Two inspirational Coalisland women are travelling to the little known Dunkirk refugee camp on Tuesday to spend two weeks helping the thousands who have been left languishing in the “mud bath”.
Retired teacher Maryann O’Neill and Biomedical Science student Lisa Maria Devlin, who has been before, plan to do what they can to aid the 2,500 people stranded on the France-Belgium border camp.
Although travelling by plane, the pair plan to bring suitcases filled with dynamo torches to bring a “little light into the lives of children there” and colouring pencils, pictures and books that they hope will “make them smile”. Maryann said candles are now banned at the all-but-forgotten Dunkirk camp following “three huge fires”, and that many of the families stranded there spend much of their time in winter darkness.
She plans to brings with her as many of the self winding lights as she can get her hands on - 30 of which have been provided by Decathlon Belfast at a discount.
“I am going to Dunkirk on Tuesday morning,” Maryann explained. “There’s 2,500 families there, all with children under the age of five so I am going to help them.
“It’s an absolute mud bath,” she went on, “they don’t even have pallets to raise the tents up off the ground, they are literally floating and can feel the mud under the base of the tent.
“Dunkirk is the worst of all the camps, it has the worst conditions, and I want to buy all these children colouring books, pictures, bubbles, balloon, books, wee games and things that will entertain them.
“Every penny will be spent on them. I will find out what they need, a cooker, sanitary products, nappies,” she added.
“I asked one girl what it was like out there, and she said ‘in a word, Purgatory’.”,
As well as thousands of families, Maryann said there are also a number of pregnant women at the camp, whom they hope to be able to bring to a doctor.
“We’re hiring a car so if there are any mothers that need to get medical help [we can take them], or we can ferry them back and forward and pay them into a hotel so they can shower, and bath their children,” she added.
“Some hotels are refugee friendly, but most aren’t. We can pay, probably over the odds, to allow them to bathe their children and get them a proper feed - but then you have to bring them back to the muddy tent again - I don’t know if that’s a good thing or not, but it helps to keep down disease.”
As for the little dynamo lights they plan to bring, Maryann said: “The lights are a lifesaver, some children are in the dark, and its dark from 4pm in the evening until 7am the next morning.
“They are in the dark in these tents in bitter, bitter conditions.”
Lisa Maria, who drove a van of aid from Coalisland to Calais and Dunkirk earlier this year, said much needed fire extinguishers, clothing and tents were delivered during that visit.
This time, the pair said they hope to help by providing food and also a chance to bath at local hotels, as well as the children’s mental well-being.
Maryann said she has been overwhelmed by the generosity of everyone who has donated so far, but especially Clonoe Parish Priest Father Fee, who made a donation of £1,000 from his own pocket and Eamonn McGirr who dropped off 50 woolly hats.
Maryann has set up a bank account for donations - to be spent on refugees and all accounted for - at First Trust Bank in Dungannon under the narrative REFUGEE-MA, you can call into the bank to donate, or contact either Maryann or Lisa Maria on Facebook for an alternative.
At this stage the women said they have no more room for material donations as their luggage if full.