Awareness of refugees and asylum seekers (R&AS) has always been present in my mind, with several family members having been refugees themselves. Combined with my general interest and additional insight through a dissertation on the portrayal of R&AS in the British media, a trip to the field (with Calais in particular a principal point of controversy in the current humanitarian crisis) was always going to be invaluable and enlightening whilst emotionally challenging.
Having always enjoyed teaching, when I heard about The School Bus Project (tSBP) I felt I had found an organisation which matched my strengths. tSBP endeavours to uphold the Human Right to Education – embodied by its statement that ‘if you can’t go to school, then school can come to you’. During bidaily trips into the field, 3 areas are set up: portable charging and wifi (I feel like in the society in which we live, this is regarded as a pseudo human right), a games area (skittles, cards and music etc) and a more structured teaching area (mainly teaching English).
An initial surprise was that The New Jungle isn’t one site – it’s at least 5/6 different locations in and around Calais. The fact that R&AS aren’t a homogenous mass is a point that the media doesn’t get across so well and, through my dissertation I arrogantly presumed I understood what this
meant. However, I realised that the true, gritty reality of having individuals from Eritrea to Afghanistan didn’t really hit me until I arrived in person and appreciated that these locations are largely centred on ethnic divisions. There can be tension between the different groups with potentially minimal common language. Simply picture the tension between neighbouring cities (eg Edi and Glasgow) in the same country – let alone nations with different cultures, religions, political identities. Compound that with the nature of these people’s living circumstances – the bottom of Maslow’s pyramid of needs (ie survival) – which arguably increases one’s need to look after oneself and immediate tribe.
A major concern going into the field was simply not saying or doing anything in appropriate in a fragile, volatile and foreign environment whilst ensuring cultural sensitivity. Whilst this might sound obvious and easy to control, even simply the reflex of getting out your phone can instil fear that you are going to take a photo. A photo can be used as evidence that the individual may not be in the first EU country they entered – as recorded by fingerprints. This can result in deportation back to that country, regressing months of hardship and travel.
500 words is too little to even give a taste of the insights, thoughts and, if I am perfectly honest, the very real sense of guilty privilege that I have brought back with me. Moreover, with an aim to work for an organisation such as MsF in the future, gaining insight, practical experience whilst developing essential soft skills in the field was an invaluable opportunity. I don’t think I have ever been somewhere for such a short period of time that has had such a profound effect on me – in terms of self-evaluation and igniting such a spark of passion motivation and determination to try to improve this sickening social injustice. I believe, and hope, it is an experience which will permeate through to my practice as a doctor through subtle, yet important, changes to my perspectives, character and empathy.