Charlie Lally shares the story of her experience volunteering with Help Refugees in Calais.
Two years on from the official disbandment of the refugee “Jungle” camp in Calais, there are still over 1500 refugees displaced around Northern France. Although these stories are no longer top of news headlines, there are still many men, women and children living without shelter who have been forced to flee their homes due to war, famine and poverty among other unthinkable reasons.
Like many others, I became aware of the situation in Calais in 2015 when Help Refugees formed and began their #HelpCalais campaign to collect and distribute donations to those in the “Jungle” camp. I was frustrated by the images of people who, through no other reason other than where they happened to be from, needed to flee their homes and live without shelter until they could find a safe place where they would be welcome and could start a new life. Since moving to London this year, I took the opportunity to go to Calais to volunteer with Help Refugees and to learn more about how I can support when I returned home.
My week was based at the Auberge des Migrants warehouse, which is a hub of activity run entirely by volunteers. From the warehouse there are distributions of food, clothes, tents, and firewood, as well as services such as the Refugee Info Bus which provides a mobile WiFi and charging point daily to the different camps. I was overwhelmed by the scale of activity and variety of different things happening all over the warehouse; in one corner people are reconstructing and testing tents that have been donated while other people are chopping and preparing firewood to go out to the different camps. There are also notices of information and different support services for volunteers posted around the warehouse walls, which gave an insight into the care and respect everyone gives each other here, something that was reiterated throughout the week.
The main demographic of refugees in Calais are from Sudan, Eritrea, Afghanistan and Ethiopia and have to leave their homes for many reasons including war, economic instability and famine. The main focus of the volunteers work is to give aid with dignity, and this is instilled in everything they do. I learn that to keep equality and fairness among those in the camps they cannot distribute anything unless there is enough for some spare. Sadly, this means that if someone needs a new tent or pair of shoes they will need to wait until there are enough for everyone.
Each day at the warehouse starts with a morning briefing, where we are given an update on the conditions for the refugees in France and Belgium. There are also weekly trainings and services available to the volunteers so that you are well prepared and more aware of the people you are helping and what they face on a daily basis. During both of these sessions we learn that the police in France are using force and, at times, violence to make the living conditions for the refugees as temporary as possible, but with no alternative for them to go to. Every couple of days before 12pm the police come to the different makeshift camps and force the people staying there to remove their tents and belongings and move on, occasionally also taking the supplies and disposing of them so that some people are left without a place to sleep. We are told that the French authorities had confirmed that they would provide shelter for those without in the winter, but by the end of November this still hadn’t happened.
During the week I also volunteered with Refugee Community Kitchen, who provide over 1500 meals to refugees and volunteers daily. These meals are prepared in an industrial kitchen set up and run entirely on donations, and by volunteers who distribute the meals daily to camps around Calais, Dunkirk and Belgium. Every morning there is a briefing where the team reiterate the importance of upholding the standard of the kitchen so that we can create nourishing and enjoyable meals and provide a safe place for people come together through the distributions. On my second day in the kitchen I join a group distributing food in Calais. We drove for a few miles away from the site and set up in an industrial park where there are tents scattered and some people gathered around a wood fire. The first thing that hits me is the cold. We set up two tables and hand out curry, rice and tea from our station, which at first is quiet, but after a few minutes we see more and more people coming up the street and queuing up for meals. Some take a few to take back to their families. They are all friendly, polite and chat to us, asking where we are from and about the food.
The group consists mainly of men but there are a few women and children. Half way through it starts to rain heavily, but the group keeps growing. We stay for a couple of hours and then pack up and say goodbye to them all, with some of the long-term volunteers chatting to the group and giving them hugs before we leave.
What struck me the most during my week in Calais is how people from all different countries, ages and walks of life are coming together and doing their bit to help in any way they can. Their humanity provided a stark contrast to the behaviour we can witness from those in positions of power and the efforts they are taking to cover up these issues, rather than solve them. We as individuals may not be able to control the laws restricting others and the treatment they suffer straight away, but through our support and the steps we take I remain hopeful that we can make a change and give people the opportunity to start a new life in safety and with dignity.
WAYS YOU CAN HELP
- Donate. The organisations in the warehouse rely on donations to provide hot meals, tents, and clothing as well as keeping the warehouse open every day, any amount you can give will help someone!
Donate to Help Refugee
Donate to Refugee Community Kitchen
- Write to your MP. The UK Home Office promised to resettle 480 unaccompanied children living without shelter in Europe over 2 years ago, and half of these places still remain unfilled. We need to hold our government accountable for the promises they make and protect those who are most vulnerable all over Europe. You can support the campaign to fill all 480 places for unaccompanied child refugees here
- Volunteer. The work provided by volunteers can be the reason someone has a meal that day or a tent to sleep in. Whether you can go for a couple of days or a couple of weeks, there will be always be something to do, and I guarantee you will want to go back when you leave! You can sign up to volunteer with Help Refugees.
- Buy a Gift. Help Refugees has created an online store where you can buy something that goes straight to a refugee, delivered by one of over 80 projects supported by them around the world. They have also opened pop-up stores in London & New York where you can visit to shop and learn more about the work of Help Refugees.