Infocus: Tom Mcelholm, student who travelled to the migrant village in Calais for charity

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Mr Mceholhm Photo by Terry Lee

Though it is not uncommon for St Andrews students to impress friends with remarkable tales of how they spent their summer, Tom Mcelholm’s excursion to the “Jungle” migrant camp has amazed and affected many.

The “Jungle” is the nickname lent to the series of camps on the outskirts of Calais where many refugees and asylum seekers live while they attempt to illegally enter the United Kingdom.

Conditions in the camp are poor, with most migrants living in tents or under improvised shelters. They are often without proper washing or sanitary facilities and food is scarce.

In late August of this year, Mr Mcelhom, a second year student who studies history, delivered aid and supplies to refugees currently living in the camps. He is planning on returning there on 2 October 2015 in order to deliver more provisions and is also trying to organise working as a volunteer in the camp for three weeks in January 2016.

When The Saint met up with him last week and asked what had inspired him to act, Mr Mcelhom stressed that he had always wanted to help the refugees. “I mean, who doesn’t?” he asked.

However, it was ultimately a video of Britain First activists “harassing” migrants, “putting cameras in their faces” and otherwise obviously distressing them which left the 19 year old feeling “really disgusted,” provoking him to take action.

It was this disgust which allowed Mr Mcelholm to realise just how straightforward helping the migrants could be. “All they [the Britain First activists] did was get in a car and go over the border, it’s really easy.” If they could do it, he too could drive over to Calais and directly affect the lives of the migrants. “It’s literally jumping in a car if you have the free time for it,” he said.

Mr Mceholhm Photo by Terry Lee
Mr Mceholm. Photo by Terry Lee

Using his own savings to purchase a ticket for the Dover-Calais ferry and calling up friends and family for help gathering supplies, Mr Mcelholm managed to raise a staggering £800 worth of donations. He took over 10 camp beds, 25 thermal tops, 15 thermal bottoms, 90 pairs of socks, three waterproof holdalls, six duvets and blankets, four sleeping bags, five tents, 15 plus pairs of shoes, 40 plus t-shirts, over 50 winter jackets as well as extras ranging from baking trays and kettles to pillows to pasta, in addition to some building materials.

Though there is a shortage of food in the camp, Mr Mcelholm noted that he was only able take “a little bit of food because they don’t really have the storage space.” Instead he focused on taking “mainly things that refugees can wear because then they don’t need to keep it stored somewhere. They can just put it on their backs and walk around with it.”

In this vein, Mr Mcelholm spoke of the importance of doing research before donating and finding out what an organisation actually needs instead of just giving blindly. Otherwise, it “causes more hassle for the charity.”

He stressed that even though “really well-meaning people donate lots of children’s clothes, babies’ clothes, women’s clothes and women’s shoes, they’re not going to be used. The organisation are actually turning away some of these donations because they don’t have the space to store them. Over 90 per cent of the camp is young male.” There is only a short ten minute drive separating Calais city centre from the “Jungle.” Travelling there with his friend, Mr Mcelholm was shocked by how quickly the city fell away and the refugee camp sprang up around them. “Out of nowhere, you’re in the middle of this refugee camp. There’s all these people walking around and they’re all in silence, resigned, helpless. They look like they’re just done with it.”

Speaking of the “Jungle” overall, Mr Mcelholm described it as “shocking,” a “wasteland” and a “war zone.” The supplies, refugees and recreational areas are all separate, with access granted at only certain times of the day.

Mr Mcelholm described a distressing encounter with  a refugee who approached their car asking for help. The refugee “bent his head down and he looked at us through the window and he said, ‘I can’t sleep’, and then he pointed to the sleeping bags and said, ‘Can you give me one?’ You just have to say ‘no’. You have to give it to the organisations and the charities and you can’t wind up the window because that’s horrible.” Mr Mcelholm ascribes the happier mood which was pervading the camp when he returned in the afternoon to the sight that the recreational area, consisting of some grass and a volleyball court (a net in some waste ground, Mr Mcelholm corrected himself), was now open for the refugees to use. The student was pleased to learn that some of the migrants were playing football and others had been playing volleyball earlier in the day.

Once inside this recreational zone, Mr Mcelholm remarked that the mood “instantly” changed, “the difference that that little bit of grass makes to the entire mentality that you’re in is huge, crazy. You feel like you’re in a completely different area. You suddenly feel like you’re back in Europe.”

Though Mr Mcelholm wanted to stay in Calais and volunteer, he was forced to leave as there were already around 15 volunteers working at the camp “doing everything they can.”

Whilst ideally the camp would have more volunteers, around 100 or so, they simply “don’t have the resources to do anything with them” at the moment.

Mr Mcelholm found accepting this and returning home challenging, describing it as “the hardest part because, again, it’s only 10 minutes to Calais town centre and it’s only 40 minutes to England. It’s really awful.”

Upon returning to the UK, Mr Mcelholm still felt that he had not done enough and so told his story to the BBC and The Independent.

The latter posted a link to his crowdfunding page on their website and the result was incredible. “Iwas sitting in Aikman’s pub about a week ago,” Mr Mcelholm explained. “My phone suddenly starts buzzing and it’s going, ‘You’ve got a pledge, you’ve got a pledge, you’ve got a pledge, you’ve got a pledge.’ I checked in the morning, twelve hours later, and I had £2,500. Now I think I’ve got around £8,700.” This money is going towards supplies which he will take over with him on his next convoy in early October.

Convinced of the virtue of ordinary people, Mr Mcelholm believes that more people would help if it were only easier to find out how they could do so. When The Independent shared his crowdfunding page, “which is literally just a 19 year old lad saying I’m driving over,” he received almost £9,000 worth of donations within a few days. “That shows people want to help and if you show them how to, they’ll do it very, very quickly and in force,” he told us.

Overall, Mr Mcelholm thinks that the response from the British people “has been really great.” He encouraged us to look up Calais people-to-people migrant solidarity action UK and read about everything people are doing to help. “It’s one of the most heart-warming things you’ll ever do,” he said.

In contrast, his opinion of the British government’s reaction to the crisis is less favourable: “it’s useless, nowhere near enough.” He remarked that they were spending money but in the wrong places.“You spend £12 million building a fence. That would have been enough to build durable shelters for twice the population of refugees that are already in Calais.”

Although he appreciates that the six charities that are currently at work in the “Jungle” are “well intended,” Mr Mcelholm does not think that they are enough. He suggested that a single, larger organisation, such as the Red Cross who managed Sangatte from 1999-2002, would be better suited to coping with the crisis simply because “in terms of economy, scale, storing things, buying things, it makes a lot more sense. They’re turning away donations not because they don’t need them but because they simply can’t store them. No matter how many people in the UK want to help, if there’s nowhere to put supplies, it’s totally useless.”

He also stressed that the people working in Calais for these charities are not professionals.

“It’s literally people in the UK calling up people in France, saying I don’t think it takes a globalised world view to say ‘people are dying and that’s not okay’ ‘Hey guys do you need supplies?’” Mr Mcelholm described this approach as “treating the symptoms rather than treating the cause.”

For ordinary people who are wanting to help the cause, Mr Mcelholm believes that one of the most powerful actions they can take right now is to help fight the stigmatisation of migrants. “If you’re sitting in the pub with your friend who’s telling you that refugees are evil, just tell him ‘they’re not.’ That’s the most important thing, for people to realise what’s actually going on, not what they’re being told is going on.”

The student argued: “Any human being that goes there [Calais], they simply cannot leave and have the same view that our government is showing. That’s impossible.”

When asked if he thought that living in St Andrews had given him a more globalised worldview which had perhaps incited him to act, Mr Mcelholm replied that though the university is certainly an international place, he didn’t think that this was relevant to Calais. “I don’t think it’s a globalised world view to say that human beings are dying and that’s not okay. I think that’s a really normal thing to think.”

This is not the first humanitarian work which Mr Mcelholm has done. He told us that he comes from a family in which charity is “normal.”

Heavily involved with the Chernobyl Children’s Project, which looks after children – usually orphans – who have developed cancer as a result of the 1986 disaster, his family has a few orphans come over to stay at their house every summer.

Coming from such a background, it is perhaps no surprise that Mr Mcelholm is so keen to head back to the “Jungle” next month and has been discussing plans to help other refugees in Central Europe with friends.

In a final plea for others to get involved, he stressed just how easy it was for him to take action and the huge impact which he now knows his actions had: “whether you’re raising money or donating, it makes a big difference. It doesn’t solve it, but it makes a big difference. People should get involved because it’s the human thing to do. It’s as simple as that.”

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