The refugee crisis is the greatest humanitarian issue of our generation.
Calais is a popular stopover point for refugees on their journey to escape their home countries, where they have been persecuted and forced to live in fear and poverty. The majority of these people travel across the world from war-torn countries, including Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrean, Iraq, Iran, and Syria.
They set up tents in the streets, which make temporary camps. However, every few days are forced to move by the police.
Earlier this month, I visited Calais as part of a small group with the intention to volunteer with Refugee Community Kitchen; an organisation that prepares and distributes food to the refugees living rough around Calais.
As an avid traveller, I decided to change my motivations for visiting different countries, and travel with more purpose than just exploring. This was a brand-new experience for me. I had never been away with a group of people I hadn’t met, nor had the opportunity to get involved in front-line charity work.
The lead-up to departure did provoke some anxiety as I didn’t know what to expect. I was lucky enough to be greeted by a very welcoming team of volunteers and organisers, which allowed me to look forward to the coming days.
We had 4 full days of work scheduled in the kitchen, so it was straight to the warehouse as soon as we got off the ferry, where the remaining volunteers joined us.
We received a warm welcome from the organisers on reaching the site and were given a quick tour of the warehouse. There are approximately 20 charities operating from the same building, all catering to refugees.
This included preparing and packing firewood, distributing clothes, preparing toys for children’s play sessions, and creating food packages for those sleeping rough. We were told we could get involved with any of the charities, as help was needed in all areas of the warehouse.
packing chopped firewood
As spaces were limited, not everyone could go to distribute food to the refugees.
I like to think I was of the lucky few who were able to go; we left early evening so we could get to the city centre in time for the evening meal. I was in awe of the food that was prepared for them; they had access to condiments and salads, hot drinks, and hot food which was usually rice with curry.
During the briefing, we were advised to try to give them as much autonomy where possible, such as where they would like their curry on the plate and portion sizes. This initially seemed like a detail I would not have thought of prior to distribution. It goes to show how much we take for granted in our comfortable lives.
Ingredient prep in the kitchen
Slowly but surely, as the day centres would close, people made their way to where the food was set up. A queue began to form as people came to collect their meals.
We were advised not to ask them any personal questions, as they may have suffered from intense trauma. We were also told to avoid apologising to them, as they would have heard the word ‘sorry’ many times in the past, therefore could come across as insincere. Due to the cold weather, there were fewer refugees than expected on site, as they were provided with emergency accommodation.
When speaking to the refugees, they would smile and remain polite, despite the language barrier.
The sorrow behind their eyes was evident, and knowing that many of these people were Muslim was gut-wrenching, as it suddenly felt like the shared characteristic somehow connected us.
They would come over and greet the volunteers in Arabic, and it was touching to hear the volunteers who did not come from an Islamic or Arab background respond to them in Arabic.
Temporary refugee camp
There were times when the volunteers, including myself, would return from a day of working with teary eyes and pain in our hearts. We were so touched by the people we met and what we had seen.
In Islam, the importance of charity is emphasized, which is especially evident in the foundation teachings of the religion, being the third of five pillars. By giving up my time to do charity work, I found myself gaining a deeper understanding of why it is so important.
It made me appreciate what I had, the circumstances I was fortunate enough to be born into, and the lack of hardship I face in comparison to others.
Despite the shockingly low temperatures and initial anxieties, this has been a truly enriching and humbling experience. This work has opened my eyes to the conditions that others live in.
In the Muslim community, it’s habitual to donate money to charities, however, few of us have the opportunity to see where the money is going.
The organisation I travelled with (SKTVUK) have a few upcoming plans to travel for charity work, so for those who have the means, I would strongly encourage you to sign up. I cannot be more grateful to the people I met on my journey from across the world who made the group feel so welcomed, supported and appreciated, as well as the friends I have made and bought back home with me.
Special thanks to Shahbaaz Khan, founder of SKTVUK, and his family, who the trip would not have been possible without. Further gratitude to Refugee Community Kitchen for making the experience enjoyable as well as enlightening, and Herts for Refugees, who lifted our spirits in the mere 2 days we were together.