Pancakes and Human rights

© Clara Eyckerman

Freiwilligenarbeit im Flüchtlingscamp in Dünkirchen

Im Sommer 2017 besuchte Manina Ott, Projektkoordinatorin von Flüchtlinge werden Freunde, den Kurs „Refugees +“ in Brüssel. Die europaweite Fortbildung im Rahmen von Erasmus+ richtete sich an Aktive in der Jugendarbeit, die bereits Erfahrungen in der Arbeit mit Geflüchteten hatten. Aus 14 Ländern kamen Jugendarbeiter_innen zusammen, um Erfahrungen auszutauschen und Methoden und praktische Ansätze für die eigene Arbeit mitzunehmen. Deutlich wurde: das Thema Flucht beschäftigt die Jugend in ganz Europa, ob in Irland, der Türkei, Spanien oder der Slowakei. Dort lernte Manina auch Clara Eyckerman aus Belgien kennen, die sich ehrenamtlich für Geflüchtete in einem Erstaufnahmecamp einsetzt.

Was sie dabei erlebt hat, war so spannend, dass wir sie gebeten haben, ihre Erfahrungen für diesen Blog aufzuschreiben.


I am Clara, 21 years old, and I decided to set up my life a bit differently this year and began to study part-time instead of full-time. I had different reasons for this: firstly I felt that after years and years of “being lived” by school and my studies, I wasn’t quite ready to get my diploma the following year. Which would have meant that I would already have to know what I wanted to do for a living. I hadn’t even had time to get to know myself properly. Secondly because… why rush? And thirdly: I felt a lot wasn’t going well around me and I wanted to see how useful I could make myself in opposing this.

Fighting for human rights with „Humain“ in Duinkerke

At the beginning of the year, I was quite disoriented. But media coverage and a strong sense of justice led me to an organisation of which I thought was reliable, credible and had a critical enough point of view: vzw Humain. Humain is a relatively young organisation, but with a strong vision. They fight for human rights, want equal chances and general well-being for all individuals and minority groups, and they want to put a certain pressure on politics and to modify negative images of refugees in media and society. I went with them to the refugee camp in Duinkerke for a several times. Duinkerke is in the very north of France, just across the Belgian border.

When you get close to the camp, which is situated very near to the exit of the highway, you already notice that the atmosphere changes and starts to become heavy somehow. You start seeing small groups of two to five people walking between the high roads, poorly dressed, sometimes in very dangerous places.

When you get close to the camp, the atmosphere starts to become heavy somehow

Most of them don’t really seem to know where they are going. The closer you get to the camp, the more people wandering about appear. Also the presence of police is palpable. At the entrance to the camp there is a little container where you have to register with the police before entering and show what you’re bringing in. Sometimes the policemen are very denigrating towards you. When you finally get permission to enter, there’s a big shelter on your left where men are just hanging around and charging their mobile phones. Once you have passed that there’s only a huge stony and polluted field with over 200 small wooden cabins of only one room for several people – sometimes whole families – to sleep in, but still not enough, and sometimes a bigger shelter: most of these are claimed by men except for one women’s and children’s centre. Most people seem to just be walking around, to nowhere and back. Some people are sitting and staring into space, some people meet up in front of their little cabins and listen to music or prepare a small meal on an improvised fire.

© Clara Eyckerman

Clara (middle) at the camp

Most of the times we go there with Humain we set up a little kitchen and cook a meal or make pancakes for the people, while there is another group of volunteers that goes around talking to everyone and trying to collect information about life in the camps. How many women and children are there? Is there enough food for everyone? Sanitary facilities? Are people smugglers active in the camp?…The aim is to write a clear and honest account of everything we know and publish it in order to fight the prejudices of the socio-cultural mainstream and to put pressure on politics. Also to be in a better position to provide what the people in these camps really need.

The aim is to write a clear and honest account of everything we know and publish it in order to fight the prejudices of the socio-cultural mainstream and to put pressure on politics

After a while, Duinkerke burnt down after a fight that escalated between people in the camps. The same happened to the camp that used to be in Calais. It is very understandable that fights escalate this far when people are forced to live together with so many others under these circumstances in such small places, constantly repressed by the police and administrative procedures. But of course that leads to everyone having to move again to nowhere, creating complete chaos, many people forced onto buses to closed centres and unknown places, and many families split up.

I also went there one time when Duinkerke was already burnt down, with a big backpack filled with food, through a forest in the neighbourhood of the previous camp. Looking for people. These were all very bizarre experiences for me, yet I learned a lot. Every time I went, I had the same kind of abstract and ambivalent feeling about it. Every time we arrived, I felt like drifting away from my body. It was nothing new to me: injustice, poverty, threatening police,… – in other words: the perfect summary of the effects of a f*d-up society, led by blindness and money, which is always the same in a certain way. I had never closed my eyes on these things before, I had read a lot and had had some unpleasant encounters with police already, but still. Going there struck me in a certain way.

We tried to collect provisions and things such as clothes and blankets, baked pancakes etc. But first of all, we tried to talk to the people who lived there. We tried to collect information about their life circumstances, governmental policy and hierarchy in the camps, the work of the smugglers, so that we could write and publish reports about all of this afterwards. In the evenings, when we returned from the camp, I felt like reuniting with myself again. I still find it impossible to understand that places like this really exist, only about 100 km away from my home. There is a really weird atmosphere in these camps. You feel like entering a completely different world. A different country on a different planet. Sometimes, it’s hard to understand why people are staying there, or how they even got there. Most of them are made believe that England is where they have to go. That life will get much easier and better there, finally.

I still find it impossible to understand that places like this really exist, only about 100 km away from my home.

They are ready to risk their lives for the crossing. This idea is mostly spread by the smugglers, who make money out of people in despair, unchecked by a hypocrite government. Most of the refugees have crossed the whole European continent and have been treated like dirt along the way, so their aversion to countries such as France or Italy is completely understandable.

The biggest problem is the lack of information

But the biggest problem is, as I see it, the lack of information. The people who end up in the camps have started a journey, not knowing where to go, only knowing where they flee from and what they absolutely don’t want to go back to. In a certain way, they just “go with the flow”. Along the way, many different stories and myths are told, but no one actually seems to know where to ask for asylum, and how, and what it takes. So they just don’t take the risk of asking for asylum and possibly being sent back home for some incomprehensible reason. Or they simply don’t even know where to start, what the options are.

After a day like that, getting to bed is one of the weirdest feelings I can describe. Knowing that the people you have met that day are still there, in these circumstances. And you can’t do anything about it. This realisation and discrepancy almost physically hurt the first time.
Now, after a several visits and some perspective-changing encounters and experiences later, I’m starting to be able to understand what a place like that really is, what it means, where it comes from, how people get there and how it must be for them to live there.

After a day like that, getting to bed is one of the weirdest feelings I can describe. Knowing that the people you have met that day are still there

Even though I had already been convinced of the notion that we are all of equal value, with equal fundamental rights and equal longings for freedom and safety, and that no one should live in such circumstances, before I started going to the camps with Humain, I still feel I needed to abandon some prejudices I still harboured. Prejudices that I held unconsciously. Probably I am also not 100% insensitive to the media’s and mainstream influence.

The next question is, after the personal development I went through with these experiences: what can I do about it and is it going to have an impact? Is this ever going to change?
I feel like I’m not ready yet to answer this question, but my provisional answer is this: at this moment I don’t really care if it’s going to have an long-term impact. I just can’t let this happen without at least trying to change or protest against it. And that’s enough motivation to keep on doing what I do, for now.