NICK Ellwood first reached the Calais camps in the back of a van delivering donated clothes.

It was November last year: cold and damp.

Nick was sitting with a couple of other volunteers. The van's doors were shut, and they could see nothing of the world outside. The road became bumpy, and he could hear a babble of voices speaking in foreign languages coming through the thin metal walls. It was, he admits, quite scary.

Then the van stopped and the doors were opened.

What he saw, looking out, was a mass of people rushing towards the van to see what supplies it contained. The sights and sounds of the camp crowded in upon him.

People were calling 'Hello! Hello!' in a desperate attempt to attract attention to themselves. Others were repeating 'Line! Line!' - one of the few English words many of the refugees knew, because they were so often asked to stand in line.

"There was a smell - the smell of tear gas that lingered everywhere," says Nick, a 46-year-old York illustrator who lives off New Walk near the River Ouse. "And a mass of tents, tarpaulins flying, barely resisting the wind coming in off the coast."

There was also mud, a sea of it. "People were wading through the mud in flipflops. And all around, there was rubbish."

York Press:

Refugees in the 'Sudan' tent

Over the next four weeks - first as a volunteer distributing donated supplies, and later as an artist sketching the refugees - he got to know the camp better.

It was, he says, a place of unremitting squalor. This was no organised refugee camp. It was just a place that had grown up near the sea to accommodate 7,000 desperate people - a shanty, not a town.

There were rough tents made of tarpaulin; wooden shacks where people could huddle out of the ever-present wind. There were six water points for 7,000 people. Scabies was rife, as was the common flu.

Separating the camps from the road to the ferry terminal was a fence. Yes, Nick concedes, the lorry drivers were no doubt frightened. But he'll never forget that fence, with the wicked barbed wire curled along the top.

These were people who had effectively been abandoned. Europe had turned its backs on them, and they were forced to survive on handouts - food and clothing, much of it from Britain, distributed from vans.

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Nick's drawing of an Afghan boy with the camp in the background

In those circumstances, people did what they needed to survive.

One thing he quickly noticed was that it was children who were often at the head of the queue at distribution points - they were more likely to get bigger donations. But you'd then see them go off and give what they'd collected to older people. "There was a Fagin thing going on," he says.

There was also a thriving black economy.

And there were worse things, too.

One of the groups he sketched was a man and two women. When he'd finished, he saw the man talking urgently to one of the women in a low voice. She then approached him. "She said 'please, please help me get to England. You can get me to England'," Nick recalls. "She said: 'You're a good man. You can come to me tonight and I will do anything for you'."

Yet in the midst of all this hopelessness and desperation, somehow a sense of community survived. A small kindergarten had been set up for younger children, and a makeshift women's centre. And to relieve the endless tedium of life in camp, sometimes there would be singing in some of the shelters.

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The camp school

One other thing he noticed: instinctive generosity. As he went around the camp, talking to and sketching people, they'd share what little they had with him: food, and endless cups of hot, sweet chai.

Nick is an established illustrator. He's worked for the Guardian and the Arts Council, he's illustrated books, he drew the 'Townhouse Mouse' illustrations for Fairfax House right here in York.

He favours a 'reportage' style of drawing - quick sketches, done on the spot, which capture his immediate response to what he's seeing.

And he says he felt compelled to go to the Calais camps, to tell the stories of the refugees through his drawings.

York Press:

Zebran, from Afghanistan

He went last November, just a few days after the Paris bombings, and spent four weeks or so in Calais altogether He'd been given contacts in Calais by charity Yorkshire Aid, and spent a week as a volunteer at a warehouse, sorting through donated goods and taking part in distribution runs to the camps.

Then, once his face was known, he asked his contact to introduce him to refugees, and explain that he wanted to sketch them.

He was cautious at first. "Photographers have received varying amounts of disdain in the camps," he says. "These people are not fodder for photographers."

But he was gradually accepted. He'd spend five or ten minutes on each sketch, using pencil and sometimes watercolour, chatting to his subjects as he worked, drinking chai, listening to their stories.

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Uncle Ahmed

The series of powerful sketches he produced formed part of a major exhibition in London earlier this year. And today, for the first time, we reproduce some in The Press.

Some of the stories he encountered were inspiring, he says - such as that of volunteer Sofinee, from Durham. She and her husband Jameel had come to Calais for three days to see how they could help - and four months later were still there, running the 'Calais Kitchen' which, with the help of charities, fed about 1500 people a day.

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Others were heartbreaking. There was 22-year-old Majeed, from Raqqa in Syria. He had fled the country with his mother, but she died during the boat journey across the Mediterranean.

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There was Neguse, an older man from Eritrea, whose tent and all his belongings had been destroyed in a fire the week before (a common occurrence in the camps, Nick says), leaving him literally with nothing. His burned hands were bandaged, Nick says. "And he literally did not stop shaking."

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And there was Muzame, aneight-year-old boy from Afghanistan. Nick was sketching Maisra, a Sudanese man, when they noticed Muzame - one of the estimated 500 or so young children in the camps - wandering around lost. He sketched both of them together. "And once the drawing was finished, Maisra walked Muzame back to find his own tent," Nick says.

York Press:

Muzame and Maisra

The people he drew came from across North Africa and the Middle East - from Sudan and Eritrea, Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria and Iran. There were men, women, children, older people. Many of those he drew had lost family members during the terrible journey to Calais. Many were hopeless and defeated: but, when he began drawing them, they rediscovered their pride, he says: standing or sitting straight, drawing themselves up.

"There was one older man who went through the palettes where they slept to find a small comb," Nick says. That was very moving."

The camps were demolished this week, and the refugees who stayed there are being dispersed to accommodation centres across France.

Does Nick welcome that?

He looks unconvinced.

"Putting people in a small, contained space and then leaving them? It doesn't fill me with hope that the situation is being dealt with," he says. "European countries between them should surely be able to offer something better than that."

  • To see more of Nick Ellwood's work, including his drawings from the Calais camps, visit