Thursday October 20th: The warehouse was piled high with food. Palettes of boxes full of tinned tomatoes and kidney beans. Stacks of 25 kilo sacks of lentils leaking tiny red flecks onto the wet concrete. Huge bags of basmati rice. Food on an industrial scale.
The kitchens were a hive of activity. Music blasting from somewhere, it was like a massive festival operation. Teams of very busy people danced between their stations – often literally. They’d been operating since much earlier. You couldn’t help but smile at it all. And most people smiled at you. Look what we can do. Look what people can do. It was moving and beautiful to watch. Huge pans of food steamed on rows of gas rings. Everywhere was food being chopped, boiled, steamed, stacked, sorted. Food was used both to prepare meals in the kitchens, to feed volunteers at lunch time, and packed in small bags send to people in the camp. Oil, flour, milk, potatoes, onions, tinned tomatoes, kidney beans, biscuits, tinned sardines and tiny packs of spices so that camp residents could prepare their own meals – to cook for their families.
Behind the kitchens was a wood yard where volunteers scavenged discarded timber from the neighbourhood and cut it into tiny pieces (anything larger than a playing card was deemed an offensive weapon by police and would not be allowed into the Jungle). With this miniaturized firewood that wouldn’t look out-of-place in a doll’s house, the people of the Jungle could at least have fuel for cooking and heating.
It took your breath away to see the resources available – the sheer collected power of all those small, individual kindnesses – donations of money and food that enabled the organisation to tick over. It was unlike anything you’d seen before. It functioned because it was almost entirely run by volunteers. People who, far from being paid to do their jobs, had paid the car ferry, the Shuttle or even a transatlantic flight to come and work to try to make things a little better for people in the Jungle. The chaos and crazy piles of provisions didn’t belong to modern, just-in-time Europe. Because L’Auberge des Migrants is a bespoke, local, humanitarian organisation. It was founded in response to the needs of the refugees in Calais. The warehouse now also provides support to the camp at Grande Synthe, Dunkirk and to migrants sleeping on the streets of Paris. Many of the volunteers come to Calais via Help Refugees.
There is no computerised stock management system. Just a lot of human beings and a very battered fork lift. No business would run this way. But this business is about all the tins of beans from the primary school harvest festivals, donations carefully conserved by people like you and I, given with love, carried hundreds of miles in cars and vans to make a tiny difference. A drop in an ocean of need. There are more experienced people leading the teams. But it all relies upon amateurs – finding a way.
At 9.00 am the locked doors to the main warehouse rolled open. Small piles of donations on labelled racks “Tents Incoming”, “Clothes Men’s Incoming” were lifted directly from vans and cars that arrived at irregular intervals. From there on trolleys or in handfuls to join the vast piles of donations in the main warehouse, waiting to be sorted.
L’Auberge has a policy of checking everything. This allows the organisation to hold an accurate picture of what it has in stock. If there’s a need, an emergency, it knows what it can do. Items which were dirty, damaged or worn out are not suitable to give to people in need. For some this lead to a lot of heartbreak. But rejected items were normally re-purposed, recycled or sold for re processing – thus providing a valuable source of income. Shoes, for example, which were unsuitable (golden, strappy numbers, riding boots) would be sold in the charity shop. It was surprising to see just how worn and broken some of the shoes were. For migrants, for people in desperate need at the onset of winter, we might assume they’ll take anything. But giving them filthy trainers with holes in the soles contributes to the dehumanizing experience. We can’t take the approach that says,
they’re refugees so we can give them things we wouldn’t think of using. So scuffed shoes got cleaned and polished. Broken laces were replaced. Mouldy sleeping bags, stained and torn blankets were re-purposed as insulation – to provide a warmer lining to shelters in the camp. Even brand new sleeping bags in retail packaging were unpacked and one from each carton was unrolled to check it was what the label said it was. It’s easy to pass judgement when you’ve just arrived. So there were mutterings of “Why bother doing that?”. Giving aid to traumatised people battered by their experiences, living in filthy hostile conditions is not straightforward – I am still learning. So for one person to receive a new sleeping bag with its labels still attached while another gets a used item, could potentially be a source of conflict between camp residents. And they have had enough conflict.
There is also debate about different methods of distribution; line, static, mobile etc. It is a complex business. Sometimes we were told what to do, sometimes why, sometimes not. And you’d assume the person guiding you through the task had months of experience, only to find they’d arrived the day before you. For short-term volunteers ‘short term’ is just that. Once you’d been there two days you sort of became an expert.
According to one long-term volunteer the warehouse had been almost empty two months earlier. The unprecedented grass-roots movement of donations had turned the trickle of aid into an unceasing flood. Volunteer numbers had increased exponentially with the donations. And with both, the problem of managing such huge quantities.
Tonight the roads were lined with flashing blue again. But now it’s just normal. Routine. You adjust quickly.