By Jessica Baker
I‘m watching the sun rise as we drive to the warehouse. I’m measuring 3.5 litres of oil into 8 huge pots to start the process of cooking 160kg of rice. I’m crying as I watch two small boys play in a carpark. I’m sitting around a bonfire with friends on the beach. I’m laughing in the back of a van as police search our vehicle and check our ID. I’m using 24kg of flour to make 17 trays of cake. I’m using my hands to scrape the last cooked onions out of a pot that I could fit in. I’m sitting by a road with three Eritrean guys as they share their baguette and pot of tomato sauce with me. I’m chopping, scrubbing and sorting and all the time wondering how I could ever explain what is happening and quite how amazing but horrifying it is.
When I was about 14, campaigning to allow Syrian refugees into my home of Birmingham, I knew about the Calais jungle but accepted that I couldn’t do much more than I was. What I did do, however, was promise myself that I’d come out here when I was old enough and had the time. When I turned 18 and took a gap year, my next steps were obvious. The jungle here may be gone, but there are hundreds of people living rough in the Calais area and another community in Dunkirk. While there may not be as many people as before, this community now has no structure or support, beyond portaloos and taps provided by local councils due to court orders. Women and children have more protection but even then teenage boys are living under bridges and while police continue to confiscate sleeping bags and tents, none of the refugees have adequate protection from the weather, which will only get worse in the coming winter. They are reliant on the charities based in Calais, such as Help Refugees, who distribute clothes and blankets, and the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) who are making over 2000 meals a day, and have done every day for almost two years. RCK is the charity I’ve been working with, after spending two days with them in the summer and loving it. The food is simple- donated bread and a basic veg and bean soup goes out for lunch, then a more filling rice, curry and salad goes out in the evening- but the people we serve it to are more grateful for it than I might have ever been for food. Being told that a meal tastes like the traditional food of someone’s country is the most amazing compliment to the chefs, and is an important reminder of how valuable food is.
It’s over a month since I arrived at the warehouse gate on a stormy October night. I spent my first week just working in the warehouse, chopping unexplainable quantities of vegetables and distributing the food that we made with it. However, after a drop in volunteer numbers due to university term time, I was pretty quickly rushed onto the weekly rota. I tried making the rice, an intensive process of up to 4 hours, which results in the best rice I’ve ever eaten but was more stressful than it was worth, considering that I wasn’t very good at it. I tried helping in the warehouse, where someone from the kitchen has to spend every day sorting new donations and keeping 2 washing machines full of all the blacks and tea towels that we use, but I didn’t enjoy working alone and never quite being sure how to deal with a never ending list of jobs. What I enjoyed most was leading Prep, which involves co-ordinating all of the veg being prepared for the chefs to use the next day. It allows me to work with people, get to know all the new volunteers and be involved in deciding what food comes out of the kitchen. I’ve led the prep area, with someone else, a few times a week since then and still love it. Whatever jobs we’re all doing, everyone working in the prep area is almost always having fun- it’s not worth always worrying about what’s outside the warehouse and when the music is on and everyone is working as a team, the kitchen is just a lovely place to be.
As much as the jobs in the warehouse are important, there is a beautiful value in serving the meals we are producing to the people we are here to serve. Twice a day teams head out, in vans packed with food, ready to set up tables and start as soon as we park, where a line is usually already waiting. Distributions are harrowing. A joke with a boy my age about the weather can later lead to tears, as I remember that I’ve left in my 5 layers to spend the night in my static caravan, leaving him in clothes that he never chose, to find any protection which police won’t turn up to remove him from. We cried over the two small boys after they’d sat in the back of our van teaching us numbers in Kurdish and eating the small clumps of rice I dropped into their hands with bright eyes. Another night I followed an unaccompanied three year old over a bridge to keep an eye on him and we simply sat by the lake and threw flowers into the water until his mother found us. Someone half joked that the children here are born with a “plastic spoon” in their mouths. I talk to men who used to be history teachers and doctors, who are now reliant on our services to keep going. Adult men are walking around northern France without socks or coats on in November. Mothers are begging me for bin bags in order to keep their toddlers, who are pushed in shopping trolleys, dry. It can be fun, to joke with people my age, to chase kids around and to hear about older people’s old lives, and easy to forget the horrific situation that they’ve all found themselves in. The work we’re doing is constant and tough, with not enough of us or enough food to actually cook. But regardless of their situation, whether I’m receiving marriage proposals, hugs or just smiled and thanks, the people we’re feeding are hilarious and kind, and it makes all the literal blood, sweat and tears, worth it.
I’m coming home soon, to take a break before spending the rest of my gap year doing other things that I hope will also be positive for the world, but this place and these people will remain in my heart. Refugee issues are impossible to avoid once you start looking and as someone who’s family were once refugees, it is my duty, as it is many of the Jewish community’s, to keep looking and helping, however uncomfortable it is. Many of those in Calais have hit the brick wall of the English Channel (surveys have shown that a main reason they don’t want to be in France is the police violence they’ve experienced) and their future is uncertain. I’d love to never come back here and for the whole issue in Calais to cease to exist, but I don’t expect that to happen and while RCK keeps cooking and people keep needing food, I plan to try and return here when I can, to do my bit.
Finally, just a comment on how easy it is to help the people here in Calais. A £10 donation to the Refugee Community Kitchen could pay for 20 nutritious meals (donate through their website/facebook page) and really support a charity who are always low on funds. A physical donation of your old clothes can be sent to Help Refugees by emailing them and finding out where a nearby drop off point to you is. There are also fundraising events for both charities in the UK if you want to get more involved, though obviously the best way to do that is to come out here and volunteer. It’s easy (get a coach from London Victoria, or drive!), cheap and not just for students- groups and individuals of all ages come out here every week. If you want to do something worthwhile for a few days, or a month, please email me at email@example.com– I’d be happy to help you arrange a trip or just give you more information about how to help best. There are people struggling just over the sea from you and as it gets colder and wetter your help becomes more and more appreciated.