By Abi Wyatt
In the summer of 2018, 3rd year French and Italian student Abi Wyatt spent 3 months volunteering in Calais for Help Refugees. Culture editor Maria Allon met with Abi to discuss her experiences and find out more about what we can do to help refugees in Calais.
Can you tell us a bit about the organisation that you volunteered with and how you got involved with them?
Help Refugees is an incredible charity with over 80 projects across Europe and the Middle East providing humanitarian aid to displaced people. In Northern France, Help Refugees works together with 7 other organisations to support around 500 displaced people sleeping rough in Calais and around 1500 more in Dunkirk (although this number is growing rapidly), including families with children as young as 2 months old. I personally got involved with the Help Refugees thanks to the Guilty Feminist podcast, who are long-standing advocates of the organisation.
I spent half my time in Calais working as the donations co-ordinator. I came into this role during a crippling period of donor fatigue. The warehouse was empty, and I felt an enormous weight on my shoulders as I tried to fill it. The other half of my time was spent distributing non-food items – in other words, we did our best to respond to the current needs with the limited resources we had available to us.
Most students spend their summers travelling, going to festivals or working, so what made you spend your summer in Calais?
Weirdly, it didn’t feel like I was missing out on any summer fun! Volunteers live together by the sea a few miles from Calais centre. The caravans leave a lot to be desired, but camping with your friends, swimming in the sea, sunbathing on hammocks and having bonfires and vegan BBQs every night is a pretty sweet way to spend a summer! Of course, these memories are often bittersweet, tainted with the reality of why you’re spending your summer in Calais.
Even the rat-riddled, shabby warehouse is a beautiful, fun place to work. The volunteers are the most incredible and capable people who will restore your faith in humanity at the exact moment you need it most. Where else would you find teenagers confidently leading teams of volunteers twice their age, or cooking rice for 1500 people with only a few weeks training?
What surprised you the most while you were there?
The French police. I’ve always respected authority, (I wouldn’t call myself an anarchist) so I was surprised to find myself hating them within only a week of being in Calais. When the Jungle was demolished in 2016, Macron declared that there wouldn’t be another. Ever since, French authorities, funded by French and British governments, have been enforcing extreme measures in the name of preventing refugees from coming to and settling in Calais. This mainly involves confiscating and destroying shelters and personal belongings on a daily basis. Such inhumane treatment of refugees is most often perpetrated by CRS, French riot police, who have a reputation as the government’s hired thugs. They also habitually harass and intimidate volunteers. I was vaguely aware that the French state fails to provide basic humanitarian aid to the refugees in Northern France, but I was surprised to find that they’re actively, and often illegally, preventing aid workers from doing themselves.
Perhaps it was naïve of me, as a European citizen, to be surprised that French law enforcement cannot be trusted to act lawfully.
What can other students do to help refugees in Calais?
Educate yourself. The media has forgotten about Calais since the eviction of the Jungle, so most Brits are unaware that there are still refugees enduring inhumane living conditions and police brutality Awareness is the first step towards change. Following Help Refugees and reading their suggested media is a good way to start. And, of course, I would strongly recommend volunteering in Calais – if only for a week.
Understandably, volunteering may not be an option, but this doesn’t mean you have to be a passive spectator the crisis. We need to make some noise. Spread the word on social media, write to your MP/MEP, go to protests, sign petitions, participate in Help Refugees’ Choose Love movement, raise money, volunteer in the UK or overseas, organise donations drives – solidarity comes in many forms.