Choose Love: My Volunteer Experience In Calais
By Rachel Elgy
Over the Christmas break, I spent four days volunteering in Calais with the grassroots charity Help Refugees. Naturally, in the days since, people have been asking me, ‘How was Calais?’ It’s not an easy question to answer, particularly because I’m not sure that my answer is exactly the answer people might be looking for. People may be almost disappointed to know I didn’t meet or directly work with a single refugee. I don’t have any heartstring-tugging photos (except for of some cats, who live at the warehouse, if you happen to be a cat person…)
It’s often really difficult here in the UK to have a full grasp of what is going on with the refugee crisis in France or elsewhere. A lot of the time we rely on media outlets to keep us up to date, and this leaves us vulnerable to the intrinsic bias of the media, who decide what to report and how to report it. A crisis of this scale might feel like big news, but there are peaks and troughs of coverage as other things catch peoples’ interest, or other events occur, which can allow the refugee crisis to fade to the back of peoples’ minds, or imply that it’s not so bad anymore.
With this in mind I aim to answer some key questions that I have been asked following my trip to Calais.
What is the situation now in France?
The official camp in Calais, referred to as the ‘Jungle,’ was demolished in October 2016 (more info following the demolition can be found here). Refugees were registered and transferred to accommodation centres across France; the suitability, safety and quality of which varies from place to place. Many were not registered in time to be accounted for when accommodation was arranged, were not placed in centres, or have left the centres (for various reasons), so there are refugees camping or sleeping rough across France, and there is an official camp, smaller than the jungle, based in Dunkirk. Volunteers working at the camp state that there are approximately 1000+ refugees staying there, many of whom are children (although official figures state it to be lower).
What are people doing on the ground to tackle the crisis?
There are a multitude of charities and grassroots organisations working tirelessly to support the refugees: providing shelters, food, clothes donations as well as practical support such as legal advice and guidance with asylum applications.
Larger organisations, for example the UNHCR (The United Nations Refugee Agency), are also providing various forms of humanitarian assistance.
What did you do in Calais?
One of the charities, Help Refugees, has been operating in Calais since September 2015 and has a warehouse based there. While the main camp is no longer in Calais, the warehouse is still a key hub of activity, sending donations of food, shelter and clothing across France and further afield to Greece and Turkey. Help Refugees has 26 different projects, working in partnership with other organisations.
It is no small task to co-ordinate a warehouse full of donations; finding the best way to support the thousands of people who’ve been forced to flee their homes and countries. Help Refugees, as well as working practically to send donations, also focuses on helping refugees to maintain dignity and identity. As much as is possible, refugees are given autonomy: for example being provided with cooking utensils and dry food stores, so they have choice of what to cook, and when to cook it, rather than relying solely on the daily meals from the Refugee Community Kitchen.
I worked for four days in the warehouse, sorting through clothes, ensuring they were clearly organised, labelled and ready to be sent to where they’re needed most. I packed bags of urgently required donations to send to refugees in Dunkirk, with their dignity in mind. It’s sometimes the little things that make a difference: sending a set of Spiderman pyjamas to a two year-old boy, hoping he likes them better than the equally warm, but rather random mismatched alternatives. The work was not always varied, and not always ‘interesting’, but with a great team and the satisfaction of a job well done, it was always a good day in the warehouse.
Other volunteers worked in the Refugee Community Kitchen, preparing (delicious) hot meals for refugees and volunteers alike, as well as packing up and distributing dry food packages. There are also organisations based in Dunkirk, for example the Women and Children’s centre, which offers a safe place to go during the day, with regular classes, workshops and games taking place. Since my return, there has unfortunately been a fire at the Women and Children’s centre, so volunteers are working hard to rebuild what was a crucial part of the camp.
So, how was your experience in Calais?
My experience was one of community, positivity, support, strength and spirit. Every volunteer I encountered gave their all to what could at times be mundane or frustrating tasks. Some were there for months, some just for a day, but all there with the goal of helping refugees, and standing up against a huge humanitarian crisis. I was moved by the immediacy with which I felt part of the community there. It’s run incredibly democratically, with long-term volunteers taking the lead on co-ordinating different areas, but always open to new ideas, input and expertise. It is also important to mention the incredible generosity of people across the world, which means volunteers constantly have donations to sort through. I was inspired: so many volunteers were giving up their Christmas breaks to be there. They also told me of all sorts of creative and innovative ways that they support and offer solidarity at home.
Of course, being there gave me a further understanding of the harsh reality of this crisis. It was hard to comprehend that thousands of people were living in basic shelters, or sleeping on the streets in simple sleeping bags in freezing cold temperatures, which had me wearing five layers and still feeling cold. It was distressing to hear that the first night I was there, the camp in Dunkirk had experienced a tear-gas raid from French authorities. It was incredibly frustrating to hear story upon story of refugees, who have the right to claim asylum and have a safe, secure future, being denied that right through bureaucracy, gaps in the system and lack of support and action from governments across Europe.
A year 5 student asked me today: “Is it bad to be a refugee? Does it mean you don’t have the same rights, or aren’t treated the same as everybody else?” I asked him, “What do you think the answer is, or should be?”
“I think, the answer should be that refugees have the same rights and are treated the same as everyone else. But I think that maybe, they are discriminated against, or not treated well, because of where they have come from or because they are refugees.”
He is right. But he shouldn’t be. This is what we are showing our children. That it is not ok to be a refugee, that it is a bad thing to seek safety and security for you and your family. That people will treat you badly even after you have been through unimaginable trauma.
No matter how much time I spend in Calais or Dunkirk or elsewhere, I can’t ever truly understand or represent the experience of the refugees. These experiences are ultimately incomprehensible to anyone who has not been through them. But do we always need to fully understand or relate to an experience to empathise? Can we only be expected to care if provided with just the right image to tug on the heartstrings? Are some lives more worthy of saving than others that we only take action when the media reminds us of the children?
There is a frustrating apathy and lack of awareness in the UK, which together we can turn into curiosity and a galvanised force for change. Already, in the weeks since my return, so many people have expressed interest and concern, and a genuine desire to find out more, clearly feeling unsure of where to find the answers.
And so, the final question: What can we do to help?
It is easy to feel helpless with a crisis of this scale, however, there are so many ways people can offer support.
There are many organisations offering support on the ground. These grassroots organisations rely on the generosity of donors to do what they do. Some of the organisations you can support are:
What can you donate?
If not money, which is vital for the distribution of supplies across the continent, with one shipping container costing £3500, then practical donations are gratefully received. It’s best to always check for up-to-date information about which items are currently needed, but at the moment there is a real need for:
-SNUG packs (see image)
What not to donate:
From my experience in the warehouse I unfortunately have to specify not to donate dirty clothes… remember the people who will be using or wearing the donations. Ask yourself what you would like to be given to keep yourself warm after a long, arduous and often emotional journey: someone’s old bobbly jumper with holes in the armpits? A silk nightie? A giant banana onesie? Perhaps not. Try to think practically but compassionately. And finally, nothing with any flags or countries printed on.
This being said, volunteers are innovative and not at all wasteful. The brilliant Warehouse Wardrobe stall has been set up to tackle the problem of unsuitable donations. Items of clothing that are impractical for a refugee camp, that are not needed (there is a huge abundance of men’s large jumpers, and not a particularly high demand for this size), and items that are perhaps worth a lot of money and could cause other difficulties (who gets the designer leather jacket and who gets the other one?), are resold to volunteers and their friends and all the money goes directly back into the charity. In less than a day working at the warehouse wardrobe well over £150 was raised. They are on Facebook and Instagram and are always open to orders, ideas and support.
If you have any time to do so, I wholeheartedly recommend volunteering, whether you have a day, a week or longer. In France, Help Refugees and Care4Calais both need voluntary support on the ground, as well as some other organisations:
–Dunkirk Women and Children’s Centre– who are really in need of anyone available to help rebuild the centre, especially volunteers with practical skills and experience in this area.
Help Refugees also has partners in Greece, supporting the camps there, for example Refugee Support Greece.
It is not just the work on the ground in France and beyond which matters. This is a global crisis and a political one. Take some time to find out more about what is going on: all the organisations mentioned above post regular updates on social media and their websites. Get involved with campaigns and marches; put pressure on the government by writing to your MP about the crisis, letting them know your views. Keep connected, keep aware, and share accurate information to educate others.
There are people across the UK coming up with brilliant, creative and innovative ways to raise awareness, and to show solidarity with refugees in the UK. Keep your eye out for things like the Borderline play recently shown at the Cockpit theatre in London; events like Help Refugees’ ‘Choose Love’, which involved some great nights of live music in London; and other creative events across the country. A fellow volunteer from the warehouse has set up an online forum for showing solidarity for refugees called ‘Now We Make Tomorrow.’ The idea is simple: people can make something (literally anything, a cup of tea if that’s what you make best!), take a picture of it, and add a note or message of support for refugees. These are documented with a profile online to show refugees, and everyone, that there is solidarity and support out there.
The Help Refugees slogan is a simple one, but sums up everything that needs to be said. This is a humanitarian crisis, these are thousands of people with individual lives and stories and personalities, who have suffered, and who have aspirations for a brighter and safer future.
We can help, we can change things, if we work together, and if we Choose Love.
* This blog is written from my own experience in Calais, from talking to other volunteers and doing further reading. For more detailed information about the refugee crisis see the organisations mentioned above, or take a look at the Red Cross or UNHCR, who are also following and tackling the crisis.