Tag Archives: Volunteering

My Second Term at University: Final Grade, Volunteering, Working and Others

(Before reading this post I recommend you to read the previous one linked to this topic, “My First Term at University: Independence, Studying, Socialising & Wellbeing”.)

The last four months of my first year in university went by quickly. I had a mixture of seminars, workshops and lectures every week, together with daily readings. Lectures are my preferred teaching method. Seminars and workshops are nice now and then, but I don’t feel like interacting with people constantly and the sessions can be exhausting. My modules for the second term were: Institutions of Aid, Global Politics of the Environment, Key Thinkers in Development and Issues in Development. Key Thinkers in Development was my favourite one, I liked learning about different theorists every week. I also discovered intellectuals I want to learn more about, such as Frantz Fanon and Naila Kabeer.

As part of my assessments, I had to write two 1000-words concepts notes (Key Thinkers in Development), do a group presentation (Issues in Development), complete a 2000-words essay (Global Politics of the Environment) and take two unseen exams (Issues in Development and Institutions of Aid). My results for the concept notes were the most disappointing ones: 64 and 61 (out of 100). The grades aren’t bad, they are equivalent to 2:1. The problem is, I worked hard on those short essays, I even sought feedback after getting just 64 in the first one, but ended up getting 61 in the second one. I was upset because I saw no progress from my previous concept notes.

On the contrary, the 2000 words essays went great, I spent a lot of time in it and I got a 70! The group presentation also went well, I had 71, despite my reluctance to do group work due to my individualistic tendencies. And, startlingly, the two exams were the best bit of my results: I had 72 and 84. My average grade for the whole academic year ended up being 69%, 1% off my goal, a first (the highest degree classification in UK). Nevertheless, I’m happy with this mark: I passed the year and improved from my first term to the second one. Taking into account how tough things were due to my poor emotional wellbeing (I had to take a week off lessons and put off exam revisions till a week before each exam), I’m glad I made it and didn’t drop out or fail.

When comes to life outside the academic world, I spent a few hours a week volunteering for my local Red Cross division. I applied and got accepted to be a “Project Research Assistant” on November 2015 and I went to the Red Cross office to work most Fridays till June 2016. My key role was carrying out a project as part of the Red Cross’s “Responding to Financial Crisis” program: building links between foodbanks / food aid providers and the organisation. I completed it with another volunteer, who was a third-year student in the same university and school as me. Our tasks included: project management, emailing / calling and visiting foodbanks / food aid providers, creating databases and directories, researching and producing a leaflet with all the data and information gathered.

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My Red Cross starter pack

Carrying out the project was a stimulating experience, my colleague and I were given huge flexibility, but also huge responsibility: we worked under minimal supervision. I tend to work better as an individual, yet the teamwork went great. My colleague was very nice and working with her was a pleasure, plus we often talked about non-volunteering related issues, such as our studies and our personal lives, during our breaks/free time. We bonded well.

Although it was not a remunerated position, I gained a lot from this opportunity: I acquired administrative skills and experience working with a non-profit organisation (perfect for my degree). I also participated in a 3-day foundation training course, in which I learnt about the Red Cross, humanitarian work, first aid, emergency response, supporting people in crisis, emotional wellbeing, safeguarding, self-care and responding to psychological distress. On top of everything, it was rewarding being able to help with a cause close to my heart and personal experiences (financial crisis).

Volunteering was not the only extracurricular activity I did during the last term: on March 2016 I found a temporary salaried job! I was very lucky to get it, I saw the advertisement on the careers hub of my university the day the vacancy ended. I swiftly sent my CV on an email, together with a short message about how I was fit for the role. I was amazed when I was invited to an interview and later given the position, but knowing that my personal-just-for-a-hobby blog made me stand out and get the job was the best part!

For three months I worked as a ‘Research Support Assistant’ for the World Association for Sustainable Development (WASD) and Science Policy Research Unit of my university’s School of Business, Management and Economics. My boss was a nice man and working for him was a good experience. My tasks included: desk research and data collection, database creation (Excel), website management (WordPress), social media management, article writing and email communications. It was a homebased position with casual meetings now and then. The aims of my role were improving the social media presence of the organisation and updating the information on its experts’ directory, which I think met. At least my boss seemed pleased with what I did.

I’m very happy I was given this opportunity, I got experience working for a global sustainable development organisation and my salary was nice (nearly double the amount of the minimum wage). Furthermore, I liked my boss’s vision and the goal of WASD, which is “to promote the exchange of knowledge, experience, information and ideas among academics, scholars, professionals, policy makers, industry and students to improve the mutual understanding of the roles of science and technology in achieving sustainable development all over the world”. The organisation and he made huge efforts to include people from non-Western countries in their work, from conferences to publications. I loved this aspect of working for WASD, because development and sustainability are often too based on Eurocentric ideas, even though many decisions taken affect primarily non-Western countries.

One of my aims whilst at university is, outside my lesson hours, gaining knowledge and skills for a future career in development, sustainability and/or social change. I have been able to do this not just by volunteering and working, but also by attending non-mandatory conferences / talks on contemporary topics, completing free online courses on subjects that my degree isn’t covering (deeply), and learning new languages.

I went to three talks during the year: ‘EU Migration and Refugee Crisis Roundtable’, ‘How can Diasporas Contribute to their Continent? Africa as a Case Study’ and ‘Asma Elbadawi (poet, opening act) and Akala (rapper, main lecturer) for Sussex Decolonizing Education Week – A talk on Hip Hop and Shakespeare’. I also participated in one conference set in my university, ‘Decolonising Education: Towards Academic Freedom in Pluriversality’. I completed three free online courses: ‘Psychology of Political Activism: Women Changing the World’ by Smith College, ‘Anthropology of Current World Issues’ by the University of Queensland, and ‘Human Rights: The Right to Freedom of Expression’ by Amnesty International. And I enrolled on evening beginner lessons of Arabic while casually studying French and Portuguese on the side.

Although this might sound like a lot, I wasted a lot of time this academic year. Not just because of my poor emotional wellbeing, but because of procrastination and laziness. My goals for next year are attending more talks and conferences, catching up on my online courses and taking my language classes more seriously. I would also like to get actively involved in a couple of societies, campaigns or community work opportunities related to social issues or politics. Nevertheless, I probably won’t volunteer or work regularly (unless a really good opportunity knocks on my door or I find myself in severe financial hardship).

Last of all to mention is my social life, which was barely active for the same reasons as the first term. I only went out towards the end of the year, to have dinner with some friends before they left to their respective home countries and to attend an end-of-year ball organised by the Development Society in my university, in conjunction with others. Both events were pleasant and fun. I also hanged out a couple of times with a friend who does the same degree as me. We have various things in common, so is easy to talk with her about personal issues and be understood / understand her.

The only new thing I did on the second term was attend social basketball sessions on Sunday now and then, which were very enjoyable and I want to continue attending on the upcoming academic year. I like playing basketball a lot, I prefer it as an exercise activity to going to the gym and it helps to improve my mood. Indeed, improving my mood, or better said, mental health and emotional wellbeing, was one of my goals for the term. That’s why I attended counselling sessions every Tuesday for six weeks (the huge step I mentioned on my previous post about my life in university). Nonetheless, I don’t want to go in details about this, I will leave it for an upcoming post (and this time it is really coming).

(PS: If you want to have a look at more pictures of my time at university, check this link:https://www.flickr.com/photos/134519211@N08/albums/72157662839553059)

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BZU Work Camp in Palestine: Part 3. Lectures, NGOs & Volunteering

One of the main reasons I liked the BZU work camp was that it was not just about sightseeing: it was about understanding the Palestinian situation better. There were aspects of the Israeli occupation you could see (checkpoints, The Wall, destroyed infrastructure) but others required explanation because they weren’t visible enough. When applying to the program, I was hoping to learn more about the politics and social aspects of the issue. Fortunately, my desire was fulfilled. We had lectures from first aiders, an activist, a politician and an academic. We had presentations about different community groups. And we carried out experiential learning by volunteering with those groups. It was an enriching educational experience I want to share with you.

Palestinian Red Crescent Society

Representatives from the organisation gave us a small lesson on first aid the day after we arrived. The topics were heat related emergencies and bites, oriented towards real issues we could have during the camp. The West Bank is a hot and dry place full of nature. Although we normally had a first aider with us during the camp, it was good to be made aware of simple things that could be lifesaving. In addition, while I have attended various first aid courses before, I never went through those topics: it was a new knowledge for me.

Right 2 Edu (Right to Education)

Right 2 Edu is self-funded grassroots student campaign that began in BZU in the 1970s, with the objective of providing legal assistance to staff and students incarcerated by Israel. At present, other aims include: documenting, researching and raising awareness about the occupation; building an international campaign; advocating for a proper Palestinian curriculum; connecting with supporters from the international community; and opposing illegal violations by the Israeli state. At heart of the campaign is the desire of securing full access to quality education for Palestinians, covering from political to economic aspects. Currently there are around 80 students from BZU detained in Israeli prisons and the campaign offers them legal representation. The Right 2 Edu has carried out two tours in USA universities, visiting 40 institutions in the first one and 37 in the second one, with the purpose of explaining their ambitions and creating alliances.

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Campaign presentation.

Education is a very important element of the Palestinian cause. When the 1st Intifada happened, education was made illegal in Palestine by the Israeli government: educational institutions were shut down for 4 years. To keep educating themselves, Palestinians created circle study groups in their homes, were teachers taught them. After picking up on this, the Israel government introduced a ban than prohibited more than 10 people to gather, trying to prevent these study groups. Nevertheless, Palestinians kept circulating knowledge in smaller groups till the ban ended.

Another reason why education is significant is because of the role the curriculum plays. A Palestinian curriculum didn’t use to exist before, the alternatives being the Jordanian or Israeli one. Then, aid was given to Palestinians so they could create their own one, but conditions were applied: they weren’t allowed to mention “anti-Israeli bias”, such as the Nakba (the 1948 Palestinian exodus after Israel was created), they had to study it as a war, not a catastrophe in which thousands of Palestinians had to leave their homes and became refugees. Another example is that instead of teaching about “resistance”, they had to learn about negotiations and deals.

This is an issue because in Palestine, there are two main types of violations: the visible ones and the invisible ones. The visible ones are for example the checkpoints, the settlements, the soldiers, and the Wall. The invisible ones apply to things like the curriculum: not being allowed to learn about their history and heritage correctly. This is a problem because Palestinians feel like if it makes them normalise their situation and it reduces chances for real resistance against the occupation. It can also make some feel a desire of leaving their country, linked also to a lack of opportunities in the region because of the occupation.

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Campaign presentation.

Although education is no longer banned in Palestine, quality and access are still an issue as well. Certain materials are not allowed to enter the region, such as some chemicals (under the excuse that they might be used inappropriately) and books, especially philosophical books and books about revolution. In addition, in some primary schools, Palestinian children are taught with books that show Israelis as progressive saviours who brought things like light to their country, while Arab-Palestinians are depicted as backward societies incapable of such. When comes to access, there are various restrictions that don’t allow Palestinians to build schools easily and location can become a big problem for children to attend school (the issue of construction in the West Bank is explained better below).

To learn more about the Right 2 Edu campaign, visit this webpage: right2edu.birzeit.edu

Lecture on Jerusalem: Planning, Siege, Segregation, Colonisation &Apartheid

A professor of Urban Planning in BZU gave us a lecture about the geographical issues surrounding the Israeli occupation in Palestine.

Palestine was part of the Ottoman Empire till 1917. Then, the British Mandate took over. Afterwards, the Balfour declaration was passed by Britain, in which it was articulated how a Jewish homeland would be established in Palestine (important to point out that a minority of Jews already lived in Palestine, alongside a minority of Christians and a majority of Muslims). This lead to an increase in Jewish migration to Palestine and to growing tensions between the populations in the region. In 1947, the UN created a partition plan, leading to the end of the Palestine mandate, the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the subsequent 1948 Arab-Israeli war.

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Lecture.

At present, Palestine is often described as being comprised by Gaza and the West Bank, including East Jerusalem as capital (this view is disputed for a variety for reasons, some will be explained in the next blog post). The West Bank is geopolitically divided in three areas: A, B & C. This was as part of a temporary agreement that came after the 1st Intifada, which was extended after the 2nd Intifada. Area A is fully controlled by the Palestinian Authority, most urban communities are located there. Area B has shared control between Israel and Palestine. And Area C, which comprises 60% of the West Bank, is controlled by Israel, and Palestinians have a very restricted allowance for construction (from schools to agricultural infrastructure). This pushes many of them to construct illegally and risk demolition. Overall, not being allowed to manage 60% of their land has a negative impact for Palestinians, due to limitations to enhance their economy and promote the development of their region.

When comes to Jerusalem, the creation of the Wall on the Palestinian side led to a decrease in Palestinian land. Palestinian villages and refugee camps were demolished and partitioned. It is important to note that East Jerusalem is an economic, social & cultural heart for Palestinian communities. It was separated from West Bank cities like Bethlehem by Israeli settlements, a division more empathised by the Wall. The expanding settlements are negatively affecting the lives of the Bedouin, an Arab semi-nomadic ethnic group who live there: they have severe restrictions to construct and rebuild, which is considered a strategy by Israel to kick them out. Another believed purpose of these settlements is connecting East Jerusalem to West Jerusalem. Their existence also makes it harder to cross from the North of the West Bank to the South of the West Bank.

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Lecture.

Many Israeli settlements in the West Bank were constructed on bought state land (e.g. natural reserve), even though the Geneva Conventions say that state land is for indigenous communities. Several of these settlements are illegal, but no solutions have been found in the International Court of Justice. They contribute to the fracturing of the West Bank, not only because of their existence, but because of the creation of highways by the Israeli government to connect them with Tel Aviv and West Jerusalem.

Meeting with Minister of Culture

On the 4th of August we had a meeting with Dr. Ehab Bseiso, the Minister of Culture of the Palestinian National Authority, who received us on behalf of the president, Mahmoud Abbas. He spoke to us about a variety of things and answered some of your questions. I took some notes, below are some highlights.

The Israeli occupation in Palestine makes it challenging to run a system and administrate it, especially the settlements, which are illegal according to international law. When a country occupies another, it is a war crime, according also to international law. The settlements are expanding and not randomly: it is systematic policy to diffuse the chance for Palestinians to have an independent state. Currently, it is illegal for Palestinians to buy products made in Israeli settlements. Not long ago, the EU decided to label settlement products, which is a step forward for Palestine. The settlements don’t only create economic issues, but also threat the political stability and security of the region. Settlers attack Palestinian families, like when the house of a family in Nablus was burned down and only a 5-years-old survived.

The Wall and the checkpoints are another significant part of the occupation. The Wall is 8 metres high, and it imprisoned Palestinians in their own land, apart from taking land from them. Not just empty land was separated, but also schools, farms, houses, etc. The Wall is controlled by electric gates that open three times a day. This is a problem for the daily life of Palestinians, to go to school, to see their family… In addition, confrontations happen, and there are attacks, arrests and deaths. When comes to the checkpoints, there are 550 in the West Bank. Some are fixed (always there) while others are mobile (appear and disappear). In some way, it could be said that time in Palestine is measured by checkpoints and not minutes! These are not only time-consuming, but also humiliating.

Israelis complain about Palestinian violence, which is taken out of context and ignores the Palestinian suffering. The occupation is violence and to the end cycle of violence you need to end the occupation. In addition, a good question is: can victims of colonisation be a real threat to colonisers? Waiting in checkpoints for hours, the need for permits, house raids, house demolitions, street raids, and arrests without reasons: that’s the occupation. It is violence, thousands of daily crimes. However, it is not true that there is no hope for a Palestinian state: international solidarity and community support are important for the political struggle. Some examples are boycotting settlement products and the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions). There is also the academic and cultural boycott, through which academics and intellectuals in Israel and abroad are encouraged to support Palestinian human rights. Boycotting is a form of resistance and it is not about individuals: it is about policies and systems.

When comes to Hamas, the international community needs to respect political leaders and the choice of Palestinians. The elections were democratic and transparent, Israel didn’t accept them and there was a siege. There are radical parties in Israel, some Israeli ministers come from them. Hamas is part of the political system, democracy and elections. Diplomacy wise, it is not easy. Some Israeli ministers live in settlements. The Palestinian president created a committee to engage in conversations with Israeli civil societies. But the president of the committee got his permit removed as a punishment and the committee was accused of “diplomatic terrorism”. Negotiations can be a waste of time and there is a need of international involvement since it is not sure if the Israeli offer for peace is genuine.

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Group picture with the Minister of Culture.

Armaa’ Organisation

This is a Palestinian educational and cultural NGO based in Jerusalem. They specialise in Palestinian kids between 6 and 18 years old. They run different activities and workshops, from learning to write & read to leadership training. They have a partnership with the British Council to be sent an English teacher. They also do after-school activities, Ramadan celebrations like iftar and summer camps! We visited them during our trip to Jerusalem and volunteered with them on the morning. I did some play work with toddlers around 3-5 years old. My Arabic is very broken so communicating with them was hard at times, but it was a nice experience. Afterwards, we were invited to have breakfast with them. The organisation was very welcoming.

Palestinian Circus School

The institution started in 2013 and it has hundreds of students. Its aim is to create behavioural and social change among Palestinians by trying to build trust, respect, cooperation, self-esteem and confidence. Their circus shows have a variety of messages: fight for power, refugees, water, recycling…

Youth Village

This is a project run by the Sharek Forum, a youth organisation that runs a variety of activities for young people. They decided to create a village for outdoor meetings and activities because young people got bored with only being indoors. The Youth Village is located in Area C, where it is not allowed to build full buildings or buildings with constant ceiling. There is a small area of the Youth Village in Area B as well. Weekly groups of young people participate and volunteer to build in the area. They also organise camping activities while being there for 2-3 days. After learning about the project, we divided ourselves in groups and helped to move around construction materials, work on a ceiling and pick up rubbish in the surroundings.

Shoruq Organisation

NGO based in the Dheisheh refugee camp in Bethlehem. Their main focus is advocating for refugee rights. Shoruq means “sunrise”, symbolising a new beginning. The organisation was established in 2012 by residents. Their aim is to empower children and youth, so they aware of their rights. They run activities for girls, summer camps, dance activities, music activities… It works a safe space where children and young people are given opportunities, such as media programming and professional training, to express themselves. They also offer psychosocial support. And they advocate for their “right to return” and their right to life and human dignity. “Right to return” refers to the right of Palestinians evicted from villages, which are at present in the state of Israel, to return to them. Israel expected younger generations to not remember their villages of origin, but children and young people are taught about their heritage and ancestors. Following a presentation about the NGO, we did some voluntary work painting around the refugee camp.

Naim Khader Community Training & Development Centre in Cooperation with Hanns-Seidel-Stiftung / Centre of Education for Renewable Energy

One of the biggest NGOs in Palestine. We did some gardening voluntary work with them and then we had a presentation about the institution. It is funded by the EU and aiming to have local support. The idea for the organisation came from volunteering and camps. It started as a small tiny idea, then became very large. The NGO works in many fields: youth, women, engineering, development… It is the 1st organisation that worked in lands threatened by Israel control, trying to develop agriculture and water sources. New technologies for agriculture were introduced. They also established the Palestinian Women Association, one of the biggest in Palestine. They help farmers to harvest olives and others products around Israeli settlements, which is not an easy task.

It is first organisation that works training agricultural engineers since 1992. 20 engineers from Gaza and 20 engineers from the West Bank stay in a centre to train for nine months. There are three centres: one in Jenin, another one in Gaza and another one in Jericho. During the training programme, engineers are taught computer skills, language skills, managerial skills, marketing… They focus on practical skills to enrich theoretical learning. At the end of program, the engineers are given lands and supervised practical work to see how the training went. In addition, they offer scholarships for creative engineers, so they can fund their own projects

The NGO has divisions for voluntary, social, water and organic agricultural work. They also try to use solar cells as electricity source since the Israeli occupation doesn’t give electricity sometimes. In Jenin, there can be 2-4 hours of no electricity a day. Another problem is the use of water. Waterlines were opened and people awaited till the water reached them, yet the IDF destroyed them. There are also issues with farming. Sometimes Palestinians aren’t allowed to farm, others time they are. Israeli planes survey the area for buildings and give warnings if they see something they don’t like.

(P.S: Sorry if the writing in this post seems poor. I’m currently not feeling physically well and I’m trying my best to end the blog series while being as informative as possible.)

 

Trip to Calais & Dunkirk: Part 4. ‘Conclusion’

(If you haven’t yet, read the previous posts from this blog series before this one:

Part 1. ‘My Decision to Volunteer’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/29/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-1-my-decision-to-volunteer/

Part 2. ‘Arrival and Working in the Warehouse’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/30/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-2-arrival- and-working-in-the-warehouse/

Part 3: ‘Working in the Refugee Camps’: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/04/02/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-3-working-in-the-refugee-camps/)

My trip to volunteer in Calais and Dunkirk during the 19th and 23rd of March is an experience I will forever remember, due to both good and bad reasons. Some things I did weren’t things I never did before, such as sorting out donations like clothes. Others didn’t require previous knowledge or perfect skills, such as creating emergency food parcels. Conversely, some things I did were things I had never done before, such as teaching conversational English to asylum seekers. Others required the use of good communicative and organisational skills, such as distributing children’s clothes in a refugee camp. Overall, I can’t describe the experience as positive or negative. I can’t claim I was shocked by anything I saw or did. But I can definitely say it was educational, enlightening and motivational.

I learned about how humanitarian aid responses work and how volunteers can be mobilised and organised in an effective way. I also unconsciously evaluated what was being done right and what could be improved by volunteers and NGOs working on the ground. For instance, I think that the language barrier should be better addressed, mainly for people who work directly with asylum seekers and migrants. I struggled to communicate sometimes with women who came to the distribution centre for clothes, and I didn’t like it. While I’m doing an Arabic course in college and it helped sometimes while being in the camps, I’m learning the modern standard version hence I can’t understand Arabic dialects well. In addition, not all residents spoke Arabic, other predominant languages were Farsi and Kurdish, which I don’t speak at all. I know that it is unrealistic to demand all volunteers to be fluent in those languages when working in the camps, but I believe that a small phrase book or at least list with basic sentences and words could help to improve practice and interactions. Also, this can apply as well to living in France while volunteering and having at least a basic understanding of French.

Another important thing I picked up is how dynamic and active life in a refugee camp can be. While working in the camp in Grande-Synthe, I saw residents helping one builder with construction work. Some asylum seekers and migrants in ‘the Jungle’ owned their own businesses in the camp, or worked in them, establishing their own ways to make a living despite their status. Others freely attended English and French lessons regularly to improve their language skills. Actually, I can’t deny how shocked I was when the ones who spoke English fluently told me they learnt the language in a year or so, by simply watching English speaking films and TV series. It took me 13 years to learn English at a decent level and I couldn’t speak fluently till I moved to live in England. This just shows how much effort people can put to get and achieve what they want. Moreover, in both camps, there are also schools for children, so they don’t miss out on their education. Although the quality and consistency isn’t great, and in ‘the Jungle’ there is no formal registration to know exactly how many minors there are and which are their educational needs.

When comes to enlightenment, meeting asylum seekers and migrants, knowing about their lives and dreams, seeing them living in those poor conditions, and leaving back to my comfortable hostel afterwards made me feel very uneasy sometimes. And it goes beyond the “Western saviour” issue. While I was born in Europe, my parents weren’t, both are African immigrants. As a black person, I have always been treated as a migrant. However, despite discrimination, I still own a Spanish EU passport that allows me to move freely in and out many countries, letting me travel without so much hassle. That’s my main privilege as a person born in Western Europe: legality under socially and politically constructed laws that dictate who is legal (worthy of entering a country) and who is illegal (unworthy of entering a country). It is a privilege I didn’t realise I had till the ‘Refugee Crisis’ started and the word “illegal immigrant” was plastered everywhere across European media, together with the use of the term “economic migrant” with a negative connotation.

In fact, when we were in ‘the Jungle’, I stood out from my peers as the only black person in our group and I knew that the “where are you from?” questions I received where about more than my nationality and where I lived. As I’m used to this, I didn’t care, and I mentioned my parents’ home countries as well. However, there was a time in which I didn’t received the usual “okay” or “ohh” response. We were speaking to Sudanese asylum seekers, and when I said that my father is from DR Congo, some of them repeated the name of the country with a surprised positive exclamation, pointing at themselves first and then hugging me. It was obvious they were in some way connected to my father’s country, they probably were partly from there. Their reaction didn’t cause any effect on me at first, but after thinking about it later in my hostel room, I realised of how odd my privilege.

Lastly, I should talk about how I plan on using the motivation I got from the trip to keep supporting asylum seekers and migrants only in Calais and Dunkirk, as well as in other parts of Europe. First, I will try to actively join student societies in my university that campaign for refugee, asylum seekers and/or migrants’ rights. Secondly, I will support more the grassroots organisations and NGOs in my city that are involved in the ‘Refugee Crisis’ in Europe (I already volunteer for the British Red Cross, but I will try to see if I can help with their refugee services, rather than just being a financial crisis project assistant). And thirdly, I will go back to volunteer in the Grande-Synthe camp in June, after my academic year is over and I have free time for a few weeks.

You can check all the pictures I took of the trip here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwWNWzv

(PS: I’m sorry about the bad quality of this post (mainly towards the end) and the delay in posting it. Due to personal problems, I couldn’t finish writing it before. And because I haven’t been feeling emotionally well lately, writing has been hard. Again, sorry.)

Trip to Calais & Dunkirk: Part 3. ‘Working in the Refugee Camps’

(If you haven’t yet, read the previous posts from this blog series before this one:

Part 1: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/29/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-1-my-decision-to-volunteer/

Part 2: https://findingmyselfinsideme.com/2016/03/30/trip-to-calais-dunkirk-part-2-arrival- and-working-in-the-warehouse/)

On Monday the 20th of March I woke up feeling nervous, knowing that an uncertain experience awaited me. After two days of volunteering in a warehouse sorting out clothes and creating emergency food parcels, it was finally time to work in the refugee camps. Although I had read a lot about the camps, received training and even spoke to people that had already been in them, I didn’t know what to expect. I was aware of the bad conditions I would encounter, but that was it.

The first camp my group and I went to was ‘The Jungle’, next to the Calais port. It is also in an industrial area, surrounded by chemical factories. As soon as we got off the car, I smelled the revolting odour in the air: it is unsurprising that many residents in the camp have breathing problems. Beside the site there is a bridge, full of graffitis and messages. You could tell that many of the paintings were done by asylum seekers and migrants, due to the content and meaning.

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Graffiti under the bridge.
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Graffiti under the bridge.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The entrance to ‘the Jungle’ isn’t restricted, nor is the exit. Anyone can go in and out freely, from aid workers to asylum seekers and migrants. This is probably because the camp is an informal settlement that isn’t managed by any organisation. Still, there are police vans in the surroundings, watching over the area.

My first impression when entering the site was how silent and empty it was, something comprehensible since we got there early on the morning. There were a few residents awake and following the advice of someone who had been in the camp before, we tried to greet with a “Hello, good morning!” and a smile to everyone we saw while walking. Some of them stopped to talk us with us amicably, asking us how we were and from where we came. Everyone we talked to was very friendly. At some point, we got invited to drink tea and coffee by some of the residents, an offer that’s common in camp and that we happily accepted.

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‘The Jungle’ camp.
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Tea preparation.

The variety of ethnicities and nationalities in ‘the Jungle’ is palpable: you can perceive different accents when people talk, and you can see a variety of flags while walking around. Residents in the camp are predominately from African and Asian countries, many coming from regions affected by ongoing conflict, insecurity or/and persecution. In addition, the site is divided in sections by country of origin. There are also services, like schools and community centres, which cater to particular groups, in addition to open spaces established by NGOs and grassroots organisations with specific purposes, such as medical advice. It is important to point out that while many residents in ‘the Jungle’ are young and middle-aged men, there is also an increasing number of women and children, including unaccompanied minors.

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One of the centres in the camp, with message related to the Calais hunger strike that ended a few days ago.

Our plan for the day as volunteers was dividing ourselves to help in a kitchen and in the women and children’s centre. Yet, after asking in both places, we found out they no longer needed volunteers for the day. Consequently, we decided to go to the library and learning area, known as ‘the Jungle Books’, to see if we could be helpful there.

While we were on our way to the place, an enthusiastic Afghan asylum seeker stopped some of my peers and me, and spoke to us about life in the camp and his aspirations. He explained how weeks after the destruction of the Southern part of the camp, accessing certain services, such as legal advice information points, was hard. He also told us how hopeful and positive he was about the future and how he expected things to improve for him and others at some point, wishing the best for the world in general. I found the conversation with him very uplifting and I admired how resilient he and other residents were despite the situation in which they were.

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Part of the remains of the Southern part of the camp.

When we arrived to ‘the Jungle Books’, we found a group of asylum seekers waiting for a French language teacher that never turned up. Hence, after asking what they wanted to do, we decided to carry out English lessons (finally put my TEFL qualification into use!). Some of the residents had a medium to high level knowledge of English, others quite low or non-existent, so we divided ourselves to work 1:1 according to needs. I paired myself with a Pakistani asylum seeker who had a good level of English, and we practised everyday conversation skills. We talked about food, places we had travelled to, sports, hobbies… It was an interesting conversation, sometimes funny other times grim due to the topic. For instance, one minute we both laughed at the simplicity and boringness of the film industries in our home countries, the next one I felt bad when he told me that he wanted to be an engineer one day, with plans to study once he got to England. As a university student doing the course of her dreams, I felt exceedingly privileged in that moment and I thought about how unfair the whole situation was.

After a few hours of lessons, it was time for lunch. My group and I agreed to eat in the camp, to support the restaurants and shops owned by the residents. Guided by one of the asylum seekers we befriended earlier, we chose a place to eat and sat inside. The meal was delicious, it reminded me of my dad’s Congolese food.

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Our meal.
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Our meal.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Following lunch, I went to walk around the camp in search of a toilet, and ended up speaking with Eritrean and Ethiopian asylum seekers, who invited me to visit their church (built by them!) and showed me the beautiful religious paintings inside it (drawn by them!). During the short visit, I spoke with an Ethiopian woman who kindly offered me some of the bread she made earlier. She also talked to me about how long she had been in the camp and expressed her lack of hope about the possibility of things improving soon. I didn’t know how to respond to her concerns other than listening and showing understanding. I wish I could have told her that everything would be alright, but I don’t make promises about things I can’t control.

On the afternoon we found little to do, so some of us ended up leaving the camp around 5 pm, heading back to the city centre to do some shopping and then resting in the hostel. I must admit that I felt like if the day wasn’t very productive in terms of volunteering since I didn’t have a specific role to carry out. Yet, talking to asylum seekers and listening to their concerns and stories made me feel useful. Sometimes people just want to have someone that will listen to them, to feel heard and understood. This can make them feel better since active listening is a good way to support someone emotionally (something I learnt during a volunteering training course).  And I didn’t even have to ask questions: asylum seekers opened up to me freely.

However, the next day was more active, and I had a specific role. So did the rest of my companions. That’s because the refugee camp we went to work in, the one in Grande-Synthe (Dunkirk), is much more organised and formal. It is being built to comply with international humanitarian standards. The site is ran mainly by one organisation, Utopia56, while MSF funded it, together with the local authority of the area. All this happened because the previous camp and settlements in Dunkirk had horrible conditions, even worse than ‘the Jungle’, and the major of Grande-Synthe decided that something had to be done about it, despite the indifference of the French government.

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Old camp. Source: http://www.gettyimages.co.uk/detail/news-photo/one-of-the-refugees-that-are-waiting-for-donated-food-and-news-photo/502339966
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New camp. Source: http://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/feb/28/msf-to-open-first-humanitarian-standard-refugee-camp-near-dunkirk

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Grande-Synthe camp is next to a motorway and is less dispersed than ‘the Jungle’. To enter you need to register and work with an authorised organisation. The majority of residents in the site are Iraqi Kurds, and there is a higher number of families, women and children than in the camp in Calais. The conditions in it are much better also, with communal places like toilets that comply with health and safety standards. Although it is still in construction and things need to be improved.

I spent the majority of the day working in the children’s distribution centre, only going out for lunch, to then come back and continue my work. My role was sorting out clothes and shoes into boxes depending on gender and age, as well as helping women and children who came in for stuff they needed. I actually spent more time helping residents to find what they wanted than sorting out boxes. Sometimes women came alone, other times they came with children. And other times, children came alone. Sometimes we could find what they wanted, others we couldn’t. I tried to keep a list of things heavily needed, to ask the co-ordinators of the camp to bring them from the warehouse. Another thing I also did was help a woman to take her bags full of clothes to her shed after she requested my help. She was lovely and grateful, just as the rest of women and children who came to the centre, even if they ended up leaving with empty hands because they couldn’t find what they wanted.

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Children’s distribution centre. Outside.
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Children’s distribution centre. Inside.

On the morning, the distribution centre was quite busy, yet after 3pm, hardly anyone came. After finishing sorting out the boxes, I sat down with some of my peers working in the women’s distribution hub, which is beside the children’s one. At one point, an asylum seeker approached us asking about a woman who had been working in the distribution centre the other day but we couldn’t help much. Nevertheless, he ended up sitting down with us and we had a conversation for a few minutes. He asked us from where we were and then he spoke to us about why he had to leave his home country, Kuwait. While I can’t give personal details, I can direct you do an article in which the general situation of Kuwaiti asylum seekers is explained: http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/features/2016/03/bidoon-fleeing-kuwait-stuck-calais-jungle-160327123602407.html

Later on, I ended up going to the children’s play area, which was just in front of the children’s distribution centre, and entertained a few kids that were drawing and playing around. At end of that day I was exhausted, and although it was my favourite day of work from the whole trip, I couldn’t wait to go back to the hostel to rest. That was also our last day volunteering in France, the next day we headed back to England at noon. And like that, our trip was over. Yet my involvement in the Refugee ‘Crisis’ wasn’t. Why? You will find out in the next and last post of this blog series.

You can check all the pictures I took of the trip here: https://flic.kr/s/aHskwWNWzv

(PS: I’m sorry about the bad quality of this post (mainly towards the end) and the delay in posting it. Due to personal problems, I couldn’t finish writing it before. And because I haven’t been feeling emotionally well lately, writing has been hard. Again, sorry. Hopefully the last post is much better.)

 

Trip to Calais & Dunkirk: Part 2. ‘Arrival and Working in the Warehouse’

(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.

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(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.

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(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.

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(On the left: us recycling rubbish. On the right: the logos of the organisations we were volunteering for.)

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(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.

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(Example of the content in a food parcel.)

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(Working the food section.)

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(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

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(Heartwarming information board for volunteers in the hostel’s reception)

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(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