From Dulwich hamlet FC fan to Dulwich2Dunkirk Founder – how football helped with refugee crisis
Interview by Rhona Ezuma
Nisha Damji turned her support for her local football club into an operation that assisted relief to one of France’s most deprived refugee camps. In creating Dulwich2Dunkirk, Nisha established a distribution line between Grand-Synthe camp and the UK, which brought essentials to the residents of the camp, in the most difficult and desperate times. Highlighting the severity of the appalling conditions in the (then) barely known camp, Nisha mobilised her community towards the realisation that every little thing they could give, would help.
You started fundraising to help with the refugee crisis through your local football team, how did that come about?
“Last Summer, me and a few other people who go to support Dulwich Hamlet were saying that we wanted to do something to help. Because we are quite involved in the club, we asked the Dulwich Hamlet Supporters Trust if we could do a collection at the club. They agreed, and the response we got from the community was just amazing. We received so many donations over the course of a few collections, we actually had to get two storage rooms to store everything.”
You initially went out to distribute your donation in Calais, why did you decide to move your work to the Grand-Synthe camp in Dunkirk?
“While we were in Calais I spoke to a long time volunteer who told me about the Dunkirk camp. He said it was a lot worse than Calais. As it was my first trip to Calais, I couldn’t imagine how anything could be worse. When I made the trip again, I spent a day in Calais and a day at the Grande-Synthe camp. This was in November, and by this point the residents were already in a really inhospitable environment because the weather had turned bad. There were just many many flimsy festival tents and lots of children. In Calais the camp residents had access to a range of facilities such as a theatre, a number of churches and mosques, a school, a library, a free soup kitchens and even cafes. So at the very least, the people in Calais had some vague semblance of normality. In Dunkirk, it was a completely different situation. At that time there weren’t the same facilities or support. We then decided we wanted to do as much as we could to support Dunkirk, and started working alongside their long term volunteers to do that.”
Is there a particular memory you have from your experience that has really stuck with you?
“The first time I went to Grande-Synthe camp I met a father who was really desperate for food and he took us to where he, his wife and three kids lived. I was really shocked to see his family and many others living on what looked like barren waste land in partly broken tents and under tarpaulin, and it was horrific. The previous evening the Paris attacks happened, so the next day the police were quite strict with us when we were trying to get into the camp, and even when we were just parked up near by. The residents who lived there came out with a big sign which said ‘we cry with the people of France’ so they were very much in solidarity with the victims.
Nevertheless, the police were still restricting access to the camp which felt like a cruel punishment. These people weren’t guilty of anything except for being scared, hungry and desperate for sanctuary.
In the end, myself and another volunteer managed to get the father some blankets and some other bits of pieces but we couldn’t get him the food that he needed, so I had to go back the next weekend. There were very few volunteers there so I just couldn’t stop thinking about this father and his little children. It’s not something I could turn my back on.”
Even though the site is just 20 minutes away from Calais, it is a lot less talked about in the media, do you think that the lack of media coverage influenced the lack of awareness of the camp?
“I think now, pretty much everyone who is volunteering in Calais knows about Dunkirk and the support is a lot more joined up. At the time, back in November, there wasn’t much awareness about just how desperate the residents were. The original camp I went to has now closed. In March the camp moved to a purpose built site, built by MSF not far from the old camp. The conditions are much better, the majority of residents now live in wooden shelters, with much better protection.
There are better facilities and there are now working toilets and showers. Most importantly the site isn’t caked in mud. There is still work to be done in the new camp but everyone has worked really hard to get it to where it is. I have a lot of respect for the people who are there every single day working hard to support the residents.”
I noticed you prefer to call the people you met in Calais and Dunkirk residents. Do you have an opinion on the language used to describe people who try to migrate?
“I prefer to call them residents because I believe it is much more humanising. I’ve spoken to residents who don’t like to be called refugees and I take that on board. I don’t want to inadvertently stigmatise or dehumanise people who live in the camps, its one of the things I’ve always tried to be really mindful about.”
You have also been working with refugees who have successful in making it to the UK. What kind of ways have you been helping new arrivals and can you tell us anything you about what things are actually like for people who make it through to seek asylum here?
“I’ve learnt a lot from some of my friends who have come over to the UK from the camps, because their struggle isn’t over. They are still some of the most vulnerable people in our society. They have varying language skills for example, and they may receive a letter from the Home office which they may not understand and could affect the rest of their lives. People face a real challenge when they have come over. Some of the things that we’ve done include inviting new arrivals to watch Dulwich matches to welcome them into our community, hooking them up with local groups where they are based and supporting people in detention and referring them to organisations such as the Red Cross and Refugee Council so that they can access specialist support.”
You’ve done a lot of amazing work helping refugees and with Dulwich2Dunkirk you continue to do more. Tell me, what superpower would you say has helped you do the work you’ve done with so far?
“The support we have had from the local community has been amazing. The work that we have done would have been impossible without the support from, for example, the football club who helped us do collections and helped us with storage, a local school who held food collections for us, the seventy odd people from the community who came down to help with the sorting of donations, the fundraising gigs Dulwich Hamlet fans have done to raise money – the group of people that I visit the camps with are just one part of this project, there are a whole host of other people standing alongside us who have made this happen.”
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