"RCK producing 1400 hot meals per day, tens of volunteers from all walks of life busying themselves with chopping, peeling, washing and drying; the enthusiasm and compassion in the room was electrifying."
I can remember first taking notice of the refugee crisis in the autumn of 2016. Being a teacher and Head of Year at the time, I was keen to explore issues of humanity and global importance with my year group. After delivering several assemblies on the topic, I decided I really wanted to be more proactive and involved. I knew that I could organise a donation collection and use the school as a hub if needed and set about aiming to head over in the October half term. Unfortunately, I was heavily dissuaded by numerous people around me; 'don't go, it's too dangerous', 'you're already busy enough', 'what happens if your car gets stopped or attacked?', 'You can't go on your own'. These comments plus a never ending workload meant that my great vision of packing up the car and heading over to Calais soon dissipated.
It wasn't until the following summer that I a) realised that there was still an issue in Calais b) had an opportunity to go alongside several other volunteers c) I could prioritise the time to go. Through a friend, I was fortunate enough to be given a place on the July 2017 weekend trip with 'Calais Light', a community group set up by Mary Stretch. From the first day at the warehouse, I was fascinated and knew this wouldn't be the only visit. I was bowled over at the sheer scale of the operation, RCK producing 1400 hot meals per day, tens of volunteers from all walks of life busying themselves with chopping, peeling, washing and drying; the enthusiasm and compassion in the room was electrifying. I was 'lucky' enough to be invited to a food distribution that same first day so the real purpose of the visit became apparent very quickly. What you see in the field can only be described as soul destroying - grown men reduced to shells of a person, clinging on to any dignity that they can by taking pride in their appearance and interactions with volunteers. Families emerging out of the woods to collect their only meal of the day, children and babies, clinging to their mothers, hungry and sad.
2 days was not enough. I had to go back. I was fortunate enough to have a little more time before my next venture, so rather than frirttering away my 'spare week', I booked a return ferry, sent out a social media plea for donations, packed up the car to the roof with clothes, shoes, tents, blankets and toiletries and headed down to Calais. I left Nottingham and travelled firstly via London for an interview to which I brought 4 rather large bags of men's pants and socks which I had purchased at Primark first and then via Brentwood where volunteers from the previous weekend had come together and collected yet more donations ready for pick up.
I couldn't really afford to spend money on accommodation so I camped in a tent outside one of the RCK caravans for 10 days. It was a bit odd at first being on my own, the journey didn't bother me at all but the initial setting up camp was a little nerve wracking! Nevertheless I was soon submerged in the RCK culture, back in the kitchen working long, tiring hours but yet not watching the clock or feeling tired. The music, people, motivation and therapeutic enjoyment that comes from doing a bit of mindless chopping or peeling was more than enough to keep you going...and more. I attended several food distributions, each time, learning more about the reasons why people had fled their countries, why things happened the way they did, how the CRS police were treating them and how brave and strong these people were. I admired the way the long term volunteers respected their cultures and situations and could see that every decision, no matter how small, was well considered as the impact of a lack of consideration could be catastrophic in such an environment.
"The music, people, motivation and therapeutic enjoyment that comes from doing a bit of mindless chopping or peeling was more than enough to keep you going...and more."
I was successful at the interview I attended in London so after I returned to the UK, I headed to Peru to volunteer in a girls orphanage for 5 weeks followed by some time travelling in Mexico then spent the winter working in the French Alpes. Although I haven't been able to re-visit Calais until recently I continued to share my experiences with whomever I could throughout the winter as the situation is reported so poorly and/or incorrectly. As soon as I returned from working abroad and realised I had some time before my new contract began I made plans to head back to Calais. Except this time, I cycled! I had sold my car so, rather than fill it with donations and sulk about not being able to get there, I decided to raise money by cycling from Nottingham to Calais. I spent a week there this time, the first 3 days of which were with a friend who 'had never done anything like this' and 'wouldn't have come on her own'. It was great to see someone else's eyes open to the truths that are hidden in Calais.
As always, the experience was heartbreaking, especially seeing more young children in Dunkirk. Yet at the same time, the goodness remains. Volunteers continue to work hard to provide a little bit of humanity and compassion to hundreds of refugees on a daily basis. It is incredible that in one experience you get to see the result of the worst that people can do to each other yet see the best that humans are capable of. At no point did I question as to whether I should or shouldn't volunteer on my own as you immediately become part of a safe, network of interesting, caring and empathetic people. I will continue to prioritise my time so that I can contribute to this cause, as unfortunately, the issue seems far from resolved and needs more people to help and spread the word. Allow yourself to make the time to do right by these deserved people, you won't regret it!