Volunteering for Care4Calais

A day in the life of a refugee support volunteer

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Big Issue North’s Sheffield relief coordinator, Alice Collins, recently volunteered with Care4Calais. She recorded her experience.
We stay overnight in Hotel de la Plage. In the morning, we drive to the warehouse to sort donations and prepare for afternoon distribution, services and activities on site.
In the warehouse
People came to volunteer for Care4Calais (C4C) from all over the UK, Ireland, Holland and Germany – some for the weekend, some a week, some a month. One man is just about to celebrate his 100th day on site.
They included a nurse, travel agent, corporate lawyer, Labour councillor, telephone engineer, advice worker, bar tender, waitress, paramedic, and lots of students, including one doing PhD research into refugee mental health.
Some volunteers were new, some came back year on year, all with a commitment to delivering humanitarian aid. Their ages ranged from twenties to seventies. It was hard work, but we only did what we felt able to.
Bonds grew quickly from chatting while assembling tents, testing air beds, pumping up pillows, and over endless tea, coffee, hot chocolate; sharing biscuits, offering each other a brew, cooking together, sharing food, washing up. One volunteered offered to make lunch: “I’ve never cooked for this many before,” she said. “Don’t worry; what can go wrong?”
We erected tents to check for tears and missing poles, and even a bad smell meant that the tent was eliminated (usually recycled). We sorted gloves, hats, t-shirts to ensure that it was all good stuff – clean, undamaged and appropriate.
This scrupulous quality control establishes respect for the courage and resilience of the refugees – there was no question of distributing shoddy or damaged goods.
Who does C4C support?
Volunteers support two settlement sites in Calais, one near Calais Hospital, the other near the city centre. These sits are currently home to around 400 young men, mainly from Sudan, many of whom are unaccompanied minors, their ages ranging from 15-18. Most don’t have ID and their age is hard to determine – many look very young.
C4C also supports 1,000 women and children, who are accommodated in hostels in Dunkirk, and arrived from countries including Sudan, Syria and Eritrea.
Distribution, services and activities
In the afternoon, we arrived on site: a car park. There is obvious respect amongst the refugees for the three permanent organisers, who are firm but fair in setting and reinforcing boundaries.
The distribution of donations is rigorous: each person receives one hat and one pair of gloves, and there is no pushing, shoving in, or sneaking round for another turn in the queue.
On our first day,we distributed around 140 sleeping bags at the car park. Services and activities include making hot drinks, fixing bikes, charging phones so that refugees can keep in touch with family and friends, sewing and repairing clothes, and providing basic first aid.
Socialising is also important, giving refugees time to relax and space to feel safe and enjoy each other’s company. The sight of several young men huddled around a table playing chess, dominoes and Jenga through pouring rain was incredible.
I wondered what we did if it rained, and soon found out – we just carry on, with no shelter or tarps: this is a day in the of life of a refugee.
The young men seemed unphased by the weather: the serving of tea, coffee, hot chocolate and distribution of biscuits continued unabated. The sugar got soggy, whipped up by the wind, and the table sticky with spilled milk, mixing with rainwater that snaked in pools on to the floor. But we carried on.
On our second day, distribution was again highly organised: we filled small bag with toiletries, including soap, shower gel, toothpaste and a toothbrush (tooth decay is high amongst refugees, we were told), as well as a hat and pair socks. Refugees line up to receive one each. They know the ropes.
Last month, C4C distributed new jackets; the previous week, there were new shoes. Some were donated by companies as part of their corporate ethical giving commitments while others were bought new from money donated to C4C.
Before Christmas, Sheffield Quakers and friends donated £282 to the Warm Winter Coats Appeal, which helped to buy the very coats the refugees were wearing.
We helped again with services and activities, which took up most of the afternoon. The men made each other friendship bracelets, played endless games of football and read. Many refugees speak a little English and are keen to improve.
Some spoke about how their education had been interrupted. One man said that he was four years into training as an electrician when war came to his country, and he had to leave. We did not ask for details of their journey to France or the traumas they had experienced unless this information was offered.
We also helped with services like hair cutting. Volunteers didn’t have to cut hair, but kept an eye on razors, scissors, cutters and clippers. Cutting was carried out across five chairs, where they received professional care by Sudanese barbers with a reputation for excellence. Each stylish haircut took over an hour.
This mutual care, like the friendship bracelets, showed how comradely bonds can be forged in even the bleakest circumstances, and how self-image can reinforce self- respect.
Who provides food?
The French authorities have provided food in the past, but this is now organised by another charity. The car park also contained well-maintained toilet facilities. We were told that local people at first were sympathetic to refugees but that this has lessened over time. The police regularly raid encampments and take away tents, sleeping bags and refugees’ possessions.
Back at the warehouse, we unpack the van and debrief over a cup of tea.
Why volunteer?
To get out of your bubble. To be able to tell others what conditions are really like for refugees and to debunk stereotypes. To educate yourself about what is going on in the world – we know so little about the struggles of people in other countries. To read up on Sudan and other conflicts that drive people to flee their homes.
To reaffirm that we are all human beings, and that what affects one of us ultimately affects another, and eventually us all. To do something to really help – something tangible and practical. To make a difference.
One purpose of volunteering is to dismantle the myths around migrants – the othering and dehumanisation. The focus is on helping and respecting each person as an equal human being.
C4C helps to provide for basic human needs, not to actively encourage or facilitate people to cross the Channel. Apart from anything else, trying to cross the Channel in a small boat is extremely dangerous. C4C argues for more safe, legal routes and advocates for a more welcoming, inclusive approach to refugees and asylum seekers.
“It is upsetting and unsettling to see the situation of the refugees, to hear their stories, but you’re likely to feel this more after you’ve left to go home to your warm bed, food and safety,” said a fellow volunteer.
“While you’re here, you’re swept away by the hope and resilience of the refugees, by their courage and hope to make a better future for themselves, [and] their comradeliness and friendship bonds, which help support and sustain each other.”
To learn more, visit care4calais.org

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