What’s the immediate association when you think of Calais?
For a lot of us it’s the ‘jungle’ camp which housed about 10,000 refugees until its dismantling back in 2016. The place has faded from the news since then, and it’s undeniably true that there aren’t as many in Calais as there were previously. However, there are still about 1500 refugees living around Calais and Dunkirk. Having recently been to Calais to volunteer, and having met some of those people, it seems like a place that has been sadly forgotten.
Remaining from the days of the jungle, there is still an impressive array of volunteer-led organisations working there to meet the needs of all these people. Help Refugees, Utopia 56, Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) and others sort and distribute thousands of donations of clothes, provide tea, hygiene items and generators to enable people to charge their phones, as well as feeding about 1500 people every day. In winter, the warehouse yard is used for chopping firewood to hand out in the camps. There is a Refugee Women’s Centre and a Refugee Youth Service, which are dedicated to supporting respectively the women and children among the communities. Often in the volunteer run warehouse, you can’t even tell where one of these charities ends and another begins. It’s incredible how they all work in tandem, and volunteers can contribute their efforts interchangeably. During my time in Calais I did some days in the kitchen, some in the warehouse and the woodyard and some nights on distributions. Those who stay in the camp longer find it very rewarding to settle into the responsibility of taking on a particular role.
Governments need to address the conflicts that are the root causes of this refugee crisis, and we should pressure them for action, but until they do, a band aid is the best cure we can provide.
The refugees in Calais and Dunkirk have fled war, famine and persecution in their home countries, hoping for a better and safer life in Europe. What they face there day to day is police brutality, precarious living situations and uncertainty as to whether they will ever gain the right of asylum or see their families again. Clearly their situation is far from ideal, but those in Calais are undoubtedly the most determined people I’ve ever met, to have already made it this far. It’s that hope that keeps them going. Giving them clothes and food does not solve all their problems – it’s a mitigating solution. But it serves to keep the situation perhaps bearable enough that they continue to have hope. Governments need to address the conflicts that are the root causes of this refugee crisis, and we should pressure them for action, but until they do, a band aid is the best cure we can provide.
It’s a place that draws you in like no other, and I can honestly say I have never felt more motivated to chop onions, wash dishes, or fold up tents.
One thing people have said to me a lot after I volunteered there which took me by surprise is ‘it must have been really miserable there, right?’ Now I can’t blame anyone for thinking that this place would be miserable. But in many ways it is the opposite – despite the odds being stacked so heavily against these people, meeting them often filled me with hope. I don’t wish to gloss over the shocking, harsh reality of their lives, or to suggest they are content with living in camps for months through the winter. They face immense difficulties that I can hardly imagine. But many of the refugees I met while providing tea, curry and clothes, I found to be laughing, joking and smiling. This was initially surprising to me, but I came to understand that the only way to get through the hell they have been, and are going through, is to make the best of it and to find as much joy as you can in a cup of tea or pair of socks that someone donated. In one conversation with an Iranian man, he was asking about us volunteers and why we do it. After I talked to him, he said that one day when he and his family are safe and settled he hoped to come and volunteer too, to help others in the future.
Of course, another cause for renewed hope in humanity is the other volunteers. The community is so inclusive and it’s amazing to see people not just from the UK and France, but also from Ireland, Holland, Germany and some even as far as the from the US, Iran and Australia. The majority are in their 20s, but there are also some much older volunteers who still have hope in making the world a bit better. Everyone I know that has been to volunteer there wishes they could have stayed longer. It’s a place that draws you in like no other, and I can honestly say I have never felt more motivated to chop onions, wash dishes, or fold up tents. Every little job you do feels like it matters, as you’re contributing to a constantly moving machine of volunteer power.
Sometime, however much effort volunteers put in, we cannot stop tragedies from happening. While I was there this winter I was part of a memorial to honour the people from the camps that had passed away in 2018. There were several graves with numbers on, as most refugees’ names were not identified. We laid down flowers and someone read a poem and said a few words, finishing with a list of the deaths from that year. They included people who had drowned in trying to cross, committed suicide and, most heartbreaking of all, a 2-year-old Kurdish girl was shot by police in Brussels.
The fact that such shocking things happen should be not be a deterrent to people who want to help; there is strong emotional support amongst the volunteers. For me volunteering in Calais was a really unique, perspective-shifting thing to do.No prior experience is required, as there are so many jobs that anyone willing could do – though there are also skills that are especially in demand, such as driving. Equally if you can’t make it there in person, there is always need for more donations to the warehouse!
For more information about how to volunteer or donate, head to:
RCK – volunteer http://www.refugeecommunitykitchen.com/volunteer/
Utopia56 – volunteer http://www.utopia56.com/en/user/register
Main image: RCK
Images in text: Simon Marshall