Volunteering Experiences in Calais: People Need To Be Witnessed, Part II

Volunteering Experiences in Calais: People Need To Be Witnessed, Part II Ruth Saxton

3rd May 2016

You may have read my post from the other day  when I was on my way to volunteer with Crew for Calais. I promised to update you on what the experience was like, so here goes. Like most stories, mine revolve around the memorable interaction with other people: volunteers and those living in the camp, and it those experiences I would like to share with you.

Although I volunteered through Crew For Calais who build shelters and improve living conditions, seeing as I have no carpentry skills, I was set straight to work in the warehouse sorting children’s clothes. Although I am an experienced primary school teacher which was to prove very useful later in the week.

The donations warehouse is a joint operation run by ‘Help Refugees’ and ‘L’Auberge des Migrants’. It is vast and full of much-needed donations that arrive daily and are waiting to be sorted or distributed in the camps. The donations are then deposited in boxes and labelled according to size, gender or function. Inside the warehouse, there are many bodies in hi-vis jackets bustling about, speaking different languages but all exchanging smiles and hellos, and swapping stories. The numbers vary depending on the day of the week.

All the volunteers work hard and are well looked after. Every morning, after everyone who needs has grabbed breakfast and a drink, we all congregated for a warm up. This sounds ridiculous but it is physical work and volunteer welfare is key. It was also a bonding experience and a bit of fun to start the day…except when your beloved brew gets knocked over! Then the rules are shared and roles split. The turnover of volunteers is such that this has to be done daily, particularly to keep people safe. Following the ‘no smoking in the warehouse’ rule, key ones are about making the people on the camp feel safe and not like exhibits in a zoo. So no pictures, like tourists, and no promises we can’t keep. And no putting ourselves in compromising situations, like staying in the camps after dark.

Jungle Book school room & library

As someone who is used to working with children, I was enlisted along with two others to join the women’s distribution team for the week in the Dunkirk camp. Our first job was to find a nipple for a baby’s bottle for one of the more vulnerable women in camp. Specific items are put into single bin liners and labelled so they don’t get mixed up or taken. We scoured the whole place and got some funny looks when we said we were safeguarding a nipple. A human chain was formed to load everything into the van – particularly the sleeping bags and blankets, which are a much-needed commodity. There were people waiting for sleeping bags as soon as we arrived at camp everyday.

School tent
School tent

Once at Dunkirk, we formed the human chain once more to load the different containers quickly so people could get what they needed. The women’s container is open for them to browse and have time together, as most of their time is spent in their shelters and looking after the children. Again, there were always women waiting to try and get much needed supplies, like larger sized nappies and baby wipes. It is a women’s only area and attached is the children’s container and a covered space.

Here is where we tried to entertain (or sometimes contain) the children. I found an old chunk of chalk. So we broke it up and made pictures on the floor: a simple activity but with so little to do, the children loved it. As one little girl left, her mum sent her back to give me a kiss. Anyone who knows me well will know what an effort it would be not to blub. Tiny gestures seem colossal there. I found a specific size of shoe for a little girl in the warehouse, after her mum had asked the previous day. When I gave them to the woman she thanked me so sincerely several times, it was hard not to get emotional.

Another day, I played football with a little boy who was trying to disrupt the games of the younger children. The international language of football bridging the gap: gooooooaaaaal! Another little boy came into the container with his mum, brandishing an old car aerial, like a wand. “Bippety, boppety boo!” he exclaimed, as he turned me to stone over and over again. Like most toddlers, this became funnier and funnier to him, until he was almost crying, and his mum was telling him (I presume) to stop. These were the highs that spurred you on when seeing the daily devastation: the hope. But also the tragic reminders of how vulnerable these children are to the many strangers onsite (volunteers and refugees alike) who they unquestionably trust everyday.

Across from the women’s space is a school tent, I managed to spend some time away from the container one afternoon and help out. It was quite surreal teaching maths to a woman from Iraq as she told me about the dangers she had fled. She had married young and never worked but was now helping in the school to try and teach the children whilst learning herself, particular skills that could be useful if she ever makes it to England. She was such a positive woman and I can still see her young, smiling face, full of optimism, because the life she is now living is so much safer than the dangers she left.


Refugee children

Every lunchtime, we would shut the container for an hour and go to the van, set up by Refugee Community Kitchen  for a hot meal with the people in the camp. This was usually some delicious vegan daal or curry with rice and salad. Whilst standing in line, I got to meet more of the amazing volunteers, like the chefs from RCK, who had seen a need in the camp, raised money and filled the gap. Or the street artists from Berlin who had raised money for paints to come and decorate the shelters so they were more welcoming and didn’t all look the same. I was always in awe of these enterprising proactive people. It also gave us chance to sit and eat with the people who live in the camp, hear their stories and learn about each other on an equal footing. Many of the people in Dunkirk are Kurdish, so we learnt snippets of language or more about their background.

One of the lunchtimes I was asked to go and guard the door of the van as a few of the hungry children were stealing bananas. My years of training at my first school soon came in handy. One of the men I was working with was trying to restrain the children. I asked the boy if he was trying to get cuddles and dutifully offered: they soon scarpered.

Community kitchen

The men’s distribution team was primarily four amazing young actors from London, who made me feel like a proud big sister daily. They were so compassionate and humble, interacting on a really human level: getting to know the refugees or clowning around with the children. Seeing a little boy have third helpings of lunch, just to impress one of the boys was joyful. They kindly invited me to accompany them to the Calais Jungle on the Wednesday evening for tea, something I had been eager to do since arriving. This was one of the more sobering experiences of my trip, so much so that two of the people who came with us from the warehouse turned back partway through as they felt too uncomfortable. As we arrived, the French police were less than pleased to see us, and I was relieved to be with the boys who spoke fluent French, and were very tall.

First we made our way across the barren wasteland that used to make up three quarters of the camp. Some of the earth is still scorched where the authorities burnt people’s homes in front of them, and the bulldozer tracks still mark the ground. There are remnants of this devastation all over and it is eerily quiet, except for the motorway that runs alongside. In the middle are a few remaining buildings: school rooms and a library, ‘Jungle Books’. Here, people learn conversational French and English. I spoke to a few of the men inside, one who was reading poetry. The teacher, a refugee himself, was desperate for people to go down and talk with the men. He wanted to come to England and be allowed to study. He had an amazing sense of humour, and purpose, and had tried to brighten the rooms as best he could to make them welcoming, using blankets and decorated sheets. And people had left inspirational messages of hope in the form of posters or drawings. We didn’t stay long as people were studying and we felt too much like tourists.

Next we went into the remaining part of the camp. This is vastly different to the one in Dunkirk and is made up of different cultural groups, mainly Sudanese, Afghan and Pakistani. It is much more makeshift and there are businesses that have been set up by the occupants. And although I didn’t feel threatened, as the streets are more compact and busy, I was glad to be with company. As in Dunkirk, we engaged with most people we passed by smiling or with a simple greeting. This is something I have missed since arriving home. It was nice to see people suddenly change from feeling invisible to giving a huge responsive smile.

Volunteering Calais

We ate at a restaurant called The Three idiots, set up by three of the people living there. The owners were charming and welcoming. And inside the tent it was easy to forget where you were. I sat with two Australians, two Brits and a man from South Africa. We had five plates of delicious beans, rice and lentils. All armed with a spoon and some bread we hungrily ate and tried to process the painful sights we were witnessing or discussed random topics, like being educated by one girl in the mating habits of worms…not great dinner party conversation. Once again I was in awe of the people I was meeting. Four of the group were in university or just graduated and it gave me hope to meet so many conscientious young people.

Many of the people working at the warehouse in Calais lived in caravans onsite, with hardly any hot water or luxuries of modern life. Ashley, our wonderful manager in Dunkirk, had funded her trip from America to stay for a month at the warehouse. It was still cold so I was pleased some of our Britishness rubbed off a little, as she discovered the luxury of sleeping with a hot water bottle on your feet.

It is the daily horror I was seeing on social media (sadly not mainstream media) that drove me to want to help in France, be useful, and show my solidarity with the people who have risked everything to escape their different hells. It was a privilege to meet so many amazing volunteers who are doing what they can to make the living experience for the refugees more human and dignified. I appreciate we cannot save everyone and this is not a solution, but I am pleased I managed to help make these people feel less invisible for a few days. It was really hard to leave and I hope to go back very soon as there is so much still to be done.


If you are considering volunteering, I would wholeheartedly recommend. It has taken a few days to process as I went through that many emotions daily, and following my return, but it was a life-changing experience for the better.


If you would like to help, here are a number of ways.

  1. Volunteer for Crew For Calais or Help Refugees, they are desperately in need of people for as long as you can give (you don’t have to have specific skills).
  2. Check the Help Refugees website regularly for what supplies they need in the camps, as this changes, and donate food or essential items. They have a delivery address in the UK and a way of buying online to be delivered directly to the warehouse.
  3. Hold a fundraiser or simply donate to finance the brilliant work across Europe.
  4. Spread the word on social media by following any of the organisations listed, and many more.
  5. Sign petitions to urge your politicians to do more to help, particularly for the lone children who are the most vulnerable.



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