Volunteering with Help Refugees in Calais and Dunkirk
For a number of years I have been following the work of Help Refugees, a charity which provides humanitarian aid for refugees worldwide. Their biggest operations are in Lesbos, Greece and Northern France. In July last year, I volunteered in their warehouse in Calais for a fortnight.
The so-called ‘Calais Jungle’ was demolished in 2016, however, there still remains approximately 1600 displaced people living around Calais and Dunkirk; almost 300 of these are unaccompanied children. Many are from Syria, Afghanistan and South Sudan. There is some indoor accommodation available but most migrants are living in make-shift camps in woodland or in between sand dunes.
Help Refugees and several other charities operate from a large warehouse open all year, on the outskirts of Calais. It is a labyrinth of lines of clothes, tents and toiletries with boxes piled high. As well as providing clothing and toiletries, the warehouse also has a kitchen that produces and distributes hot meals every day, a wood yard store for the winter and an information bus that provides refugees with legal information. There were also a number of other projects running from the warehouse including the Refugee Women’s Centre, L’ Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Youth Service and Human Rights Observers. The long term volunteers were continuously busy with tasks such as making sure the refugees were getting medical treatment and finding accommodation for family groups.
Each morning began with a briefing, with updates on the camps, police activity and the number of meals needed for the day. This was then followed with a short ‘wake up activity’ such as yoga. The work was very flexible, so I split my time in three different areas. For the first week, I helped in the main warehouse, sorting out donations and preparing arrival packs, tents, bedding and hygiene items to be distributed. Three of those days were spent cleaning old tents which had been salvaged from Glastonbury, there were some interesting finds!
In my second week, I volunteered with the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) which is connected to the warehouse. They provide and distribute hot dinners every day in Dunkirk and Calais. Working in the kitchen was good fun, preparing vegetable to loud French dance music! I went with the RCK to Dunkirk where we served food to refugees outside a leisure centre, which was being used temporarily to house women and children. There were also a number of temporary shelters and tents surrounding the centre. The atmosphere seemed quite optimistic. After we finished serving we chatted with some of the refugees and a few youngsters attempted to teach me a bit of Kurdish.
I also spent a couple of days helping clean a safe house run by a local church group. The house had become infested with bedbugs and needed to be thoroughly cleaned following the fumigation. The volunteers at the house had left their jobs to work in Calais and made me feel very welcome, serving me dinner and inviting me to a celebration one evening.
At times the experience was quite upsetting. Whilst I was there, a young gentleman had passed away whilst hiding in the luggage section of a coach and a child contacted the charity for help from within a refrigerator lorry. It was also harrowing to see the shelters that some of the refugees were staying in. One night there was a heavy thunderstorm, it felt wrong that I was comfortable and dry in a youth hostel when there were hundreds of people spending the night under tarpaulins.
However, what struck me in Calais was how strong, kind and positive many of the refugees were, despite their plight. There was a real community atmosphere in the warehouse, with a strong focus on inclusion. The other volunteers were from all walks of life and from all over the world including Australia, South Africa and Mexico. I spoke to one woman in her 80s who travels to Calais every month from London to mend clothes and sleeping bags.
The dedication of the long term staff was incredible; many had been there for years and had seen many upsetting things. I also felt the charities really looked after their volunteers, for instance, after each distribution the team would meet to discuss their experiences and discuss any issues they had. Volunteers were also encouraged to take regular breaks and take days off to prevent ‘burning out’. There were also workshops and mental health talks regularly available.
If you’re thinking about volunteering in Calais I would highly recommend it, even if it’s for just a couple of days. I met some really interesting people and it really opened my eyes to the situation on the other side of the Channel. If you have any warm clothes, camping equipment or tinned food that you’d like to donate it would be very welcome in Calais.