Volunteering: it's easier than you might think!
In my first blog post, I had mentioned and explained briefly a trip to Calais that I took in January. For those of you that are unaware, Calais and other areas in northern France is largely affected by the refugee crisis. It has many refugees originating from a multitude of African countries, such as Eritrea, Sudan, and South Sudan, but this is absolutely not an exhaustive list! They have all escaped corrupt governments, war, and persecution, and often desire to get to the United Kingdom, as this is where they see most opportunity and want to be with family members who have already migrated here. The difficulty lies in the difficulty they face from the French police and CRS, who are violent in their actions, using chemical weapons and intimidation against the refugees. This is a form of border security funded by an Anglo-French deal - essentially a way to control refugees. It seems that politics in both countries have instilled fear in citizens, due to false messages being spread about the true intent of refugees which is not only untrue but harms their safety and security. This is why it is vital that work is done to prevent refugees from being in harm's way. This post aims to debunk some of the myths surrounding volunteering and its difficulty and tell you what to expect should you decide to volunteer*.
In Calais, there are many British non-profit organisations that distribute food and resources in order to aid with the refugee crisis here. Humanitarians, activists and human rights defenders often travel to Calais in order to do what they can to help. It seems totally inaccessible to volunteer abroad, but it is easier than you may think. The organisation that we volunteered with, Care4Calais, make the process very easy. All that you need to do is email the administrator of the charity that you are heading over on certain dates, book your accommodation and transport, and you’re sorted! This can be done for a very low price depending on the length of your trip and where you stay: there is a youth hostel in Calais, there are many Airbnbs that offer sufficient accommodation for a low price. In terms of transport, we travelled on night coaches and ferry in order to get there. However, some people fly to Paris and drive to Calais, use the Eurostar, or drive to Calais using the EuroTunnel. It can be difficult to find direct public transport, so be prepared to have to look hard if this is your method of choice! With Care4Calais, your lunch is cooked by volunteers before you go out to distribute donations and you volunteer from about 9 in the morning until about 5 o clock in the evening. You’ll help out with the organisation of donations: certain jobs will need doing and the team leader will make this clear on the day! Following lunch, you will actually go out ‘on distribution’. This will entail the distribution of ‘packs’ of donations (for example, base layer packs containing t-shirts, underwear, and socks), serving tea, coffee, hot chocolate, and biscuits, and, arguably most importantly, providing power stations for the refugees to charge their phones and keep in contact with loved ones. When we were there, there were also volunteers sewing any damaged clothing during the distribution, volunteers fixing any bikes that are used and also volunteers providing haircuts: these do depend on supply and amount of volunteers, though. During the distribution, you’ll have the opportunity to introduce yourself and chat with people who have come to collect the distributions. Most are bilingual: the most common languages I heard were Arabic, French, German, and English. They also love to play football!
While most of the time it is extremely heartwarming to speak with refugees, it can also be upsetting or distressing to hear some stories that they tell: I found myself holding back tears during some of the conversations I had. A great way to have some insight into the conversations you may have with refugees is to visit the @conversationsfromcalais Instagram page. It’s a project that I really love, which anonymously documents some of the harder conversations volunteers have had with refugees in Calais, in order to really create impact and create an image of what it is like in Calais. Out of respect, we avoided taking any photos during our volunteering, to protect the safety of the refugees. It is an eye-opening experience that will shed some light on the crisis which is hidden from us by the UK media. Care4Calais is a fantastic non-profit which does some incredible work and we highly recommend volunteering with them. There are many other organisations in Calais that also do incredible work, including Refugee Community Kitchen and Support Refugees. We can’t provide specific information on their volunteering, but their websites provide all information needed.
I hope that this blog post has provided more information on volunteering. It truly is easier than you might think. As per my last post, it is incredibly important to get involved. If this post has motivated you to volunteer in Calais (or elsewhere - there are crises in many countries, particularly Greece, that require our attention, too) then fantastic! But if you aren’t in a position that you can volunteer just yet, that is absolutely ok too. Remember to still be active, however: sign petitions, educate your friends, and always no matter that no matter what, your voice always matters. Thanks for reading.
-For your information, we travelled with Blablabus - the ticket price got us onto the coach and a P&O Ferry, but we arrived late at night. Taxis are sparse at this time in Calais, so we had to walk to our Airbnb. Please make sure that you stay safe, and consider all options before you travel.
* Non-profits in Calais are struggling and need as much help as possible due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Refugee safety is at more risk than ever due to the pandemic - the already CRS is running shelters to segregate refugees and the concern for refugee security is higher than ever. Volunteers and donations are needed now more than ever.