When reports began to flood in from Calais’s burgeoning refugee camp, people across the country watched in horror at events unfolding 25 miles from Dover. Copyright meets the Bristolians who chose to do something about it
We disguised it as a 4×4 carrying aid to get it into the camp, and then locked it in a shipping container’. Pip Rush, one of the founders of events group Arcadia, is talking about a fire truck he and his crew built and delivered to the 6,000-strong makeshift refugee camp, coined the Jungle, in Calais.
Arcadia are the pyromaniacs behind the mind-bending, belief-melting fire shows, centred on a giant metal spider, that wow festival goers around the world. But how did they end up making and delivering an incognito fire truck to the Calais camp?
It all started when some of the Bristol-based crew visited the camp. While they were there they witnessed a gas explosion. A fireball shot into the sky. An inferno blazed. There was no equipment to put it out and people scrambled desperately with buckets, trying to collect sparse drips of water from unreliable taps. An impossible, frustrating and disheartening task. While they waited 45 minutes for the fire engines to come, all the refugees on site could do was watch as another part of their lives went up in flames. Fires like this happen, apparently, about three times a month in the camp. It became immediately obvious how the Arcadia crew might be able to help.
If there’s anyone that knows about fire and fire safety, it’s Arcadia. So the team decided to crowd source money to build and deliver a fire truck to the camp, and train volunteers to run and maintain it. The bits that they were in control of – the actual build – proved to be the least of their problems. The logistics and politics of the delivery became the biggest obstruction, Pip explains. ‘We couldn’t find an organisation that could look after it and had no idea whether the authorities would stop it getting on site.’
Against all odds, Pip and his crew successfully made and delivered the truck. Pip explains, they really see the whole thing as community effort, ‘Through our Facebook channels we have a really sound following of people who will support us to do good things.
‘It didn’t feel like it was an Arcadia project helping refugees, it was more like people seeing other people in a vulnerable situation and feeling compelled to club together and lend a hand.’
People to people. It seems to be a recurring paradigm in Bristol’s collective effort to support the Calais refugees. And nowhere more so than at the Calais Refugee Solidarity Bristol (CRSB), a self-started organisation whose motto is indeed ‘People to People’. It’s a phrase that conveys resourcefulness and compassion. The lack of established charities and government support for the refugees in the Jungle means self-starting initiatives are some of the only ways people can help. We spoke to Sarah Greenwood, one of CRSB’s 12 coordinators, who filled us in on how the group’s first trip to Calais went, ‘It was a big learning curve,’ she says. ‘We quickly discovered the things we did and didn’t need to do.’
Sarah explains how the group began, ‘A couple of friends of mine were genuinely upset about what they’d been seeing about Syria and the refugee situation. ‘They met up at the Palestinian Museum near Corn Street (in August 2015) – about seven people – and by the following week this had grown to around fifteen.’
A Facebook group was set up to rally more support and CRSB now has a bells and whistles website to make it even easier for people to donate. While there are some key organisational figures, like Sarah, the group is intrinsically an independent, democratic, open platform.
Back to that first trip. CRSB initially intended to send a single van loaded with vital supplies and a handful of eager volunteers. But it soon became clear that the support people were offering far exceeded this modest plan. Within just three months, one van load soon became two lorries, 30 tonnes of donations, 30 volunteers and £16,000 in monetary gifts.
And the learning curve? They now know that the camp is predominantly in need of medical supplies (cold and flu remedies and scabies medicine), food supplies (mostly dried goods), warm clothing, blankets, waterproofs and sleeping bags and funding for proper shelter. CRSB now have knowledge, experience, and donations, and are planning to head back out to the Jungle for a second visit.
Bristol’s actions to help ease this shocking humanitarian crisis all stem from the same hope: to help people as effectively and profoundly as we can. Pip summarized their incentive behind the fire truck project, ‘Whatever your views on the politics and economics of the refugee crisis, this is about human beings and our only goal is to stop people from dying.’
Donate to Arcadia for the upkeep of the fire truck:
Donate to CRSB and find out more about what they do: