Last week I was in Calais. We were a group of sixteen people who’d come together for three days to learn what was possible about the global refugee crisis and the current situation in the northern tip of France. On two of those days we went to the donations warehouse just outside Calais run by Help Refugees, and did what we could to contribute to the set up that greeted us.
We found a warm, welcoming and dynamic place there, a place adorned with informative noticeboards and where numerous volunteers of all ages in yellow and orange high vis vests flow between tasks. There was a sense of lightness and fun, strongly underpinned by an attitude of focus, commitment and deep caring. Six organisations inhabit the space – a couple of warehouses and a large yard. As well as Help Refugees, there is: L’Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Community Kitchen, Utopia 56, Refugee Info Bus, Refugee Youth Service.
Both days we ate a lunch of curry and rice along with all the other volunteers, provided by Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK). Two and a half thousand meals are cooked on a daily basis by RCK, the majority being distributed at lunch and in the evening to the refugees in the areas of Calais and Dunkirk. Help Refugees estimate that there are currently between 800 – 1000 refugees sleeping rough in Calais and between 200 – 400 in Dunkirk.
The RCK meals are prepared by a bunch of short and long term volunteers. Most people learn on the job, guided by volunteers who may only have preceded them in the work by a short time. Yet the whole operation feels efficient and safe. The resulting food is tasty and preparation processes adhere to the rigorous standards of French health and safety. The satisfaction of eating the food is increased by the realisation that it is the same as that being eaten by people close by, in very different circumstances, and for whom a hot meal will likely make a critical difference to their day.
We were lucky enough to be given a tour of the warehouse by the current warehouse manager, Stu, on both the days we were there. It was a gift to hear him talk: Stu was passionate and realistic, compassionate and down to earth, focussed and with a sense of humour. He told us stories he had heard from people he’d worked with last year in the Jungle – the refugee camp of around 10, 000 people that was demolished by the French authorities last autumn – without sensationalism but with deep sensitivity. He decided to volunteer at Help Refugees after seeing the news at home and realising he couldn’t watch the refugee crisis from his sofa. He has been volunteering in Calais for many months since then. Stu was also clear about the humanitarian role of Help Refugees. There is no agenda to help refugees cross borders. The sole agenda is to help provide basic needs, the fundamental human rights of water, food and shelter; and to, hopefully, restore a little dignity in doing so.
Every day we were in Calais was bookended by meditation and punctuated by group discussion and sharing. Our group of sixteen had come together as a meditation-in-action group. Everyone attending the Humanity in Action Sanghaseva work retreat, which ran from 15th-18th August, is interested in how the practice of meditation and contemplation can support compassionate work. This in turn helps us understand the meaningful ways in which we are all connected.
Hearing how the refugees’ bedding often only lasts two or three days as it is routinely sprayed with teargas by the authorities shed a different light on my dry, warm, comfy bed back home. Learning about the widespread cases of trench foot among refugees meant that sorting shoes in the donations warehouse took on a sense of gravity, even while singing along to the music coming over the warehouse speakers. Listening to stories about the pressure that can be put on young men by their families to make long and dangerous journeys with the aim of supporting family back home helped me look at my own experiences of travel. I saw the personal choices I have made to leave home from a wider perspective.
The connection and intimacy of our group, with the shared focus of meditation practice, provided a supportive, cohesive network. This helped hold the pain and confusion experienced from touching the edges of the refugee crisis. Being based in Calais, seeing the broad, sandy beach and the wide, deep sea, feeling the hot August sun, hearing the high winds, watching the torrential rain; being based in a place that feels geographically and emotionally at the extremity of things, where the ways to move on, to move forward, to move away feel tangible yet desperately distant; all these things helped develop, just a little, my awareness and my understanding. Stepping away from the known and towards the unknown, looking outwards together as well as inwards alone, I gained a little more aliveness and shed a little defensiveness.
We are all different and we all the same. This is happening now. It is happening to them; it is happening to me; it is happening to us.
Graffiti board rescued from Calais Jungle