Lessons Learnt from Helping Refugees In Calais

Lessons Learnt from Helping Refugees In Calais

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When it gets towards the end of another year, I naturally start reflecting on the past twelve months. As a thinker, I pretty much reflect all the time, but the actual end of the calendar year kicks this into overdrive, with a more punctuated moment to really pause and assess.

This year has kind of been a mad one for me. I say that because it involved a lot of emotional turbulence, career changes, heartbreak, breakthroughs, physical moves. I feel like I’ve learnt a lot and changed a lot. It’s been a testing year where I’ve had many moments I felt I really needed to interrogate who I was and how I wanted to respond to life’s challenges.  

After getting through all the intense periods, I feel peaceful. I feel grateful that the world cushioned me with little moments of relief. With a bed. With a sense of possibility for what would come next. This gave me a very strong sense that I needed to give back to the world. That I needed to go out and do something for someone less protected. 

Since the story of Irena Sendler came on my radar, I’d been thinking about the decision Angela Merkel made in 2015 to allow 1.5million refugees into Germany. A decision of principals and humanity, over politics. 

When I think about these women and the choices they made, I admire them. I like to think I would act in a similar way should I be faced with those decisions. We know all about the evil which happened in WWII and my headspace was: “if that happened now, I would help the vulnerable”. A combination of these ideas led to me researching the current status of the thousands of refugees who fled the Middle East in 2015 and 2016. After some Googl-ing I got in touch with the Help Refugees charity. They informed me that they were currently supporting some partner organisations in Calais who would welcome short term volunteers.

I booked my flights to Calais, hostel accommodation, and emailed one of these, the Refugee Community Kitchen, to let them know I would be there.

A few weeks later, it was time to go. I was slightly anxious. Not really about the big things, but about the small things. Would I be any help? Would I know what to do? What if i was put on cooking and burnt the rice?! Those kind of things. Despite these questions, I knew that it was an entirely volunteer led operation, so no-one was going to have time to pick me up and hold my hand. I would need to figure it out.  

The Warehouse in Calais where the volunteer organisations are based.

The work I was doing was kitchen and warehouse work, and I found it really tough. Not everyone would have found that, I imagine, but for me, you couldn’t have paid me to do it. I hate being cold and wet and it was smelly and physical. After my first day someone said to me: “Sometimes I find it really rewarding but sometimes I’m like, my fingers are freezing and I have chili in my eye.” At this point, I have to say I was very much in the freezing hands, achy back frame of mind and that was true most of the time. I didn’t get anything from it, so to speak. I didn’t feel like woohoo it feels good doing good. It was tough work. 

I say this because it’s the honest truth, which I know doesn’t make a good slogan. But, crucially, I wasn’t there to feel good. I was there because there were human beings relying on people like us. I wasn’t there to feel rewarded, I was there to help. And I did help, whether I enjoyed it or not.

So often we’re told: “you get so much out of doing something for others”. While this is true, even if you don’t get something out of it, does that mean you shouldn’t do it? Of course not. It’s about them. It’s not about you.

That said, I did learn many things. 

  1. I learnt that real life looks a lot like it does on the news.

When we arrived at a car park in Dunkirk, ready to distribute food to the refugees, they were ready for us. Hundreds of people, mainly men, coming out from abandoned buildings and a wooded area. It made me wonder about the role that race has over our ability to disconnect from what we see on the news. We’ve seen people wrapped up and freezing, with only tents for shelter, but it’s never white people in these conditions is it? It’s never people who look like me. 

I thought of the people I’d seen cleared out and moved on from the underground. From roadsides and under bridges. People it was easy to ignore, perhaps because they don’t speak my language and they don’t look like me. This is where they’ve come from – they just made it that bit further.

2. I learnt that when your work is hard, your thoughts become shallower. Not in a bad way. I just locked into process mode. I didn’t want to talk to my family, I didn’t care so much about my relationships. I cared about being warm, being dry, getting to and from where I needed to go. It all became very simplified. 

3. Praise was offensive. People messaged me saying things like, “you’re amazing”, “it’s so amazing what you’re doing.” I gave four out of my three-hundred and sixty-five days and let me tell you, I didn’t feel amazing. It doesn’t feel amazing helping people who are in such an awful position. You aren’t giving them a life, you are giving them very basic survival tools. Things they’d much rather sort out for themselves. It’s not good enough. 

I understood that change isn’t governments. Maybe it should be but they have far too many unimportant things to be doing… change comes instead by a few random people coming together and doing what is needed. There is no greater ‘other’ doing it for us. This quote was on the back of a toilet door in the warehouse, and it was definitely true of the situation in Northern France.

A couple of years ago, I was fortunate enough to hear from Richard Curtis. The Writer and Director behind Notting Hill, Four Weddings, Love Actually and many more, also co-founded Comic Relief. He explained the philosophy he tries to work to, which is that whatever he has he will give 10% of to helping others less fortunate. I like this a lot, because we often think if we had more we’d do more, but would we?

We can all do more now. Set your principles and they will scale as you do.

4. I noticed the ripple effect of giving back. You do a little, then people think, I could do something too. My mum and sister both made steps to do something local the week I went out. Off the back of my tiny little gesture, they did little gestures, and really, that’s how the world evolves, because people do care, but they get distracted. Your act can be a reminder to other people for them to act. 

5. Everything is relative. I did more than most in London, but less than all the other people in Calais. And less than I could. 

People asked if I ever felt scared, but not at all – the refugees were very polite, they queued and said “thank you” in my language. I wondered how they would feel if the aid wasn’t there. If one day they arrived at that exposed car park in Dunkirk and there was no food van. The donations had dried up. How long would they keep going back before concluding that no-one cared? 


Most of the time my brain was pretty numb. I was robotic and switched off mentally. The LTVs (long term volunteers) get tired. But they care. And somehow (I am in such admiration) they find a way to overcome their tiredness because they know it’s them or it’s no-one. It all boils down to the basic human rights – food, water, shelter, freedom of speech. These are what we’re trying to equalise. The foundations of human experience which have evolved much further in the Western world. 

What I gave wasn’t enough. But it’s a start.

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