Keith Hatton and Jennie Corbett from our convoy planning team recently spent a weekend volunteering at the refugee centre run by Utopia 56.
Friday, 10 March
- Drive from Cambridge to Folkestone
- Channel Tunnel to Calais
- Drive from Calais to Paris
Saturday 11 March
- Welcome and induction by Utopia 56 at Paris Nord Humanitarian Centre, Porte de la Chapelle
- Clothes sorting
- Litter picking, collection of dirty/wet bedding and non-food items needs assessment in areas surrounding camp, where refugees were living homeless
- Assistance with evening food distribution to homeless refugees.
Sunday 12 March
- Clothes distribution in camp (personal shopping)
- Washing of dirty bedding and clothing for redistribution
- Clothing sort
Monday 13 March
- Travel back to Cambridge (via Channel Tunnel)
At Porte de la Chapelle in Northern Paris, Utopia56 provide support in the form of clothing sorting, cleaning and distribution, and outreach at a refugee welcome centre (or ‘humanitarian centre’), as well as in the streets nearby. The centre is managed by EMMAÜS Solidarité, and funded by the government. It’s located in a converted warehouse, with containers inside for sleeping, etc. There is also some outdoor space. Utopia have been there for more than 5 months.
The centre is for men only, who stay there for up to 10 days upon entering the asylum system, while awaiting their transfer to a more long-term CAO (Centre d’accueil et d’orientation). The men sleep and eat there, and move about freely, though there seemed to be limited other activities on offer. It is the only such centre in Paris, though with the upcoming elections Utopia staff were worried about continued funding.
There is also a separate space (‘the bubble’, pictured)
within the same complex which is also run by EMMAUS and serves as a day centre for up to 40 refugees at any one time, who can’t access the welcome centre (e.g. women, children and families) and those who are waiting to get in. There is also health centre for the refugees staying in the centre.
There is a very large backlog of refugees waiting to enter the centre, and they can be seen milling around outside the entrance and sleeping under the motorway overpasses nearby. Utopia does some outreach to these refugees, distributing bedding, clothes and toiletries and also work with other small organisations to serve food (breakfast and dinner) to those living around the centre.
Over the two days we did a range of activities both inside the centre and outside in the surrounding area.
Clothes distribution: Utopia has a great method of distributing clothes to the residents of the centre, using a ‘personal shopper’ method. Each refugee has a kind of ration card which allows them two ‘asks’ from the shop of donated clothes (with each ‘ask’ including whatever multiple items needed, within limits). Different volunteers are behind the counter and pick out clothes and size requested for them to choose from, according to taste. This seems to be quite an enjoyable activity for many of the refugees, though also frustrating as we often don’t have the right size or type of clothing and quality is mixed.
Jobs also included sorting clothes donations in the small clothes storage/sorting room, washing and drying clothes and washing dirty bedding and clothes collected from the streets.
On Saturday we went out with a small team to pick litter and remove rotting/soggy bedding from some of the places people were sleeping in the surrounding areas. This was a very physically challenging and dirty job. It would certainly have been distressing for some as the conditions were dire. We also took note of clothing needs from the refugees we encountered.
The range of work for short term volunteers is wide and varied, and very much dependent on the particular need or the day (and number of volunteers). Some of the other activities mentioned to us as fairly regular were escorting refugees to hospital, going out in van to collect donations and collecting soiled bedding from surrounding streets for washing/decontamination.