After reading about others making solidarity trips to the refugee camp in Calais, my friend and fellow Unite Community member Stuart and I decided to do our own visit, taking over a van load of donations and staying to volunteer for a few days.
We had fantastic support from people, raising sponsorship from Unite and lots of individuals, as well as donations of equipment and practical help making food parcels. We also get lots of excellent advice when researching the trip through various Facebook groups and L’Auberge des Migrants, a French volunteer organisation.
We have to leave a lot of stuff behind as we are over the weight limit for my camper van, but eventually manage to set off at 6am one November morning with only the most essential donations. It’s really windy and a dodgy window on the van causes some concern but is resolved by begging gaffer tape off lorry drivers in a lay-by. We make it onto Eurotunnel only slightly late, the border police search the van when they hear we are volunteering, but only in a cursory way and are not unpleasant.
On arrival we spend an hour or so getting lost in Calais, but finally make it to the warehouse to unload. It’s getting near knocking off time when we arrive but we get all the donations moved to the relevant part of the warehouse. A visit to the toilets round the back – Glastonbury long drop style – reveals a few people staying in caravans, so we decide to park up there as well, ready to start work in the morning.
Volunteers meet at the warehouse at 9am, and first order of the day is warm-up exercises and an introduction to how things work around the place. The more long-standing volunteers are identifiable by orange hi-viz jackets, the rest of us are in yellow, but they are at pains to point out that there is no hierarchy, everyone is welcome to suggest improvements.
The majority of volunteers only stay for a short period, and today most of us are here for the first time. We soon discover that it doesn’t take long to become a veteran – some orange jacketed people have been here for a grand total of one week. It’s a good, co-operative atmosphere. Snacks at break times and lunch are provided, everyone is made to feel welcome.
Inside the warehouse it seems pretty chaotic at first. Most noticeable is the mountain of unsorted donations.
Many, many donations arrive like this, not sorted or just split into men’s / women’s or similar – all of them end up in this pile. Someone then has the tedious job of going through them all and separating into men’s trousers, men’s t-shirts, etc; followed by another round of sorting into small, medium and large sizes. Same goes for shoes, coats… All this takes up lots of space and time – it’s immediately obvious that loads of volunteer time would be freed up if this stuff was sorted in the UK by people who want to help but aren’t able to come to Calais.
Stuart and I are put on the “lucky bags” team, getting boxes of pre-sorted clothes and bagging them up to contain a jumper, t-shirts, socks, pants, hat, scarf and gloves, to be distributed to refugees in the camp. At various points I also work on hygiene packs, made up of toothbrushes / toothpaste, razors and shaving foam, soap, shampoo and the like; and welcome packs including a sleeping bag, torch, clothes etc. Again, all stuff that could be done in the UK freeing up valuable volunteer time.
Then there are the items that are not fit to be worn, and the ridiculous stuff – the high heels, the dinner suit complete with protective cover, the improbable hats, the wine glasses, the empty unwashed marmalade jars. Loads and loads of kids’ stuff is donated, far more than can be used by the number of children and babies in the camp. I spend an hour or so at one point tipping items that have just arrived straight into “cash for clothes” bags – at least then a bit of money is raised, but it seems such a waste that people have filled vans with this stuff and spent money on petrol to bring it over.
On Thursday afternoon I’m trying to tidy up the area near the front of the warehouse that has got overwhelmed with random arrivals. With a few of us on the case it gets done, and by the end of the day the place is looking a lot better. It turns out that the fire in camp the week before had created some turmoil in the warehouse, with an urgent need to get donations distributed in camp to people who’ve lost everything in their shelter. There can be lots of volunteers at weekends but less during the week, so it’s good to be back on top of things in time for the weekend rush.
By Friday I’m a one day veteran, and am able to be a bit more proactive as more and more people arrive, helping them unload and getting the donations to the right area. I’m a bit embarrassed when one woman catches me “cash for clothesing” the stuff she’s just brought – but she takes it in her stride and understands she needs to focus on different items next time.
I feel like I’ve learnt loads that can be taken back to the UK through the warehouse work, and am pleased to have tried out a variety of jobs so know how it’s done when I get back. But we’re keen to get down to the Jungle itself now – with all respect to the warehouse team, the people who supported our trip will want to hear about the refugees themselves rather than the volunteers supporting them. We start to frequently remind the orange jackets that we want to go on a distribution trip, and when the call finally comes early on Friday afternoon we drop what we’re doing in the warehouse and leap into action.
There are six of us in the distribution team and we’re first given a briefing on how it will work. The driver will stay in his van, and once the back doors are opened two people stand on each side at the back, flanking the middle person who is giving out the packs to people in the line. Without people on the flanks the refugees start to all crowd around the back of the van, it can get chaotic and some people start to take more than their fair share, it’s altogether more dignified if everything happens in an orderly way.
We drive quite a way into the camp before selecting a distribution point, so I have a chance to form some first impressions. There is a main drag strung with lighting; restaurants and shops have been constructed using wooden frames and tarpaulins – some look better stocked than the shops near my home in Sheffield. Behind and in between these there are a lot of tents but also quite a lot of small shacks, they too have been built using a wooden frame and tarp. Lots of people are chatting away on mobiles and one guy is polishing his windows. It’s all far more structured than I’d expected. Maybe it’s the association with those long drop toilets, but I’m actually reminded of Glastonbury – a rain-sodden mudbath of a Glastonbury, as although it’s dry now it’s been periodically lashing it down over the previous 24 hours.
We decide where to distribute and immediately some refugees come up to the van, calling out, “line, line” and getting into a queue. Hearing this more refugees start to join the queue, we’ve got the back doors open and I’m handing out the lucky bags. These all look pretty much the same so no-one’s trying to swap or holding out for a different item. Everyone is good-natured – one boy of maybe 14 keeps trying to come back for another pack but we’ve got his number and turn him away with a smile and a joke. When the packs run out some people are left disappointed but no-one gets cross. The line seems to be self-policing and the whole thing takes less than 15 minutes.
Pleased that it’s gone so quickly, the driver suggests we have a look around for half an hour and everyone is up for it. We go to park the van a little bit away from the Jungle then walk back in.
We visit a building called the information centre, which amongst other things gives out advice on asylum matters in the UK. This is right up Stuart’s street, and straight away he gets pulled into conversation with the volunteers there about UK asylum law. The others head off to the nearby library, and I pop out shortly after them to make sure I can see where they’re going, the other side of the church.
Just as I’ve spotted them, two teenage boys approach me anxiously; they are trying to call an ambulance for a woman in a nearby shack, but have very little French or English. Her boyfriend has to help her into her trainer so she can hobble out to show me what is wrong, her leg is clearly giving her a lot of pain. I have a long garbled conversation on their phone with the ambulance operator in English, the upshot of which is that we need to get her to one of the entrances and call again with the correct street name.
Stuart has caught up with me by this time and is on the case checking we are doing the right thing, getting the street name and ringing the ambulance again as she makes her way slowly and painfully to the entrance, reluctantly leaning on her boyfriend and me when she needs to. This has all taken some time and we know the others will be worrying so Stuart goes off to explain, they’re coming out later on another distribution and will pick us up in an hour. The ambulance arrives and the Eritrean woman is driven off, her boyfriend having to trudge back into camp.
We go on a bit of a wander, check out the library and chat to the people volunteering there. I consider using the toilets but the couple I look in are as bad as the worst Glasto toilet you ever saw. We are frequently greeted by refugees with smiles and hellos and handshakes, beckoned into restaurants. A young woman asks us if we can get her a suitcase, she wants to leave this place and go to another country but she needs a suitcase. We explain we don’t have one, maybe she could ask when another distribution team comes in and she quickly abandons us, no use to her.
After an hour darkness is edging in so we call the driver. He’s back in camp and explains that they’re in the middle of a jumper distribution, but it’s getting a bit hairy and he wants to call a halt – he’ll pick us up at the entrance. Ten minutes later here’s his van – with several refugees on top of it, a few more clinging to the back and more following behind – “line, line!” He says he’ll pick us up a bit further away from the camp, some of his distribution crew are still in the jungle; Stuart and another volunteer go back to find them while I catch up with the van, now well out of camp, but with 30 or so refugees still around it. Everyone seems good-humoured – they don’t even want jumpers, they want shoes, they want coats, they want a lift to London, to Paris, maybe Italy? We’re trying to stay jokey and light-hearted but it’s dark now and it all feels a bit intimidating, we’re relieved when the other volunteers finally show up, perform a slightly frantic synchronised leap into the van and scoot off.
Lots of us meet up later in the pub and exchange stories and thoughts, there’s been too much going on today to process it all for now, so it’s good to relax a bit and get to know some other folk. A pint of wine is cheaper than a pint of Stella, this is my kind of place!
Next morning my plan is to join the clean-up crew in the Jungle for the day, but after a bit of confusion (not because of the wine surely) the lift I grab is headed for the warehouse not the camp. I immediately volunteer for a distribution going out, now a two day veteran. It’s the van of jumpers from the night before, but now many people are in bed after being up all night trying to jump the trucks, so we can take a bit more time over it, ensuring people get the right size and a bit of choice. It’s blowing a gale and freezing cold with rain coming in. Some of the refugees are wearing flimsy sandals but we have no shoes with us – one volunteer whips off his own socks to give to a young guy in just a pair of flipflops.
We hand out most of the jumpers then I search out the clean up crew. They’re working in a section where most tents have collapsed and been abandoned; every piece of rubbish that I pick up reveals another three. It’s now started to piss it down and after half an hour I’m soaked and have made sod all impact.
Muttering vaguely about catching up later, I head off to see if the Eritrean woman from yesterday is back from hospital. Her boyfriend is worried, she’s not come back, he wants to go to the hospital to see her. I spend the next hour toing and froing, finding a medic who offers to drive him but doesn’t know the way, trying to find a map; her French speaking colleague offers to phone the hospital, so I go back to the boyfriend to get her name, but it’s not recognised by the hospital, back to get a date of birth (she’s 17), still not recognised and, defeated, back to the boyfriend to apologise, I cannot find anything out. He is downcast but thanks me anyway.
I’m fed up at this failure and need to do something practical to keep going. The Ashram cafe has enough people helping out already, but a woman there hands me a bag full of tent pegs and a hammer. Tents and tarps are flying about all over the place, many beyond repair and having to be abandoned. For the next few hours I’m roaming the camp helping people to fix what’s salvageable.
The weather is still filthy, even the more solidly built structures are affected, the roof is coming off the library, but many people are out working, rescuing tents, getting on with their building projects. I help out various people, too much wind and rain and not enough language in common to get into proper conversations, but plenty of handshakes and smiles and good to feel useful again. A group of Iraqi men are delighted to see a claw hammer, they use it to get the nails out of a pallet to re-use on the shack extension they are building. One of them who has better English turns out to be from Middlesbrough, here visiting family members.
If there is one big thing I take from this visit it is the determination and resourcefulness of the refugees throughout camp, who carry on working despite the weather, making use of whatever resources are to hand, creating order out of mayhem. Before the visit what kept me awake at night was worrying about facing up to the misery and desperation of the refugee crisis, but on the ground I can only admire the grit and ingenuity on display – if I were faced with their circumstances I think I’d be curled up in a ball whining, but they just get on with it, usually with a grin. The pep talks at the warehouse about how to respond to people in the Jungle are by the by once in camp – it’s not about volunteers bestowing dignity, the refugees simply command respect. If Cameron and his ilk only want people entering the UK who will bring skills and work their arses off, you really couldn’t get better than these guys.
In pub conversations with other volunteers, we reflect that the Jungle may actually be a step up for many people there – in their home country they may well have been living in shacks or slums and in poverty – at least here they’re not being shot at or bombed. Others have come from better off circumstances, driven by war out of their professional roles and apartments, and of course I’ve only seen a fraction of what’s going on in camp, but just getting this far requires immense perseverance.
One encounter in particular makes my pre-visit white privilege angst seem a tad ridiculous. An Eritrean guy stops me for some pegs, I offer him the hammer but he says he lives too far away, that’s ok so we set off and on the way he explains his wife is pregnant, in between apologising for the distance.
We arrive at one of the little wooden-framed shacks and he sets to work with hammer and pegs to an adjoining tent, insisting I go inside to meet his wife. As he said she is pregnant, so has been afforded an actual mattress and decent blankets. She’s pinned more blankets to the walls and at one end of the narrow strip of floor space has set up a little table, on which are laid out her toiletries and comb (and a candle in a jar – eek). The carpet covering the rest of the floor is a most attractive Bradford City AFC sleeping bag. I’m afraid my boots will besmirch it but she has a cardboard mat to protect it. It’s proper cosy. We make some limited small talk, how many months pregnant, how many months in the camp, and she gives me a custard cream. She couldn’t be more gracious and hospitable.
The afternoon wears on, I haven’t planned a lift back anywhere and am a bit wary of it getting dark after the previous evening, so around 4 I decide that’s it for the day, return the hammer and head off. As I’m walking out the best thing happens – the Eritrean boyfriend comes running up, his girlfriend is home, and here she is, she’s had a night at the hospital and been dosed up with antibiotics, she looks loads better and we share a hug. As I leave I’m elated that I got to find out the ending to that little story.
While this high remains throughout the walk back to my van, which I’ve considerably under-estimated and takes an hour, I also get a reminder that the situation isn’t going to go away – 15 minutes out of camp a group of new arrivals stop me to ask for directions to the jungle. New people are arriving all the time, the camp has doubled in size over the last few months.
In the evening we meet volunteers who’ve been out to Dunkirk, where another camp is building up, composed mainly of Kurdish people. There is much less structure there, the stories really are of desperation and misery, of women and children drenched by the rain and not even a tent to shelter in. As in the Jungle there are no aid agencies on the ground, just the likes of us doing our amateur best to help out*.
I can’t pretend to represent the views of any refugees as the conversations I had were short and limited by the language barrier, but I have to make a couple of very obvious political points. Despite my earlier comparisons, the camp is nowhere near the size of Glastonbury. It’s a few thousand people, less than one for each town in the UK. And yes, of course more will come, especially as the bombs keep dropping; so there is absolutely no point playing the numbers game, the boundaries are constantly shifting . Open the borders across Europe and start working together to enable everyone to contribute to our society. I really can’t see any alternative – the current situation means refugees have no choices open to them, so for god’s sake let’s get on with the job of getting people settled and stop with the “not enough room” nonsense and anti-refugee rhetoric.
* Doctors of the World UK provide a clinic in the Calais camp and are amongst the refugee charities being supported by the Guardian’s 2015 Charity Appeal.
So yes, then the van exploded. We didn’t see it, others did, we’re told it was loud, there was a fireball when the petrol tank blew, the firefighters were heroic; one woman was cowering in a stairwell expecting the shooting to start.
I later realise that the explosion must have taken place at the time we were chatting away in the pub with a guy I’d met earlier at the warehouse, where he’d taken an interest in the van, tightening up a loose light fitting, chastising me for not cleaning it, recommending a website for a replacement window. A guy called Boomer, as it happens.
We just arrive back to the charred remnants.
Most likely the fire was set by thieves breaking in and burning it down for the fun of it, though we can’t rule out more sinister motives. But pointless to speculate, as the French police couldn’t be less interested.
We’re somewhat shell-shocked the morning after the van getting torched, and upset to find out that there has been a fire at the camp also, destroying 50 shelters. As usual this was probably caused by a candle. We get lots of support from other volunteers and a lift to the ferry; after some delay and form-filling because our passports have been burnt or stolen we’re on the ferry, and my partner has thankfully driven all the way to Dover to collect us on the other side.
Back in Sheffield I’m still processing everything and am distressed to read that the camp fire was in the Eritrean section; someone has posted on Facebook about a pregnant lady who has been made homeless, and I’m not sure if it’s the same lady who welcomed me into her home (have since found out it was a different pregnant lady, but no means of knowing whether the Eritrean people I met were affected by the fire). In this context the loss of the van feels like small beer, although the loss of our passports means we can’t go back to Calais as quickly as we’d like.
And we will definitely be going back. My circumstances won’t allow me to go for as long on each visit, but we can certainly do shorter trips and have the knowledge to make them as useful as possible.
Spreading the word here in the UK is also vital, building solidarity amongst our communities, getting practical advice out to those who visit Calais, and campaigning for political change.
Have you been inspired to go to Calais by this? We hope so. If so the information below will be useful. We plan to make regular trips from Sheffield to Calais, sometimes with one vehicle, perhaps a small convoy. If you want to find out when we plan to go next email firstname.lastname@example.org, leave a message via this website, follow @SYMAAG on Twitter or have a look at our Facebook page.
I’m not going to name all the brilliant volunteers we came across in Calais because I will inevitably forget someone, but what a great group of people, so pleased to have met you all. Since we came home many are already busy raising more funds and planning to go back, so I hope we will meet again.
This page is really aimed at those who are thinking of going over to volunteer for the first time, with some thoughts on where your time is best placed and some practical tips.
Firstly, do research your trip properly. There is loads of great advice available on the various Facebook groups dedicated to UK-Calais solidarity (all links on next page) – people there will answer any questions you have. If you’re taking donations over please please please make sure it’s the right kind of stuff and is properly sorted.
If like me you are a novice at such things, I really recommend working with l’Auberge des Migrants who manage the warehouse. The warehouse work isn’t particularly glamorous and it can be frustrating to be doing stuff that could be done in the UK, but it’s great for getting an understanding of how donations are used, meeting other people and for getting experienced people alongside you when you visit the Jungle itself. They know how things work in camp and how to get donations to the people who need them most, as well as the general distributions.
If you have construction skills to offer, l’Auberge also focuses on construction work, building shelters and getting materials into the Jungle so that the refugees can work on their own projects.
If you have other skills, there are other groups doing specific work, e.g. medics, that you should be able to find details of by asking in the Facebook groups . As a volunteer librarian, one of the things I am going to focus on is getting more books to the library, Jungle Books, especially bilingual dictionaries and ESOL learning materials, and books in the relevant languages (Arabic, Pashto, Amharic, Tigrinya, Farsi, Urdu).
If you don’t have much time and/or feel confident enough to go straight to the Jungle, make sure you are taking the right donations – there is already a huge waste management problem out there so don’t make it worse – and seek advice / think carefully about how you will distribute them.
Other general tips:
- The youth hostel offers a reduced rate for volunteers after the first night, you need to quote the relevant name which you can get from l’Auberge des Migrants if you volunteer with them.
- The hostel, warehouse and camp are not particularly close to each other, a few miles between each, so think about how you will get around.
- I’m usually not bad at finding my way around when driving, but didn’t get my bearings in Calais at all! Take a satnav if you can!
- The Family Pub. It’s a terrible name for a pub, but very welcoming to volunteers, decent mid-priced food and great for meeting other volunteers and sharing experiences at the end of day.
- Try not to get your van burned down.
by Fran Belbin, first published on her blog
Calais Migrant Solidarity https://calaismigrantsolidarity.wordpress.com/
l’Auberge des Migrants http://www.laubergedesmigrants.fr/ (French)
l’Auberge des Migrants https://www.facebook.com/laubergedesmigrantsinternational (mainly English)
UK – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromUK
There are also lots of specialist groups linked to this group – e.g. for waste management, construction, firewood, food distribution
For Sheffield people:
Sheffield – Calais Solidarity https://www.facebook.com/groups/CalaisMigrantSolidarityActionFromSheffield
Sheffield drivers and passengers group https://www.facebook.com/groups/497004920476240
Thanks to Kate Evans (Twitter @cartoonkate) for her kind permission to reproduce some of her cartoon “Threads – the Calais cartoon”. You can see the whole thing in its full beauty here.
Thanks to all those people who made our trip possible. Unite the Union NE/GEO/1(Sheffield East branch) which donated £1000, Unite Community South Yorkshire and many people who gave money. And time: someone had to fill 300 bags with portions of coriander, salt and turmeric.
Unless otherwise credited, photos are by Fran. And special thanks to her for doing most of the planning, loading and all of the driving to Calais. At least you didn’t have to drive back. RIP Bimble the camper van.