The reporting of the refugee crisis is hard to stomach. Seeing the squalid conditions in the camps, the perilous journeys they take across countries and rough seas and now the COVID-19 pandemic to add further complications.
It can leave us feeling helpless, frustrated, dismayed and a whole other range of emotions. How can this be allowed to happen? Is there any way out of it? How can I help?
While we can’t begin to imagine what life is like as a refugee, there are things we can do to help.
Now I probably should say, this blog post highlights something we can do – but it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s easy to do or risk free, which will become clear as you read on.
First things first, meet Alex Marshall. Alex is 23 years old and from Huddersfield, West Yorkshire. He works in a bank, supports Huddersfield Town and loves a pint on a weekend. He doesn’t mind me saying he has a pretty normal life, just like you and me.
But a couple of years ago, Alex did something remarkable, and worked in one of Calais’ refugee camps.
I’d heard of people doing this and I just considered it ‘voluntourism’ – the growing trend of people incorporating volunteering into their travelling, not necessarily a bad thing but it gains negative attention and seems more selfish than selfless when it appears all over their social media – but in reality, I was wrong. And what Alex faced was far from touristy.
Keen to find out more about his experience, I had a chat with Alex about how he ended up in one of the most adverse areas in the world.
- Tell me a bit about the work you did in Calais – how did you find out about it?
A couple of my friends had been so I started to research more about it and found Help Refugees and Refugee Community Kitchen, incredible charities. I was cooking/prepping veg, helping make around 2,500 meals a day. I prepped firewood – chopping to make kindling and bagging up for distribution. I went in the winter both times and it was absolutely baltic. I sorted through clothes, tents and sleeping bag donations to ascertain what’s suitable and what’s not. I also distributed food to refugees, this is the most heart wrenching thing.
- Why was it so heart-wrenching?
Just seeing how appreciative and hungry these lovely people are was heart wrenching… seeing families with babies, toddlers, kids struggling.
- Where did you stay?
I can’t reveal too much about this as it could potentially put the homeowner at risk, the police over there try to prosecute people trying to help the refugees. I rented a room in a house with other volunteers and some refugees.
- What made you want to go to Calais?
These people are human beings that deserve to live a normal life like we do. I hate how they are treated like lesser beings/an inconvenience in the media. I hate injustice and felt like it was my responsibility to do something, I guess. It really is a crisis. But the crisis in my opinion is that authorities aren’t doing more to help these people.
- What was your typical day like?
Get up, grab a coffee. Straight to the warehouse, morning briefing which is usually in both English and French. Quick briefing and updates on anything that’s happened, then I’d go wherever I’m needed and get as much done as possible. We usually had a 9-hour day but that could change. We had a situation where the police had decided to slash refugees’ tents through the night, which meant we needed to work longer to sort that on top of the day-to-day duties.
- I had no idea the police had such a strong and negative presence at the camps, did you ever see them causing problems?
I didn’t experience it directly when I went to distribute food but at one point when I was there another group of volunteers went to distribute and the police prevented them from going near the refugees, denying them of food. But a lot of the time it was at night.
- Did you ever feel unsafe because of the police’s activities?
I suppose there was always the risk that I could be prosecuted for what I was doing which is actually insane.
- Are you familiar with the phrase ‘voluntourism’? How would you compare what you did to this?
I’d say this is absolutely not a holiday – we have fun whilst we work but there’s a lot to do. There’s no such thing as too many volunteers; there’s always more work to be done… it’s a really positive environment though considering how dire the situation is over there – I learnt a lot from my time there. I would recommend anyone going.
This isn’t the easiest way you can help (keep an eye out for my other blog post about that) – and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s really not the safest – but what a way to make an impact. And if a normal guy like Alex can do it, what’s stopping you?