Calais: Care and Kindness in the ‘Jungle’

By Beth Anderson and Maddey Watson

Everyone followed the recent Calais demolitions. Some were thankful… ‘it’s finally all over’.  Others – they were concerned for the safety of vulnerable people.  For some students at Durham, however, the demolitions were more than just a news story.

Maddey Watson recounts her experience volunteering in the ‘Jungle over the summer, organised by a new society, Durham for Refugees:

“In July I went with a group of 5 others to the ‘Jungle’ in Calais. We volunteered with the Care4Calais charity, reporting to their warehouse each day. In the mornings we stayed in the warehouse – organising and sorting through aid, unbagging donations and preparing supplies for that day’s distribution. We worked for about 3 hours before having a break for lunch and deciding roles for the afternoon. These roles included container (where we distributed aid from a container based in the camp), and art or English classes (where we set up reading, writing and drawing supplies on blankets in the camp, and invited refugees to take part in casual lessons based on their own needs).

Both jobs were centred on giving the people in the camp some entertainment – these people have not been granted citizenship so are not allowed to work, and their days can be very dull. A factor that was pressed on us by the Care4Calais team (all volunteers themselves) was that we give these people some dignity – we cannot personally help them escape the squalor in the camp, but we can help them by providing supplies via donations, or giving them some fun. Just chatting helped relieve their boredom, and every two weeks Care4Calais held a Sports Day, which a lot of the refugees looked forward to.

Each day I was in the camp there were streams of people taking part in lessons and more people than we had donations for queuing to collect them – some people queued for 2 hours or more, yet had to go home empty handed. Something that really struck me was how kind these people were – even though they had queued for so long, they were willing to let children and ill or injured people skip the queue. If we were offering something they didn’t need they would refuse to take it, as they knew that even though a second jumper or an extra roll of toilet paper would be useful to them, there would be someone behind them who would need it more.

One night the volunteers stayed in the camp to eat at one of the restaurants run by refugees. The food was amazing and it was wonderful to see how a few people living in cramped and dirty tents could make a tarpaulin tent so welcoming and hospitable, and to make a communal space where people can meet and try to have fun.

Although I was only in Calais for a few days, I met some amazing people, heard unbelievable stories, and learned so much that I wouldn’t have known just from the media. I have certainly learnt to be more appreciative of what I have and where I live – everyone I met spoke of England and London with longing as if it is a utopia, yet we complain all the time. Now that the camp has been disbanded I hope that the refugees can set up a new ‘home’ and that more help can be given to them to allow them to move into more permanent residence.”

Motivated to help more and encouraged by the success of three student volunteer trips to Calais, Durham for Refugees is keen to continue their work and has 4 main aims this year: fundraising to support charities like Care4Calais (currently doing vital work supporting the under-resourced ‘welcome’ centres in France); raising awareness of the situation and refugee rights; helping local refugees and asylum seekers and sending students on aid trips – we hope to volunteer for a week over the Christmas holidays at a camp in Athens.

To keep up to date with Durham for Refugees and get involved, like the Facebook page or follow @durhamrefugees on Twitter and Instagram. You can also message the Facebook page to be added to the mailing list.

If you’d like to find out more about the organisation Care4Calais and how you can help with their work, visit their website.

Photograph: Noha Al

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