Amber Bauer, founder, Donate4Refugees writes

“I arrived at the Grande Synthe shelter for Refugee Families near Dunkirk, northern France, at about 5 o’clock. The shelter is a gym hall packed with people in tents and make-shift blanket shelters (pens) on the floor. From the outside, the gym is surrounded by more tents – a cramped campsite with few facilities for the 100’s people living there.

“I’d come to find Caia, Claire and the long-term volunteers of Project Play, a brilliant group in our Network that we’re very proud to support. The day’s rain meant that I found them in a humid corridor inside the gym hall just as they were getting ready to have the kids help tidy up for the day.

“I caught up with Caia and Claire after tidy-up to find out more about Project Play and how they’re counting on us for help and support.”

Claire and Caia said:

“We were just really overwhelmed that there wasn’t a service specifically supporting children. You’d ask ‘this child has this injury, where did they get it from?’ and, although the Women’s Centre did an amazing job trying to support them when you’re trying to support 200 people in families, it’s just too much. So we basically thought, we’ve got to start something.

“Now we’re working with over 50 children who maybe access one session, it’s like a drop-in so they can come and go, but it means that there have been new challenges. So we’ve had to adapt the way that we run.

“We’re trying to create a space where these kids feel that they are valued as individuals and they feel safe. They have the time just to think, ok, right now, I can just focus on doing this maths’ sum or painting this picture, or playing with this toy. It’s just that mental release which actually when you’re living in these conditions where you have absolutely no privacy and you can’t even walk between tents they’re so close together, they really really really need.

“We’ve expanded our service to include education on certain days. So we’ve got Rachel our amazing co-ordinator who leads our education programme. It’s important for us to have feedback from the community so we’re always trying to ask people how we can better our service because, at the end of the day, it’s a service for them, to support their children. The main feedback we’ve had is that parents want school, they want their kids to learn how to read and write.

“You can see the change. For some kids, especially the younger ones, play is what they needed. It empowers them, it helps build their resilience, it reinforces their identity. But actually, with some of the older children, they don’t necessarily identify as children any more because of the responsibility that has been placed on them having to take care of their younger siblings. So, for them, school is how we really make them feel like the incredible, empowered individuals they are.

“What we really value in our team is our long-term volunteers. Our volunteers have to stay with us for a minimum of two months which means that we support volunteer costs with accommodation. So actually what we really need is donations to be able to pay for our caravan, also to be able to pay for our fuel. Fuel is a really horrible thing to have to spend money on, but at the end of the day we’re a mobile service because we have to go to wherever the kids are and that means driving from Calais to Dunkirk every day, and Calais to Nedonchel, which is where the accommodation centre that we visit once a week is.

“We also need material donations. We do a really big focus on imaginative play because that really helps the children to build positive memories. So dolls houses, babies, toy food, toy tills, dressing-up clothes. We love Play-Doh. All of the kids love Play-Doh, it just seems to be an activity that crosses all age groups.

“We need more construction materials. A lot of the older boys, in terms of craft materials, they really like making things and making things that they’ve imagined. So we often just bring popsicle sticks and glue and wooden dowel rods, then they just create something out of that which is really beautiful.”