I wrote this to share on my Facebook to give people an understanding of what it’s like to volunteer in Calais. Already around ten people have messaged me. I’m planning on setting up a Facebook page to arrange another visit. I’m based in Manchester if anyone else is interested.
– The reality of spending a weekend at a refugee camp –
Those who know me well know my political views. You might think that’s a strange way to start an article about a refugee camp, but if you think about it, it’s relevant. I’m hardcore labour, and I love JC. My dad is Iranian, and I’m incredibly proud of my heritage. I’m born and brought up in the UK, and don’t speak a word of Farsi. (More on that later).
I’ve been following the refugee crisis for as long as I can remember. Recently on Facebook memories I was shown a post I shared seven years ago of refugees travelling from Turkey to Europe in a orange dingy. I remember seeing the original post all those years ago and thinking how terrible their lives must be in their home countries for them to think taking their kids on this treacherous journey was preferable to staying where they are.
I’m married, luckily to someone who shares the same political views as me, (well maybe not AS strong as mine), and it took one drunken evening for me to convince him to come to Calais with me. When he agreed, I googled how to volunteer in Calais, found a charity called Care4Calais, and emailed them. Within 48 hours everything was booked. My wonderful employers kindly lent us a van and paid for all our travel, and I got us a cheap self contained apartment from Air B&B.
I set up a wish list on Amazon, and asked my Facebook friends to buy us items from the most requested list which came directly from the charity. The response was overwhelming. We filled the van.
We left for Calais early on a Friday morning. When we arrived, we had some food and went straight to bed. I won’t lie, I was apprehensive about what the next day would entail.
We got up early and arrived at the address they’d given me. It was a large warehouse. Simple as you like, concrete floor, wind howling through the walls, and cold! We signed in and were introduced to other volunteers who were there for the weekend. The charity has an operations manager. A 30 something year old British girl with all the energy in the world, a heart of gold and an infectious smile. She instantly made me feel relaxed.
We spent the morning preparing for distribution of aid at the camp. This involved putting coffee and tea into plastic cups, cleaning the items from the hair station (they take clippers, razors, brushes and combs to enable the refugees to shave), sorting through donations and preparing the vans for the afternoon distribution.
We were provided with lunch (oh, and as much tea, coffee and biscuits you can drink and eat), and then we got briefed for the afternoon. The brief made me nervous. Talk of worse case scenarios, I even heard, ‘these are desperate people’.
We were advised that the aid would be a hoodie OR a sleeping bag. They aren’t allowed both as there wasn’t enough to go round. Stephen was selected to act as a meeter greater. (Read: bouncer). There’s two people who hand out the aid directly from the van. Stephen ensured that no one rushed into the van to help themselves. Some of us stood holding hands in a row to make sure that they stood in single file. This was my role. We were told that they’d put their hoods up, take their coats off to try and get more than one item.
I was glad I was selected to do this, as I felt ‘safe’ knowing stephen was in view.
After 3 minutes, I know I had no reason to be nervous. One of the guys took an apple out of his pocket and handed it to the girl stood to my left holding my hand. These guys literally have only the clothes on their back.
We laughed. A lot. So many of them kept coming back to the queue after picking their one item. They put a hat on, or take their coat off in the hope they won’t get recognised. Some were cheeky and did it 3 or 4 times, in the full knowledge we’d realise they’d had their allocated aid for the day, but one in particular kept doing it to make us laugh. It worked. I guess it breaks up their day to talk to different people, and have fun.
The charity takes two vans to each distribution. One contains the aid for that day, the hairdressing and shaving equipment, a WiFi box, several generators, and boards with plugs so they can charge their phone. The other one is like a little cafe. It’s got a big urn containing hot water for tea and coffee, cakes, and biscuits.
Once the aid from van one had all been handed out, we were asked just to mingle and talk to the camp’s residents. I got talking to a young guy from what he called Iranian Kurdistan, which isn’t an official name. I’ll call him Ali. He was only 17. He left Iran because he would have had to join the army in Iran. It’s mandatory in Iran, unless you’re studying, or you’re rich and you can buy your way out. Ali was neither. He told me he couldn’t join the army as he’d have to kill his own people.
I don’t know too much about the situation with Kurds in Iranian, but I now realise my dad has toned down how awful the government in Iran really is.
I met another Iranian, he had a Christian name. He told me that the government came to his house at night and arrested him for his religious beliefs. He had to leave for fear of death. He’s a civil engineer, highly educated, well spoken and well dressed (you wouldn’t believe for a second he lived in a camp). I told him the Farsi I knew; gender (prostitute), kesofat (kind of means dirty), pedasag (your father is a dog. Usually said to kids in an affectionate way). I wanted him to teach me more rude words, but he flatly refused and said he can’t say those words to a lady. He obviously doesn’t know me very well 😂.
I saw a 6 year old girl with bleached blonde hair. I didn’t ask why they’d coloured her hair, but I assumed it was so she didn’t look so foreign. She was riding a pink bike around the camp, and came over to help us litter pick, speaking to us in perfect English.
We played Ludo with a guy from Ethiopia. A ten minute board game with a 23 year old young guy was the highlight of his day. For some reason, that really got to me.
We went back to the apartment about 7 and fell straight asleep, with the rain pounding down outside and thoughts of the friends we’d met that day in their tents.
We got to the warehouse at about 9.30. The Ops manager asked us if we’d mind going to visit a west African guy who had been detained in a detention centre and was being deported as he gave his real name to the police, and they realised he was illegal. We went to the shop to get him some cigs and drove the 10 minute journey to the centre. We were warned by the charity that we might have to wait outside for a while. An hour later we were still there, waiting to be let in to visit him. After an hour an a half we got told, really rudely, to go away as no one is allowed in until after 2. I cannot imagine how they speak to the detainees if they can speak to us like that.
We went back to the warehouse, and after lunch, onto our second distribution. We saw the same faces. They were so pleased to see us. I had about 30 people coming over to me asking me if I was ok in Farsi (khobee, or chetori). Now I know what it means, but I’ll be damned if I can reply. Ali has told them all I spoke Farsi, so they all came to talk to me. Ali stood a few meters away laughing his head off whilst I cringed with embarrassment. Seems winding someone up is truly universal.
I also befriended a guy from Sudan. He shows me photos of his family on his newly charged phone. He told me he misses his family. His parents paid for him to come to Europe illegally as they didn’t think he was safe in Sudan because of the fighting there. I didn’t ask him to go into too much detail. He wants to go home though. I left the camp with a huge, genuine, bear hug from him and the words, ‘why do you get to go home, but I have to stay here?’ I tried with all my might not to cry whilst I was there, but I cried. Silent sobbing that wracked my whole body whist I hugged him. The last thing he needed to see is me crying.
We went back to the warehouse, said our goodbyes to the wonderful workers and volunteers and drove towards the channel tunnel.
When we hit British soil, I broke down again. Why is it so easy for me to come and go to the UK. Why do I have the right and they don’t? Why do these displaced people have to sleep in a tent? Why is there so much horror in the world? I gave myself a headache from crying so much.
One thing I learnt from this is that it’s a world lottery. It could so easily could be any of us if we weren’t British. It could be my dad if he wasn’t able to buy himself out of the mandatory army registration.
Whatever your views on these people, and these camps, just thank god that you’re in a warm, safe place with your family, and try, please try, to spare a thought for those who aren’t. After all, we all laugh in the same language.
We are planning another trip, probably in October, but maybe sooner. If anyone else wants to get involved, please message me.
– written by Natalie Yasamin Sharman