Having wanted to visit and help out at the refugee camps in Calais since I first learnt about them years ago, I finally got my act together in the Christmas run up and used my CSR days to get myself down to the 'Warehouse' to muck in and do what I could to help.
I got the tube to Kennington where I met Lucille, my French carpool driver whom I had found on Blablacar. I shoved my rucksack full of donated clothes into the boot and squeezed in the back, alongside three other French carpoolers. A mere £10, 3 hour journey and several packets of langues de chat and Palmiers later and I had arrived in Calais.
My first day started with a wobble, my caravan denied me a hot shower (good for the soul though eh!?) and I didn't have time for a coffee or porridge before jumping in the van to the warehouse, but good things come to those who wait. Justine, a PHD student working in Calais whilst completing her thesis, and my caravan roommate and driver, explained the lack of anything working properly in the van, including no doorhandles and all the warning lights flashing on the dashboard, 'we're trying to fix the most pressing problems first' she explained in her thick French-Canadian accent, throwing me a cheeky wink.
Upon arriving at the Warehouse, I was met with dozens of chirpy, buzzing volunteers, catching up about last night's antics and what lay in store for the day. I fixed myself up a sweet Eritrean coffee, tore off some donated Panettone (for the volunteers, don't judge me) and followed the crowd outside for the morning briefing.
Josh, one of the site managers took the floor and, before setting out what's what for the new arrivals, led the morning stretch and warm up to help break the ice and warm the bones on this frosty morning. With about 6 different charities sharing the Warehouse as their base, there are a myriad of jobs to try your hand at, so I pounced on the wood chopping.
A day of sorting, chopping, bagging and loading wood into vans was a welcome change for me. Over 4 tonnes of palettes are chopped each day as firewood for the refugees as it's bitingly cold in Calais during the day and often below zero at night. There's an incredible atmosphere all over the warehouse, as all the volunteers chop and change where they work throughout their day according to what's needed, and what they fancy.
Refugee Community Kitchen is an incredible charity that, since their founding 3 years ago, have served 2,637,500 meals to 45,000 people. Keen to learn how to cook their excellent Dahl recipe I'd heard was coming up for lunch, I got involved on my second day in the kitchen but sadly wasn't made sous chef. I was tasked with sorting the stale donated bread and croissants from the fresh ones, a tough task when your eyes are bigger than your mouth (not one fresh one touched my teeth FYI).
I was then asked to attend a distribution, apparently because I'm a tall man, and would be setting off in an hour or so from then. During the pre-'distro' briefing, we were told about the current situation in the camps, how the police could turn up and potentially act, and how to evacuate should things escalate.
The previous week our team leader had had to evacuate the team because a scuffle had broken out and a knife was drawn on another refugee. This apparently is not uncommon, due to the severity of the situation, the poor living conditions, bitterly cold and wet weather (leading to more drinking), arguments and scuffles between refugees often break out. My team leader was visibly apprehensive about the distro as it was her first since the incident, during which she had been threatened, but was professional and open when discussing this with us.
We loaded the van with 60kg of rice, 20kg of Green Dahl, 50L of Kurdhish Tea and set off. As we neared the location we passed dozens of men huddled around fires, quickly standing up to wave at us with beaming smiles and quickly following suit. Having parked up, a few Iranian guys immediately started to help us set up the tables and dispensers, they knew the drill inside out. In military-style efficiency we served 300 meals in about 90 minutes, filling up each container as much as they asked for.
Some refugees spoke great English and would strike up conversation about the rice not quite matching their heavenly Persian rice back home, or asking which football team I support. The atmosphere was calm and it was striking how dignified and respectful everyone was in spite of the harsh living conditions. We finished up serving, packed down, cleaned up, and after a quick kickabout (including an assist from myself for the Iranian team in their World Cup qualifier match) we returned to the warehouse.
Over two years have passed since the demolition of 'Jungle' camp in Calais and despite having fewer refugees than the 8,000 or so at its peak in 2016, approximately 600 are thought to be living in various areas around Calais. Worse still is the fact that since the camp was demolished, there has been no formal, legal accommodation for the refugees, so living conditions are worse than ever.
Neither French nor UK governments are willing to take the lead to resolve this issue, hence the need for charities such as Utopia 56 and Help Refugees to step in to prevent the situation worsening yet still. With practically no state support, these charities are overwhelmed with the demands to provide sufficient aid to the migrants and have suffered recently from lack of media coverage which helps to garner donations and volunteers.
Increasingly fiery rhetoric from both French and British Home Office Ministers hasn't assuaged fears of the situation worsening, so these charities desperately need support more than ever. Whilst I was there, around 50 volunteers were on hand to help across the various departments, from sorting clothing, to tent repair, to cooking. Post-Christmas, charity and volunteering often goes amiss from peoples' priorities, and this coincides with the toughest months of the year for the refugees. After 3 days in Calais, I returned by coach to London, determined to return in February with a car of donations and a resolve to tell others about the current situation especially due to the lack of media attention.
There is a humanitarian crisis happening on our doorstep, and we need to act to resolve it. More and more refugees are making desperate and dangerous attempts to make it to the UK, often ending in tragedy. The media may think that the public has lost the appetite for it but I wanted to make aware those people who have the heart to help how easy it is to get involved and make a difference.
Take a look at Help Refugees website and for more information on how to help, or feel free to get in touch directly with Pete at Pete@charitypeople.co.uk.