Two Paediatricians go to Calais

What led to two paediatric trainees who had never met before, volunteering together in the first aid caravans in the heart of the Calais camp? A simple Facebook shout out for help and the rest as they say is history.  Here’s our experience from our week in the refugee camp:

As Paediatric Trainees, we had hoped to go on foot to the women and children’s area within the camp. Due to a limited number of First Aiders that week and the apparent need, we stuck to the caravans and helped the residents who queued up to be seen. Many of whom had been there for many months.  The queues began to grow later in the day as the residents woke up after spending the night, “on the game,” which meant trying to gain access to the UK.

We mainly met young men suffering from the consequences of living in cramped, damp, squalid and inhumane conditions; often with recently sustained injuries. We saw coughs, colds, sore throats, scabies, athletes foot and injuries from “run ins,” with the border police. There were suspected fractures and soft tissue injuries from the dangerous activity of attempting to board lorries illegally. Anybody needing more than first aid was referred to the French run clinic within the camp. Women and children were hidden away and tended to keep within their designated area. Thankfully they were situated next to the French clinic and various facilities were set up to support them specifically. We were informed by our translators, that most of the male residents were reluctant to attend the French clinic, as they did not feel empowered enough to seek help and assumed they would be turned away without a referral from us.

We also briefly visited the Dunkirk camp, set up by MSF, some 16km from Calais. Smaller than Calais, but a refugee camp none the less. We met an impressive team of volunteers who had developed a robust system to ensure that there were medical provisions for all residents 24/7.  Here we saw children riding bicycles and being cheeky like all children should be. Still, it’s not place for a child but quite a contrast to the Calais camp; where NGO presence is thin on the ground and support for the residents was in the form of individual, self-funded volunteers like us. We were lucky to have two residents working with us as interpreters. Both were from Afghanistan and both were lovely, intelligent, educated and a good laugh.  Their hard work was invaluable, as without them taking detailed histories, making referrals and communicating would have been impossible.

The days were busy, broken only by a lunch break in one of the ‘pop up’ restaurants on the high street with in the camp. “Jungle Food’ as it’s called was quite tasty. Evenings were spent in Calais town, usually at the ‘Family Pub’ where volunteers tended to congregate at night although one evening was spent drinking supermarket French wine, cheese and bread picnic style on the beach.  Sometimes, we had to remind ourselves that we were in France, a highly resourced country.

It was a short trip but we got to experience first-hand what we’ve been seeing in the newspapers for some time.  Not all were, “refugees,” but whatever your thoughts on immigration, these people were looking for a better life. It’s difficult to imagine what they’d left behind, in order to put up with the difficult conditions of the camp.  As junior doctors, many of us have had opportunities to work as economic migrants in places like Australia and New Zealand, wanting to experience better working and living conditions….who are we to judge those who want the same? We were incredibly lucky to be able to leave and return to comfort and security, while the people we met continue to be trapped in precarious conditions; their lives on hold due to circumstances beyond their control. The response from unofficial, self-funded volunteers was impressive, but the human situation remains dire.

Since leaving the camp we have been informed that the French clinic was very grateful for our contribution. We had taken a little of the strain off them. This knowledge helped dispel the residual scepticism and helplessness felt often when leaving a difficult environment. When resources are not available, and you cannot offer your full set of skills as a paediatric trainee; time, energy and compassion can still be put to work in other ways.

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