I volunteered with Heather and Kelvin, our partners at Paris Refugee Ground Support (PRGS), for five days from 22nd February 2018. Out at the same time was Bridge2’s Sarah Griffith and it was great to be volunteering alongside her.
In sub zero temperatures over 1000 refugees are surviving under bridges and at the side of canals in Paris, Europe’s City of Love.
Homeless, and with nowhere else to go, their only help is from grassroots volunteers like Heather and Kelvin. They support from a warehouse squat (culturally very acceptable in Paris and saving a fortune in rent) not too far from Gare du Nord. They sort donations by day and, as the evening draws in, meticulously load the van ready for street distribution. Blankets back left, sleeping bags back right , flat-packed pop-up tents in the roof net, snug packs of gloves, scarf and socks packed into a hat front right, a small selection of jumpers and coats front left…. They pack in as many essentials as they can to get round the known camping grounds without having to return to base for a refill.
It is almost impossible to distribute size-specific items in these circumstances, so a thorough distribution of shoes and clothes is almost unheard of. As a result, there are requests for these things night after night, but little that PRGS can do. For the clearly desperate, a covert distribution of a pair of shoes here, or trousers there, has do be done.
The support from 'ordinary people' is as evident in Paris as it is anywhere, and as apparent as the completely absent support from the authorities. Religious groups feed refugees, but the offer of real shelter is rare and so giving out tents and warmth to help people to survive the night is left to the dedication of PRGS and a handful of others.
Mostly I saw young men in this awful situation, but we also helped young women - married or sometimes travelling alone - and many younger teens. The conditions are heart-breaking. And it's devastating that this is the path European governments and people have chosen when asked to help people in need. I have no doubt that PRGS, along with the other aid groups in Paris, are keeping refugees alive in this freezing weather. And the refugees themselves showed such amazing resilience, appreciation and good humour. I really don’t know how.