What it’s like to volunteer
Recently I spent a few weeks volunteering with Care4Calais, a charity dedicated to providing essential aid to refugees sleeping rough in northern France. My time there had a really positive impact on me personally, and helped me to understand a little about the situation and the people caught up in it, and so I wanted to write something on it to hopefully encourage others to get involved.
If you’re at all interested, please take a few minutes to read through. I’ll put details about how you can donate or volunteer at the end (if you want to skip all the words and donate just go to the bottom of this post).
Originally set up to help support the thousands of refugees living in what was called the ‘Jungle’, Care4Calais has since continued its work within the town of Calais, as well as other places where refugees have been dispersed since the Jungle was destroyed over a year ago. The charity primarily distributes clothes and food, but there’s a wide range of useful items that are regularly given out such as torches, sleeping bags and nappies. Donations mostly come from the UK and get delivered to the charity’s warehouse in Calais, where the team of volunteers sort through and organise the various items, and get things ready for afternoon distributions.
The distributions can seem quite daunting when first driving at a site – sometimes several hundred faces can be looking back at you as the van makes its way to the distribution point- but when you get out and start chatting with the faces, you are reminded that they are just like us: people with families, passions and dreams.
The nationalities of the refugees are diverse; they hail from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Eritrea, Burundi, Syria, Egypt and more, but they all have one thing in common: life at home was so unbearable that they were forced to leave friends and families, and risk their lives crossing deserts, seas and seemingly endless miles of foreign soil in order to do what they can to provide a better life for themselves and those they’ve left behind. A quick google search on any of these countries will give you the information needed to explain why they’ve left: war, corruption, oppression, religious persecution and poverty are a few of the most pressing concerns for their inhabitants.
Speaking to the refugees and hearing some of their harrowing stories, it’s impossible to put yourself in their shoes. Unlike an Afghan I spoke with, I’ve never had the experience of the Taliban visiting my house and killing my two brothers for refusing to join them. I imagine if such things were to happen to me, I would feel forced to escape the lovely greenery of Welwyn Garden City to find safety and create a better life for me and my loved ones. It is with much regret that they choose to leave- they are always extremely patriotic and have a deep love for their homelands- but circumstances have put them in a position whereby life was unliveable at home.
Giving out aid can be a little stressful- both for the volunteers and the refugees- but remaining calm is crucial for the distributions to be carried out effectively. Not everyone can receive help as the charity doesn’t have a limitless supply of waterproof boots or warm jumpers, but volunteers do what they can to give help to whoever needs it. Getting a clean pair of socks and a pack of dried apricots isn’t going to change these people’s lives but they appreciate it nonetheless.
Looking at the conditions they endure it’s easy to see why. After what is often an ordeal of a journey, they arrive in Europe hoping to be met with some compassion. Instead, they find police batons in Bulgaria, barbed-wire fences in Hungary, before being left homeless in France. Throughout the day they have little to do to keep them from boredom, and although Care4Calais and other charities sometimes provide music, sports and art equipment, most of their time is spent idle.
Many of the people are trained professionals; they are teachers, nurses, engineers, carpenters. Dedicated, honest, hard-working people who have been reduced to sitting on muddy banks, shielding themselves from the rain and wind with their only spare t-shirt. Night time is a daily struggle with the vast majority sleeping in bushes with just a blanket or sleeping bag to keep them warm. French law prohibits tents from being put up- the last time this luxury was allowed, the Jungle formed and caused the French government a great deal of embarrassment- and charities are discouraged from distributing them unless the weather is unbearable. And it can be; the climate is similar to here in the UK so winter nights can be bitterly cold and wet.
Despite this, police in the area regularly search for the refugees during the night, carrying weapons and aggressively shouting at them. Past experience of police tells the refugees to run in fear, leaving behind their warm clothing and sleeping bags which are duly confiscated. If they’re unable to get away, the refugees are often forced to line up like criminals and hand over their belongings to the police. Those who manage to get hold of tents are constantly wary of being found; during my time there, another volunteer got sent a video from a young refugee whose tent had been slashed open and left in tatters by a pair of policemen. His testimony, and that of many others who have suffered brutal treatment by police in the area, makes a mockery of President Macron’s declaration that the refugees are treated ‘humanely’. The aggression is systematic and constant, deliberately carried out in an attempt to force these people out and discourage others from arriving.
Criticism of the French police and government isn’t fair without also questioning Britain’s role. The police in the north-eastern region of France is mainly paid for by the British government and it would be naïve to suggest that our MPs are unaware of how they are treating the refugees.
The police’s scare tactics are unlikely to work, however, as the individuals I met were almost always intent on coming to Britain. There are several hundred thousand who have settled elsewhere; only a few thousand remain who see Britain as their future home. Some have worked and lived here, building friendships and careers, before being deported when their visas have run out. Others speak some English and therefore see the UK as the most logical place to start a new life. One young man from Ethiopia told me that he wanted to come to Britain to gain a first class education. His dream was to return to his country, become a politician, and help sort out the corruption within Ethiopian society.
There are some who hadn’t planned on the UK initially, but rough treatment by police in countries throughout Europe meant that they refused to stay and work in those countries. Whatever their reason, they are determined to follow their dream of coming to the UK, so putting up fences and hoping they will simply go away is clearly not a viable strategy. More to the point, they are human beings, and were the shoe to be on the other foot and British homes were being bombed daily, I’m sure we’d expect to be treated with compassion by those in a position to help.
Inspite of all of the challenges they face, the refugees remain strong-spirited and speaking to them often provided me with a great deal of inspiration. Navid, an Iranian I met in Dunkirk, wore a smile every time I saw him, and though he admitted that he was sad about his situation, he always remained positive, believing God would help see him through to the other side. My first meeting with him ended with me adopting a kitten- he had found her wandering around the area and decided to take care of her, feeding her with small fish he caught in a nearby river. Unable to take proper care of her, he asked me to do so- making sure I kept the name he had given her, Jaguar- and after weeks of cleaning up her leavings, and a lot of help from my flatmate (if you’re reading this, thanks again Molly!!), I managed to get her back home to the UK. She now lives here and is happy and healthy- my profile picture is confirmation of this! Navid and I became friends and even exchanged Christmas wishes via whatsapp (he is a dedicated Christian) and he will always have a place in my heart for what he did for Jaguar.
Such friendships are part of what made my time volunteering with Care4Calais so special. I played cricket with Afghans, football with Sudanese, and ‘attempted’ karate with Kurds. Speaking to, and learning from, people who have had completely different life experiences to me has helped me form a better understanding of them, the wider refugee crisis and of the world.
The camaraderie among volunteers was something else that I loved. There was always a mix of long and short-term volunteers of all ages and nationalities; students and retirees worked together to sort through boxes of shoes. I distributed blankets with Spaniards, Canadians and Brazilians, helped pack food bags with Israelis, Italians and Palestinians and had great discussions with teachers, former corporate directors and self-proclaimed hippies. I spoke to people who have had years of experience with refugees, others who are studying humanitarian-related subjects at university, and others who, like me, were completely new to the situation. Everyone, no matter their age or background, was there for the same reason: to help people who need it. The time I spent with these people- volunteers and refugees alike- is something that will stay with me forever.
My hope is that some of you who have taken your time out to read this are in some way inspired by my experience of volunteering with Care4Calais, and decide to the same. If this isn’t possible, they are always in need of donations- both of cash and various items of clothing, food and more- and there are a number of drop-off points around the country where you can make a delivery of much needed aid. To us, it’s an extra pair of shoes, but to them, it’s something that will keep them from getting wet, cold, infected feet. We can all wish that a positive long-term solution arrives soon for these refugees, but it’s charities like Care4Calais that help make life bearable for them in the meantime.
– by Harry ‘bg’ Butrimas-Gair
• To donate, please go to: https://care4calais.org/donate/
• A list of most needed items can be found here: https://care4calais.org/…/up…/2016/09/Priority-Items-2018.pdf
• To see a map of nationwide drop-off points, see: https://goo.gl/ULD9dG
• Or to enquire about volunteering (do this!!), visit:https://care4calais.org/volunteer/
• The charity’s website www.care4calais.org