The first of the volunteers awake in our campsite home. They drive the van out into the city of Calais as the sun rises. They check on the first of five distribution points. Some of the guys are waking up, moving out of their tents, tending to a small fire that keeps them warm. “Hello brother how are you?” we ask. “I’m fine, and you?” — the same answer is given as yesterday, but we know that that isn’t the truth. Rumours of violence last night, someone has a black eye. We check on him and ask if he wants to go to the hospital, but he says “no, no good there.”
A clearance is going on in at another distribution point. Vans upon vans, men with batons, spray canisters, guns. Some volunteers are present at the location, filming, asking questions, trying to help the guys remove their belongings from their tents before they get destroyed by the men in uniforms. Tear gas is deployed like perfume, but the result is far different. More volunteers arrive to assist with hospital runs. Present, resilient, assertive.
Michael Jackson is playing in the kitchen. Onions are everywhere. Rice is being stirred and fluffed, in 6 giant pots. Tea is being sweetened. The chefs are working on a variation of Afghan eggs. Everyone is dancing and grooving, preparing for the distributions of the day to Calais and Dunkirk.
The warehouse manager strides around the warehouse. Volunteers to the left sorting clothes, to the right preparing items for distributions. The Women’s Centre are sizing coats and jumpers. Tents being counted, and frantically thrown in the van to be given out, replacing the ones taken away. The hoppers are overflowing with large and extra large jumpers — what will we do with them all? Bags and boxes being wheeled around from one warehouse to the next, everyone hoping to avoid rats and cats. We ask for shoes, size 42, but sadly there are none.
The sun is still shining as volunteers emerge from their working locations and congregate in the volunteer area. RCK serves hot curry, rice, salad to hungry volunteers as they laugh and chat about the day. Volunteers from the School Bus Project are preparing what games and lessons they will be doing today. As everyone sits and enjoys the curry, complimenting the chefs on the rice, we discuss our strategies and ideas; for sustainability, for preventing police intervention, for logistics of the warehouse.
Two vans are in the yard, with volunteers passing items to each other to be loaded. Boxers, T-shirts, jackets, jumpers, emergency blankets & ponchos flow into the vans. Water is being pumped into barrels. Tea is being poured into urns. Everyone is rushing to leave on time. Team leaders run into the van, hurrying their team of Utopia 56 volunteers. Off they go to a distribution, one of seven a day.
They arrive and a few guys are waiting for them. “Hello, how are you sister/brother?” they say to us, shaking our hands. Some of them that we know well give us hugs. “What you bring today, food?” they ask. “No food today brother” we respond, as the government now distributes food daily for them, but not at this distribution point. We ask them to form a line and one of us jumps into the van to begin handing out items. The guys laugh and ask us “where are you from?”, “are you French?”, “Do you live in UK?”, “How is it, easy to get job?”. Some of the guys start playing music from their phones, others gather by the fire. Our hands are cold, but not compared to the guys. Gloves gloves gloves. “Gloves finish my friend, I am sorry.”
Three of us volunteers drive the Refugee Infobus down to another distribution point. We discuss a security incident that happened the day before, the procedure for evacuation if necessary. We brought instruments today, let’s get the guys involved. We arrive and immediately we are greeted by the guys helping us remove all the equipment from the van, helping to set it up. “Wifi, wifi!”
We play table tennis with the guys, joining in on the fun created by RYS. Some of the younger ones have an English lesson. We troubleshoot some phone issues, help people with credit. The ground is dusty and dirty, but this doesn’t stop a game of football starting up. The woodyard team comes to drop off the wood they have been preparing in the day, the guys run from the bus to go and gather their bags — it will be a long, cold night.
The warehouse starts winding down as the morning team finish and the evening teams begin to load their vans. The food is about to be distributed, there’s still a lot of work to be done. The team leaders check their vans — curry, rice, salad, spices, tea, water, anything else? Will the guys like the food? Will it remind them of home? A new volunteer is nervous, she doesn’t know what to expect. The long-termers brief her on possible scenarios on the field, there could be hundreds of people waiting to eat.
The late shift starts, into the car again, checking for the suspicious, slow driving, big vans that hunt for refugees. We are there to protect them; if we are present the authorities are less likely to use violence, but it still happens. We go to hang out with some guys by a fire, chat to them about their days. Some of them have received new tents and blankets, but they aren’t very thick. They will be cold tonight.
Most of the volunteers return to our campsite home. We gather in each others caravans, make each other food. We need it. It’s always someones leaving party or birthday, who is it today? Where will we go to let off steam and try to forget what our jobs are? We dance, we laugh, we cry, all together. That’s our lives. Standing together, solid, strong, united. Because if we aren’t here, who will be?
And check out our Volunteer FAQs!
Tahlia is a volunteer with Refugee Info Bus. We are always looking to hear from people interested in getting involved in our project. For the Info Bus, we are especially interested if you have language skills, you have a writing background, experience in repairing phones, a legal background, experience as a refugee, fundraising enthusiasm or admin enthusiasm.If you can stay for a month or more, drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org!