Friday October 21st: It was partly the mild sleep deprivation but also advancing years, aching hands, back and knees from picking, sorting, rolling, tying, packing every kind of bedding all day. People work longer days and do harder things but, after the novelty of the first day the second one did feel trying. Could I stick at this for seven days?
When you arrive with a van laden with donations you are welcomed (eventually) like a hero. Once you don the hi-vis you become another warehouse minion.
I arrived on the bedding section and was the only person there. This team was struggling to deal with the incoming donations. A pile around three or four metres high, six or seven metres wide and a similar length. Probably longer. It’s hard to imagine. A snowy white mountain of duvets, its steep slopes dotted with cheerfully coloured sleeping bags, blankets, foam sleeping mats and odd things that were in the wrong pile. A vast increase in donations because of media coverage of the Jungle as the evictions drew closer. Everything was thrown together because it’s so difficult to manage such huge quantities — even with dozens of volunteers about. A small minority of donations are dirty, damaged or worn out. After a few hours your hands are grimy. Occasionally something turns your stomach. Yesterday, I did shoes and some people wear leave their own distinctive signature in their shoes…..
We ran short of sleeping bags in the morning. And then found boxes full of brand new bags in the afternoon, hidden beneath blankets and duvets that had, literally avalanched over them. If there was a sudden need for specific items we would end up diving into the snowy flanks of the pile and fishing them out. We sorted blankets into ‘Super Warm’, ‘Warm’ and ‘Not So Warm’. Sometimes it wasn’t an exact science and, after all, we were amateur blanket sorters – not professional. It was sometimes down to personal interpretation. Meaning that a thick, fleece blanket which could be nearly as warm as wool would end up in the not so warm pile. And a throw, with almost no warmth at all, ended up on the same pile.
The atmosphere in the warehouse remained calm, friendly and helpful as the world’s media closed in on the nearby Jungle, lenses pointed, sensing the story.
People still smiled at you as you passed in the walkways. People you’d never met and often never saw again. On day one you saw people and recognised them on day two. By day three they were gone, replaced by fresh faces. The turnover of volunteers was remarkable in itself. Days began with a meeting, largely friendly and informal, with new volunteers standing together in stiff hi vis, waiting to be assigned to whichever teams needed people.
Back to bedding and the same questions: new volunteers baffled by sorting criteria that deemed certain items not fit for distribution. Patiently explaining the policy drove them crazy with puzzlement. On the first day, I had initially found it hard to appreciate when we were slowly checking every item. It took time. It limited the amount you could do. So you got less done and…. fewer people got helped? Maybe. Perhaps. But there is a plan here. People have thought about the best way to do something difficult. Otherwise why not grab some sleeping bags and run to the camp to dish them out? How many of the ten thousand people would that help?
There’s something about volunteering which is about suppressing your individual will a little. We were all little cogs in a big machine. You may have felt you knew what the greatest need is. And you might have felt frustrated because, after experiencing the warehouse for one day, that you had a better way of delivering vast quantities of aid to thousands of vulnerable people. But in the end the organisation is well run by extremely dedicated and hard-working people. There is that bigger picture and so the bedding you had sorted may not go out to the Jungle today.
In two days I learned more about bedding and some types of camping equipment than in the whole of my life up to that point. How sleeping bags are rated, why blankets have zips on, why inflatable camping mattresses are unsuitable for the Jungle. Now I am home, when I see my partner’s rolled up yoga mat at the bottom of the stairs near the shoes I have to suppress the urge to say “Wrong pile!” and take it somewhere else.
Each day, at the beginning, we made up forty-five welcome packs – each one containing a sleeping bag, a thin and a thick blanket, a foam mattress roll and bag of basic toiletries. Because, at that stage, with the date of the evictions still not confirmed people were still arriving. Up to forty five each day. And at the time of writing, a week after the falsehood that eviction was complete, people will still be coming to Calais. People who’ve been on the road for months – a year even. People may not have had the news that their intended destination has been ground into the dirt.
When you drove near the camp there were places where people congregated. They sat in the cold wind in thin anoraks. They looked steadily at you – almost expectantly. Some smiled and waved as you passed. They retained great dignity despite the chaos around them.
Vans are used to distribute aid. I was warned not to take packages or bags out of the van in plain sight in case we were mistaken for a distribution run.
I got back to my tiny, cold attic room on the edge of Calais, dirty, dusty and tired. But I wasn’t sleeping outside or in a drafty shelter and I could go home after a week.