There’s no doubt about it, one of the great things about being a teacher is the long summer holiday in July and August. No one can quite understand how welcome that break is after a full academic year of teaching, unless you’ve actually been a teacher yourself. But, no matter how well-earned it may be, I do feel extremely lucky that I get to enjoy that time off work. This summer in particular I had big plans to hop around Europe with friends and family on various trips to celebrate my 30th birthday. But when planning my holiday, I started to feel like I could also put aside some time to do something for others. That’s when I decided that I would volunteer for a week with Help Refugees in Calais, France after following their work for a while on social media.
I arrived for briefing on the first day and found that there was a big mix of people from all backgrounds that had come to help for anything between a few days to months at a time. Over the next few days I helped out in a range of areas including sorting donations, sewing and mending clothes and blankets, organising laundry, preparing vegetables for meals, cleaning in the kitchen and digging holes for a new warehouse extension. One of the first things that struck me when walking into the warehouse was the lack of donations. Many of the shelves were empty as people are not donating anymore, due to the refugee crisis here becoming ‘old news’ (although it’s far from resolved).
I was also surprised to learn that Help Refugees is not the only charity working here to provide support. In that warehouse alone there were 8 organisations working together to provide much needed aid to the people still in Calais and Dunkirk. The following organisations particularly stood out for me as the work they do is so vital.
Help Refugees They work tirelessly to provide aid to refugees with the simple aim of improving their lives. http://www.helprefugees.org
The School Bus Project They offer a mobile education service in order for refugees to “continue their education, develop skills, take language classes and prepare for a better life”. http://www.schoolbusproject.org
Refugee Community Kitchen They prepare and serve daily meals for displaced men, women and children in the UK and abroad. http://www.refugeecommunitykitchen.com
Refugee Info Bus They provide multilingual advice about legal information, emergency tips and useful contacts as well as supporting refugees to understand their rights and the procedures for claiming for asylum. http://www.refugeeinfobus.com
Help Refugees have a policy that if a volunteer is staying for a week or less, they will not go out into the ‘field’ to distribute clothing/bedding to the camps. This is understandable as they would not have time to receive the appropriate field training and it ensures the safeguarding and continuity of care for the beneficiaries. However, on my final day of working in the kitchen with RCK I was asked to accompany them to distribute the meals, as they need a group of about 11 volunteers for the job of serving.
Before we went, the leaders gave us a briefing in which they obviously had to give us some ‘worst case scenarios’; I was quite apprehensive on the drive there, I was almost expecting people to be pushing in the queue and demanding more food and there was also the prospect of being arrested (absurd, I know!). Thankfully, nothing of the sort occurred. The people we served were respectful and polite and many asked for a smaller portion than what I was serving. Many young children skipped around with smiles on their faces and cheeky giggles. What really hit me was the warmth and gratitude shown by most of the people there. It wasn’t a cursory ‘thank you’ for the meal, nor was it over the top. I just felt a genuine kind spirit from many who asked me how I was and smiled warmly even through the indignity of having to queue for their meal in the middle of a field with a paper plate in hand.
I visited during the summer and so there were lots of volunteers and the weather was pleasant. But as I left on the final day in heavy rain and thunderstorms I couldn’t help but think about what these people face with the oncoming winter. With a lack of donations and the police confiscating refugee belongings on a weekly basis (including their tents and blankets!) it is hard to think about the situation the refugees will be in – unimaginable to me, but it will be their reality.
Some of my friends don’t really understand why I spent time there this summer and many didn’t even realise there were still refugees in Calais and Dunkirk! At the camp I visited the refugees were mostly Kurdish (from Iran and Iraq), Somali and some Pakistani. I don’t claim to have an answer to the refugee crisis, I am not a politician and so it is not my job to have the answers to immigration and asylum. However, I do see it as my responsibility as a human (and a teacher) to care about others and their well-being, especially when there are children involved. This includes food, clothing and shelter but perhaps just as importantly: dignity, respect and compassion, which is what the organisations working with Help Refugees are striving to provide.
It is difficult to put into a blog post how this experience affected me but my aim is to raise awareness about this ongoing problem and possibly work more with these projects in the future. More information about the organisations mentioned can be found by following the links in this blog. In the meantime, I shall be taking part in the Miles for Refugees challenge, you can find out more or sponsor me here: https://milesforrefugees2018.everydayhero.com/uk/natasha-1