I have a beautiful life here in mountains and sometimes that makes me feel horribly guilty. In contrast, the news has been full of stories of refugees drowning in the sea and suffocating or freezing in the back of lorries as they desperately try to escape the danger of their home countries and find somewhere safe to settle. And then a memorable episode of the Guilty Feminist podcast motivated me to spend some time helping the refugees in Calais.
The Help Refugees organisation was started in 2015 to gather and distribute aid. In September 2019, I signed up to spend five days volunteering with them, raised some money, gathered clothing donations and then drove to Calais in my van to see what I could do to help.
There’s a morning briefing where Help Refugees give news of what’s going on in the camps, any events of note and then allocate jobs for the day. Jobs for short-term volunteers generally involve sorting donations in the warehouse, sizing and sorting clothes or checking, cleaning and repairing tents. At my first briefing we learned that French riot police (CRS) had carried out an eviction at the state-run camp of Grande-Synthe; more than 700 migrants had been loaded onto buses and taken elsewhere. Their few possessions, including tents and phones, had been confiscated. Sometimes families are split up and end up losing each other. It was obvious that the Help Refugees organisers and long-term volunteers were incredibly upset about the eviction, which they knew would be traumatic for the people who had been settled there. These evictions tend to result in many unaccompanied minors (generally young teenage boys) going missing and being vulnerable to abuse. Based on previous experience, the volunteers knew that most of the people who had been dispersed from the camp would try to make their way back there over the next few days. They’d be returning to a place with no shelter, facilities, food or water and so would be very much in need of help.
The decision was made to pause work in the warehouse to focus on dealing with the current situation. Long-term volunteers got to work collecting the emergency packs of warm clothing, phones, tents and sleeping bags and headed out to the various areas in Dunkirk and Calais where the camps were based to take care of the migrants who remained in the area. I spent my first morning helping to put some of these packs together and it was amazing to see the scale of the operation: huge quantities of everything, including a fresh delivery of tents from the UK in the post-festival season. They always need more as the police invariably confiscate and destroy them.
In the afternoon I helped in the Refugee Community Kitchen with the epic task of cooking the daily meal of curry and rice for up to 2000 people. I have never seen such big saucepans in my life; you could easily fit all three of my children in one of them and they took two or three strong people to lift when they were half full. There was a brilliant buzz in the kitchen with music playing and we all got stuck in with veg prep, salad making, bread cutting and endless washing up. The food being prepared was simple but absolutely delicious and so much care was put into it.
I was also fortunate to go on two of the evening food distributions. I was nervous about what to expect, not because it would be dangerous but more because I was scared to see the reality of the living conditions and the suffering first-hand. We served people at an informal camp in Dunkirk: a few hundred were settled in the woods near a lake on a nature reserve and I was surprised to see how beautiful it was. It was a pleasure to serve delicious food to hungry people on a late summer’s evening in such a pretty spot. The people were polite and friendly, and we chatted to those who understood in a mixture of French and English. It was a much happier experience than I had been expecting, but I was reminded of the harsh reality of the situation when a Kurdish family arrived just as we were packing up to leave. It was a mother, father and their two children, one aged around two and a half, the other couldn’t have been more than a year old. They looked exhausted, cold and frightened and I couldn’t help but imagine trying to raise my own young family in such conditions, with no home or food or idea of what the future might hold. It was utterly heart-breaking. Focusing on the practical solutions of providing them with food and then calling another team to come and bring baby things and find them a place to stay really helped us to cope with the grimness of the situation. Seeing everyone working together to try and meet the urgent needs of these lovely people, who lacked the basics for survival, was incredibly moving. For a while I had been aware of the awful conditions that the refugees were facing, but had no idea of the tireless, daily efforts being made to help them. Seeing this first-hand made my time in Calais ultimately a very positive experience.
All of the volunteers care so much and work so hard to help the refugees but often they are spread very thin. They need more money, more donations and also more volunteers.
Anyone driving between Morzine and the UK will most likely be passing through Calais; next time I would strongly urge you to take a little detour to spend a few days volunteering with the Refugee Community Kitchen. I guarantee that you will meet amazing people, support a well-deserving team and most importantly do your bit to provide some respite for tired and hungry people. And if you’re anything like me, you might even feel slightly less helpless and guilty for a while!
Due to the current situation with CODID-19 both Refugee Community Kitchen and Help Refugees are unable to take on any volunteers and Refugee Community Kitchen has had to temporarily suspend their operations. For both organisations these decisions have been made to protect the volunteers, as well as the refugee communities they work with. But there’s still plenty we can do to help, find out more at helprefugees.org and refugeecommunitykitchen.com.