At the end of May, four people from St Paul's Church, Dorking's World Church Team, spent a day volunteering at the French refugee camps. Here you can read extracts from their diaries, recounting their individual perspectives doing different tasks at the camps.
Their full diaries, together with more information about what they found out and a quick guide to volunteering are available on the St Paul’s website.
They intend to return on 28 August hopefully with a larger group - could you join them?
The early start was not my preference, but we left Dorking at 4am arriving at Folkestone in plenty of time for a swift cuppa before the 6.20 train. The other side, the drive was short and we got to the camp far too early, and really spent nearly two hours doing nothing much, which was a bit of a disappointment.
There were about 60 volunteers – none of us having any idea what the day would be about. When it was asked if anyone had a van I put my hand up for having an MPV with seats that can be taken out – this put me in the team of people to distribute clothes at the ‘official illegal’ camp in Dunkirk. This team was led by a tall, lanky, young man called Alex, who it turned out was a graphics designer, but saw his work in Calais as his ‘job’. We got on the road at 11.30am heading for Dunkirk which was about 25 minutes away, with a car full of boxes and bags.
We arrived to a heavy police blockade and told we were not allowed in and had to go to a parking place just round the corner. After quite a few attempts and refused entries, we had to carry each box and bag over one ditch, across the main road, over another ditch and several hundred yards into the Dunkirk camp. Fortunately, we seconded enough helpers and it was not as bad as it first seemed – but it all took time, and it was 1pm before we got one carload of clothes to the camp.
The next step was to hand out the items to the refugees. From the inside of a shipping container, which we locked from the inside, we gave out trousers from one ‘window’, and personal hygiene items, including boxer shorts, hats, scarfs and gloves, from another. During this process, two people were outside to make sure the refugees didn’t abuse the process and to watch out for trouble. There wasn’t any, but if there had been, then our instructions were to close the windows and stay inside the container until we were ‘rescued’ by reinforcements. I suspect that in the Calais camp this would be a more likely occurrence given the heightened level of tension there.
The refugees were all lovely people; none of them would fit into the category of people I wouldn’t invite home
At just after 2pm we had lunch – same as the refugees: bean stew, rice, salad and a piece of cake, served in disposable polystyrene trays with plastic spoons. It was OK – not what I would want every day, but in Alex’s mind the food was excellent. There was a big crowd of police, photographers and several ranks of dignitaries walking round the camp – in the middle of which was the Minister of the Interior.
At 3pm we repeated the hand-out process, then packed what wasn’t given out back into bags and boxes and headed back to the Calais warehouse.
The refugees were all lovely people; none of them would fit into the category of people I wouldn’t invite home, and some came across as real gentlemen.
My role for the day was dry/canned food parcel prep. We made up 10-man, 4-man and 2-man parcels up in this section of the warehouse. This happens each day for a different area (in relation to cultures/ countries) of the camp.
The team from L’auberge warehouse liaise with community leaders within the camp to find out what the needs are. Specific numbers of packs are then made up. First job was preparing spice bags e.g . fresh ginger, salt, stock/herbs – this is to ensure they have what is required to cook the type of food they would normally eat in their home country. The team in the warehouse usually try to get a day ahead with making up the food parcels.
Food bags are filled with the following peas, beans, tinned toms, popcorn, cereal bar, etc, flour, rice. Donations are sent in bulk or smaller amounts are donated. Then required extra food is bought with monetary donations made via crowd funding page.
On Sundays the team visit specific areas top deliver urgently needed food items but general food distribution sometimes can take up to 9pm. Despite this, on the white board above right are listed both love and morale as being in good supply.
After a trouble-free trip through the tunnel, we were straight into the outskirts of Calais with no sign of a single refugee. A warehouse behind metal gates, much like many others, but to one side around 20 caravans house the long-term volunteers (courtesy of http://caravansforcalais.org.uk/). The address is only issued to volunteers when confirmed, to avoid any unwelcome interest in the site.
We arrived at 8.15am, waited until there were a few signs of life – frustrating when we were anxious to get started, but for those living in the caravans, with one mobile shower to queue for, the late start was probably understandable. A quick registration form to fill at the hut by the gate (decorated by a healthy hanging basket ironically).
The 9am briefing (at around 9.45am), started with a warm up (stretches, building up to star jumps!) in the yard, then a talk about security, and how only those who had been there for a week or more got to go to any of the camps. Recently, there has been trouble between Afghan and Sudanese refugees, leading to a huge fire, destroying many of the tents in the camp. This had followed the French authorities “downsizing” the camp with the help of bulldozers. Migrants have thus been effectively squashed together, heightening tensions.
Then we were asked where our skills lay – I put my hand up for wielding a knife without endangering my own or other lives. I sincerely hoped this would put me in the kitchen, having had training in catering many years ago; and indeed all those years of washing up for the family really prepared me for my task – though not for the size and quantity of the items we were washing. Makeshift kitchens were preparing around 1,800 lunches daily. A large table was surrounded by volunteers from 14 years old upwards, preparing huge plastic boxes of mixed dressed salad.
Behind a roof-high shelving unit (packed with the raw ingredients for the lunches, bags of rice, boxes of garlic, catering bottles of oil…) were three young men tending to a row of enormous saucepans containing lunch – a bean stew that would later include potato, aubergine and courgette, and vats of boiling rice. I joined Lucy (40ish English lady but based in Barcelona) and Conner (early 20s) on washing-up duty.
The camaraderie was great, Lucy and I soon chatting like old friends, with the knowledge that we were working towards a common cause. Conner being young and physically fit was in great demand to huge lift saucepans. Unfortunately, at around 11am the hot water ran out, and the tank takes 4 hours to heat up. Not easy to clean the pots, serving dishes etc, but we managed.
You do not ask these dedicated people "Are you here permanently?" If you do, the reply is instant: “No, just till the camps close.”
The kitchen area has obviously been donated catering-standard equipment. Yes, the cooking is on floor-level Calor gas burners, but the oven would be at home in a top restaurant – a donation by the church of Latter Day Saints apparently. Stainless steel serving dishes began to be rapidly filled with the delicious smelling vegetarian stew and with rice from around 11am. Vans of various advanced ages were backed up to the doors and volunteers loaded them with the hot food and with salad. They were then driven to various locations in the camps at Calais and Dunkirk.
At the sound of a bell, the volunteers were served with their lunches. Around 60 to 80 of us, all cheerful, friendly, chatting. A bit like queueing for school dinner, but with a lot more jollity. It was tasty and served on an assortment of china (which I subsequently washed up).
After some time with the chopping team, peeling a large box of garlic, I went back to the sink, and watched Spike, the “head chef” pour huge quantities of garlic into the clean pans to start the next day’s lunch. With no formal catering training, he learnt to cook in small pubs and restaurants, and is in Calais for at least the summer, cooking for nearly 2,000 a day with two other sous chefs – Paul, who put on a CD with him playing and singing over speakers (watch for him on Britain’s Got Talent in the future) and a Scottish guy referring to himself as the 'Rice King', alluding to his main duty.
Some food is donated – a notice on the wall asked for anybody coming from the Paris region to collect free onions from a farm there. Financial donations are used to buy the other ingredients. They have no spare money for meat – in any case many of the migrants are vegetarian for religious reasons. Spike chatted to me while working, his dedication and acquired skill was impressive. These attitudes seemed to be widespread – the lady in charge of the kitchen has been there for months, going home for just a couple of weeks’ break. You do not ask these dedicated people "Are you here permanently?" If you do, the reply is instant: “No, just till the camps close.”
My reply to those who asked did I enjoy it? Enjoy is the wrong word, it was an unforgettable experience, and one I will be happy to repeat, after all “there but for the Grace of God go I.”
Waking up at 3am for this trip cemented my dislike of early morning starts as I predictably forgot things and had to return home, holding up our snoozy exit from Dorking. Once on the way though our journey proceeded smoothly and we reached our destination almost too early. None of us knew what to expect as I don’t think we fully appreciated the size of the operation there. To arrive at a set of three co-joined warehouses and learn that the actual camp was a 15-minute drive away was a surprise but then again what did I think – that we could just turn up to a huge refugee camp and walk in just like that?
I think that the second surprise for me was that everyone there seemed to speak English, more than that, seemed British. The charity is proactive in manning the warehouse and sourcing volunteers such as ourselves who mainly seemed to comprise earnest good-hearted youngsters in their early twenties with a mainly left-wing attitude to life and their situation.
This brings me to the third surprise which is the passion of these youngsters, they are highly informed and highly motivated individuals who are full of compassion for their fellow human beings. I can’t seem to remember such a drive among my generation when we were that young, so perhaps the flow of information and the ease of access with blogs and news which can be read through internet enables the true nature of a geo-political issue such as refugee and people flow to be understood in a far more real way. The girl who gave us an introduction to the situation spoke with such passion and commitment rarely seen in even the most ardent of activists and helped bring home the underlying realities of the refugees plight; ‘read what you will in the papers but every human has his or her own personal tragedy which they have to bear’ was the gist of it.
Read what you will in the papers but every human has his or her own personal tragedy which they have to bear.
From here we were allotted our tasks for the day, I got assigned to check the tents, despite not really having a whole lot of tent erecting experience. Due to the latest trouble in the camp there was an urgent need for tent housing as many had lost their accommodation due to arson. My job along with Lynn and Kirsten was to erect the donated tents and check them for mould, rips or anything that would render them unfit for long-term use. In the warehouse a huge pile of them lay in the middle of the floor and it became clear that whatever we did would only make a small dent in what actually needed to be accomplished.
We set to, and soon discovered that the majority of tents were not fit for purpose, several having clearly suffered at the hands of negligent festival goers, still holding rubbish inside and being damp and mouldy. Clearly these people think they are doing a good thing in donating old tents but the reality is they are good for the skip only, so that is what I did, drag them out and throw them out. I guess nearly 1 in 4 was good and these we separated and organised into sizes according to the number they would house.
The issue of how we donate our second-hand goods became stark too when looking at the clothing side, here most of the clothes given were either too large or inappropriate for refugees to wear. When we give our used clothing we have to think very carefully about our motivation behind giving, are we just getting rid of stuff we don’t want anymore, or are we giving stuff which we genuinely think that another person would be happy to receive and wear/live in? The charity has to pay for a lot of these bad tents and clothes to be taken away hence it would have been better if some people had never given!
As we neared the end of our shift we had an order come in for as many large tents as we could manage i.e. 4-6 man size. We loaded up a trolley and thought of how our small efforts would result in a few more people having a dry night given the inclement weather.
Certain situations feel like they need all hands on deck, this is one of them and absolutely anyone, whether young or old, can help in some way here. Where several thousand of the most marginalised and oppressed people in the world today need help in so many ways, we need to be asking what would Jesus do rather than forming a judgement based on our media which gives us pitifully little news on the reality of the situation here in France.