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Friday, 25 March 2016

What to Expect as a Volunteer Helping Refugees in Dunkirk - Day Two.

Following on from my first day as a volunteer in Calais, day two of my volunteering experience could not have been any more different if it tried.

We arrived at the L'Auberge des Migrants warehouse in Calais for the second day of volunteering on Sunday at 9am.

At the group meeting, volunteers were quickly assigned jobs for the day based on their skills. As soon as the leader asked, "Who's handy with a hammer and nails?", my arm shot up.

Four of us were picked and among us were an Englishman, a former plumber, plus two friendly Spanish people who now live in Bristol. I think I remember them saying they were both engineers once.

It turned out that we were off to one of the new camps in Dunkirk (Dunkerque as it's known in France) and without really knowing what to expect, other than I needed to quickly grab some gloves from the warehouse, off we went.

Because of all the media attention focusing on the Calais Jungle, it's easy to assume that's where the needs are, but the truth is that there are many refugee camps in the area outside of Calais.

Arriving at the Dunkirk refugee camp

Upon arriving I was struck by how peaceful, spacious and well organised the camp seemed. There was a portacabin with lockable shower cubicles near the main entrance, and I could see rows of wooden huts in the distance. I understand that this particular community at Dunkirk is predominantly Kurdish people - from Syria and Iraq.

One of the first things I saw in the Dunkirk refugee camp - a child, and a pram.

Wooden shelters at the Dunkirk refugee camp, and scrap wood

We had a briefing that the day's work would involve making preparations for an upcoming building and fire safety inspection (by the government, I assume). Specifically, we were to remove tarpaulin awnings in front of the houses and replace them with proper rooves and timber panels instead of plastic sheeting. Among us were many Germans, some Belgians, French people and a few Brits. Off we went.

The first job: removing tarpaulin and replacing with wood

On my first job of the day, I was offered coffee and cigarettes by a friendly family who lived in the hut we were working on. They had a one year old son and a two year old daughter and as I have a son of my own this resonated heavily with me so I really wanted to do a really good job for them. I was pleased to see that they had a gas burning stove inside the hut providing some comfort. While this isn't necessarily the safest place for that, I can understand why it was there - the morning air was chilling me, despite several layers of clothing. 

The huts, or shelters they were living in were impressive given that a lot of them have been built by volunteers. They were spartan, and simple, and looked like they were made of chipboard but as the sun came out the rows of them created the feeling they were almost like little neighbourhoods. Families looking out for each other and they created a feeling of order and calm in the camp. I'm sure it's a different story when rain is bucketing down and the wind is tearing into them, but at least on that day, the camp looked amazing.

Next thing I knew, I was babysitting a toddler.

For an hour or so, we fixed up the wall while another child about the same age as my own son pottered around us. He was incredibly cute, spent the entire time smiling and was the proud owner of an impressive mullet. When I say owner, he really owned that thing like an international footballer in a 1980s Panini sticker.

He was an absolute charmer, because to top it off, he had his face painted in white and pink, like a cat. I later found out that this had been done yesterday, so no doubt he must have spent the night being extremely careful to avoid smearing it - he was clearly very proud of his appearance.

I just couldn't get over how he was a toddler the same age as my son, but so different. Fearlessly independent, walking around with the confidence of a child twice his age, and I wondered where his mother was, or indeed if he even had one. I don't think I ever saw her and that still troubles me because there are hundreds of orphans inside these refugee camps.

Anyway, it was quite a job keeping him away from the various objects of interest, the hammer, saw, nails, and power screwdriver. After a close shave with him cheerfully swinging a piece of wood roughly the size of a baseball bat, with three oversized nails poking out of it, and it nearly smashing into my German colleague's skull, we were making good progress with the job.

I was then called away to help with putting a roof on another awning.

This is when I met Super Hans.

Hans, a long term volunteer at Dunkirk, from Belgium

Hans was a lovely guy, a tireless soul full of heart for what he was doing. A perfectionist and a really patient teacher when instructing on some of the trickier jobs, he was well respected among the volunteers and I could instantly see why. I found out he had been here since January and his home was in Belgium.

His other life was as a groundskeeper and handyman but it was clear that this was where he felt a duty and a sense of purpose to help people. I was to have many interactions with him over the course of the day and I regret not saying to him what an amazing job he had done at the camp. Hans, if you're reading this somehow, you are a legend.

On to the next job

My next job was removing a massive tarpaulin that covered the front of two huts, for fire safety reasons as I mentioned before. The families involved were understandably quite hesitant and anxious about this as it basically involved removing part of their outdoor kitchen area and exposing it to the elements. We reassured them it was for the best - and they could see that some of their neighbours' shelters had already been done and looked great, so it made sense and they agreed to let us work.

Removing a tarpaulin with a new friend
It was here I met X, I think he had been a professional footballer back in Iraq and he was helping me work on his hut with great enthusiasm. His next door neighbour winked at me, and in a mixture of Kurdish and broken English, she explained that he was a bit of a nutter. Although to be fair, I already gathered that - because it was a job making sure the old roof of the awning didn't fall on my head while he sawed through it and smashed it with a crowbar with a maniacal glint in his eye. He was a character, that was for sure!

Then I played tennis.

I was looking for one of the volunteers and couldn't believe my eyes because there was a makeshift tennis court with nets, and kids crowded around it. 'X' was also there having a great time looking like he was up to more mischief, and this is where I also met Steve Verkouter, a Belgian guy who runs his own TennisDreams charit,y and had previously been doing it in Africa for two years. It was quickly apparent with all the kids running around that Steve was a popular and well known figure in the camp, and the children clearly enjoyed his improvised game of hitting balls high in the air while they jostled to catch them in their containers.

Steve Verkouter of TennisDreams

Kids enjoying an improvised catching game with Steve Verkouter / TennisDreams

I've now found out that Steve is struggling for funds to keep going, so do have a look at his Facebook page to see the work he does and support him if you can.
It wasn't long before I was invited to play a game of doubles on the makeshift tennis court and as a fan of the sport this was an offer I couldn't refuse. Not easy when the ball bounces sideways off a rock, but we enjoyed it and I imagine it gave our opponents ten minutes of fun in the mid March sunshine and a reminder of happier times at home. One of them was pretty good in fact, and we had a couple of nice rallies, topspin fizzing, with the ball coming back faster every time until he fell foul of the cursed rocks. We all laughed at his misfortune.

An afternoon's work

Then it was back to work, and I was now to secure wood panels against a frame that had been put up that morning to support a roof, and try to make them airtight. This is a satisfying job, and a lot of fun when you get it right so I found the time passed quickly. I was grateful for the DeWalt cordless screwdriver that made the job easy.

Screwing in wall panels to the frame of an awning

The job nearly finished. It was satisfying work.

The whole time, the people in the vicinity were warm to me, and had quite a distracting sense of humour and mischief with one another. I invited them to help me screw in the panels and they were delighted to. After all, these were their homes - and I'm not a qualified builder, so why should it only fall on my hands? Many hands made light work, and it was soon 5pm.

There was a Kurdish festival that evening so various interesting things were going on. Kids were clambering up a steep slope and sliding down it and had built a beacon - I think this was going to be set on fire later as part of the celebrations.

Kids playing with spare wood from around camp - making a beacon

I grabbed a lift back to Calais with a French guy, Denis. A great guy and if you're reading this, Denis, thanks for putting up with my terrible efforts at speaking French. He told me that he had been here two weeks. He worked for the first week in the kitchens of the L'Auberge des Migrants warehouse, preparing food for the different camps. But now he was on construction duty, which he loved. His reason for being there was simple, he wanted to contribute to a better France.

So that was it, my time as a volunteer was up. It was nothing like what I had imagined, I'd been left to my own devices for several hours in the Dunkirk camp and never felt uneasy about that because of the warmth the people gave me, despite their lives being completely upside down. I really came away feeling like I had made a meaningful difference on both days.

Final thoughts

If you live in England, particularly in the London or south east, I would highly recommend you go over and help out, because it's easy for you to get there, and you'd be able to make a big impact even over just a weekend. If you want to know how to volunteer in Dunkirk or Calais, there are some links for you below with more information.

It was said by many volunteers that with parts of the Jungle camp being demolished by authorities, it's assumed now that there's no longer a need for volunteers. Far from it. New refugees are arriving every day, new camps like the Dunkirk one are being set up, and the situation in the Jungle is still grim.

You can still make a very meaningful difference by taking a warehouse job, so you don't have to be a builder - there's endless sorting and packing of donations to do, and these are then sent out often on the same day, you can read about this in my previous post.

For example, my wife was busy in the warehouse preparing boxes of clothing and other essentials for men. She said she really enjoyed it and got really into the selection process - being really careful to put together items and outfits that would work well together and hopefully surprise the recipients.

After our experience of volunteering for the weekend, it's safe to say we would love to go back.

Thanks for reading, and I hope this was a useful guide.

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Useful links

Calaidipedia - news on the Dunkirk camp and things they need. For example, anyone with construction skills is particularly useful because there are many more shelters that need to be built.

Utopia  - a French charity responsible for a lot of the work and aid that happens in the Dunkirk camp. Access to it is quite limited by French authorities, but organisations like L'Auberge des Migrants (who I volunteered with) have a long established relationship with Utopia, and supply it with a great deal of food, tools and workers. The L'Auberge warehouse is a key distribution point for the aid that comes in.

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)

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

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.

Dunkirk Refugee Solidarity Facebook page - Much like the above, a community hub of information, lift shares, and news particularly relating to volunteering in Dunkirk.


  1. Thanks for sharing this - it's really interesting. I'd love to do something to help and I'd always thought you'd have to commit to more than a couple of days :)


  2. This is a good experience. Helping people is always positive. But such work requires physical strength and care. I advise you to immediately take the medication in case of overvoltage and fatigue - CBD Lozenges 5mg Orange | Full Spectrum | 25 Per Tin | Provacan This is a good herbal remedy for quick pain relief. I prefer to use this as it has a long-lasting analgesic effect.


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