3rd – 8th April 2016

A few months ago I was watching a programme on television called Doctors on the Frontline.  I was very moved by the scenes of hundreds of people escaping from their war-torn countries desperate to find safety. I was also very moved by the Doctors and volunteers who actually went and helped these very frightened people in person.

I was shocked at how far they travelled and even more shocked that they were now literally round the corner from me, living in temporary, horrid conditions in a camp in France, dreaming of a better future in England.  I started to think about how someone ends up volunteering in France and I decided to try to find out if it was a possibility for an “average person like me”. 

I already knew quite a bit about the Migrant Crisis from the news but I didn’t really understand it fully and this BBC programme made me keen to find out the answers to all my questions and concerns.  For example I did not understand why people were so desperate to come to the UK (why not try to live in France?), why some people risked their lives to cross the channel under the chassis of a truck (why not try to escape to a country closer to Syria?) and so on. 

I began to do some investigating and discovered that there are lots of Facebook groups relating to the Migrant Crisis and they have thousands of followers. I started to follow a few of these groups: Volunteering in Calais, Refugee Community Kitchen, Calais Kitchens, Lift-share to Calais, Volunteer Room-Share.  I began to realise as I read more and more posts from “average people like me” that you don’t have to be a doctor or a saint to be a volunteer in Calais.  Anyone can go and it is surprisingly not difficult at all to organise. 

Before I knew it, I had found two girls from Brighton on the Facebook Lift-share group who were looking for a lift to Calais during my Easter holidays.  I originally thought I would go for a couple of days but as soon as I knew I had some fellow travellers, I decided to stay for a week.  I booked the ferry for my tiny car plus 3 passengers.  I then looked into accommodation and again, that was cheap and easy.  I found a studio flat on Air b’n’b. I ran a quick fundraising activity and raised £250 from my colleagues at Hazelwick Secondary School as well as my friends and family.  I also collected some tinned food, some Tupperware and lots of strong bags for life which are needed for food distribution inside the camp.

On my first morning I made my way directly to one of the warehouses (Auberge des Migrants).  This is ten minutes from the camp (also known as The Jungle) and is where all the food, clothes and camping equipment donations arrive from England and other countries.  This warehouse is incredible.  It is run by volunteers, predominantly from the UK.  There are long-term volunteers who have been staying in caravans and apartments close by for several months and they know the camp inside out.  Then there are short-term volunteers who pop by for a few hours, days or weeks.  They were delighted when they learned that I planned on staying for six full days as this meant they could teach me how the whole warehouse operates and I could really make a difference. 

 The warehouse is split into three key areas; 1. The Refugee Community Kitchen, 2. Dry Food Distribution, 3. Non-food Donations.  I attended the morning briefing for new volunteers and was given a job to work in the Dry Food Distribution area.  I was shown how to organise all the food donations that arrived and to then make up big bags of food for the residents in the camp.  I was taken into The Jungle in a van loaded with the bags of food that myself and the team had made up and helped distribute them in person.  I cannot express how incredible my first day of volunteering felt.  It was fantastic working alongside lots of volunteers in the warehouse all with different backgrounds and nationalities.  There was an atmosphere of real camaraderie, fun, enthusiasm, determination, passion and hope. What really shocked me was that it is run by long-term volunteers and there is no official charity like the Red Cross or Oxfam involved.  For example, chefs who are used to cooking for huge numbers of people at music festivals like Glastonbury, go over whenever they happen to have some free time and volunteer in the kitchen for week or two at a time.  Volunteers varied in age from 15 upwards.  Some younger people were there to get experience before they went to university. 

Despite the fact that these were just a group of volunteers, I was absolutely blown away by how efficient things were.  The receipt, off-loading, unpacking, sorting, labelling, re-packing, re-loading and distribution of donations from all over was amazing.  A lot of trial and error had obviously gone into the set up in order to finally find a system that works.  While I was there, there weren’t enough volunteers so we couldn’t keep up with the amount of donations that were arriving every day.  There was literally a mountain of unsorted goods.  Volunteers flood in on the weekend but it is very quiet mid-week.  Also, many people don’t check what donations are required and send over huge amounts of things that are actually not suitable.  For example, no one in Calais needs high heels or a wedding dress!  Neither do they want glass jars as they can smash in the delivery vans and potentially cause damage. 

It was incredible to see all the skills that the volunteers displayed.  Many had technical skills and were able to offer their help to build a kitchen and communal area.  I met two men from England who were paramedics and had just popped over to help out in the First Aid caravan inside the camp for a weekend.  Other people had problem-solving, project management and leadership skills.  Others spent hours peeling and chopping vegetables, cleaning shoes and decanting rice and lentils into small food bags. 

Below is a photo of the notice board in the dry food distribution area.  Tina, a long term English volunteer with an enviable amount of passion and drive, manages this whole area.  She was about to embark on an M.A. but decided to postpone it for one year after she heard about Calais.  She mapped out the whole camp and knows it inside out.  She depends 100% on people like us to send money and food to the warehouse so that she and her team can feed up to 5000 refugees each week.  She is definitely one of the most inspiring team leaders I have ever worked with.   

The refugees were so grateful to see us arriving in the van with all the bags of food.  The camp itself was quite shocking but I guess I had expected it to be that way.  It was just like a ghetto/shanty town.  People were all crammed in together and living in a mixture of flimsy tents, tarpaulin shelters, and government metal containers.  There were very few toilets and washing facilities.  The majority of people were from Afghanistan and Sudan.  It was very sad to see young teenagers all alone just standing around.  Some of the refugees have been there for many months already and have still got their health and emotional stability.  They have been proactive and have built cafes, restaurants, little shops and a youth centre inside the camp.  Others look quite ill and possibly depressed/anxious.  

Each afternoon, at Jungle Books, a shelter right outside the entrance to the camp, volunteers go to hold language conversations with the refugees.  I went along and taught French vocabulary to Adam from Sudan and English to a man from Iran.  They were extremely grateful as was I, for being given the opportunity to help them, even if it was just a tiny bit. 

One of the most moving and sad things for me was seeing the unaccompanied children.  The camp is not a nice place to stay for anyone but it is even harder for the children.  They miss their families and have no idea how long it will take them to be allowed to leave Calais and get into England.  There are over 500 children in the camp today and 74% of them are unaccompanied.  Many have applied for immigration as they have a family member already living in England.  However processing paperwork is slow and it is currently taking approximately 7 months.  In the meantime, their faces light up when they see the volunteers arriving with hot food, tins, rice, milk, cereal bars as well as sleeping bags, coats, walking shoes and so on.

So what next?  The situation will continue for the long-term unless the governments decide to declare the camp an official camp.  Then a professional organisation could go in and ensure the consistent and reliable flow of aid to all refugees.  They would get medical care and the children would receive an education while waiting to find out their fate. 

In the meantime, “average people like me” will continue to do our tiny bit to give these tired and frightened people back some of the dignity and respect that they deserve.  The day I left the warehouse I bid farewell to one of the long-term volunteers and he said “See you again soon.  Everyone comes back” and he was right! I am determined to return and to help as soon as I can.

- Michelle Rea