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Wednesday, 23 March 2016

What to Expect as a Volunteer Helping Refugees in Calais - Day One.

If I'm being honest, I'm not a very political person at all and it's quite unusual for me to do anything like this, and whatever your political stance on this, the truth is, we are in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War.

I really didn't know what to expect when my wife and I went to volunteer. I wondered how I would feel if I was fleeing from a country ravaged by war, and it wasn't difficult to come to the conclusion that it's an abysmal situation to be in. It would be all too easy for me to sit there with my relatively nice life, adorable son, no shortage of food, sunny holidays every year and a house over my head.

I wanted to feel like I was contributing in some way. Even if I could just make a tiny positive difference to someone's life, I would feel like the trip was worth it.

But I didn't have a clue what would happen when we got there. The plan was to get to Calais and then find the 'Jungle', the camp on the outskirts of Calais where around 5,500 people of up to 70 nationalities live in terrible conditions, . I hoped it would happen without any hiccups and that once we got there that someone would explain how we could be put to use.

The other thing in the back of my mind was that I hoped we could avoid getting into any difficult or dangerous situations. Safety was important, mainly for the sake of our child, and the media has presented quite a lopsided view of this whole situation so it had definitely planted a seed of doubt in my mind.

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Here's what happened. 

We randomly met a German girl the night before at the place we were staying, and luckily she was an experienced volunteer who had helped out for many years, so we asked to follow her to the camp the next day. I had read all sorts of horror stories about Police being overbearing and causing problems for volunteers, stopping them on the way and so on. I wondered if our food would be confiscated and I was anxious about this.

So, I was surprised when we arrived at a gigantic warehouse complex run by L'Auberge des Migrants [bit about the charity here]. It was organised, civilised and had various people, mainly British, but also German, French, Belgian and American, going about their business with a sense of purpose and pride in what they were doing. I understand it was 10 minutes away from the camp, and I felt perfectly safe the whole time I was there.

This is the distribution hub where clothing, food and grocery donations arrive and are sorted to then be sent out in aid packages to the camp. It also has kitchens where food for the migrants and refugees is prepared, and many dedicated volunteers even live there, in caravans dotted around the site.

Picture of the inside of the L'Auberge des Migrants warehouse in Calais
Part of the warehouse, where clothes & toiletries are sorted by volunteers
If you are considering volunteering in Calais, it's highly likely you will start off in a complex like this. You may get the choice to go to one of the refugee camps on various errands or deliveries, but there's no pressure about it. If you've found this blog because you're worried that your children or friends are putting themselves in a dangerous position, hopefully that myth is now busted.

I quickly found out that when you give your time up to organisations like L'Auberge Des Migrants,  volunteering in Calais can be perfectly safe, and you'll be able to make a very real impact in a short space of time. Also, despite it being a French charity, there's a high proportion of British volunteers.

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Here is what you can expect if you volunteer in Calais.

There was an entertaining warm up, a group meeting where various things like health and safety was discussed, and jobs were allocated for the day depending on our different skills. All in, there were maybe about 50 new volunteers at the briefing, and I later found out that's a lot lower than usual. The weekends are busiest, and this was a Saturday.

Volunteer briefing at L'Auberge des Migrants warehouse in Calais
The volunteers' morning meeting

I was quickly assigned a job, and after a 30 second induction to my role, I was off! Packing bags of vital food supplies for families of five, I was to follow this list and load the bag on a cart when it was full.

List of non perishable foods that are useful in a refugee camp
'Shopping' list - food to be packed for a family of five.
From the very start, my wife and I were packing food we had brought with us from England into the bags, so we were thrilled with that. I'd never expected that as a volunteer I could be contributing so quickly to the refugees' welfare. 

I enjoyed this job and got quite efficient at it - before long I was instructing new arrivals to the team on how to do it. I apologise now to the American girl who had to listen to my one minute induction about the merits of choosing a strong bag, and packing two at the same time for speed.

Bag of food aid for refugees in the Calais Jungle
A fully packed bag with supplies for five people
The whole time there was a great sense of camaraderie in the warehouse, and people being respectful to one another. Everyone was there for the same reasons: to try and do something, rather than sit at home in apathy.

There were also little details here and there throughout the warehouse that summed up the positive energy and high spirits of all the volunteers:

Rice supplies for refugees in Calais & Dunkirk

Don't get me wrong though, it wasn't all positive, and most people were openly glad when the thumping techno music got turned off in favour of The Kinks. There's good techno and bad techno, and this was absolutely abrasive techno. Although I'll admit, it did make me work faster.

There were only a few of us, but we worked well together. Once our team had packed 100 bags of food aid (supplies for five people), these were moved to a pallet outside as they were now ready for distribution.

Food bags on pallets, ready for distribution
I helped lift them into a van along with 75 bags (for 2 people). In the end, that van contained groceries for 100 families (500 people) plus another 150 people.

100 bags of groceries packed inside a van

The van left for the Jungle camp shortly after.

I never expected that I could have this much of an impact, so quickly on my first day. The reason I'm writing this is because even if just five more people volunteer as a result of reading this, then you have no idea how much you can achieve. Seriously.

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My experience of taking food aid
It was hard to know what to bring, the wishlists are constantly being updated in the Facebook groups (links below). 

We had a budget of £150, so I hit Asda hard in search of non perishable food, especially tinned fish. I spent about £90 on tuna, £20 on tomatoes and £40 on chocolate. Yes, I got loads of funny looks.

They were selling big bars of 'smart price' chocolate for 30p each. I felt that if that could give even one person a lift then it was worth it. I'm glad I stuck to my guns because there was barely any chocolate in the warehouse when we arrived, and all of the tuna and chocolate disappeared into food bags in a morning's work.

In the course of the day, I saw maybe about 15-20 other deliveries from charities and kind individuals arriving at the warehouse. But the rate we were going through tinned fish, and the amount of people there are to feed, I'll just say quickly that you can make a serious difference here and it's never too late, especially with 4,500 people to feed, and that's just in Calais.

The L'Auberge des Migrants warehouse also distributes to the new camps in the area, like Dunkirk - Dunkerque, to the locals.

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What food should you donate to Calais?

 It was great to hear that the feedback from the community leaders is a key part of the process in deciding how aid is distributed. This is grassroots collaboration, and not a case of a charity deciding what's best for the refugees.

• The consensus from the community is please do not donate pasta. People want rice. Not brown rice, but white/plain rice. It's in short supply
• Protein - tinned fish is always in high demand, along with chickpeas, lentils and red kidney beans. Prioritise this, along with rice. I saw first hand how quickly our supplies were dwindling, particularly tinned fish.
• Stock cubes and spices help to make meals taste less bland.
• Biscuits / chocolate - how would you feel if you were a refugee and you opened a bag of aid to find something nice in there? It might make you feel marginally less shit for a couple of minutes.
• Tinned fruit / rice pudding etc - it looked like this was in short supply and so I'm sure would be welcomed.
• Bottled water.

The camps are becoming organised with shared cooking facilities and gas hobs. Have a look again at that shopping list picture above. I understand that while the needs change, these are staple items that are popular with the vast majority of people living in Calais, Dunkirk and the surrounding areas.

Check this website too because there are non food items like tools, blankets, waterproof clothing, boots, wet wipes, nappies and sanitary towels, but I didn't have enough time to understand these needs in depth. One thing I did find out is do not donate tampons. Sanitary towels are preferred.
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What food shouldn't you donate to Calais?


I can tell you that the Thousand Island Dressing I observed was looking pretty lonely and stupid on the shelf, as if wondering what salad it would be adorning next. As volunteers we have to be careful that bags are packed equally, to prevent conflicts inside the camps, so the list above should serve as a useful guide.

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Final thoughts from the first day

It's no great secret that the French authorities haven't exactly made friends with refugees and have bulldozed a great swathe of the camp, forcing different communities of migrants into close quarters and potential conflict.

I can't even get my head around how tough that must be for someone. Many are fleeing their countries from war, they've seen friends and family die back at home and even along their perilous journeys. Just when there's some semblance of peace and something mildly resembling a comfort being restored (food, shelter) then the fucking authorities trash your home that keeps the rain from hitting you in the face when you sleep. 

What the hell are you supposed to do in that situation? Well let me give you an example. As they entered the camp to continue supervising its destruction, riot police were greeted by children holding white roses. 

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In my next blog, I will talk about my second day as a volunteer. It could not have been more different from the first day if it tried, but was just as rewarding!
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I implore anyone reading this to volunteer if you give even half a shit about human rights and helping people to eat and clothe and shelter themselves adequately against the elements. Even in just one weekend you can achieve so much, and the ferry from Dover to Calais is so quick.

Other useful links: 

Calaidipedia - a huge source of information about the refugee situation in Calais, including how to donate to L'Auberge des Migrants:-

L'Auberge des Migrants Facebook page - English version - so you can subscribe to news of the aid requirements and news relating to the charity, and the various refugee camps in France)

Volunteer Group to Calais Facebook page - a very active community where people offer and share lifts from the UK to Calais and vice versa, and post about their experiences.

4 comments:

  1. Great post, thank you! I would be interested to hear about your interaction with actual residents of the camp, in your next post. When I visited, I did not meet women or families, but rather a vast majority of single men.

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  2. Hello, We are a family of 4 heading off to Calais this Saturday for the first time - your blog is inspirational and so very practical - absolutely essential for us to make the most valued use of our time preparing for and working in Calais. Thank you so very much.

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  3. Thanks for the post. my parrents was worried so i gave them this blog. they ends up absolutely okay!! Thank you!

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  4. thanks for your post. me, my daughter and a friend are going next weekend - just in time for eviction day. this post has really helped reassure me.

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