Volunteering in Calais

Volunteering in Calais

One of our amazing Fundraising Managers, Vanessa, recently volunteered in Calais through Calais Action Brighton. Below is her account of her experience:

As Liverpool prepared to beat Spurs in the Europa League Final, a van pulled into an anonymous car park in Calais. Trestle tables and catering sized quantities of chicken curry, rice and salad were promptly set out, and as if from nowhere an orderly queue formed.

Since the “Jungle” was demolished, we hear little in the press of the people still stranded in Calais. What is reported tends to be inaccurate scaremongering. Not all refugees want to come to the UK and those that do, mostly have a connection, perhaps a brother in Leeds or a grandparent in London.

The food queue hadn’t appeared from nowhere – it had appeared from Afghanistan, Syria, Iran, Eritrea, Sudan, Kurdistan and more. People who have travelled through unspeakable hardship and thousands of miles to find themselves stuck in limbo, a little over twenty miles from Dover.

One story I heard during my time in Calais was of a boy, desperately trying to reach his brother who works as a doctor in the UK. This orphaned child just wanted to be with his big brother and had embarked on this long and dangerous journey through absolute desperation. Young men are frequently targets for radical groups like ISIS and the Taliban.

This was my second day of volunteering through my local group: Calais Action Brighton, the previous day I’d spent counting and sorting hundreds of socks in the warehouse. This evening I’d joined six others on a food distribution run. We’re a mixed bunch, two Italians in their twenties who’d travelled from their jobs in Holland. A long-time volunteer and chef, responsible for the delicious paprika rice dished out in generous quantities by a youthful septuagenarian from Worthing, and another young guy from the UK who’d arrived in his van with his partner a few months back, thinking they’d stay and help for a while and months later still haven’t left. And there’s me: I’m on oil duty, which involves pouring out portions of chilli-seasoned oil to those that want it – many of the men queuing for food are Muslim and we’ve arrived during Ramadan. Observing their fast, they will save their food and reheat it on their camping stoves once the sun has gone down.

Before setting off we’d been fully briefed on the set up, what to do in the event of things not going to plan, visits from the CRS (French Riot Police) are not unlikely. We all carried our passports and we knew to be alert. One of our objectives was to ensure we worked speedily, making sure no one waited too long for their food and that the whole thing went as smoothly as possible.

What I wasn’t prepared for was gratitude. I didn’t expect gratitude from people who have been through so much. Proud and dignified people who have fled injustice, human rights violations, torture, the loss of people they love, the loss of their homes and possessions. One man looked me in the eyes and said: “I see everything and I forget nothing, thank you for helping us.”

Our mix of nationalities meant languages were interchangeable. Bon appetit, you’re welcome, grazie mille. Some people stood talking to us as they ate their food, some saved their meals for sundown and sharing. Others sat on the grass verges in groups, one guy sang.

Later, I walked along Calais beachfront back to my hotel and reflected on the events of the day. I passed people with sunburn, children with ice-creams, families enjoying the summer weekend. The sun was setting beyond the beach-huts, painting the Channel gold and grey. I thought of the people I’d met, who by now would be breaking their fasts. The sense of community they’d managed to keep together despite everything, and the humour and solidarity I’d witnessed.

This weekend had been my first visit to the warehouse in Calais where donated supplies and essentials are stored, sorted and distributed to refugees – the kitchen, run by Refugee Community Kitchen is housed in an adjacent warehouse and is well run and spotlessly clean. At time of writing they’ve served 2,637,500 meals to displaced people – there’s a counter on their website, which by the time you’ve read this will have far exceeded this amount.

Although the numbers of refugees in Calais are much less than they were, donations and volunteers are still very much needed. For more information and to find out how you can help visit the following links: