By Blythe Pepino
There is a regular flow of volunteers to Calais to help with the refugee crisis, but what is it really like to go?
Help Refugees depends almost entirely on volunteering. There is no strict hierarchy and the delegation of roles is generally dictated by experience and longevity of stay. A team leader is usually dedicated to being there for over a month and is likely to help distribute aid (food, clothes, essentials) in the Dunkirk camp and to the homeless in Calais. A short-term volunteer is probably staying anywhere between two days and two weeks, and tends to work in the woodyard or in the warehouse sorting donations.
I interviewed volunteers at the warehouse on the 21st February 2017 to try and capture an idea of what it is like to make the trip. What was immediately obvious was that the volunteers spoke incredibly positively about their experiences overall, describing the donation sorting work as “a bit monotonous”, but overall “a giggle” with “lots of lovely people who are all here just to pitch in” (Phoebe Tomlinson, 20’s from Brighton); however, the very human crisis necessitating the work was never far from people’s minds. When Luke Buckler, a teacher from Birmingham, recalled his first meeting with Kesiah, he remembered their chat about her experiences as warehouse manager. Asked if she was happy, she said, “well, yes as much as you can be when there’s lots of migrants and refugees having a terrible life.” Luke continued, “It struck me that people genuinely, more than myself, have a conscience about other people’s dire situations. Kesiah was enjoying her job, but it was a job that was there because of this dark situation – it’s such a sticky mix.”
Some people I met had made the trip alone, some as a groups of friends, and some as couples, like Tansy Grant and Nathan Nuck. They were quite typical of a story I had heard more than once when asking about people’s motivations to volunteer. Starting a European travelling adventure with a stint in Calais, they ended up postponing plans to help out for longer.
Tim, a 45-year-old handyman from Worcester, came for a few days via teaming up with a local group that was “collecting aid and making regular trips over to France.” Tim is a Chronic Fatigue Syndrome sufferer and was worried about whether he would manage the trip with his condition or not. He said that coming with a group had given him the confidence he needed:
“I wanted to come and support the refugees. It has been a lovely experience with some very friendly people. I have every intention of coming back again.”
Occasionally faith or religious beliefs were a motivator, but like Tansy many spoke of “just feeling really hopeless at home, not being sure exactly what to do and just thinking that this is an entry way to try and do something helpful.”
Sue Corrigan, a teacher working in Amsterdam who schedules her volunteer trips around her term timetable, is a great example of a single person motivated by the political changes in 2016.
“I love it, I don’t mind what I do – I’ll do anything just to be useful. If they need people then I’ll come back, and let’s hope they don’t.”
A good example of a long term volunteer is Renke Meuwese from the Netherlands who originally meant to volunteer for two weeks but ended up staying for over a year and a half. He is the veritable father figure of the warehouse whose hilarious and heartbreaking songs about the crisis and life in Calais have a legendary status among volunteers.
“Really the media made me volunteer … the news I’d gotten from the Mediterranean for a couple of months really created an urge to do something, and then the reports out of Calais from the Guardian – the videos in particular – made me realise there was an urgent need too big for a city to handle.”
Above: Help Refugees Logo – Visit the site by clicking here
For long-termers like Renke, home-life is a trailer park down the road from the Warehouse. This is provided by Help Refugees as cheap accommodation. It is not a glamorous existence; it is simply sufficient to facilitate their work. But the volunteers make the most of their time off, playing board games, making music and cooking for each other. Bonfires on the beach are an example of a regular social event. Time off is prioritised, and even enforced where necessary, to make sure volunteers don’t burn out. One or two days off a week is encouraged on posters on the portaloo doors at the Warehouse or via the wagging finger of a team leader. These are loving reminders that people can get tunnel vision here, constantly aware of the nearly 2000 adults and minors living in shacks, on the streets and in hedgerows nearby.
Speaking to Renke, the thing he impressed upon me the most was that volunteering itself has an intrinsically motivating quality.
“[Volunteering] leads to less self pity, to less grumpiness about how things happen … I worked as a teacher for a couple of years and I have seen a lot of people say, ‘well well, this has gone wrong, that has gone wrong. Oh, but for the children I will continue to work.’ And you know that’s just not true; these people need a salary and structure, and they have become dependent on that. For most people here in Calais, this is absolutely not the case; they don’t get anything out of this financially, and they just continue to work here because they believe that the work they are doing is useful and it’s being done in a useful way.”
Charles Howe, in his late 20’s from Cornwall, told me how volunteering 3 months here has sharpened his sense of agency and broadened his perspective in life.
“Back home you can get trapped in your own bubble and that’s quite unhealthy. It is incredibly eye-opening here. It’s given me a whole new perspective on why people are fleeing their countries and what sort of sacrifices they’re making and what they’re leaving behind. It’s just incredibly humbling.”
This agency seems to affect the strength of relationships established between colleagues as well:
“With the people here you go through so much. You live with the people you are working with and have these realisations about yourself and about the world. To realise that everyone is going through that at the same time is quite a useful thing … you become close to the people here really quickly.”
But even more than giving the volunteers a greater sense of autonomy in their work, the fact that Help Refugees is an outfit dependent on donated time benefits the crisis on a logistical level.
“If we were to have all the team leaders in paid positions, we couldn’t just switch what we were doing and how we were doing it from day to day. And we are learning stuff every day about what changes we need to make. Earlier I praised accountability, but this would lead to a very different kind of accountability: one that exists in order to justify the kinds of costs that we would make here because the costs would go up.”
“Through being here, I have become a firmer believer in volunteering than I was before. Now I have worked side by side with professional organisations and I’ve seen how overwhelmed they are by certain challenges. They deal very professionally with a very small part of the problem – the worst part of the problem in many cases – but they just cannot deal with the fringes of the problem because it needs too many people and the classification of exactly where their responsibility stops is too strict.”
“If you can come for 3 days, you can already make a difference; if you can come for two weeks, you can get to understand the department and help to make some improvements in it. Be careful though if you come for two weeks; the odds are you are going to come back”.
If you would like to volunteer time for Help Refugees just send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org