This week, I was meant to be arriving in Auckland, New Zealand, with the intention of staying and working for a few months. I booked the flights in October 2016, was gifted the working holiday visa for my birthday and have been saving since in order to be able to explore when I first arrived. I had a wedding to look forward to, a hostel booked for the first week and had sketched out plans to visit friends in Sydney and Melbourne in April/May.
However, in mid-February, as a reaction to Trump’s travel ban and the looming omen of the triggering of Article 50, I found myself driving to Calais, France, in order to volunteer with Help Refugees UK. For those who have asked, it is an extremely easy process to get involved – check out their website, fill in a form, book a hostel/airbnb/tent pitch and get yourself to Calais. I had no idea what to expect, so here’s what I would have wanted to know about the first few days.
The warehouse was, at the time, made up of three organisations – Help Refugees UK, Refugee Community Kitchen and the Calais Woodyard – all under the umbrella organisation Auberge des Migrants. The Woodyard has since finished up, but when I arrived we were given the option of helping out in the warehouse or the woodyard, and then set to work. After two days of sorting clothes, I gravitated towards the kitchen as a result of the people I met and socialised with over lunch (free, and delicious, and vegan), in the hostel or in town in the evenings. Showing yourself to be a hard worker is invaluable. I found myself singlehandedly washing the dishes on my fourth evening after an afternoon of counting rice into bags, and was offered a place with the team heading into Dunkirk the following day.
That day was nothing short of life affirming. We were working in the ‘free shop’, where residents of the camp can come to receive portions of rice, beans, fruit, bread and spices so that they can cook for themselves or enhance the hot meals that we provide for them. We served hundreds of young men, women and children, and for the most part it was a positive and fun atmosphere. However, the injustice and gravity of the entire situation and why we were all in this place at all was always at the back of my mind, and it was sad to see just how dejected people could get over the fact that we had no bread to offer that day. I still haven’t quite worked out the right emotion for my first day in the camp: it is a complete paradox of sadness and joy and love and anger and hilarious conversations and dejection and hope and fear. On our way home, a fellow volunteer, Marcus, suggested that we stay up all night baking bread for the residents, and he hadn’t even finished his sentence before myself and a couple of other volunteers – Maddie and Annie – agreed to join him. And stay up all night we did, a marathon 7pm-4am baking session resulting in 880 portions of fresh bread for Dunkirk and Calais, and anytime we got tired we just had to picture some of the faces we had met in order to carry on. Over the course of the rest of the week, I was involved in two more late night baking marathons, although we started earlier and earlier in the day in an attempt to make it a more sustainable pursuit.
I visited the camp three more times during my remaining time, helping out in various roles and getting to know many of the incredibly hopeful and friendly residents of Dunkirk. I learnt new cooking skills and Kurdi dance moves, brushed up on my French and became aware of so many interesting and inspiring projects all over the world. After such an eye-opening week surrounded by incredible people who have given up so much time and energy into the organisations in Calais, I was already considering cutting down my time in New Zealand. By the time I returned home, I knew that all I wanted to do was postpone New Zealand and return to Calais.
A huge thank you to everybody who made my ‘induction’ to Calais so incredible, and for all the life chats and extremely enjoyable evenings in and around Calais. You’re all amazing people. My journal is overflowing with stories and memories but I will save them until later. I can’t wait to get back on Sunday.
(This blog may become less of a travel blog for a while, but I can guarantee that it will be interesting).
Donate to Help Refugees here
Donate to Refugee Community Kitchen here
Help out a wonderful fellow volunteer who is off to help out in Lebanon in April here