CamCRAG volunteer Estere talks about her first CamCRAG convoy to Calais
June was my first time on a CamCRAG convoy, which left me with lots of amazing but also slightly contradictory emotions, but hopefully resulted in some useful work done in the warehouse.
Even though most of the thousands of refugees who lived in the ‘Jungle’ have now left Calais, there are still around 700 sleeping rough around the city, all hoping to get to the UK. These people are being beaten up by the French police, their tents and blankets are taken away, and their water is poisoned with tear gas or pepper spray.
On the Friday evening sixteen of us drove from Cambridge to Calais, to work in the L’Auberge des Migrants warehouse. Unlike the hippie-wall-painted sunlight-filled Help Refugees warehouse in Thessaloniki where I’d been exactly a year ago, this one is very dark, in an ugly industrial area, and inhabited by rats… but there are so many amazing people, so many funny informative signs around, music, and so much love, care and productivity, that it feels like home.
Besides the obvious work of sorting donations – clothes, shoes, blankets, sleeping bags, hygiene products – we also set up a sewing area: Donated clothes are often broken, sleeping bags have holes, etc, and since the stocks are getting low, we were hand sewing buttons back on and machine sewing hems and seams. I enjoyed organising the area – labeling boxes, holding on to my precious tape and permanent marker, moving things around, asking for trolleys and tables, sorting clothes to be fixed. Luckily, the warehouse also now has a laundry to further extend the life of donated clothes.
Tents are currently the single most needed thing in Calais, and donated tents often have broken or missing poles, or teared fabric. As a result, volunteers have to spend hours trying to set up each and every one of the tents to find those that are actually suitable. Meanwhile the average life of a refugee’s tent before it gets taken away by the French police is three days. Tony, one of our convoy veterans, is trying to come up with a simple design for a tent that can be upcycled from unusable tents or other material – keep an eye on camcrag.org.uk/sostents for more on how to get involved with this ongoing project.
CamCRAG has been a long standing supporter of Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), who prepare 1,200 meals a day for refugees, and we currently contribute £1000 each month towards their costs. When I volunteered in Alexandreia, where we cooked for 400 people, I said I’d never cut that many tomatoes in my life before, and my kitchen music playlist was a mix of Arabic and reggaeton music. This time in Calais it was the Beatles, ABBA and Bob Marley. And I think I did break my tomato record again! Thankfully I avoided cutting onions – they cook a tonne of them every week!
RCK is beyond impressive. With all the music, dishwashing dances and other fun, they are incredibly organised and efficient. Hygiene and other health and safety matters are followed very strictly (e.g. everybody has to wear a separate set of clothes for the kitchen), and they plan meals for weeks in advance, so they can make use of the higher number of volunteers during the weekend, cutting all the onions for the next few days.
In the afternoon RCK goes to distribute food to refugees, but only people who’ve undergone training are allowed to go. Leftover food from the distributions is next day’s volunteers lunch – and it’s delicious! Never before have I felt so ‘on the same wavelength’ with people that I’ve literally just met for the first time. It’s not only having similar opinions on the refugee situation or other social issues – it is random things in random conversations, small details but not small talk. I met people who devote most of their lives to community activism and people for whom it’s their first time, college students and retired programmers, pub workers and university office managers, school teachers and university students. I am overwhelmed by gratitude, inspiration and love for and from these people.