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Amanda Williams is the founder of the sustainable travel blog, Amanda’s Wanderlust. If you love travel but care about your carbon footprint, then check out the blog. Featuring adventure travel, wildlife experiences, ecotourism, festivals, UK travel and much more; Amanda invites her readers to join the journey as she tries to keep her travel sustainable… You can follow Amanda on her blog, Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter.
Volunteering in Calais
Europe is in the midst of a major refugee crisis, as millions flee conflict and persecution in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and head to the EU in search of a safer life. But for many this long and dangerous journey does not end in safety. It ends in a refugee camp, like ‘The Jungle’ in Calais, where conditions are squalid and life is difficult, but hope endures against the odds.
I first visited ‘the Jungle’ in late January 2016 when it was cold and wet. The camp was flooded and muddy. Built on an old landfill site, it is situated between two large chemical factories and a motorway. Hundreds of temporary wooden structures were home to around 4,000 people at that time.
An assessment by the University of Birmingham found extremely poor living conditions in ‘the Jungle’, far below the minimum standards set by the United Nations for refugee camps. There are a lack of washing facilities, adequate toilets and dry bedding.
The failure by the French Government to declare this a humanitarian crisis means that most of the major charities and NGOs are unable to help. French charity Médecins Sans Frontieres is the only major NGO on the ground, offering emergency care during office hours only.
But amid all this uncertainty and suffering, I witnessed an incredible response from normal people like you and I. While European governments argue and posture about how many refugees they will take, it has been left almost entirely to a movement of grassroots volunteers to keep thousands of refugees in the camp alive.
The most significant group is a loose coalition between French registered charity L’auberge des Migrants, Help Refugees UK with support from CalAid, with assistance from Salam and Secours Catholique.
L’auberge des Migrants, Salam and Secours Catholique are small French charities, which have supported refugees for many years. Help Refugees and CalAid are British initiatives set up in response to the current crisis.
Help Refugees UK aims to help the most vulnerable people currently reaching Europe’s shores by supporting groups, charities and volunteers who are at the front lines, carrying out life-changing work in difficult circumstances. They work where Governments and NGOs do not. Unconstrained by red tape, politics and bureaucracy, they act fast to change lives (and save them).
Volunteers, many of whom have come from the travelling and festival community in the UK, are helping to build shelters, feed people, and distribute emergency food packs, clothing, tents and blankets.
As I arrived at the warehouse, just outside Calais, an army of volunteers (aged mostly 20 – 40) were working hard to sort donations of food and clothing. The smell of good food wafted through the building from the camp kitchen, where hot vegetarian meals are prepared for refugees and volunteers alike.
The atmosphere in the warehouse was buoyant, as volunteers went about their work cheerfully, well aware that they were making a real difference to the lives of others.
The level of organisation achieved in the camp is impressive. There is a library (Jungle Books), a refugee led radio station (Radio Jungala), schools, churches and mosques, a women’s and children’s centre, and a youth centre. But these facilities are constantly under threat of being bulldozed by the French authorities, despite the small comfort they offer to ‘The Jungle’ residents.
Over 5,000 volunteers have worked here so far, for varying amounts of time. In any given weekend around 200 short-term volunteers may be on site for a few days. These include chefs, nurses, midwives, teachers and people from almost any walk of life, who are just there helping out.
Then there are the long-term volunteers, many of whom have been in Calais for months. Some have given up jobs, partners and flats to stay and do what they can; stepping up to fill a vacuum in the response you might naturally have expected governments to offer. Among so much desperation, it was a blessing to find such selflessness and hope.
A shortage of long-term volunteers, people who are able to stay for longer (months not days) places extra pressure on the long-term volunteer coordinators who must constantly train new people. If you are interested in volunteering with refugees anywhere in Europe, but particularly in Calais or Greece, contact Help Refugees UK in the first instance for advice.
About Help Refugees UK
Help Refugees originated when Radio X presenter Lliana Bird, writer and TV presenter Dawn O’Porter, activist and comedian Heydon Prowse (BBC’s The Revolution Will Not be Televised) and friend Josie Naughton set up the hashtag #HelpCalais to raise funds and collect goods in response to the current refugee crisis. The public response was overwhelming and since then they have evolved into a charity (under the auspices of Prism the Gift Fund) with the aim of providing aid to meet the basic human needs of refugees.
Have you volunteered? We would love to hear from you!
If you have volunteered with a small, community-based organisation that upholds the values of responsible volunteering, we would love to hear from you! This wonderful post from Amanda is part of our monthly volunteering guest post series. If you would like to share your story, please email email@example.com Thank you!
Do you have the skills and experiences necessary to volunteer with Help Refugees UK? If so, make sure you contact them for more information.
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