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'We see people who arrive with nothing but what they're wearing ... the experience is very humbling'

With only a van and two backpacks, John Hurson and his cousin set off to help the migrants who have left their war-torn countries in hope of finding a better life. Suzanne Breen follows his journey

Published 12/09/2015

Generosity personified: John Hurson readies his van for the trip to Calais
Generosity personified: John Hurson readies his van for the trip to Calais
New home: a migrant rides a bicycle past tents at the camp known as ‘The Jungle’ in Calais
Helping hand: migrants queue for food being handed out by a humanitarian organisation
Striking image: a policeman carries the dead body of Aylan Kurdi

Lorry driver John Hurson, said the photograph of three-year-old Syrian, Aylan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach, spurred him into action. So, earlier this week, John (46), from Dungannon, loaded his van with humanitarian aid and set off for mainland Europe. John didn't ask for any public donations - he funded the trip himself.

Here is the remarkable journal he wrote for the Belfast Telegraph outlining his odyssey:

TUESDAY, SEPT 8

Setting off from Dungannon at 10.30pm. The van is packed to the roof with humanitarian aid for Calais. We've blankets, clothes, walking sticks, wheelchairs, toys, tents and books in there.

My cousin, Adrian Murphy, is coming with me. I'm not a man with a plan. I don't know where I'll end up.

I'm going to drive to Calais and speak to the aid agencies there and see where the area of greatest need is in Europe.

Calais itself is said to be swarming with aid. I'll probably end up driving to Hungary where the situation is desperate.

Adrian and I are travelling light. We've just two little backpacks with us. A change of clothes and toiletries is all we need. There's no room in the van for anything else, anyway. It's a two-hour drive to Dublin where we'll catch the ferry to Holyhead at 2.15am.

WEDNESDAY, SEPT 9

We grab a quick bite to eat and some sleep on the ferry. We hit the road again at 6am. Our first destination is Slough, outside London, where we're meeting three friends who are joining us. We help them load their van with food, warm blankets and other items. Then, we set off for Folkestone to take the Channel Tunnel to Calais.

But we miss our booking. We're pulled over by the police in Folkestone and delayed for nearly an hour. They take our passports away and ask numerous questions about why we're travelling to Calais. "Because we care," I tell them.

I later find out that our experience isn't unusual. The police regularly stop, hold and quiz those going to help the refugees.

We finally arrive in Calais at midnight. We book into a cheap hotel there. It's £80 for two rooms for the five of us for the night. I'm exhausted. I've been on the road 18 hours. My four tired friends fall asleep immediately. There's an orchestra of snoring. I soon join them.

THURSDAY, SEPT 10

We rise early and head to the large refugee camp in Calais known as "The Jungle". At the outskirts, you start to see tents popping up between the bushes and sand dunes. Then, dozens and dozens more camped together, in small and large groups, become visible.

Hundreds of people are walking around, and it hits you. This is where thousands from across the Middle East and Africa have gathered in hope of entering into the UK. The sight of it leaves me speechless, thinking of the magnitude of what they've done. The long journeys across many countries that they've made.

It's not all doom and gloom in the camp. There are men playing cards and dominoes on makeshift tables they've built out of wooden pallets.

Women have hung baskets of flowers on the side of their tents in a valiant attempt to make them homely.

And there's an African artist in a makeshift studio painting. I'm in awe of his work, it's stunning. He has dozens of paintings. He could make a fortune but he won't sell any of them. They're to make the camp beautiful, he tells me.

We pull up at the medical centre and speak to workers there. We're told there's still a great need for aid in Calais. We decide we won't travel to Hungary, what we've brought will be put to good use here. There are around 5,000 people in the camp with 500 coming in the past week alone. We're advised not to start distributing the aid ourselves. When others have done that, it's led to a mini-riot. And only the strongest and fittest refugees get the stuff. We're directed to the Jules Ferry day centre at the other end of the camp.

Here, people receive one hot meal a day - if there's enough food to go round - and a shower. The volunteers in the centre are nearly all from the UK. Some have been there a few days, others weeks. They're doing incredible work, providing new arrivals with everything they need and helping them set up their tents. We unload both vans.

We see people arriving with nothing bar what they're wearing. It's a very humbling experience.

One of the largest buildings in the camp is the church. It was built as a place where anyone can come to pray or just sit in silence. It's for those of all religions and none. This is where Songs of Praise was filmed.

We give a few large rugs and boxes of food to the church. People are getting ready for a party tomorrow. It's the Orthodox New Year in Eritrea. This is a special time of year for the hundreds of Eritreans in the camp. They're determined that the distance they are from home won't stop them marking the event.

A charismatic man named Solomon looks after the church. He was one of its original founders. The three others have been lucky enough to make it to the UK. He takes us inside and explains the church's origins and how many times it's been extended. A few volunteers have repaired its leaking roof.

The floor is a beautiful mix of colours as rugs and carpet intertwine. The walls are lined with holy images and, at a small altar, candles can be lit. Prayer rugs are laid out so Muslims can come in and pray in a respectful manner.

As I sit there, a group of 25 young women are in the opposite corner singing. They're preparing for the upcoming New Year celebrations. They're singing in harmony to the sound of a rhythmic drum beat.

Despite all the hardships, distance and conditions, they're smiling and giving it everything they have. I'm spellbound listening to them. I don't want them to stop.

Belfast Telegraph

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