One week in Calais

“Should life have dealt a different hand, these haggard faces could belong to you or I” Brian Bilson

One month ago, I made a spontaneous decision to go to France for a week to volunteer with Help Refugees UK (HRUK) and Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK). The HRUK Instagram account came up as a suggested follow, I checked it out and signed up that day. Five days later, I was on a ferry to Calais.

I was hesitant to write a blog post for two reasons. The first is that I feel unqualified to write about what’s going on over there. There are full-time volunteers who dedicate months, even years to the cause. I was only there for a week. But I figure my experience is the only one I have, so it’s the only one I can share.

The other reason is that I didn’t want to be a “white saviour”. I was hesitant to publicise my experience over fears I would be expressing a self-serving “charitable” image of myself. The truth is, the number of volunteers dwindle this time of year as summer is over and almost all volunteers are students. RCK is struggling right now to provide 1,500 meals a day but by hook or by crook, they do it. So, I had to just get over myself and write because these charities are desperate for volunteers. If this post can encourage even one person to sign up, I’ve done my job.

When people ask me “how was France?” I find it difficult to answer. I had a great time working and staying with the other volunteers, we all got along so well. But it’s not a holiday. If we’re lucky and have plenty of volunteers, it’s at least nine hours a day in the kitchen. If you’re selected to go out on distribution, that’s a twelve-hour shift. It isn’t glamourous, it’s scraping mould off carrots and scrubbing curry and rice off pots big enough for a person to sit inside (literally). It’s manual labour. But no one ever complained. We were a team, doing what had to be done. In a heartbeat, I’d be back in that dish-pit. It was the first time in my life I felt I was doing something truly valuable. I’ve done hospitality jobs since I was sixteen, but this time I wasn’t working for rich capitalists, I was working for people who rely on it to survive. It’s impossible to do volunteer work and not feel some degree of self-gratification. There’s egoism in everything – is there such a thing as a selfless deed?

My perception of the world changed when I went on my first distribution to Dunkirk. An abandoned gym was being used to shelter around 1,000 people, including 250 unaccompanied children. It was vastly overflowing, with more people sleeping in tents outside than inside the building. It was set up by the Mayor and conditions used to be monitored by local authorities. When I was there, I had to use the toilet so a girl who had been volunteering for months came with me. We had to get special permission from the “boss” to be let inside. The toilets were flooded and very dirty. I noticed the girl had tears in her eyes. She hadn’t been inside the gym since January, when the conditions were somewhat sanitary. The local authorities had since abandoned the gym, and she saw how the standards had declined to what was extremely undignified and frankly, inhumane.

Women queued for up to ten portions of food at a time to take back to feed their families. Children played on rusty bikes and parents tried to contain them as they ran amok. These were normal families, forced into the most unnormal circumstances. When a group of ten or so men returned from wherever they were, we had run out of curry. They were so grateful for plain rice and salad; it was likely their only meal of the day. People were so friendly and funny despite living through unimaginable trauma. I fought back tears as they waved to us as we drove back to the warehouse.

The all-male camp in Calais was less “upbeat”, for lack of a better word. Their situation more tense because they had even less than those in Dunkirk. It was rather hostile. One man got aggressive with me when I couldn’t give him a double portion of rice because we were running out. That was the hardest part, who are we to refuse these people more food? But we had one responsibility: to make sure everyone got fed. Another man exclaimed “f*cking Europeans” and knocked a flask of tea to the ground. Others apologised on their behalves. I could see the exasperation on their faces.

It’s an extremely sensitive situation, potentially dangerous for volunteers as police often show up at distributions and try to intimidate them, implying they are breaking the law. That never happened, thankfully, when I was there. Volunteers are debriefed after each distribution and are provided with as much support as they need.  

The guilt hit me on the ferry back to Dover. A journey that thousands have risked their life trying to make, the hope of making it the very reason northern France has so many refugees. All I had to do was show up at the port and display a British passport. It is nothing but sheer, geographical luck that I am not facing the same struggles as them. I have no wars to flee, no oppressive dictator to escape. No one earns their nationality; they are merely born with it. Cellotaped to the walls of the warehouse was the poem “Refugees” by Brian Bilston.

Police evacuated the gym the week after I was there. It was rumoured this was going to happen, so most of the HRUK work that week focussed on making eviction packs. I helped to sort the children’s packs. The thought of parents encouraging their children to read or colour in, desperately trying to distract them from the trauma that was unfolding, broke my heart. 1,000 were forced out of the camp were taken to “accommodation centres” where they would be detained. This is France’s means of rejection, they want the refugees gone. I cannot comprehend how this helps the situation at all.

Images from @helprefugeesuk Instagram

There are still hundreds of people displaced in northern France who need help. RCK provides the food, HRUK provides clothes, tents and sleeping bags. Care 4 Calais provide services like haircuts and phone charging. Every human has the right to life in a dignified way, and these charities strive to ensure that happens. They rely solely on volunteers and need your help, because EU leaders simply aren’t doing enough. It doesn’t matter if you can stay for three days or three months, if you donate £1 or £50. Every little genuinely does help.

No human is illegal.

Links to volunteer/donate:

Refugee Community Kitchen

Help Refugees UK

Care 4 Calais

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