I hope you are having a good Thursday so far. It’s been a little bit over a week since I got back from Calais and I am still evaluating my experiences from it. My week in France has been so different from any other. As if last week time stood still, as if I was in another world for a week, a world were other things mattered.
I experienced the situation in Northern France as a war-zone, an inhuman place created by the world we live in and the regulations we live by. The voluntary groups in Calais try their best to add as many human aspects as possible, giving basic needs, information and support an environment that develops feelings of belonging, self-worth and a sense of community.
I got back home feeling grateful. After experiencing and seeing what life is like on the field, I am so thankful to have a comfortable home, a warm bed, friends and family close by and to be living in a country were a social system takes care of the people.
My adventure in Calais was fun, special, emotional, exhausting, energising, motivating and eye-opening!
If you like to know more about the current situation in Calais and what I did as volunteer to help, please read further on my blog below:
Facts about the refugee situation in Calais:
Both refugee camps in Calais and Dunkerque started in 2015
Both camps are called ‘jungle’ as refugees live in between forest or in a park
Calais jungle has been demolished in October 2016. Dunkerque still exists.
During my stay a big eviction took place in Dunkerque.
In Dunkerque, there have been 1.500 refugees living in the Jungle. In Calais there are around 500 refugees living on the streets at the moment. Out of the 2.000 refugees in the Northern France at least 200 are children.
Most of them are looking to be reunited with family in Britain. They are trying to get to the UK in any possible way.
The Dublin II regulation and it’s agreements play a big role in the refugee situation these days.
64% of the refugees in Calais and Dunkerque only sleep about 2-4 hours a night.
Within the camp, there is a mix of communities and cultures (Syrian, Eritrean, Pakistan, Irak, Iran and Afganistan) which can give a lot of tension as well.
Around Dunkerque station, there is a lot of military standing.
Over the past three years, situations of harassment, violence and intimidation have happened both towards refugees as well as volunteers helping refugees.
The use of tear gas and intimidation tactics, as well as intentional sleep deprivation, has been used by the French state against refugees and asylum seekers in Northern France.
People living in the camps are very scared of deportation and to be separated from their family or children.
Around the (former)camp, the fences are so extremely high and awful. It really shocked me.
In Calais, some citizens are very unfriendly towards volunteers. They don’t like the fact you help refugees so it’s best to not speak about it in public. It’s crazy!
About 90% of the volunteers comes from the UK. Other nationalities were Irish, Scottish, German, French, Spanish, Mexican, Dutch and Australian.
No volunteer working in Calais gets a salary. Volunteers who work for a year or longer receive a small fee of 100 euros monthly.
Some volunteers working there today, have been here from the start. I have so much respect for these people.
A lot of volunteers are ‘familiar faces’ as they come back many, many times for both short- and longterm.
Most volunteers are very young (age 18-22) and leading responsible roles within the teams. There is also a good group of retired people helping out and then there is all inbetween. The mix is great!
They have had 25.000 volunteers working with them so far.
I volunteered with Help Refugees UK, a UK based organisation started in 2015 by young entrepreneurial volunteers who really wanted to help when the refugee crisis started. Help Refugees UK works simultaneously with it’s French partner, L’Auberge des Migrants in a warehouse located in Calais, France. From this warehouse, they collect, check, wash, repair and prepare the donations and goods to be distributed to the refugees in need. They distribute thousands of items every week, from 1,000 blankets and sleeping bags, to hundreds of hygiene kits, clothing and countless shoes.
The organisations Help Refugees UK & L’Auberge des Migrants share their warehouse with 6 other organisations, which all work closely together:
Refugee Info Bus
Refugee Youth Service
The School Bus Project
Refugee Women and Children’s Centre
Refugee Community Kitchen
I applied for volunteering at Help Refugees because it was the first organisation I found online, but once you arrive in Calais they will tell you it’s perfectly fine to work for any of the above organisations. They all work together and swop volunteers wherever it’s most needed. They all strive for you as a volunteer to have a good time and do what you like.
Before arrival, Help Refugees prepares you very well with digital brochures and detailed information about your stay and what it’s like to volunteer with their organisation. I felt I really knew where I applied for.
During your time with these organisations, they will highlight on a daily basis how thankful they are that you are there, giving your precious time and love. Next to that, they strive for a healthy mindset at all times. Therefore they mention daily there is multiple possibilities to receive physical help if you need it, there is always someone you can talk to about what you’ve seen and there are counselling options online for you.
They really make you feel like a part of the core team during your stay, even if you are there for one day only. Their attitude towards volunteers is really positive and thankful. They encourage all volunteers to make friends, be kind to each other, work together and build a network. They handle a zero tolerance policy to any form of discrimination, favority, racism or bullying.
I stayed for seven days and worked full-time (from 9h-18h) for six days and one half-day on Saturday. While I was there I worked on multiple tasks, which was just great! No day has been the same for me and I learned so much about all the different tasks, needs and specialties. I will describe my week and the tasks I did:
I started my first day in Tent-World which means you are working in a team to sort tents for refugees. I haven’t been camping for over 10 years, but as soon as we started with sorting and setting up the tents, I got into it again. It brought back so many sweet memories of camping holidays with the family and school-camps…. Oh I loved it. Tent-World was fun because we worked together with many people sorting and preparing multiple big tents for families to stay in. Finishing a complete tent, ready to be distributed, was so satisfying. And as you work through the process of setting up the tent, you become enthusiastic about and proud of each tent. It’s quiet funny how much enthusiasm can come from a ten. We finished up with a rack full of tents ready for distribution which has been very valuable.
Most tents have been donated by individuals or handed in after festivals (same goes for sleeping bags and sleeping mats – what a brilliant idea to collect them there!) Working with Tent-World is fun and easy and you make contacts quickly. A little bit of experience in camping with a tent is always helpful and if you would be an expert it’s an insane value for this project.
The second day (and later the sixth day as well) I joined RCK – Refugee Community Kitchen – in preparing 1.500 warm meals a day to be distributed. We started the morning with changing into chef’s blacks – very professional – and a briefing on hygiene guidelines. I joined a team of approximately 50 people working together in a huge professional kitchen. Due to strict hygiene tests and several controls of the French authorities, the kitchen is nothing less than a professional restaurant kitchen. The kitchen is divided into multiple area’s such as: main course – prep tables – dishes – food washing etc. All areas are connected to each other and in the kitchen they play good music all day. It really boosts the vibe in kitchen! There are multiple volunteers with a profession as a cook working here and they are my new heroes:) I am so impressed by the nutritious, tasteful and beautiful meals they created each day out of (mainly) donations. I got inspired a lot by them, on how to create a brilliant dish with just a few simple ingredients. I can’t wait to be more creative in my kitchen.
As a starting volunteer in the kitchen I have been working on the prep tables, which means cutting apples, cutting and peeling onions, cutting cabbage, slicing bread, cutting cucumbers, peeling tomatoes and cutting carrots. And all of it a lot! Everything is made fresh during the day in order to be distributed at 5 p.m. Being part of the prep team has been fun. I got the chance to talk to many of my neighbour-preppers and got to know new people, as well as I learned a few tricks to become better in prepping food. Both days I worked in the kitchen, I was able to be part of the team that distributes the food as well during the night.
Changed into Chef’s Blacks
My outfit for the first day + The Kitchen
The ‘Main dish’ department makes curry
Washing apples team party
Oh I love apples
Both distributions I went with a group of 12 people all together to Dunkerque, a city 30 minutes from Calais. To distribute in Dunkerque, we load a van full with rice, curry, salad, bread, tea and supplements such as spices and onions. Next to that, 1.500 plates, cups and spoons to be handed out. We received a deep and thought trough briefing before heading out to Dunkerque, to be prepared for all different scenarios and situations while working in the field. Once we arrived, tables were placed in front of the van, the food placed on the tables, each team-member took position and we started distribution. Distribution takes up to two hours and is hard work but so heartwarming, thankful and appreciated work. The people in the jungle of Dunkerque are really depending on the distributed warm dish and therefore are so thankful. They speak to you with such kind words and the children were simply so cute. After two hours of distribution we cleaned up the area, packed the van and drove back to the warehouse. Back in the warehouse we unpacked, cleaned the van, debriefed the entire distribution and had dinner together.
Sunny seat in the van towards Dunkerque
To give you an idea what the camp looks like (not my shot)
After distro, cold but satisfied
Ready for my second distribution
The third day I went to Sew-Ho (saying: Soho – like the posh area in NY): the sewing area of the warehouse. As a fashion professional, I did sewing during my studies and I really enjoyed it. Being able to use I skill I own to contribute is great. In the sewing area, they try to fix as many broken donations as possible. Warm winter jackets with a broken zip, sleeping bags or blankets with small holes. All of it gets fixed, replaced, repaired or patched by the sewing team. I worked on the sewing machines most of the time, challenging myself to stitch new zips into jackets. I must admit it’s a tricky thing to do and I surprised myself a bit by making it happen. I ended up repairing 3 jackets with new zippers, 2 jackets with repaired pockets, 2 pair of pants and a pair of thermo legging.
The Sew-ho area has been leaded by Anne during my stay in Calais. Anne is a 72-year old lady from London who comes to Calais every month to spend a week volunteering at Help Refugees. She’s coming here since the start of the refugee-crisis in 2015 and will continue to come as long as she can. At first she teached the children in the Calais-Jungle on a daily basis. Nowadays she still teaches children with the School Bus Project during her stay and she is the leading lady in the sewing area. Anne is my living angel, she has been so kind and heartwarming. It’s incredible how much she does, starting at 9h she is able to fix 4 jackets and a sleeping bag before lunch. During her stay, she manages to repair and fix over 30 valuable items. And she even brings these items back to her hotel in order to continue sewing at night. She is incredible!
We had such a good time together with the girls and Anne, talking all day long drinking tea and eating chocolate. She loved her company and we loved ours. As the sewing area was such a nice and kind place to work, as well as fitting my expertise, I ended up working in Sew-Ho on Sunday and Tuesday as well <3
Our team in Sew-Ho including Angel Anne
Our to-do pile
This team<3 We had so much fun
I simply loved working on the sewing machine, stitching in zippers
Tadaa! A new zip in a corduroy bomber jacket
On my fourth day I went to work in Main-Sort. This is the area in the warehouse where donations get sorted out when they come in. You basically create a first station and check the bags, boxes and suitcases that come in to distribute to several areas within the warehouse. I found main-sort really interesting, as you get a bag full of ‘surprises’ and get to see what people actually donate. In general the donations are very useful and thought through, clean and fresh. But yes, of-course there were bags with broken items, holes in clothes, smelly clothes, stained items and items in sizes XXL (which won’y fit any of the refugees most probably).
Some donations contain blankets or hygiene products, which you then distribute to these ‘departments.’ Others were clothing which needed to be washed, you distributed those to the laundry department.
The clothes that were fine for direct distribution needed to be measured according the sizes of the people in Calais & Dunkerque camps. Measurement has been a specialism during my studies and internship, so I was glad to be able to do this again.
I really liked sorting, as I am an organised personality and I know a lot about different types of clothing, function, sizing and materials. It really make me realise the values of my past developed skills again. With the team we were able to sort a lot of donations within one day, which is satisfying as well. Distributing items to other departments adds a social aspect as well as movement, which was really helpful in the cold warehouse.
Pretty sorted hygiene basics
Walking around the warehouse – there is simply donations everywhere
Lovely blankets ready for distribution now winter starts kicking in
The other three days I mixed working in the kitchen and sew-ho a bit. I did not end up working in the wood yard, because I am such a pussy with that. But I’ve heard so many fun stories about working in woodyard, preparing wood and cutting pallets. Maybe next time 😉
During my time with Help Refugees UK, I was able to follow a two hour course about working in ‘The Field.’ The Field mean the refugee-camp in Dunkerque and the refugee-areas in Calais and the course focussed on all aspects of distribution. I learned so much during this course about the thoughts behind actions, the reasons to do things or why to not-do things. It has been really useful to be prepared and to know what to do in different situations. Most actions you do as a human being, come from instinct. They way we are used to do things. But during this course I was able to learn about the way other cultures (mainly Kurdish) are used to do things. In order to respect and handle with care, this training talked the volunteers through all different aspects of distribution.
These courses are free and can be taken twice a week. They are really useful and understandable so I would recommend following the course as soon as you arrive in Calais.
I asked my friends and family to have a look at the ‘much needed list’ and to check their closets, cabinets, storages and drawers whether any of the goods were stapled there which they could miss. In my opinion, it’s best to start with what you have. It worked well and we collected a lot! They surprised me so much with the amount of donations:) In the end we also added some new-bought products such as shampoo, shaving blades, toothbrushes and lip-balms. I brought a total of 234 items to donate – Insane!!
And the organisation was so thankful, each and every donation is so needed. We brought a lot of warm winter items to help them fight the cold which is the biggest need at the moment. All donations were sorted quickly and prepared for distribution to those in need. I have not been able to distribute my own donations on the field, but I can assure that those in need are really thankful for the donations and it really helps them. They don’t have anything and the cold is so bitter. So thank you thank you!
If you consider going to Calais as well, be sure to check the list of ‘much needed items’ to collect donations. I know from my personal experience they also need zippers (30cm zips and longer), school materials and complementary products for the warehouse such as coffee and tea. You are always welcome to contact me if you would like to know more about donations.
How to help out:
The organisations in the Northern of France really need our help! But the great thing is: any help makes a difference. Even if you come for one day or a weekend, you can really make a difference. I didn’t know this before but I would definitely like to encourage every one to go and help short term. Think of a free weekend or a holiday weekend such as Easter, Pentecost or Ascension Day. Bring some friends and make it a fun weekend, working together, spending time together and helping out. It is something I would really consider doing more often now.
Next to helping on location, donations and support are very very welcome. Donations can be money or products, goods. Donations can be brought to Calais directly or you can hand-in goods locally. for information on how to sponsor or donate one-time, please check the website of helprefugees.org for all options.
You can also support the organisations online: by sharing their story, following them on Facebook, Youtube and Instagram. They post frequently and relevant content and it’s so important to spread out the word much more of what’s happening in Calais.
Another way to support Help Refugees UK, would be to buy an item of the ‘Choose Love’ campaign. These items, such as sweaters, tee’s, canvas bags, underwear and even swimwear, are worn by many celebrities and can be ordered at ASOS or bought in a store in London. I really like the items, especially the sweater in black, and with your purchase you donate money for a good cause.
The situation and your impact:
The situation asks for a lot of help as well as provision of basic needs.Taking care, helping out in any way is crucial. Providing donations(goods) and money, even a little bit, will help out and go a long way for these organisations and their goals.
These organisations fully rely on donations and volunteers so when you come and help, you definitely make an impact. They won’t be able to distribute, provide and deliver the goods without the volunteers. Which means refugees will be without their basic needs such as food, clothes, shoes, shelter, warmth and hygiene basics. It’s simply no living without this.
But without volunteers there will also be no information provided. No human rights protected. This means refugees being terrified, unknown and going crazy about their future and what’s going in their situation.
Any help is welcome, all of what you do makes a difference. Helping out in any way you can, has a bigger impact than imaginable. Let’s share our countries. Share our food. Share our love. Make them feel welcome, as they can’t g back to their homes.
How to be prepared:
Preparing for the unknown if aways difficult but hopefully my blog can help you a bit. As soon as you apply to volunteer with Help Refugees UK, they will send you a document with a lot of information as well to be prepared. Next to that they give advice on where to stay during your voluntary work and what to bring.
My advice on how to be prepared is to go there without expectations. Just be open minded, talk to people around you and start with tasks you feel comfortable with. It’s most likely you get along with people on your first day. Be open minded towards experiences in the field, but be sure to not do anything you are uncomfortable with. Remember yourself that all you give makes a difference, no matter what you do.
Personally I would have loved if I read more articles about the (political) situation in the Northern of France as a preparation. It’s not needed to know it al, but during workdays the situation gets discussed a lot which is good but it’s more interesting if you have a good say in it. So if you can, try to retrieve more info than I did.
I stayed in a hotel for 3 nights by myself and in a hostel for 5 nights, sharing a room with a girl from London. Many of the long-term volunteers stay at the campground, which is a cheaper accommodation and you will always be living with voluntary friends. I would personally not prefer sharing, because you work long days so I like a bit of me-time at night. You can always meet someone in town when you like too.
For me the hostel was a bit of a disappointment, because there is no option to cook and it’s not a very cozy place. It’s clean and safe, but nothing more than that. I really didn’t like to eat take-out or snacks 5 all nights, so I went out to restaurants 3 nights which doesn’t help your budget. I shared my room with a lovely girl though, which was a lot of fun! So I am still glad I went there.
The hotel was fine but simple. I would recommend the Ibis hotel in Calais-Nord if you stay short term. They have great rooms, a good breakfast service and its located really central. Another option (both short- and long-term) is renting an AirBnB. There are many good options in Calais and you can decide whether you would like to share or not. I heard the host Valentine has a lovely one, named Loft de Wimereux. Another cute place is hosted by Xavier – cabine hold beer.
I would advice you to take a (half) day off when you stay a week. Take two days off each week when you stay longer. Your days in Calais will be long and intense, taking time off can feel like a waist of your time but in fact it really helps you to stay strong and healthy.
Be prepared for the fact that Calais is cold. Even if the weather-apps tell the temperature is ok, it feels way colder than it is. Especially in the warehouse, which isn’t isolated. Or at distributions out on the field, I had trouble keeping myself warm. Make sure you bring layers, a woolen hat, some gloves, a pair of thicker socks and warm shoes. You may never bring enough warm clothes to Calais.
I travelled to Calais by Flixbus
I travelled to Calais by Flixbus
My most needed items for Calais:
Nose spray, paper naps and a scarf. Because I got a bad cold
gloves and a hat. To beat the cold
A wind-stopper jacket. To beat cold, windy and rainy wheather
Some ideas of easy dinners from the grocery store
A comfortable place to stay, to make sure you can rest from the work
A bump-bag. I know it’s not my type of style but I really needed it to work and be able to carry some personal stuff with me. A small backpack could do the work as well, just whatever you prefer
What I’ve learned in Calais:
The situation in the Northern France is worse than before, still you won’t see anything on the news anymore. It simply nothing ‘new’ anymore.
Because it doesn’t apply to a Dutch border, it’s even a less known issue where I live.
I’ve learned that human rights need to be prioritized so much more than it has been prioritized now.
This winter is going to be extremely cold. I’ve learned that these organisations. really need volunteers and donations to make it through the winter.
I’ve learned to value my basic needs and the fact they are always in place.
I’ve learned how lucky I am to be born were I’ve been. If life had dealt a different hand, it could have been me in that situation.
Your fate doesn’t take your studies or your money into consideration.
I’ve learned how to set up different types of tents. Camping trip or festival? I am prepared now.
I’ve learned some tricks to prepare certain foods and to easily cut them.
I’ve learned to be better prepared for cold weather.
Next to the learnings I met a bunch of incredible people which I am very thankful for! You guys made this week so special. Thank youu!
Tunes of Calais:
Foundations by Kate Nash – An old one, I used to love this song in high school too. But in Calais they played it every single day and all volunteers got so happy, dancing around, singing along! LOVE Kate Nash – Foundations – Full Version
Brighter Every Day by Trout Steak Revival – I didn’t know this band nor this song but it got played in the early cold mornings. It’s a mix of country and indie. It’s really good. Curious what this band will bring Trout Steak Revival – Brighter Every Day
Shotgun by George Esra – a popular song which I knew before. But it wasn’t special until we drove to my first distribution in Dunkerque and this song came on the radio. The whole van sang along and so it became my new happy-mood-tune George Ezra – Shotgun