(If you haven’t yet, read Part 1. before this one: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/29/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-1-my-decision-to-volunteer/)
The night between Friday the 18th and Saturday the 19th I didn’t sleep. At all. I forced myself to stay up, watching films and catching up with TV series. I must admit that I struggled to keep myself awake, yet I was functional enough by 2 am to get dressed, organise my room, take my luggage and leave my flat thirty minutes later. Around 3:00 am, I met with my car peers, part of a larger group of Sussex students with whom I did the trip. My original plan was volunteering independently over the Easter break, but after hearing that people from my university were organising a trip, I joined them for just those four days.
During the drive to Dover I was “mildly” asleep, and even if it was a journey of less than two hours, I was very awake and energised when we boarded the ferry around 6 am. As soon as we sat in a lounge of the ship, most of my companions fell asleep, and I found myself roaming around the boat alone. I went to the outside deck various times to take pictures of the departure and arrival of the ferry, and in between, I went shopping and then sat in a corridor to read a book while I charged my phone.
(Leaving Dover’s port.)
The ship arrived to Calais two hours later, and after minutes of confusion about our next move, we went to our hostel to check in. As we drove and left the port behind, I was struck by the tall fences on both sides of the road. The last time I went on ferry to Calais, back in 2013, those fences weren’t there. Nor were the police vans that could be seen now and then on the road. Surprised, I made a comment out loud about my thoughts and one of my mates, who had gone to Calais to volunteer previously, told me that the fences were built to prevent undocumented migrants and asylum seekers from entering the port area in order to get to UK. As a matter of fact, the British government paid millions for that “extra security”. Nevertheless, I didn’t feel safe at all while driving down that road “protected” by fences. I actually felt a bit scared and concerned. Another important observation is how close ‘the Jungle’, the infamous refugee camp in Calais, is to the port. It is just besides it. I saw it while we were driving away.
(One of the fences.)
Around noon, we reached our accommodation, a youth hostel known as “Centre Européen de Séjour”. However, it was too early to check in and our rooms weren’t prepared, so we sat in the reception till we got in contact with the main organisations that we were volunteering for (L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees UK) and received directions to their warehouse. When we arrived, we introduced ourselves to one coordinator, who was very nice and welcoming. Following registration, our first tasks as volunteers were picking litter and recycling rubbish outside the warehouse, to keep the environment surrounding the building as clean as possible. By the time we finished, lunch was ready, and we sat outside to eat with other volunteers.
(On the left: us recycling rubbish. On the right: the logos of the organisations we were volunteering for.)
(On the left: the meal, which was vegan and delicious! On the right: my group seating down eating.)
Once we finished our meals and had a cup of tea, the afternoon shift in the warehouse began. My group and I were divided to carry out different tasks inside the building. I was sent to work in the clothing area, where my role was opening bags with clothes that had been donated and separating between women’s wear, men’s wear, and underage’s wear. Nevertheless, I spent most of my time organising the underage’s wear and splitting it between teen clothing (+10 years old), children clothing (3-10 years old) and baby clothing (less than 3 years old). I also had to walk around the warehouse various time to take boxes full of sorted clothing to their storage area.
(Work going on inside the warehouse)
Overall, even though my feet hurt terribly at the end of the day, it was an easy job and it reminded me of my days volunteering in a charity shop a couple of years ago. Sometimes, when I was sorting the babies’ clothing, I had throwbacks of 2008-2012, when my youngest siblings were born and I had to look after them now and then. It was a bittersweet memory: at first I smiled thinking about my siblings’ innocence and cheerfulness, but good mood disappeared as soon as I remembered there were actual babies and toddlers stuck in informal camps and travelling through dangerous routes across Europe, living in harsh conditions and demonised before they could even make an informed decision about their fates.
Although working in the warehouse sounds like a boring job, I enjoyed the dynamism of it, in addition to meeting other volunteers who came from all across Europe. Many were British, but there were also people from France, Spain, Germany, Poland… Even the donations came from a wide range of countries. At the end of the day, I was quite moved by the warm response to this humanitarian ‘crisis’ by many European citizens, from people who donated to people who were volunteering. Sadly, it isn’t as highlighted by media as the Neo-Nazi and fascist protests happening in the continent lately. Due to all this, I was happy to volunteer again in the warehouse the next day. Instead of sorting out clothes, I worked doing emergency food parcels in the food section, a job I enjoyed more (I just like managing food!). At some point, I also helped to load a van with sorted donations that would be sold or recycled, instead of distributed to asylum seekers in the camps.
(Example of the content in a food parcel.)
(Working the food section.)
(After loading the van.)
At the end of the two days, I found myself exhausted, entering my room and laying on my bed as soon as we got to the hostel. While the accommodation was far from a five start hotel, it was comfortable and pleasant. Many volunteers stayed there, not only the ones that worked for L’Auberge Des Migrants and Help Refugees UK, but also others like those working for Care4Calais. In the morning, when you went to the canteen for breakfast, you could see and hear volunteers interacting and asking each other who were they volunteering for, arranging meets up and transport to the different warehouses and camps, even if they were total strangers. It felt good being part of such a network of people, all from diverse backgrounds (age, gender, nationality…), but still there, co-operating with a common purpose: supporting asylum seekers in Calais and Dunkirk
(Heartwarming information board for volunteers in the hostel’s reception)
(A quote written down in one of the walls of the hostel. I loved it and I found it very relatable.)
During those two days, I was glad to realise that despite of the negativity and disregard for human rights and welfare that many in Europe have shown in social media, parliaments and news outlets, many others didn’t turn their back on those in need of help and understanding. This includes as well people who donated, even if volunteers are key to keeping the humanitarian response active. Not just those working on the ground, but also those working in the warehouse. And while not all volunteers wanted to or had chance to go the camps and work directly with those receiving the aid that we sorted, my group and I did. And that’s something I will talk about in the next post of this blog series.
You can check all the pictures I took of the trip here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwWNWzv