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30th January 2017

A student life: The Wild Washerwomen

Emma Shanks speaks to Zoe Darling, co-founder of The Wild Washerwomen, a mobile launderette set up in the Calais ‘Jungle’

With that post-exam fresh February feeling, recharged student loan and vague summer plans being formulated, have you ever wondered how to productively use those rare three month holidays us students are lucky enough to see?

Meet Zoe Darling, the French and Spanish student at the University of Manchester, who, along with her friend, Flora Thomas, bit the bullet and launched their very own non-profit grassroots organisation. The Wild Washerwomen is a service providing a mobile launderette for residents of the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, and I caught up with her to find out more.

First up, she explained to me how after spending an Erasmus year abroad split between Paris and Buenos Aires, they began by getting involved with other alternative modes of volunteering at the Calais ‘Jungle’.

“Many residents of the camp have lost their homes, their families and some feel that they are struggling to hold onto their dignity.”

They felt there was more they could be doing, and noticed a lack of clothes-washing facilities around the place, in comparison to the success of the laundry service in the new Dunkirk camp.

“Clean underwear is a basic human requirement but people would often just wear the same set until they had to throw them away, which is not only undignified and unhygienic, but also a massive waste of clothes donations.”

The girls sought to provide at the same time “a friendly place of relaxation and conversation”, where deckchairs and free chai tea and biscuits could be enjoyed alongside informal language classes for anyone interested in preparing for possible asylum abroad.

Hence the ingenious idea of creating a mobile launderette was born — combining basic skills to make something that could be moved all around the camp, cleaning clothes whatever the weather.

After intense planning, the girls headed to France towards the end of July, after getting a Ford Transit fitted with an industrial-sized generator, two environmentally-friendly washing machines, a tumble dryer, a water tank equipped with tubes for evacuating waste water, beds and nightlights; all fitted by a group of guys called the Travelling Toolbox.

“We were lucky enough to get the van from a very generous private donor, and we crowdfunded for the rest.”

Next, after getting the project approved, they set out to find a water point in the camp that would fit their hose attachment, with the help of the camp’s water team from French NGO, ACTED.

“Neither of us had any experience with plumbing or even washing, so it was an interesting start, but we soon got the hang of it with the development of a fairly off-the-cuff ticketing system and log book.”

The next problem to transpire was finding out that the low water pressure took the machines twice as long to run as they should, which meant that some appointments got severely delayed. Quite often machines were mistaken to be broken and were unplugged several times before the girls realised that this just added to the problem.

“Things rarely went to plan in the ‘Jungle’ and the washing van was absolutely no exception.”

She tells me, now retrospectively able to see the funny side of it, about one time when the van broke down and they towed it to a local garage, only to be told that it needed a 600 euro  part to be fixed. The girls were forced to spend a few days in the Calais town launderette to see through all the washing orders that had been piling up.

After a month, the whole thing fell apart and they were forced to give the van back to the garage for a recovery period, but Zoe and Flora continued to move back and forth between home and the camp until the demolition in October, when 10,000 people were displaced once again and moved to accommodation centres elsewhere across France.

“After this mass dispersal, as a blatant attempt to silence the media buzz around Calais in anticipation of the French elections, it became much more difficult to identify what help was needed and where. Don’t get me wrong — the ‘Jungle’ was a stain on Europe’s morality, but there was a system, there were communities.”

When asked if the girls ever plan to return to Calais to revive the project, Zoe told me that, if given the opportunity “we would be on the next ferry out but because of the need all over Europe it is, in my opinion, best to directly donate funds to external charities who buy blankets, food supplies, and general necessities for refugees”.

Course: Undergraduate French and Spanish (BA Joint Honours)

Where from: Sussex

Worst part: “The first time the van broke down we had a day full of appointments to make. Unfortunately, it was at this point in a trailer park about four miles from the ‘Jungle’. In a desperate attempt, we employed the help of an Italian mechanic who attached jump leads from his car which didn’t work. We then tried to get towed by another van, but ended up breaking its tow rope and, arguably, the vehicle. So, we found ourselves stuck on a man’s driveway, of which the owner asked us to move on. Flora and I reluctantly headed to the local bar while waiting for the tow truck but unfortunately, the police got there first and ordered their own to impound our van, which arrived just ten minutes before ours. Then a fairly obliging and now redundant tow man had to give us a lift to the impound lot, where we paid a hefty sum to release the van. Good times.”

Best part: “The best part was undoubtedly all of the amazing people we met. The resilience, kindness, and good humour of those who have borne witness to such hideous atrocities casts a shadow of shame on the small minded little Britain Brexit culture here in the UK.”

Where does she see herself in 15 years: Travelling or living abroad.

How to get involved: “You can donate directly to an organisation like The Worldwide Tribe, who are doing amazing work all over Europe. They survive purely on public generosity, and donations are always welcome.”

To find out more about The Wild Washerwomen, head to their Facebook page.

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