Sunday, 31 January 2016

Two days in Dunkirk

A slightly different post to normal today...

“As one person I cannot change the world, but I can change the world of one person”. That quote by Paul Shane Spear seems a good place to start. Below is a (slightly long!) account of my recent trip to the refugee camp at Grand Synthe, Dunkirk. If you want just the highlights, skip to the summary at the end! 

The refugee crisis is crazy. I can't even begin to comprehend how it is going to be resolved but I do know that when there are families and young people living in fields of mud with no/minimal basic amenities (12 loos between 2500 people and no electricity) less than 50 miles from the UK something has gone terribly wrong.

I am not an activist. I am not political. I may (very occasionally!) have strong views on some subjects but they are rarely controversial ones. I'd heard bits about the Calais camp and had obviously seen the heart-wrenching photographs of refugees trying to get from Turkey to Greece and donated money to various charities but had never thought there was anything I personally could do to help. I know I'm a doctor but I've never done humanitarian work abroad, I've never worked in a third world country (one of the criteria MSF want you to fulfil) and I haven't treated an adult patient in about 10 years! But after I saw another doctor post on Facebook about going to work in the Calais medical caravans I realised that I could be useful and so a plan began to form...

Although initially I planned to work in the medical caravans mentioned above (if you want to do so look up “Refugee Support First Aid & Care Team” on Facebook) in the intervening 2 months I did lots of research (mainly via Facebook groups) and realised my skills would probably be much more use in Dunkirk, where there are more women, children and families (although still outnumbered by men). I think a critical skill when volunteering is being flexible and so when in mid-January MSF established a 7 day service in Dunkirk, we were not deterred and happily shifted our focus from first aid to basic humanitarian aid.

Back in December I messaged most of my medical friends on FB. There was lots of potential interest but only one girl committed and so last week we set off in a borrowed van with 3 of her non-medic friends. Meanwhile we'd been busy collecting clothes donations - the response was amazing (apart from the bag of soiled underwear my friend was given and the bag of socks full of holes someone left for me!) but you have to be pretty ruthless with what you take - some people view it as an excuse to get rid of all of their old clothes, however impractical (yes there have been old wedding dresses and skimpy bikinis sent to the warehouse in Calais!), whilst others are amazing and buy rolls of new socks and gloves. Once we had everything packed (top tip - pack all clothes in vacuum bags and then you can fit 2-3x more in your car!) it was time to go...

At a service station and on our way...

One of the warehouses in Calais
There are several Facebook groups where you can link up with others who have been to Dunkirk before and they contain a massive amount of information - definitely invaluable for trying to prepare yourself before you get there (if that's possible). Based on these we had a good idea of the "most wanted items" in camp:
-          tracksuit bottoms
-          trainers
-          torches
-          sleeping bags
-          OTC remedies for coughs and sore throats
-          gloves, socks and hats
-          food (especially rice, chickpeas, tomatoes, oil, tinned fruit, fresh fruit, tuna)

And had also picked up a few handy hints:
-          take your hospital ID (much easier to wave that to the Police than having to fish around for your passport when on camp)
-          line all the footwells of your car with newspaper to reduce the spread of mud everywhere
-          have a supply of dustbin liners (I put one on each boot at the end of the day and took my boots off whilst inside the bag – that way no mud on my hands!!)
-          don't drink too much as the loos (as well as being few and far between) are not nice inside the camp
-          park in the Decathlon carpark and walk in from there

This is why you need newspaper and dustbin liners...

Our first glimpse of the camp

And so we arrived on Thursday morning at Grand Synthe. We knew a little of what to expect but nothing prepares you for the vast scale of rows and rows of tents and mud as far as you can see. After a cursory glance at our IDs from the police lining the gate we were in, and standing at the start of a long mud-covered "road" that stretched into the distance. There were lots of people milling around but they mostly left us to ourselves. We started walking towards the women's distribution tent (where we were planning on leaving the 72 loo rolls), past the 2 wash stations (yes, they only have 2 wash stations for 2500 residents!), past the small row of about 12 portaloos and past the large bus which distributes food at lunchtime. Someone then started saying what sounded like "clinis" to us. After a brief time we realised that meant loo roll and once we opened the pack we were inundated with people and the 72 rolls were gone before we walked the remaining 50 metres to the tent! We walked back to the car to restock and that's when we had our BIGGEST stroke of luck. We (literally) bumped into 3 other volunteers in the car park, one of whom I'd contacted through Facebook the week before and so recognised. They had been in camp the day before and were a massive mine of information. We then joined forces with them for the rest of the day.

Not nearly enough loos...
Just off the "Main street" - contrast it with the below picture

Further back in the camp - the differences are obvious

The camp is mainly Iraqi Kurds with some from Syria and Iran. It is different from Calais as pretty much all are either from active conflict zones, have been discriminated against in their own country or were targets of political violence (data from MSF 2016). These are *not* economic migrants as some people like to say. There is a large problem with traffickers and gangs in the camp controlling which refugees are allowed access to which bits of the camp and we soon learnt that the most vulnerable/in need (including lots of the families) were the ones on the peripheries of the camp, who did not dare come to the central main street to collect food or visit the tent distributing clothes. The only real way to make sure those ones are reached is to go tent-to-tent and asking what they need. In fact the people that crowded you on the main street shouting for things were likely the ones who did not need it nearly as much.

The ones living here are the really desperate and vulnerable

My first impression (from the "Main Street") had been a sea of tents and a fair bit of mud. But once we stepped off the Main Street and started walking towards the back of the camp it was increasingly desperate - tents with massive holes in, piles of rubbish everywhere, mud so deep it completely covered my feet and so sticky that it threatened to pull my boots off with each step. Mattresses and clothes were strewn in the mud to act as a "path" and try to make it slightly easier to walk through. Pushchairs caked in mud with their wheels completely buried. Piles of plastic being burnt as there was no other fuel for them to use to stay warm.

My feet not even visible in the mud...

However, in amongst all this were these amazingly resilient people. People who smiled and said thank you even when the only thing you had left to give them was a tube of savlon. People who offered you tea or some of their lunch they'd just cooked when you knew they didn't have any more food. People who would only take one of what you offered and would refuse any extra, saying give it to someone else. People who invited you into their tents, in amongst their only possessions even though you were covered in mud. People who, despite everything that life has thrown at them, still have this unbelievable optimism and hope for the future.
How are they still smiling? I have no idea but they have my utmost respect

Think of a young 20-something boy you know. I have a brother of this age. Now imagine him having to beg passersby for a pair of trousers to wear, for a pair of shoes that fit him, for something (anything) to eat. Think a 17 year old you know and imagine him all alone, with no family, in a tent in the middle of squalid conditions. Would he know how to cook? Would he be able to survive? And lastly think of a toddler you know. I have 2 at home. Imagine them either playing in sewage-containing mud or kept as a prisoner in a flimsy tent, without all their toys and books, nowhere for babies to learn to crawl or walk, no areas to run around in, no hope of a nutritious diet. What about their education? Without that what hope for their future? And imagine how their parents feel? How would you feel?

1 year old... how long is he going to have to live like this?

10 months old... where can he learn to walk?

Sewage and mud mixing into a place you wouldn't wish anyone to live

What do 8 year old boys do here? No school, no playing, they collect firewood for their family.

So what did we do in our 2 days? We stuffed as much aid into our big rucksacks as we could (yep my shoulders are feeling it now!) and carried it through the camp to the most vulnerable areas. There we went tent-to-tent and spoke to the people living there to see what they needed. If they needed anything we had we gladly gave it to them, if they asked us for anything we could buy at the large sports shop down the road then we went and bought it on our next trip to restock in the carpark, if they asked us from something we could not get (sadly gas bottles were in very short supply at all local shops) we had to say sorry and hoped that someone else would come to visit them soon bringing it.

Going tent-to-tent
A forgotten welly
Imagine living in that half open shelter :(

Once our rucksacks were empty we walked back to our van in the carpark, restocked and came back. We could only work during daylight hours and made 3 round trips on the first day and 3 on the second. On the second day we also did a humungous supermarket shop first thing in the morning and made 100 food bags (each containing a bag of rice, tin of tuna, tin of tomatoes, jar of spices, tin of chickpeas, tin of red kidney beans, packet of biscuits, fresh apple/orange, tinned fruit, a handful of tea bags and wrapped sugar cubes) which we also took tent-to-tent.
Some of the 100 food parcels

We didn’t stop to eat or drink ourselves as there were so many people to see and so little time. The welcome we got was incredible and the tea one man served us was probably the best I have ever tasted. One volunteer who joined us on the second day questioned why we didn’t just do a distribution line in the main street (reasons why not explained above), as that would take about a quarter of the time and would have been much easier for us. But she soon changed her tune when she saw the faces of the families at the back of the camp when we hand-delivered aid that they would otherwise have not received.

Pathway to nowhere

All of the trip was pretty emotional but there were a few particularly poignant moments. One of the men in the photo above proudly showed me some holiday photos taken in December 2014 - a smiling happy regular family going about their normal regular family lives. My friend saw a child wearing the same snowsuit her daughter used to wear. A young man aged about 18 asked if we had any food - the only thing we had left was 2 digestive biscuits. He was so grateful for them and practically inhaled them. He didn't look like he's eaten in days. And seeing the excitement and gratitude on the faces of a group of men when I gave them each a £1 torch from Poundland with a packet of spare batteries. £2 – the cost of a coffee or muffin from our hospital coffee shop – meant the world to them.
No one should have to live here

There was a really powerful advert that went viral a year or so ago - the basic message being just because it isn't happening here, doesn't mean it isn't happening. Just by a fortune of birth was I lucky enough to be visiting the camp delivering aid, rather than being in the camp myself.


Summary of our trip:

We spent 2 full days in the Grand Synthe camp.

We delivered a van full of clothes to Care4Calais warehouse including 50 sleeping bags, 20 wind-up torches, 40 foil blankets and a lot of hats/gloves/scarves.

We raised over £1500 before our trip (we are SO grateful to everyone who donated money) which we used to buy all the supplies we handed out as well as the food parcels. The remainder has been spent on gas bottles (which are used for cooking and heating) that an aid charity is distributing for us as we didn't have enough time to do everything in only 48 hours!

We completely self-funded the trip as I strongly believe all money raised should go directly to the refugees rather than paying for our travel and hostel.

By going tent-to-tent we hand-delivered 100 bags of food, over 30 torches, approximately 40 tracksuit bottoms, 15 pairs of leggings, at least 50 pairs of socks, 20 pairs of gloves, 100 lighters, 10 boxes of firelighters, 20 packets of baby wipes, 5 camping stoves, 15 bottles of gas, 40 bottles of cough syrup, too many strepsils to count, 30 tubes of deep heat, a collection of baby clothes and even a bottle of hair serum for one young girl who said she wanted hair like one of the other volunteers (with sleek shiny hair) and not like my friend (who had slightly dry frizzy hair - sorry Emma!!).

As well as the tips mentioned above, we've got a few of our own now:

-          leave your lunch in the car or you will end up giving it away to someone who looks hungry in camp
-          take a spare pair of trainers to change into before you get into the car (especially if you are the driver!) – you cannot imagine the mud unless you have been there
-          don't underestimate how much everyone wants a torch and gas, you could never have too many of either
-          wear waterproof trousers on top of tracksuit bottoms, then at the end of the day you can just peel off the outer layer and you are clean underneath. Your trousers will get covered in mud
-          keep a packet of wet wipes in the car for when you accidentally put your hand on your mud-covered boot (it will happen at some point) as don’t forget the mud is not just mud, it is mud and sewage...


So will we go back? If the camp stays like this then yes definitely. There is a slight uncertainty at the moment as talk about the building of a new camp is everywhere, and I would absolutely love the new camp to be so much better that volunteers like myself are not needed. But I remain slightly dubious and so we have a March date pencilled in, when we know more about what is happening...

Has the experience affected me? Yes. Without a doubt. At the time, when we were out there, I think it didn't sink in properly. Maybe a result of my medical brain being efficient at compartmentalising situations for me to deal with later? But now I am home, going back to "normal" day-to-day activities, getting ready for work, commuting on the tube, I can't stop thinking about it all. The faces, the mud, the awful living conditions. I feel so guilty that we didn't do more. Why didn't we walk faster, hand things out quicker and have more time to buy new supplies? Why didn't I just give all my remaining euros to people when our food parcels had run out? Why didn't we stay out for longer? Well at least that one I can answer - I have two little people of my own at home and they were missing me!

So yes, I can't change the world but I can try to make it a little bit nicer for a few people, if only for a day.


If you are interested in helping (either from the UK or over there) I would definitely recommend joining some of the Facebook groups as the exact needs can change and there are a lot of people on the ground out there who can give good advice. Don’t feel you have to physically go there to help either, just fundraising and linking up with the right charities/people is very helpful.

The most wanted items are:
Gas (there is a particular size and type of bottle)
Torches and batteries
Sleeping bags (the ones that go down to minus 20)
Small/ medium tracksuit bottoms (preferably in dark colours)
Socks and gloves

To be honest if I had enough money I would make "packs" - a backpack for them to keep containing a pair of tracksuit bottoms, a torch, batteries, gloves, 2 pairs of socks, 2 gas bottles, a packet of biscuits and a warm sleeping bag. 

Not even rats survive in the camp...

... so how it is an appropriate place for these children to live?

Sunday, 17 January 2016

How to make a hidden "number" cake (and what to do with the leftover cake...)

This is the (very delayed!) final installment of all the cakes I made for D's recent 3rd birthday...

And these extra treats I made from the leftovers. Mmmm

Anyway onto the recipes!

Number 3 cake

As soon as I saw a pic of a similar cake I knew I had to try it. This was my first attempt and although I'm really pleased with how it turned out I would definitely do a few things differently next time.

What you need:
Ingredients for pound cake
Ingredients for sponge cake (I cheated and used a Betty Crocker cake mix)
Buttercream icing

Pound cake ingredients:
250g unsalted butter (at room temperature)
225g caster sugar
250g plain flour
3 teaspoons baking powder
4 medium eggs 
1 teaspoon vanilla essence

1. First make your pound cake
- beat the butter until smooth, then add the sugar and vanilla essence and beat until pale and creamy
- add the eggs one at a time
- gently mix in the flour and baking powder
- if you want to have coloured sponge , add the colour now and mix well
- to make multi-coloured cakes I divided the mixture into 4 bowls, coloured each a different colour and then layered them in the cake pan
- spoon into the cake pan and smooth with the back of a spoon

2. Cook the pound cake for 50-60 minutes at 160 degrees (fan). Once cooked remove it from oven, leave it to cool for 10 minutes and the turn it out onto a cooling rack.
3. Once it is completely cool, wrap it in clingfilm and put it in the freezer for at least an hour.
4. Then remove, unwrap and cut into thick slices. Using the cookie cutter, cut a number 3 out of each slice 

5. Save all the discarded sponge (you can use them later...) and put all the 3s on a lined baking tray and freeze again while you do the next steps

6. Make your second cake mix. I used a packet sponge mix, you could also make another pound cake mix of you wanted (but I thought that might be a bit heavy for little people) and you can add a different colour to this sponge if you like
7. Line the cake pan with baking paper and add a small layer of the second cake mix. Then line all the 3s up, so they are standing in a row

8. Next fill the pan with the remainder of the uncooked cake mix. I found it easiest to do this with a no-nozzle piping bag because the 3 had lots of nooks and crannies and I wanted to make sure no air pockets formed
9. Make sure you cover all of the cooked pound cake
10. Cook according to whichever sponge cake recipe you use but be prepared for it to take much longer to cook. I started checking with the skewer test at the allotted time but ended up cooking it for about another 20 minutes 

11. Leave it to cool completely before icing it (I couldn't wait til the party to see if it had worked so cut the end off to have a sneaky peek!)

Yay success!!

12. Dirty ice with a layer of buttercream icing and refrigerate while you prepare the fondant
13. Sprinkle a little cornflour on your work surface and roll out the fondant. I made the marbled effect by squishing together different coloured rolls

14. Cover your cake and smooth down the sides and corners and decorate as desired - I cut out some small stars, brushed their backs with water and stuck them on

Don't worry that the inside cake will dry out with the second lot of cooking. The advantage of using pound cake is that it remains very moist throughout - definitely no dryness anywhere. 

What would I change?
Firstly I'd use a smaller number cookie cutter. I bought a bigger one as didn't want the 3 to get lost in the cake but actually it ended up being a bit big for the cake tin and only just got covered by cake!
I'd also cover it with white icing and then maybe add multi-coloured stars. I wasn't very happy with how the coloured icing turned out but by that time it was midnight and so I wasn't going to change it!
Otherwise I was pretty happy :)

Leftover cake pops

Remember all that lovely colourful sponge you discarded in step 5 above? Well fear not, now you get to use it!

Leftover sponge
Leftover buttercream icing (or make more if you've run out - recipe HERE)
Cake pop sticks
Candy melts/chocolate to melt

1. Using a cheese grater, grate the bits of cooked sponge until they are crumbs
2. Mix in the buttercream icing, one teaspoon at a time. How much you'll need depends on the amount of crumbs you have (you can see how much I used in the picture below) - you can always add more icing but you can't take it away if you've put too much in and don't have any more cake crumbs!! 
3. Mix the icing and crumbs together really well until you have roughly a playdoh-type consistency
4. Be aware that if you use coloured buttercream, your cake pops will also be coloured, rather than the colour of the sponge. So if you want sponge colour to shine through use white icing (I used green icing mainly because I had some leftover from D's monster cake but the cake pops did then end up very green!)
5. Once your cake mix is ready, roll out small balls using your hands and insert a cake pop stick
6. Place the cake pops on a baking tray lined with baking parchment and put in the freezer while you're doing the next steps
7. Prepare some sort of receptacle to stand your finished cake pops in. As you can see in the photo below I used half a pumpkin (it was around Halloween so we had a few lying around!) with a few holes poked in it!
8. Melt your chocolate (I used green candy melts and melted them in the microwave)
9. Pour a big pile of sprinkles on a plate
10. Retrieve your cake pops from the freezer
11. One at a time cover them
In chocolate (either dip them in or spoon it over them) and quickly roll them in the sprinkles plate
12. Stand them upright in your chosen receptacle to harden


Yum :)