What is it like to be a Volunteer in Calais? Personally, I think it’s amazing, fulfilling, rewarding, draining, frustrating and heartbreaking. These are just a few words to describe the experience, although there are many more!
I have always felt it to be a predominately positive experience, I have always felt fulfilled and empowered, its people helping other people and having that human contact firsthand. It’s raw and uncomplicated doing what humans should do for one another.
I get asked why do you volunteer in Calais? Well why shouldn’t I do this? People have asked why don’t you help in your own community, well I do, as do probably every other person who spends time in Calais does (I have yet to meet someone who has never volunteered or helped in their own community). People that you are likely to meet in Calais are like you. They want to make things better for refugees, they want to show that they care, they see that what is happening is so very wrong and they want to be part of change.
A little background, I first travelled to Calais as a Volunteer in 2016, this was when the Jungle existed and then I returned a few months later after part of the camp had been bulldozed. I remember the first time I went to Calais so vividly, I was nervous as I didn’t know what to expect or how to act around refugees. The questions that formed in my head were, what would I say to them, what kind of conversation would we have? I really didn’t need to feel nervous as everyone was welcoming and friendly. We drank tea and shared fruit, played games and chatted with so many people. We shared stories and hugs and now I wonder what happened to those people that I met. The accountant, the pharmacist, the man who had not seen his children for 6 months and all of those kids who rode their bikes around the camp.
It’s now 2 years later and I spent four days volunteering this time. We visited briefly where the Jungle had been and I remembered the conversions that I had at the entrance to the bustling camp. It’s now deserted, just an empty piece of wasteland. My heart broke a little again, the wasteland cold, uninviting mirroring the countries that many refugees find themselves in. They have fled their own country only to end up in another country where they are not wanted or valued as humans.
So back to 2018, I wasn’t nervous this time it was like going back to familiar territory the warehouse, the distribution, a few tweaks here and there to make things more efficient different Volunteers but the same goals.
We travelled to Brussels on the first day, I travelled in a van with a couple of long term volunteers and this was nice as it gave me opportunity to learn something about them, it’s always interesting meeting other volunteers from all over the globe and to get to know them. One of the volunteers that I was with had been volunteering for a year in a camp in Greece and then transitioned to Calais to carry on in France. The other volunteer had just taken a 6 month paid job at Care4Calais as Operations Manager. It was a good trip and nice to get to know other likeminded people, I even found out that one of the volunteers relatives lived in Colchester! Another volunteer had studied at Essex University.
I have met lots of interesting people in the time that I have been over to Calais and we have got to know each other and keep in touch. I have met people from all walks of life, such as teachers, Social Workers, Mental Health Workers, retired people, gap year students, travellers, University students, Nurses, and Counsellors. People from all over the globe, America, Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Portugal, Italy and more!
In the morning we made packs up to take with us, items included food, toiletries and hoodies. Before leaving the warehouse there is always a de-brief and everyone is allocated a roles for the afternoon. Some people don’t want to go on a distribution run; it’s up to the person to identify what they wish to do. Some people stay behind in the warehouse to organise all the new donations and sort through donations piles, as some of what is given to C4C goes to Syria as well as back to UK charities. There is always the job as chef, kitchen monitor and someone to do shopping. C4C always provide a good lunch for its volunteers, whether it is a lovely baguette or hot food.
Today I was on hot drink duty with Rachel, cups of tea, coffee and hot chocolate were handed out with smiles and chatter. Some people spoke English well and we had simple conversations. Some of these conversations were in regards to how to make a good cup of tea and coffee! A portable generator is taken along so people are able to charge their phones. This is a lifeline for some people. Can you imagine not being able to use your phone to speak with your loved ones? To communicate to others is a basic human need. I’m lost if I don’t have my phone for a day! We take communication for granted so much, this is so important for people to be able to speak with family.
Once people had their bags, they opened them up to see what items they had; we had packed thermal socks in the packs. Much to the amusement of one of the guys as they were pink!
The day in Brussels was bitter cold and my hands were numb, like most people I’m not a fan of the cold. It is hard to imagine having to sleep outside in this weather. You can’t underestimate how much the cold must wear people down coupled with the relentless day in day out limbo of not knowing what will happen to you and when you will see your family again. We stood and spoke to some of the guys and made more drinks until the hot water ran out. Once people started to drift away it was time to pack up and head back to Calais.
The next few days consisted of putting together distributions and lots of sorting and packing, re-arranging. You may have read about the trouble in Calais a few weeks ago, this was our next stop to visit a group of Afghan men. We were reminded of safety being paramount when we had the de-brief, also what to do if there was any trouble.
The guys that we visited hadn’t eaten for a few days and some of the group had fled to Paris after the troubles. Some of their friends were still in hospital recovering after the events.
We gave out blankets as well as supplies of food and some cooking pots and utensils. We took firewood and a fire was made by the refugees. A German media crew appeared and wanted to interview some of the refugees and began doing so. It hailed intermittingly and again was bitter with the winds whipping up around us.
I spoke to some of the guys and they told me about the police coming to their tents when they lived in the Jungle and throwing tear gas inside, taking their belongings and trashing the place. They now lived at this place near to a roundabout. Some of the guys sat around the fire chatting, it was all very informal, just humans on the same level talking and getting to know one another. This is an important part of volunteering, engaging with Refugees, it’s not about giving out items and then driving away, job done. Getting to know one another and building up a relationship is part of volunteering.
As I stood listening to the man in my 2 coats, another man offered me his blanket. I had just given this to him as part of the distribution. He had seen I was shivering and wanted to help. He had nothing but still thought of other people.
I believe that this, for me was the worst day, it got to me emotionally. Driving back to the Warehouse I explained how I felt to a couple of the volunteers. I really felt pretty hopeless, the afternoon had made me feel a little lost and broken. I can only attach my feeling to the fact that in the Jungle, as bad as it was there was a sense of belonging to something. The Jungle was a base, something defined. People had shelters, clean water, shops and a community of sorts. It wasn’t ever going to be perfect but it was something that had been built and had an identity stamped on it. Now, although people live in smaller camps their lives appear to be hidden. They appear more despondent, less hopeful and so much more vulnerable.
Before the world was focused on the jungle and the plights of thousands, now the camp has been dispersed and people have moved away and this includes children as well. It doesn’t appear to be newsworthy so much now. Speaking with one of the longer term volunteers did help and she put a different spin on the afternoon.
She explained that for the refugees we had just been with having the volunteers around them made them feel good, it made them smile. To be able to engage with other people who were genuinely interested in them. It showed that people cared and that they hadn’t been forgotten. She also stated “the worst in humanity brings out the best in humanity”. This is why volunteering at C4C is such a “mish-mash” of emotions. You meet the best kind of humans who want to help those who have been subjected to the worst of humanity.
The last day was a massive distribution around Calais, following on from a Stand up to Racism Conference in London quite a few new Volunteers arrived at the Warehouse. After making up many packs and after our de-brief we headed off to a roundabout to meet up with some guys from Eritrea. This was our last day and so mid afternoon we headed to Calais Port.
For me, the gravity of the whole situation had hit me harder than I expected. I always find the first few days back home difficult. I’m grateful that I can come back to my family to see them and be able to hold them. I was lucky and could speak with my family whilst I was away; however, this made me mindful that for some of the refugees this is not possible. They don’t know when they will next be able to contact family or loved ones.
Back at home, summarising the last 4 days, I feel a slight numbness at being back in the UK together with a tangle of emotions bubbling up and the flash of faces of people that I have met. I see the excitement of some of the refugees at being given a wooden spoon and a pan. The laughter at the pink thermal socks, the anger and the hopelessness of the man who had his belongings trashed, the man in the red hoodie, his face pinched with cold.
I never feel ready to leave Calais, there is always this pull to stay and then to go back. I feel very comfortable volunteering in Calais and with C4C, it’s like a big family, everyone is always very welcoming and it’s basically up to the individual to find a role which they are happy to do.
All forms of volunteering are important, we do what we can do and what we feel comfortable doing. One of the most important things is talking, actually letting people know what is occurring a few miles away. Share, share and then share a LOT more! We need to be the voice for those that are being ignored. Never underestimate the power of the word, now we have Social media this is an excellent way to communicate to others. It’s like a domino effect, one person shares to their friends and then so on. Raising awareness is so vital let people know about C4C and this situation of refugees is still playing out in the modern world. I personally I find it disgraceful that this is still happening. People turning a blind eye and ignoring the scale and gravity of the situation. And yes, there is a huge situation going on!
It’s up to you and I to fight for those that can’t, we have a moral responsibility as human beings to help other humans, it makes no difference where we all come from on the globe. Anyone of us could become a refugee. The worst thing is to ignore this and accept this situation as part of how the world is now. What is happening should not be normalised, we should stand against this, and we should stand together.
Thank you for reading.
By Kate Khan