What made you decide to volunteer to cook for refugees?
I initially decided to volunteer after seeing lots of articles in the media about their struggles. I decided I would like to help them survive until, hopefully, a solution can be found. My friend had set up the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais, at the beginning of December 2015. I thought this would be a great place to help.
What kind of items were donated before you left?
I let local people know about the trip I was planning and donations of food, sleeping bags, coats and money began pouring in. People were generally very supportive. I also got Vicki, a fellow Upton Noble resident, on board and we drove to Dover with the car packed full to the brim to catch the ferry to Calais.
What happened when you arrived in Calais?
We went straight to the L’auberge des Migrants warehouse. This is run and staffed entirely by a constant stream of volunteers from across the UK and Europe who want to give their time and money to help those in need. It is where people drop their donations and they are sorted and given to refugees. It is also where the Refugee Community Kitchen is based.
It is an amazing, heartwarming environment full of lovely, helpful, hardworking people from all walks of life. If you need to restore your faith in humanity, I can recommend that anyone should visit and help out for a few hours, days or weeks.
What were your specific duties?
We helped with cooking and chopping, while dancing to music and meeting new friends. Afterwards we decided to go and help serve food in ‘the jungle’, the name given to the main, unofficial refugee camp in Calais.
Describe ‘the jungle’
What struck me most about ‘the jungle’ was that the people there were just everyday people. They looked like my old neighbours in London, except that they were living in what looked like a very muddy campsite that had been constructed from bits of wood and tarpaulins and that had been there for far too long and wasn’t really fit for winter use.
I had to remind myself that the people here were in the middle of a perilous and ‘no guarantee of delivery’ journey. They had been forced by war, persecution and poverty to up and leave behind everything that they knew and owned and entrust their own and their family’s lives to luck and people smugglers across sea, mountain and road. And all for what? To end up in a makeshift muddy camp, hated by authorities and vilified by the press, unable to continue their journey to relatives and friends in the UK.
The problem is these people live but they have no life to plan for and no prospect of getting one. Who would want that for a fellow human being?
Was there any sign of hope?
Despite their desperate situations, the residents of ‘the jungle’ had, with the help of volunteers, used bits of wood and plastic to build makeshift homes, shops, churches, community centres and communities around them. Here was an enterprising, hardworking and caring group of people living together in the most adverse of conditions. These are people who I felt would have a positive influence and be of benefit to UK society.
Did you discover any personal stories?
Amazingly, one of the refugees was my old neighbour. Abdul had lived a few streets away from me in London, although I had never met him before. However, until five years ago we had lived in the same community. We talked of the school he used to go to there and the restaurants we had both eaten in. Abdul hugged me like an old friend. He told me how his family were all killed in his Afghanistan home and how he had walked and obtained lifts all the way to the UK, where he arrived at the age of 16. He lived in the UK for three years, was not granted asylum and was deported back to Afghanistan at the age of 19.
He had spent the last five years travelling back to the UK to be reunited with his only close friends. He has no family of his own. He had now become stuck in Calais, as it is incredibly difficult to cross from there to the UK, so his plan is to keep travelling until he finds a place where he can get into Britain. What other choice does he have?
In Calais Abdul was helping to distribute food to other refugees for cooking and he cheerily played his guitar with some of the many unaccompanied, orphaned boys in the camp, in an attempt not to lose hope.
How many volunteers are there?
On the positive side, the camp in Calais now has a huge amount of volunteers with resources to help so conditions are improving. There is another camp in Dunkirk where conditions are much worse. Not so many people help there.
What is your hope for the future?
I hope that our government begins to see the Calais refugees as human beings and helps them. The refugees that have made it as far as Calais and Dunkirk have done so because of their resourcefulness and resilience. They could bring that spirit to the UK, if they were allowed to.