Deaf Refugees – My Trip to Calais

Helping Others Less Fortunate

Reading Time: 7 minutes

The photo above was taken in a cafe inside the camp where we had lunch.

I’ve called this photograph ‘A seat at the table’, and to me, it represents everything about this crisis.

This is what every single Refugee wants. A seat at the table. An opportunity. To be equal. To be considered. To be involved. I now have this photograph printed next to my computer as a constant reminder to continue to play my part in making space at that table.

I have been learning British Sign Language for over ten years now and before shooting weddings, I had numerous jobs within the Deaf community, from Actress to Support Worker.  Last year I came across a documentary entitled ‘The gift of hearing‘, about the Deaf lady Joanne Milne (she was the lady whose video went viral after she had her cochlear implants switched on).

Joanne had organised a trip to India with the aim to fit 500 children with hearing aids and I sat watching it with my then six month old little boy, Frank. At the end of the programme, I turned to Frank and together we made a pinky promise.  We promised to do as much as we could to help other disadvantaged children to get the support they need and to give them access to hearing aids.

All images by Emma Case

I am familiar with this type of project – back in 2014, I took a very short trip over to Zambia with the charity Sound Seekers to take photos of their work – providing primary ear care, hearing tests and fitting hearing aids for both Deaf children and adults.  It was an incredible experience and something that I’m deeply passionate about, so seeing Joanne on a similar trip made me realise, I wanted to do more.

Since this current Refugee crisis began, I have followed it very closely – mainly feeling despair and sadness, frustration for our Government’s lack of action, frustration for wanting to help and not being able to DO enough.

We had been donating clothes and money but I suddenly thought – there are currently 10,000 people living in the Jungle over in Calais.  There must be some Deaf children living in camp?  And thinking about how difficult it is for all the Refugees currently living in camps across Europe, that is, to be Deaf and to have no specific support, to not be able to understand what’s happening, to not be able to hear anything and yet be trying to get on to lorries at night, to have contact with Police and authorities and to not be given an Interpreter.  These Refugees are particularly vulnerable.

I googled ‘Deaf Refugees’ and to my surprise, not much came up at all, so a friend of mine made a connection with Liz Clegg, the lady who was responsible at the time for looking after all the unaccompanied minors in camp.  I managed to message Liz asking to ask if there were any Deaf children and she told me that currently there wasn’t but she was able to confirm that there were a few Deaf adults.  She then passed me to Dan, a volunteer working in camp as part of the Vulnerabilities team.  Suddenly, everything started to feel very real. And to be honest, I realised at that point that I was making promises on something that I actually had no idea if I could deliver on.

What we needed was an Audiologist who could fit hearing aids remotely, and an Interpreter.  The Interpreter was more complicated as the Deaf Refugees (as far as Dan was aware) had some American Sign Language, some German, possibly Arabic.. and Sudanese (and even then, there could be numerous different Sudanese Sign languages). So getting an Interpreter that would be able to communicate at all with the men was going to be tricky, if not nigh on impossible.

I got in touch with Emily, the lady who I travelled to Zambia with and who works for Sound Seekers and she kindly sent an email to their list of Audiologists asking for any help.  I then put a call out on facebook asking if any of my Deaf friends and Interpreters knew of any Interpreters that could be suitable for this type of Interpreting.  Within days, Kerry (an Audiologist) had replied saying she would definitely come and would bring her colleague Louise – and on Facebook, I was given a number of Interpreter’s names who would be the most suitable.  I ended up chatting with Robert (an Interpreter and Senior Lecturer at Preston University).  We skyped at midnight one evening and I am thankful to say, he was 100% on board.

Robert explained that it would probably be best if we were accompanied on the trip by a Deaf person, to provide us with the best possible chances of being able to communicate. With that in mind, I put another call out on Facebook and was given Zoe’s name.  I messaged her and straight away she was interested and wanted to come to Calais.  Talking further, we realised that we both lived in Birmingham, and then couldn’t believe it when we found out we lived exactly a 3 minute drive from each other!

In what felt like no time, I had my team!  I literally couldn’t believe it.

Dan and I started to look at potential dates for our visit, and then, the French Government had announced that they were going to be clearing the camps completely by the 31st October.  Alongside clearing the camp, refugees were due to be put on buses and taken to different places within France.  Nobody knew where. The last time the camp had been cleared this way, many refugees disappeared. We had to act fast.

I decided to put another call out on Facebook to ask for donations to cover the cost of the trip. The Facebook community were incredible and rallied round – in no time, the entire trip expenses were accounted for and we had funds left over too.  So on Friday 7th October 2016, we all took the ferry across to France and spent the day in the Jungle.

I wanted to document my journey somehow, and although I knew that I probably was going to be restricted in what I was able to film in camp (to ensure refugees identity was protected), I thought the best way would be to use Instagram Stories and let people follow along.  I’ve since stitched the clips together and added subtitles…

I am so happy to say that our trip was a huge success.  We managed to work with four Deaf refugees and fit them all with hearing aids and we were able to get information about their backgrounds and journey to camp and also provide them with vital information about the upcoming evictions.

I know that everyone involved in the trip was nervous about their role – I for one, was worried about being able to pull the whole thing together and get everyone there, Dan and Andy (the volunteers) were worried that the Deaf guys wouldn’t turn up on the day and we wouldn’t be able to find them, Kerry and Louise (the Audiologists) were worried that none of them would be suitable for hearing aids and Robert and Zoe (the Interpreters) were worried that we would meet the guys and we would not be able to understand each other. But everything worked out pretty much perfectly. And to this day, I still can’t believe it.

I guess by doing this trip I feel that we can provide some real, practical, specialist support – and without having to wait. We’re not an organisation there’s no red tape.  We have nobody to answer to so we can just, well, do it!

I found the camp incredible.  What both the refugees and volunteers have managed to do over there.. I have such huge admiration for each and every one of them.  Their resourcefulness was mind blowing. The coming together of community, the organisation, the donations of supplies, skills, time – I was utterly blown away.  On the one hand, it really does restore your faith in humanity. But there’s another side.

Our government, the media, the hate, the lies, the violence, the injustice, the appalling treatment of refugees by the French police, the atrocious lack of humanity and basic support.

And this camp was literally on our doorstep.

This trip for me was huge and proved that you really can make things happen if you just put your mind to it. All of us really want to help in some way, and in talking in more detail with my husband about it, I think I understand now that it all comes down to mindset.  It sounds silly, but I knew I wanted to do something so I just changed my mantra from I ‘want’ to I ‘will’ do something. That really made a difference to me and continues to do so.

Since our Calais trip, I was contacted by the founder of DeafKidz International and have accompanied them on a trip to Greece visiting another three refugee camps (simply as Photographer this time). We are planning on working together more in the future, which I’m so happy about.

The trip to Greece also introduced me to Pikpa Refugee Camp and we have recently just finished an even bigger project with them – but I’m going to save telling you all about that of my next post 🙂

I only managed to take a few photos whilst I was in Calais, and the images on this page were taken when we arrived at the warehouse where all the volunteers live and where all the donations are kept and organised. Dan advised me that some refugees have kinda had enough of cameras being shoved in their faces so he said it might not be too safe. Furthermore, showing refugees’ faces could impact their asylum requests as any proof of being in a particular country could mean they have to stay there. Terrible.

You can keep up to date with any more trips on our new DEAF REFUGEES FACEBOOK PAGE. We’d love to hear from you.

Emma x


A note from the Editor: Have you participated in any charitable work that you’d like to tell us about? We’re keen to help our readers active in charitable work raise the profile of charities they support. We’d love to hear from you.

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  • Emma, reading this story this morning made me so happy. I’m sure the hearing aids made it so much easier for those refugees to communicate with people they cannot sign with, and you must have had such an impact on their lives!

  • Thank you for sharing this with us – the idea of deaf refugees was something that hadn’t even crossed my mind but now so glad to be aware and hear about what you did for them x

    • I have to confess it hadn’t crossed my mind either Amy. We take so much for granted. I saw something the other day about people fleeing their countries having no sanitary wear at all – all the the things we just assume will be OK, will be there when we need them. I am so inspired by Emma’s story. Thank for your lovely words x

  • This article is so inspiring and uplifting! I too am ashamed to say that I had never thought of the problems experienced by deaf refugees and it is fantastic to read of such emotionally intelligent human beings helping other humans to find a way through their world.

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