This week, I went with a small group of people to spend a day in Calais helping at refugee centres and packing warehouses.
Most people who listen to the news will be aware that Europe is facing the greatest refugee crisis since the Second World War.
Some people might be conscious of how the crisis affects us in the UK; immigration, Brexit, the Dubs amendment, etc., but going to actually see the reality of what’s going on for refugees in these limbo-states was truly an eye-opening experience.
There were 3 things that really struck me during my day there:
1) The volunteers really had an impact on me.
Some of the volunteers who stay near the camps in temporary accommodation long term, sometimes for months and months on end, give up huge chunks of their time, leave behind families, partners and livelihoods; and short term volunteers who stay for as long as they feel they can, are brilliant, generous and kind hearted people.
Many of them have given up so much to try and help refugees at great personal cost. They aren’t naïve, they just care deeply.
There is a ‘get on with whatever needs doing without fussing’ attitude around the volunteering bases that is really inspiring.
But to be clear, Calais is not somewhere to go and volunteer for a day or two to feel good about yourself.
These storage warehouses near the camps, which hold stocks of donations, clothes, food, tents, blankets, toiletries are really quite depressing.
When you’re in one and looking at huge piles of boxes which need sorting and distributing, reality hits that there are people completely dependent on these donations, this mish-mash of volunteer infrastructure, and the kindness of strangers.
2) It’s clear that there is still so much to do.
The Calais jungle may have been dismantled, but not far away in Dunkirk, there is still a camp very much in need of help. Refugees are also returning to Calais where the jungle was, and those who are not returning have had to find shelter elsewhere, like on the streets or in the train station, living in constant fear of being arrested and detained.
More volunteers are needed. There are refugees who still need help. There may be periods of time during the day where an extra volunteer or two may not be particularly busy, but come dinner time when hot meals need to be distributed to well over 1000 people in and around the camps, you can guarantee they will be.
3) These camps and volunteers are not solving the root cause of the problem.
The refugees who have made it as far as Calais are by far some of the luckiest ones, and there are countless (literally countless) more who won’t even get that far.
You may not accept that they have a right to be in France or for that matter, be accepted in to the UK. But the day you say to the children growing up in these places (both unaccompanied minors and children with families) that we don’t think they deserve our help, our time, or our welcoming, is the day we truly have to take a very long look in the mirror and question our humanity.
That may sound a tad hyperbolic, but I really believe it.
You may now call me a hypocrite for not wanting to go back and spend all my spare time there (I’m not sure I could mentally stand some of what these volunteers, let alone refugees have been through), but if anyone out there reading this feels that they can stand to go- I’d urge them to do so- but don’t underestimate the enormity and difficulty of the situation the volunteers are in.
They are facing a police force who don’t want them there helping refugees, they are stretched in resources and unable to help everyone who needs help all the time, and sometimes their work is appreciated by the refugees, sometimes it’s not appreciated whatsoever.
When I got back home, I felt very lucky that I have the life that I do; independent, comfortable and safe.
I felt grateful that there are people who are so ready and willing to help refugees with everything they can.
More than anything I feel like I have so many more questions about what is going on there and have to keep asking how we talk about the refugee crisis at home, in our community, and shortly, around our Seder tables, where, forgive me for getting a bit religious here, but we quite literally tell a story about Jews and refugees.