'Walking Borders: borders, risk and belonging' is funded by the Leverhulme Trust
Reflections of walking in Grande-Synthe refugee camp by arts worker and researcher, Nelli Stavropoulou.
On Saturday the 23rd January 2016, as part of a group of seven volunteers from the North East of England, I visited Grande-Synthe refugee camp in Dunkirk for the first time. After a 10-hour car drive from Newcastle to Dunkirk via the Eurotunnel, we spent Friday night in Dunkirk and set off the next morning for the refugee camp.
We first arrive at a supermarket’s parking lot where we park our car, change into our wellies and organise our distribution bags. Vehicle access is restricted and only permit-holding vehicles are allowed in the camp. Our car’s trunk is filled with plastic bags containing medical supplies, women’s hygiene products, nappies, children’s clothing, and packs of fruits and nuts. The rest of our group is driving a van, containing more supplies to be distributed outside the camp. We get our backpacks and walk towards the camp’s entrance.
A fence made from naked tree branches, marks the edge of the camp, separating it from the Grande-Synthe neighbourhood. It is an ambiguous border allowing one to see through its openings, the numerous tents lined up across the field. Across the perimeter, we see coloured graffiti messages of support, solidarity and humanity.
The messages come in stark contrast with some of the nearby residential houses’ fenced windows, entirely locked from the outside. I realise we’ve arrived at the entrance, as we are being greeted by a French policeman.
Nothing can really prepare you for visiting a refugee camp. In fact to describe Grande-Synthe as a camp would be problematic, as that would suggest the existence of facilities and the notion of an infrastructure. Instead, this is a space filled with tents, covered in mud and surrounded by garbage.
Walking across the camp I walk by young men patiently waiting in line, to use the outdoor water-taps and I can already see another group of men forming a line as they are waiting for something. The camp’s wash station only has eight taps, one for every 375 people.
It’s 8.15am and the camp is still asleep. We have some time until we need to start preparing food for the camp on a renovated mobile bus-kitchen, so we decide to wander around. We are told that this is a quiet time as people usually stay in their tents until later during the day, to stay warm.
Note: The mobile kitchen is run by humanitarian chef, Ghafoor Hussain and his brother offering warm food to camp residents.
We are surrounded by tents. We are surrounded by the stories that refugees themselves carry while traversing across borders, the possible, imagined futures envisioned while waiting here, in limbo.
The word seems painfully accurate. In Limbo; describing ‘an imaginary place for forgotten or unwanted people’; ‘an unknown intermediate place between two extremes’; ‘a prison’.
The camp may have no high-security fences but there are police officers outside.
I look towards the fences. The notion of borders is inescapable here; the camp exists physically within the suburb of Dunkirk, but it also exists as a separate, forgotten place, clearly demarked by geographical, as well as socio-political borders.
I reflect on the notion of belonging as experienced by a displaced person; to be contained within a country but also being rejected as an outsider. The feeling of not knowing what will happen next. Notions of risk and (non)belonging are intrinsic to the refugee experience; the concept of ‘home’ becomes a negotiating process between moving away from one’s country of origin and searching for a new place to call home.
We spend a total of 15 hours at the camp. Preparing and distributing food, handing out bananas, blankets and scarves, talking to some of the residents and playing with the children.
The different graffiti messages outside and within the camp’s perimeter offer segments of support, hope and a shared of sense humanity.
One of the first photographs I take during my walk is that of a wooden container where someone has left a message in white paint: “You’ll never walk alone.” I feel grateful towards whoever wrote this message and touched by his or her compassion.
The dangerous nature of borders lies beyond their function as a mechanism for separation or control, they also alienate.
Borders seem to ‘draw a line’ between people and despite the immense generosity and voluntary support offered by organisations, groups, and individuals, reality remains the same: almost 3,000 people – among them around 300 young children, are living in Dunkirk without knowing what lies ahead.
It is a conscious decision leaving living one’s country, yes, but it is not a voluntary one; there is no choice in being a refugee. I catch myself smiling as a young boy plays with one of the toy-bags given to him. I wonder if he understands that this is likely to be his home for the foreseeable future.
It is almost midnight and we’ve spent over three and a half hours serving portions of biriyani, rice and lentil soup. Someone asks for a bottle of water while we are cleaning the pots and tidying up supplies for future meals.
On our way out, we are already planning our next visit.
Thank you Ruhi, Muslima, Jane, Shumel, Stephen, and Michael, for including me in your group and for your humanity.