A Day Volunteering with 'Help Refugees'| Calais, France
I reflected for a while on whether I should write about this at all. It’s a subject loaded with social and political connotations that some travel blog writers wouldn’t feel comfortable addressing.
But as much as I want to keep things lighthearted and seethe world for the fun and adventure of it, shying away from talking about a certain topic, when I have been in touch with it, or comfortably sitting on the fence would not be in accordance with my values. If you feel something is wrong and you are in a privileged enough situation in relation to it, there’s almost always something you can do to make a positive contribution, even if just by using your voice.
This is my minuscule addition.
After following the work that Help Refugees have been doing for a few years now, I went to volunteer in the warehouse they run in Calais, France, which serves as a sort of a distribution centre for food, clothes, hygiene products and also offers legal and personal aid to migrants, basically providing as much support as possible on a daily basis.
The people running and volunteering at the organisation are regular folks who put their lives on pause to help. What initially started as a social media campaign has grown into a movement and an organisation that have a very hands-on approach and try to fill in the gaps left by governments/other NGO’s inefficiency.
I took a late bus from London and a night ferry from Dover. Not going to lie, it was a shit ride. I arrived at 6am to a surreal (no sleep does that to you), deserted city and made my way to the address I was given for the warehouse. There’s a morning briefing every day at 9am so I figured I could walk all the way from the port, stop to have a coffee on the way and still be there just in time.
It was a pleasant surprise to see a good number of people upon my arrival at the warehouse. I’m bad with estimates but I think there were roughly 30+ people there on that day. Mostly young people, just graduated or in between studies, most of them staying between one to two weeks.
Majority of volunteers were British or French. There was an Australian girl who stopped by while travelling around Europe and I’m sure there were a few more people from other countries I didn’t get to talk to.
The work is distributed on an ad hoc basis but you can contribute with whatever skill you have or choose what you prefer to do. Those who like to cook volunteer in the kitchen to help prepare the food which is served daily by Refugee Community Kitchen and then there’s the task of sorting out clothing and hygiene products, which is what I helped with.
These are being distributed every day, essentially providing a lifeline to around a thousand refugees sleeping rough in Calais, a lot them children with a legal right to reside in UK. At the time when I was there, they were in a desperate need for more tents, as the police come to take away and destroy them on a weekly basis so a lot of people are left sleeping without any shelter.
Unfortunately there are a lot donations of useless and dirty things, which do get resold as rags but that ultimately takes up a lot volunteers’ time to sort and bag up. So please, if you consider donating any item, the golden rule is quite simple: do not give something you would not be wearing or using yourself.
Dignity is the key word here.
If you would like to help with donations, here's a list of most needed items that gets updated regularly.
I wasn’t there long enough to fully get to know anyone, but the people I came across while working were there for one reason: they were aware of the injustice of the situation and how the governments involved are not doing enough to resolve it.
Of course, being there for a very short time, I couldn’t necessarily get the full picture. It’s a friendly environment but you can feel that everyone is aware of the weight and necessity of what they are doing. A lot of the conversations were about logistical and practical things. It is not an easy operation to run and coordinate, there’s a ton of work to be done after all. But at the same time no one is obliged to do anything and you can take as many breaks as you want.
There are people who have been there for a long period of time, some even for years, which you can argue is not the best for you, both mentally and physically. But I believe not everyone realises that the work volunteers and organisers are doing on the ground is absolutely crucial to better the situation of refugees and knowing there are so many people, especially young people, giving their time made me really hopeful about the future.
We all pick our own battles in life and as I write this I am uncertain of my own future and how much time I can dedicate to go back to Calais and volunteer again. Maybe I will be able to go for a longer period of time and if not that, then most definitely I will continue to support the work that Help Refugees do and talk about it.
One thing is sure: as much as there were volunteers, there was never a moment of “ok, so that’s it then, we are done here”. There is always something left to do and the tireless efforts of volunteers truly make a real difference in someone’s life.
It has been proven time and time again that there are situations where the course of History has been changed not by the powers and institutions that govern us but by the individuals who take action. It is important to be aware that there are grassroots organisations and regular people who stand defiant and make a positive impact and contribution to the mess of this world, and your time is one of the most valuable resources you can give.
On my way back, I could not help but feel something raging inside of me at the fact that all it took for me to cross over to the White Cliffs of Dover was to show my passport and have a valid ferry ticket. The awareness that there are people risking and losing their lives constantly for the same journey feels very different when you have gotten personal with that reality.
Politics aside, in places like Calais - and all the echoes of it that are spread throughout the planet - I honestly feel that we are doing harm by missing (or ignoring) the opportunity of seeing the situation on a human level.
I understand that some people might think this is some form of voluntourism, only to tick a box and write something well meaning just to highlight my philanthropic persona. There are far more exotic places to go for that purpose, trust me. I did act on impulse - angered and saddened by an article I saw describing the conditions of unaccompanied minors living in tents that are regularly being torn down and the brutality of local police - and booked a ticket for the only weekend I had free that month.
In hindsight, maybe it could have been more useful to donate the little money I spent on that weekend, but sometimes impulses take over and you feel that sending some currency with a few clicks is not enough.
Sadly, media has largely turned away from the refugee topic in Calais, ever since the destruction of the Jungle camp. Same can be said for Greece, Italy, etc., where unaccompanied minors and other vulnerable people are still stranded in awful conditions.
I believe every person should be given the same opportunities in life and a fair welcome, regardless of where they are from and what situation they left behind, and the very least I hope for is that the more we talk and write about this, the more there is a chance that it will reach people who can dedicate their time or have more influence and resources to help change the situation.
I also recently saw an excellent play at The Playhouse Theatre in London that absolutely everybody should go and see (it’s on until November 2018).
It tells the stories of people who lived at the now dismantled refugee settlement in Calais that most people reading the news in 2015 and 2016 have heard about and also carries the name of the play - The Jungle. It will make you have a better understanding of things on the human level mentioned above. It’s a glimpse into the different realities that the word “refugee” ecompasses, while showing you the joy, the sadness and the ultimate struggle of human beings only trying to belong somewhere.
Sticking to this is also being a travel blog, I used the time I had before catching the ferry back and wrote an article on what you should see in Calais, if you happen to be in town, check it out here.