Friday, 16 September 2016

Volunteering with Help Refugees

I recently returned from a two week trip to Calais where I spent my time volunteering with Help Refugees. If you read my last post you'll remember that I was running a donation drive in Brighton to take food donations to Calais in my van and it was a huge success, so many people brought generous donations along to both Punktured and The Hope and Ruin, and Infinity Foods gave me a generous donation of dried and canned goods. As well as filling the van with lentils, tinned tomatoes, biscuits, rice, sugar, tea, and more I was also able to raise £1050 which covered a weeks worth of fresh food for Refugee Community Kitchen who currently feed over 2000 people a day.

The refugee crisis in Calais is actually worse than I understood it to be before I went over there, the most surprising thing to me was finding out that it's not an officially recognised refugee camp. There are no large aid agencies like Oxfam or Amnesty there on the ground distributing aid in fact the only organisations working in the jungle are small grassroots groups like Help Refugees. There are over 10,000 people living in the camp and numbers are growing every day, the majority or refugees come from Afghanistan, Sudan, Pakistan and Eritrea. These are people who risk (and often loose) their lives trying to get to the UK to claim asylum. Despite the Dubs amendment passing in May no unaccompanied refugee children have been settled in the UK under the new law. Just let that sink in for a moment. Over four months ago the UK government agreed that we need to resettle unaccompanied refugee children but since then we have done nothing about it. Nothing. The mental and physical health of vulnerable children (children as young as eight) is declining every day and we're over here planning to build a £1.7m wall to keep people away?! It's appalling.

Whilst I did spend some time working in camp during my two weeks volunteering, I spent a day on the Women's and Children's Bus giving manicures and pedicures as part of pamper day, most of my time was spent in the warehouse. This was a choice I was happy to make as it seemed that most volunteers wanted to be in camp and I quite like to be behind the scenes. I was working in the main sort department both sorting clothes donations - which ranged from the practical (hoodies are a much needed item) to the fascinating (glitter mini skirts are not camp appropriate!) and putting together packages for women.

I think the hardest moment of the whole week was putting together a clothing package for a pregnant woman and her child which included a warm coat, a onesie, little boots for her child, socks, underwear, and a hygiene pack. People really do arrive with nothing and I felt heartbroken that this women was going to have her baby at a refugee camp. 

Towards the end of my time at Help Refugees donations seemed to be drying up, in early September vans and cars would be arriving all day but towards the middle of the month they'd slowed to a trickle. The camp is made up of far more men than women, around 92% of the population in camp is male, and most of them wear size small clothes. As you can see the size 28 and 30 waist trouser boxes are empty and when that happens it means that there is nothing to distribute at the camp. 

Alongside Refugee Community Kitchen is the dry foods area where volunteers pack bags of supplies for distribution within the camp. This, along with distributions of pots, pans, and camping stoves, enables people to cook for themselves which, given that queues for food are often three hours long, is really important.

Whilst donations of food like the one I organised go a small way to helping with these distributions monetary donations are needed now more than ever. With the population in camp growing every day it is getting more and more expensive to distribute enough food for even one meal a day. Help Refugees get bulk discounts on foods including canned tomatoes and beans, lentils, and cooking oil so your money goes further if you make a financial donation. Distribution has to be fair and equal to avoid causing tensions within camp so if stocks of something are low nobody will get that item until there's enough for everyone.  

I understand the need to see exactly what your donation has bought though so if you'd like to make a physical donation then it would of course be most most welcome. I chatted to people from each area and right now these are some of the most needed items:

• Black tea
• Coffee
• Biscuits (As you can see from the picture above the biscuit area needs a little help!)
• Duvet covers (Help Refugees have a lot of duvets but they cannot be distributed without covers)
• Roll mats
• Warm blankets (winter is coming and sleeping in a tent with just a sleeping bag for protection is going to be horrible)
• Size 28 and 30 men's trousers preferably in dark colours 
• Small men's hoodies 
• Clean, small or medium, men's and women's underwear (New if possible, these are available at places like Primark for very reasonable prices)
• Men's deodorant
• Lamps
• Torches
• Towels (new or nearly new)

I feel really strongly about making volunteering a part of your travel plan if you're fortunate enough to be able to travel long term. Unlike some of the places I've volunteered in Japan and Thailand, Calais isn't most people's idea of a dream destination, but the people I was volunteering with were for the most part inspiring, ridiculously hard working, compassionate, intelligent, people who I was more than happy to be around every day. I'd highly recommend it as a place to volunteer, even if you only have one or two days spare at the beginning or end of a European trip, or at the weekend, you'll be able to pitch in somewhere and make a difference. As a bonus the kitchen cook lunch for everyone on a donation basis and the food is both delicious and almost always vegan, whilst I was there there were two non-vegan salads (look out for mayo and honey) but the rice and main meal were always a-ok.

What else can you do? If you have no time / money to volunteer, to organise a donation drive, or to take donations to Calais yourself then no worries. Here are some other ways you can help:

• Make a donation online to either Help Refugees or Refugee Community Kitchen.

• If you're based in the UK write to your MP to ask them to put pressure on the government to uphold the Dubs amendment. Remember that your MP works for you! I've written to Dominic Raab and will be requesting a surgery appointment with him if I don't get a satisfactory answer.

• Buy clothes or camping equipment online for delivery direct to the Help Refugees warehouse with Leisure Fayre. Find the list here, click, buy, and know that your donation will make it to Calais.

• Spread the word! Share this post, share this article about the Dubs amendment, share news stories from the Help Refugees website, get involved in their #refugenes project, share details of the Solidarity with Refugees march happening in London tomorrow, hell, come with me if you want to. Just do something to make people aware that the refugee crisis isn't over.


  1. Thanks for writing this Jojo. Have made a donation and have shared on social media.

  2. Such an eye opening read. I didn't realise it wasn't an official camp until you mentioned it.
    Australia is absolutely horrific in their treatment of refugees at offshore detention facilities. The whole thing just hurts my heart.
    You did wonderful work. <3

    1. Thanks Susan! I don't know much about Australia's treatment of refugees but it sounds similarly awful to the treatment they get in the UK. It hurts my heart too, at the end of the day we're all people and I can't understand why we treat each other so awfully.

  3. A great and worthwhile post, and a problem that is worth bringing to light again and again and again until enough is done about it. People deserve more than this, and we deserve politicians that do more about it.

    1. Thanks for your comment Joey, I hope that this post opened some eyes and inspired people to take action.

  4. Oh my God, this is all just awful. It's astonishing how many refugees there are, and it's just so sad. Thank you for writing this <3.

    1. Thanks Hannah, I really appreciate your comment.

  5. Volunteering in Calais a few years ago, when their was only a few hundred refugees - all food was done by a government funded organisation Salarm, only food was the overly salted mush (often I think it was pasta, its not part of their diet for most but the Sudanese really), There was plenty to go around, but I refused being vegan at the time. I found it so hard to explain, not wanting to impose my values, especially with my level of privilege (white, British passport etc, my culture already has a history of imposing our values!), Tried to explain these were personal beliefs, but through the language barrier was so hard to explain. I also got offered fish in tin which I turned down, made it so much harder to connect, sharing food etc was away they felt they could give back. Never forget sitting in a ruin of a house with fascist posters on the fence outside with hail stones beating down, they were hurled in the only corner with a roof with a fire. Yet they oftered everything they had, shared a spliff, coffee etc, It helped them feel human again, they weren't charity but human beings, people etc. To give back means so much to them, trying to explain why you don't want something, brings up barriers between you, and so hard to explain why you didn't' want something. Hospitality is a key way to build connections with those in Calais, its often all they have! When I got back, really questioned my beliefs, was vegan in every situation the right answer? When I next went to Calais, I ate meat, I also realised for me values are contextual, yeah its hard to work out what is the best in every situations, But last time I was in Calais, I broke my food beliefs a lot (that was when everyone still loved refugees and giving a lot of stuff) - pushed my beliefs, but it meant I could be better at the fight, you did an amazing job! blankets will never solve the crisis but they will help those survive, so its amazing the time you gave, especially as its not the most interesting job! (but less emotionally stressful I guess...) guess I did a different way of support, building friendship and solidarity, through that oftening them support, to do this not sharing would of made it so hard! I don't if I get a reply, but Calais was one of hardest times for me on food, now will eat food even if its meat in specific contextual circumstances, Guess I'm writing this as food for though so to speak, got me to really question veganism in my personal beliefs and if I should be vegan all the time... Sorry I've not been very clear I'm sure and I know I've rambled, just wanted to share my difficult experiences of being vegan in Calais...

    1. it was one of the hardest decisions, really made me think what my values and what was important to me, its all so subjective!

  6. It's a very admirable thing you did volunteering at Calais.

  7. Great post, great job. It is very inspiring.

  8. I can't believe it took me so long to read this amazing post. With the refugee camp at Calais in the news lately, of course you and your experience, and all those people have been on my mind. So many lives determined by circumstances beyond their control. I admire these people greatly for the courage to try to regain autonomy of their lives, and my heart breaks for them at how difficult and hard-to-escape the refugee situation is once they finally get to Europe. I wanted to do some volunteering when I was in Europe this summer, but the things I read said that short term volunteers were more of a burden than an asset. I wish I had looked harder for ways to help. Thank you for sharing about your experience. xo


Talk to me!