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Stranded in a refugee camp: in Calais and Athens, minor students Shandra and Anna saw what that did to people

Foto: Radek Homola via Unsplash

Students of the Disruptive Events minor at Avans saw with their own eyes that the world is not always without borders. During a study trip, they visited refugee camps in Athens and Calais. There, Shandra Postma and Anna Bulavenko experienced how refugees literally come up against borders.

Shandra Postma

In October, minor student Shandra Postma drove to the French city of Calais with fellow students and lecturers. There she performed voluntary work for refugee organisations. They cooked meals, sorted things like tents, sleeping bags and mattresses and helped organise activities. “We helped out at the ‘hair dressing station’, where refugees are able to use scissors, hair clippers and nail and haircare products”, explains Shandra, who is studying Geo Media & Design at Aeres University of Applied Sciences in Almere. “There was also a games area where they played board games and also football and tennis.”

Playing a game of Jenga prompted conversations that were at once personal and difficult, says Shandra looking back. “On each block there was a question you could ask the other person. It was a way of getting the conversation started.” Shandra had one profound exchange with a refugee of her own age who she met there that has stayed with her. “He was 19 and told me he had wanted to study but that it was not possible now. I found that tough to hear, because for me being able to study went without saying and for him it didn’t.”

Since the end of the 20th century, refugees have been trying to reach the United Kingdom from Calais in northern France. They come from countries like Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine, and they attempt to make the crossing via the Channel Tunnel. Some hide in trucks or jump the trains passing through the tunnel. Others make the attempt by water. It is a dangerous crossing. Only in January, the French maritime authority reported that five migrants had died trying to cross the Channel in small boats.

Greece is an important location within Europe where thousands of refugees are stuck, for example at the Ritsona camp north of the capital Athens, where the minor students spent seven days. Migrants stay here while they await the outcome of the asylum procedure.

In total, the group of minor students spent three days on their study trip to Calais. “On the second day, we joined the aid workers handing out food parcels”, Shandra relates. “We drove down an access road to a large grass field with the refugees’ tents pitched around the edges. There we distributed the food and saw the appalling living conditions of the refugees.” The process was rather chaotic, she says. “People were so desperate to get a food parcel that there were fights between them.”

Anna Bulavenko

Migrants are given a freshly cooked meal or a parcel containing the ingredients to cook their own. Like Shandra, Ukrainian minor student Anna Bulavenko observed that people were hungry and even desperate. “One of the migrants took an onion from a food parcel I had handed out and ate it as if it were an apple. Out of desperation, or perhaps because they didn’t know what to do with it.” Anna found that a difficult sight. She was also struck by graffiti on the walls of the camp in Athens. “I saw that migrants had written slogans like ’I want freedom now’, and ‘My heart wants freedom’. It made me even more conscious of the fact that they did not have the freedom to go into town, or take a walk in the forest.”

At he end of the day, the students’ emotions came to the surface in the hotel where they were staying. “We talked through the day together and told each other what we had seen. Sometimes that could be tough, but fortunately we were there to support one another”, says Shandra. Anna, who studies Environment protection in her home country, learned from the conversations. She says she has learned to be more open as a result. “Personally, the trip and being with the group changed me. The conversations we had made me more open and helped me feel more confident sharing my opinion. We developed a close bond because we were part of a unique journey together.”

The study trip has given Shandra a different perspective on the refugee issue. “It has given refugees a face for me. You see it on TV and read about it in the papers. I realise now that that had distanced me from the situation. Seeing the conditions in those camps with your own eyes gives you a realistic picture.”

Big contrast
Despite the fact that the students went to do voluntary work with the best of intentions and were doing their bit by handing out food parcels, Shandra felt somewhat uncomfortable about it. “I felt it especially when we went back to our hotel in the evening, where we had food and a nice bed. It felt like luxury. There seemed such a big contrast between helping out and afterwards going back to your hotel to sleep. It emphasised the differences between our lives and the privileges we have.”

Because the volunteer organisations repeatedly told them they appreciated their help, Shandra’s feeling subsided. “We talked to the volunteers about it, but they assured us that they were very glad we were there. We were able to provide a lot of help.”

Anna was inspired by the trip and feels that she needs to enjoy her life more. “I saw and experienced what it is like to help others and do something for them. I am also that much more aware that you need to enjoy life”, she concludes, looking back on the trip.

The world around us is constantly changing. During the Disruptive Events minor at Avans, students learn to examine disruptive events in society based on their own expertise. They address issues like natural disasters, terrorist attacks, climate change and migration. The students go on a study trip to Calais and Athens to do voluntary work and to see with their own eyes what life in a camp is like. The minor is a partnership between different study programmes and was founded in 2015, when the refugee crisis exploded and became a complex European problem.

This article appeared in Dutch in Punt magazine ‘Grenzeloos’ (boundless). You can pick up the magazine for free at the various Avans locations.

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