In November 2015, Sarah Wilson travelled from her home in Cumbria to Calais in northern France, towing a donated caravan and supplies gathered by the Carlisle Refugee Action Group (CRAG). While volunteering at the refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk during the following weeks, she became disgusted and distressed by the conditions that people were living in less than 30 miles from Britain. In January 2016, she was joined in Dunkirk by her daughter Jenny.
At first, Sarah and Jenny spent most of their time helping with day-to-day crisis management amid the muddy squalor of the camp at Grand-Synthe outside Dunkirk. But they also recognised the need for French and English lessons among its residents, most of whom have relatives or close connections in the UK and want to cross its border. They began teaching English and later French (Jenny is a French speaker and qualified TEFL teacher) to adult learners, first in people’s tents and later in a cold, leaky wooden building known informally as the University of Grand-Synthe.
In March 2016, the Grand-Synthe refugees were moved to a new camp, La Linière, which made history by being France’s first official refugee camp. The camp, on a windswept site between a railway line and a motorway, provides small wooden huts for shelter and has toilet and shower blocks, community kitchens and medical facilities. La Linière is a long way from the inhumane, rat-infested swamp that Sarah and Jenny first encountered. The camp residents are mainly Iraqi Kurds who have escaped war and persecution from Daesh in Northern Iraq. As refugees, camp residents are fearful for their future but most realise that learning French or English is essential if they are to survive as asylum seekers and eventually make a new and productive life for themselves.
When the new camp opened, Jersey Builders for Refugees kindly donated a Suri Shelter. This became the home of the Dunkirk Adult Learning Centre and library, which formally opened its doors in March 2016.
Life on camp is unpredictable, and people come and go. However, the Dunkirk Adult Learning Centre is known as a lively, safe and welcoming place where people come to learn and to share experiences and views. They come from different communities within the camp and new friendships are made. Students help one another to learn and make sure the Suri shelter is safe and looked after.
Sarah Wilson is now back in the UK, recruiting and coordinating the volunteers who teach French and English and run the Dunkirk Adult Learning Centre.
Language and learning are keys to a society in which refugees are welcomed, can integrate into new communities and make new lives for themselves. Dunkirk Adult Learning Centre remains in touch with refugees who are now in the UK. We recognise that the refugee crisis brings a challenge to build the capacity to help every refugee who comes to the UK to be welcomed into a new community and learn English.