We both listen to the Guilty Feminist podcast which in recent months has highlighted the ongoing situation in Calais where more than 1,500 people are sleeping rough in the forests in Northern France and at least 200 are unaccompanied children.
Listening to the stories from Calais, we both wanted to do something but were not sure how we could help.
In July, in response to a shout out for yoga teachers to contribute to a programme of well-being events to support the volunteers working with refugees, Pippa immediately signed us up. We packed up our mats and a car load of donations to travel across the Channel to Calais.
Whilst on the somewhat choppy crossing, we planned two sessions with kapalbhati pranayama, sensory meditation, a heart opening vinyasa sequence followed by yin and a closing guided savasana with a loving kindness guided meditation.
As is often the case, the plans we made on the ferry shifted but we loved the opportunity to ad-lib in response to the energy in the room. We taught 2 evening yoga classes in a makeshift studio in a bar on the campsite where many of the long and short term volunteers stay. The first class ended up being more restorative and concluded with yin but the second was an up-beat session filled with sweat and laughter, especially when we guided the students into the madukasana – frog pose!
We received lovely feedback from the attendees which was heart warming. The work they do is physically and emotionally demanding so it was an honour to give them something, in return for all their efforts.
While we were there with a clear goal to teach yoga, we also knew we wanted to help in any way we could so we signed up to volunteer in the warehouse with Help Refugees. Help Refugees, alongside other smaller NGO’s provide blankets, clothes, food and water, Wifi and women and children’s services to refugees. In order to provide these vital services, they need more than 80 volunteers every day to help in the warehouse and keep operations going.
We are so glad we did choose to volunteer because the enthusiasm of the volunteers, who are from many varied backgrounds, ages and times in their lives, was infectious. It was amazing how many people we spoke to were also there thanks to the Guilty Feminist podcast!
Volunteering in the warehouse gave us an insight into the work of the various charities and NGO’s and how donations are used. There are a number of charities working together under the roofs of warehouse 1 and 2 that pool resources and volunteers. They range from the Refugee Community Kitchen, Help Refugees, Utopia, women and children’s services, legal and translation services.
In addition, to get provide refugees with the care they need, the volunteers provide a hospital shuttle bus. We were not surprised to learn that people faced many health issues, low immunity, trauma and the effects of torture.
An education bus is also provided for children who will have been without formal schooling for weeks, months or years; and the Connect Bus is equipped with wifi and chargers. One volunteer told us she had never been more delighted to see young men huddled in a van looking at their phones: it meant they were able to connect with family, tell them they were safe.
A typical day at the warehouse begins with a briefing, warm up, allocation of tasks and information about the days distributions which range in food, clothing, bedding, tents and toiletries. Training opportunities for longer term volunteers are highlighted including health and safety and field training.
On our introductory tour, we were struck by the lack of new donations – the shelves are worryingly bare! Of the donations that do come in, nothing is wasted. The suitable and non-suitable items are separated. Any non-suitable clothing will either go to the volunteer charity shop or be bundled up and sent to Cash for Clothes with the profits put back into the RCK project.
Suitable clothes are categorised into type and size and stored in the centre of the warehouse. If clothes or blankets are suitable but not clean they are sent to the warehouse laundrette. If clothes are suitable but have a hole in them they are sent to Sew-ho which is located at the rear of the warehouse.
Sew-ho began with 2 donated sewing machines and now has a large dedicated area of its own. Repairs to damaged clothes and tents take place here along with a world of alterations. Rather than pass up baggy or oversized jeans, they are altered to create skinny ones! Skinny jeans are preferred for practicality (if they are running from authorities or climbing a barbed wire fence) and crucially, because they are more fashionable. Tents that are beyond repair are transformed into light weight jackets and draw string bags. Sew-ho is truly innovative and inspirational!
Every tent that comes to the warehouse arrives in Tent World where it is put up and tested by volunteers to ensure suitability.
On average a tent will last 4-5 days before the authorities remove or destroy it. Since the demolition of ‘The Jungle’ 2 years ago these evictions have become more regular and over the 2 days we were there, 600 refugees were moved on.
This is utterly tragic, especially when refugee’s documents are lost, their phones destroyed. However a positive way to look at this a £14.99 tent from the Help Refugee Amazon Wish List will h
ouse 2 men for 5 days.
We found ourselves volunteering in the Refugee Community Kitchen – RCK where we helped with the production of 1200 – 1500 fresh, delicious meals which are provided to refugees in Calais and Dunkirk every day.
The kitchen is a slick and sophisticated operation which has triumphed over adversity. The French authorities tried to shut it down deeming it to not comply with Health and Safety standards and in response, the volunteers built a fully equipped, professional kitchen within the warehouse where cooking is carried out as a military operation and is a wonder to observe and be a part of. As we type this our fingers still smell of the thousands of garlic cloves we peeled! The type of food served is rotated to pick up on the ranging cultural cuisine of the refugees they serve and the RCK also follows significant religious events like Eid.
Where possible the volunteers recycle and re-use everything they can from unsuitable donations to food waste. Vegetable tops are sent to a local pig farm and onion scraps are used to create stock. All cardboard and plastic is either re-imagined within the warehouse or sent of site for recycling.
We were both really impressed with the tenacity of the volunteers and their unwavering support of the refugees in the face of adversity from their home countries and the local authorities. There is a constant need for volunteers and everyone is important from someone who can speak 5 languages to someone who will chop onions for a week! One thing we also took away is the sensitivity of how the different charities go about offering their support to ensure the refugees are given the dignity they deserve through clean proper fitting clothes and delicious nutritious food.
In the welcoming surroundings of the warehouse it is easy to forget the true reality of the situation outside but as we drove to catch our ferry home we passed 4 security vans (private security police employed solely to dismantle camps and terrorise refugees) as they chased a young man down the road, away from a lorry. Often the force used in these instances is disproportionate and aggressive.
Without the relative safety of ‘The Jungle’, people are forced to hide and take shelter anywhere they can; under road bridges, in the forest, in lay-bys. The environment is hostile and in the winter will be even worse.
Before we set off to Calais we set up a Just Giving account which raised over £300 for Help Refugees. We also did a shout out to our friends, families and colleagues and received toiletries, clothes and 2 tents to take over with us to help re-stock the worryingly empty shelves in the warehouse.
If reading this story has inspired you to find out more here is the helprefugees website. If you would like to make a donation you can go to their Amazon Wish List to make a direct contribution. Finally, if you would like a Choose Love T-shirt/pants/tote bag, they can be bought on asos where 100% of the profits go to Help Refugees and their support of people caught up in the refugee crisis.
Thank you for taking the time to read this and to everyone who donated; your support really helped spur us on to go towards making a small difference.