When Ines and Rosa visited Calais at the beginning of the year, migrants and refugees faced unimaginably harsh and difficult conditions. As we reflect on this trip during Refugee Week, it is important to recognise the huge impact that Covid-19 has had on the support available to refugees and asylum seekers in Calais. Donations which rely on volunteers making the crossing from Dover to Calais, have been curtailed due to lockdown, whilst many NGOs have had to temporarily withdraw their support. Organisations have worked tirelessly to ensure that donations can be received, and that refugees and asylum seekers do not have to go without food.
On Saturday 11th January, a team of seven volunteers travelled from London to Calais, led by Sr Christine Frost FCJ MBE, from Neighbours in Poplar. Sr Christine crosses the Channel regularly to help migrants and refugees in Calais. Among the group were two development workers from Caritas Westminster, Rosa and Inès , who were keen to gain direct experience of a social action project in Calais. The experience will help them share knowledge with Catholics in their hubs about the issues prevalent in Calais. They were also joined by two students, Oma and Nikita.
There are still thousands of migrants in Calais waiting for an opportunity to cross the Channel, including hundreds of unaccompanied children. There are also many volunteers, French and English, who work with the refugees in Calais. The team from the Diocese of Westminster visited some of them. They first met Janie, the founder of Refugee Community Kitchen, which distributes almost 2000 meals in Calais, Dunkirk and Brussels. The Calais kitchen is in a large warehouse, unremarkable from the outside, but inside, a hive of activity and friendliness, with loud lively music to keep the volunteers going. Rosa, Inès and the others got to work chopping aubergines for the next day’s distribution. At 12pm, a gong sounded, all activity ceased and the volunteers sat down to a hearty meal, the leftovers from the previous day’s distribution.
In the afternoon, the team visited a warehouse owned by Care4Calais, where they delivered brand new clothing that had been donated to Sr Christine. There is a major need during the current winter months for sturdy waterproof boots and shoes. According to Care4Calais, ‘there are young boys wearing flip flops or sandals in the freezing mud. They walk miles every day to get to food distributions or find places to sleep. In the wet conditions we see many cases of foot rot.’
The final stop of the day was at Maria Skobtsova House, also known fondly as ‘the Little House’, which provides beds for up to 16 of the most vulnerable people and a place to rest, shower, wash clothes and charge phones for any number of people who visit.
Inès was particularly impressed by the community feel of the house, where people from countries as far afield as Russia, Eritrea, and Mexico were living together. ‘The atmosphere felt special as we received such a warm and embracing welcome’. This welcome was expressed by the sharing of an Eritrean feast of Injera bread, spicy lentils, and potato cakes. Everybody gathered around the table to eat together, telling stories and making each other laugh. After helping with the washing up, it was time to head back to London.
The Westminster team, who travelled to Calais for one day, were amazed at how many volunteers stay there long-term and dedicate their lives to serving these destitute people.
Nikita, a drama therapy student, said, ‘I learnt how critical the living situation is in Calais. I was most surprised at the number of volunteers who came along and gave their time to cook and sort donations. They were some of the warmest people, trying to do something good by treating the migrants with dignity and respect.’
Oma, a student of human rights and international law, said the whole day of volunteering had been a good experience. ‘Seeing so many people helping made me happy for the refugees, happy that they are not alone.’
Care4Calais, the Refugee Kitchen and Maria Skobtsova House are always in need of volunteers and donations of clothes and money. For more information, please visit care4calais.org, refugeecommunitykitchen.com and mariaskobtsova.org or email email@example.com.