.

The traumatic impact on the children. It is impossible to imagine the fear that children have experienced and the sights they have witnessed at such a young age. They are exhausted by constant upheaval, lack of stimulus, the unsettled life of the camp and an uncertain future. They find it hard to concentrate for long and seem to constantly active and on high alert. The  Children’s Centre has been set up to provide some routine and structure and it offers a colourful and fun learning space with a regular lunch for those who choose to attend. We were invited to run a Story Massage session and were so impressed by the creativity and enthusiasm of the volunteers doing their very best to give the children a start in education. You can read more about our work with Story Massage (an FHT accredited course) and the benefits for the children on my Story Massage blog.

The inspiration of other volunteers in the Women’s Centre passionate about sharing their skills. We met teachers from the Adult Learning Centre which holds regular English and French classes. Some are women-only classes based in the Centre. We met a volunteer hairdresser, play therapists, beauticians, cooks, artists and a team from Gynecology Without Borders who support pregnant women and those with children under 2 years old. There was a sense of solidarity and shared purpose which helped build a feeling of community. People have asked if I felt safe on the camp, and as a volunteer working through the day, there was never any threat. Quite the reverse, we enjoyed fascinating conversations, smiles and jokes with refugees, men and women, of all ages. One charming, elderly Afghan man referred to us as his ‘Mothers’ – a term of great respect!

The generosity and support of family and friends. We raised nearly £1000. Amazing! And thanks to kind donations we were able to buy goods to meet the immediate needs of the women and families. The Women’s Centre runs a “free shop” for essential items. Things on the most needed list included loo rolls, washing up liquid, batteries, phone chargers, flip flops, baby food, soap and kitchen roll. We also bought new locks for the shower doors, cushions to offer comfort for a disabled boy – and we splashed out on a birthday cake for a vulnerable male refugee too. These donations were so gratefully received and made a real difference to the lives of those on the camp.

Would you like to help the Women’s Centre?

Following a devastating fire in April, just weeks after my visit, the camp is now officially closed and the people living there have been displaced. The Women’s Centre continues to support refugees on a mobile basis in and around Grande-Synthe, near Dunkirk. Donations and volunteer help are much needed.

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  1. Nina
    Posted May 7, 2017 at 6:47 am | Permalink

    Just read your Dunkirk refugee centre blog, Mary…. Much inspired and impressed by your care and contribution, a wonderful thing, a thought provoking read.

    It is so easy to forget how lucky we are, living where we do, when we do, without the daily suffering, fear and endless grind of these women and children’s lives.


    • maryatkinson
      Posted May 15, 2017 at 3:49 pm | Permalink

      Thank you for commenting, Nina. It is so true, we really must take time to appreciate all the wonderful people and things in our lives that we take for granted.

  2. Posted May 24, 2017 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    Wow – just read your blog Mary, what an amazing and profound experience. Humbled at the goodness that can be found in the kind people volunteering at centres like this.

    • maryatkinson
      Posted May 30, 2017 at 6:24 am | Permalink

      I know, Jan, people are amazing. It is so important to be part of the good things and people in life. Hope all is good with you.