George, my son of thirteen, told me there was a pressing need for volunteers in Calais. Residents of the notorious refugee camp known as the jungle were to be evicted. He felt I could help, that I had something to offer. At first I resisted the idea. I was busy. We’re all busy. I couldn’t just drop everything to go to Calais. I had a routine.
I have two teenage children who live with me half the time. But half term was coming up. I wouldn’t see them for almost two weeks. So there was nothing to stop me.
Volunteering comes in many forms. I’ve only just dipped my toe in the water as yet. Once you begin to get involved you start to realise how much is done by people. For nothing. They just do. Like the amazing RAFT in Taunton. Begun from her garage in 2015 by a young mother with two small children and a full-time job. Someone who was a lot busier than me. RAFT now occupies a large warehouse and is run by a team of lovely, generous people who work tirelessly to gather aid donations from all over the South West. These are sent to wherever they’re needed. To refugees fleeing war in Syria for example. I went there to take some donations from Newton Abbot and ended up helping to sort clothes with a diverse band of people. They’re all busy people. They all pitch in and make this incredible resource work. And then, because I was driving to London to visit a friend, we filled my van with medical supplies and food. I took these to Anaya Aid who would send them to Syria. It was so easy to do one small thing.
There was a lot of information about Calais. There were different organisations looking for volunteers. They had different styles. Where should I begin and what could I offer? Working as a Carpenter was no longer what was needed. Around ten thousand refugees from Iraq, Eritrea, Syria, Iran, Chad, Mali, Yemen and other countries had been living in insanitary, insecure conditions on wasteland bounded by motorways, watched over by riot police. The French state had decided to close the camp. The priority was to make provision for over a thousand unaccompanied minors to depart safely. The tens of thousands of adults needed to be able to gather their belongings and depart with as much dignity as possible. It would be a huge undertaking. The French state was determined to close the camp as soon as possible but there seemed to be no plan as to how more than one thousand minors could be safely extricated before the chaos and confusion ensued. At the time of writing, days after the closure of the camp, young,unaccompanied minors are still sleeping on the ground outside the camp. While governments argue and posture over who is responsible, the work they should be doing is being done by volunteers. Through the day and into the evening, teams of volunteers prepare and deliver food while others watch over the minors as they sleep.
I got in touch with an organisation called Help Refugees. Their partner in Calais is a group called L’Auberge de Migrants. Set up to care for the needs of the constantly expanding population of the Jungle, L’Auberge established its HQ in a leaky, battered warehouse on a dilapidated industrial estate on the outskirts of Calais. This would be the base for my volunteering.
I gathered donations. People’s generosity was amazing. Kim traveled all the way to Seaton to drop off four immaculate rucksacks and a smart, wheeled suitcase. I met Adam in Honiton who gave me a load of tents and rucksacks. Nicola, from Ashburton, (who also kindly provided most of the photographs from her inspiring blog) had just returned from Calais herself. Despite the demands of two small children and a business she’d set about making sure that much-needed donations would go straight out to Calais. She met me i Exeter and brought two thousand apples, to add to the above items, which I would take to the warehouse. The van was not quite full so visit to RAFT in Taunton added tinned food, rice, tinned fish, clothes and bedding along with more tents to the consignment. I set off for Calais after dropping off my teenagers at the school bus stop.