I spent an amazing weekend in Calais recently. Not your first choice of holiday destination, I hear you say! But I wasn’t there for a holiday. I went to donate my time as a volunteer in the Refugee Community Kitchen, and this is a brief recount of my time there.
Volunteering your time is not always easy due to work, family, and life commitments. I have to say that I am extremely lucky to have a very supportive partner who took on the role of single dad for 3 days while I was in Calais. If you’re in a position where you can physically go and help, I highly recommend it – extra pairs of hands never go unused!
What is the Refugee Community Kitchen?
Every day, this kitchen provides meals to over 3000 men, women and children. There are still around 40 new people arriving to the camps each day.
The R.C.K was created in the Autumn of 2015 by a group of like-minded individuals who wanted to help the refugees living in the camps of Europe. With tens of thousands of people forced to leave their homes and living in awful conditions, this group of event organisers, chefs, caterers, doulas, teachers and activists began offering hot nourishing meals and access to fresh food on a daily basis to the refugees at the Calais and Dunkirk camps.
In order to provide this type of assistance the R.C.K rely on donations of time, supplies, and money. Their needs are huge and on-going, and every donation helps, from UHT milk and tinned fish to fresh-produce donations and everything in between. Donations of time are also particularly welcome: people physically getting in the kitchen to help peel, cut and prepare vegetables, wash dishes, cook and distribute the food to the camps. Cash donations are used to buy any supplies immediately required.
Slicing and Dicing
My day in the kitchen began around 9am, by which time there was already plenty of activity with volunteers slicing and dicing vegetables, chefs getting started on the cooking, more volunteers unloading and sorting food donations and yet more volunteers sorting clothing donations, checking tents for usability, along with one crucial person keeping the coffee urns and teapots stocked to fuel the rest of us.
Before starting work in the kitchen I went next door to see the warehouse, co-ordinated by L’Auberge des Migrants, where clothes, shoes and hygiene items are stored and sorted before distribution. The volunteers were busy sorting through newly arrived bags of donations, checking for quality and suitability before sorting into sizes. There were boxes stacked twice my height of kid’s clothes, and bins overflowing with women’s clothes. Priority at the moment is on men’s clothes and shoes, however those bins were looking very empty.
Past the clothes are shelves lined with hygiene items – toothbrushes and toothpaste in abundance, loads of women’s hygiene items, shower gel, toilet paper, nappies for babies and young toddlers. And the bins that were empty? Shampoo, conditioner, men’s deodorant and size 4 & 5 nappies, desperately needed.
After that it was time to start work. I began by helping to pit and chop 7kg of dates to go in cakes, then pitched in wherever was necessary until we could start baking at 6pm. Around this time the other volunteers were heading off, and after the hustle and bustle of the day it was strange to see the place so quiet. After 3 or so hours and 13 huge trays of baked cake, we headed off for dinner and bed.
The next two days ran to similar timelines, although we did manage to get the baking done and finished by 6pm on the second day, and even earlier on Sunday (practice makes perfect when baking in bulk!).
The three days were all satisfyingly productive, and not spent wholly in the kitchen as we also had to make supermarket runs, and took a trip to the Dunkirk camp to visit a kitchen there, and talk with some other volunteers and residents about an upcoming women’s day which will allow the female residents to come together, sit, chat, have their hair cut or nails done, but most importantly provide time and a safe space to share some much needed laughs and support each other.
Each day the volunteers from all over the warehouse gathered for lunch, often a delicious vegetable curry, rice and salad. They came from all walks of life, and I met teenagers right through to grandparents, artists, corporate workers, students, and unemployed people. Some were staying for 2-3 days and had been before, others it was their first time. Longer term volunteers had been there for weeks or months at a time, or would come as often as they could.
Such a diverse group of people, all working towards a common goal, a truly marvelous and humbling sight to behold and to be part of.
Dinner in ‘The Jungle’
I’ve seen the media coverage, I’ve heard the stories, but I still wasn’t sure what to actually expect on a visit to either the Calais or Dunkirk camps. So when my friend suggested we go into the Calais camp (also known as ‘The Jungle’) for dinner one night, I was more than a little curious.
After parking the car outside the camp, we wandered along the main road through the tents and huts with small shops and restaurants set up and managed by residents running along either side. The sun was out, and there were people milling around in small groups. The restaurant we went to was called ‘The Three Idiots’, self-styled by the guys running it. After a warm welcome we were invited to sit together on a wide raised platform running along two of the walls and enjoy some food from their native Pakistan. This is where I discovered I can no longer sit cross legged (age coupled with inflexibility!), but even my uncooperative limbs didn’t stop me enjoying the delicious meal which consisted of freshly prepared plates of spinach, chickpeas, naan, chicken and samosas and chai tea.
The TV at the far end attracted the local residents who came in to sit and relax for a while, and another group of volunteers from the Dunkirk camp who we’d met briefly during a visit there earlier in the day sat opposite us. The owners took the time to chat leisurely with everyone, and it was a lovely evening.
All too soon, it was time to leave. We walked back to the car, jumped in, and drove off to sleep in our warm house with running water and electricity, and comfy beds.
HOW CAN YOU HELP?
The warehouse which houses the R.C.K also stores and sorts for distribution any food donations as well as clothing and shoes, hygiene items, tents and sleeping bags. You can help by donating your time in any of these areas, giving food or money, or organising an event or fundraiser to support them. For more information about getting involved in the kitchen please visit this page. For other areas please contact L’Auberge des Migrants International here.
Some Useful Things to Note
- The L’Auberge organisation has one warehouse on site (Care4Calais run a separate warehouse at a different location), it’s not Mary Poppins’ handbag and physically can’t hold more than is essentially needed. You can help them by donating only what has been asked for, and ensuring that what you donate is clean, good quality, practical and useable.
- This warehouse is overflowing with generous donations of clothing for women and children. For the men though, it’s slim pickings. Right now they are crying out for donations of men’s clothing in sizes small and medium, as well as for teenage boys. Shoe sizes in demand are men’s walking boots or trainers size 41-43.
- Food donations are essential; however they must also be easily stored and able to be cooked on wood burning stoves. For example, think how long it takes to cook whole wheat pasta at home on your gas or electric hob, and imagine using up your precious, limited supply of wood to make a meal. For food they need please read this list.
- Rather than donating small amounts of lots of different things, consider focusing on collecting a lot of one thing. Find out what is most in need before you start stocking up, and this will help to keep supplies up. For example, UHT milk, tins of fish, sugar, rice, or anything from this list.