Since I got back to Canada, I feel like I’ve given up hope. While I love skydiving and it makes me feel much calmer. It is after all my therapy, where I can be only in the moment and not think about any other issues. It is not enough. And it distracted me from the real issues.
People are still getting mistreated everywhere on a daily basis. And if you are lucky enough to live in a stable and peaceful country, it’s too easy to push these thoughts away and focus on what’s in front of you, like your TV show, or the new shoes you really need for the summer.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with watching TV or shopping, but I find it important to remind myself and others that as humans we have a responsibility towards other humans.
We are all in this together. I know it’s much easier to convince yourself that gays, trans, refugees, or any other marginalised groups are worth less than you are, but that’s not true. We are all worth nothing and everything at the same time. And it’s time we start realising that.
We can work together to make this place a better place and not fall into the trap of us against them. We are all part of ”us” and ”them” for someone else. Which is proof enough that there’s no such thing as us. Or them. We are all different and those differences are what make us alike.
A year ago I made the decision to return to Calais for three months. I would have stayed longer, but that was the limit for my Schengen Area visa. And as much as I’d like to be able to say that the situation has improved, I’m afraid it’s far from being the case. Yes, the Jungle was dismantled. But it means that people are now scattered everywhere, making it very difficult for the organisations to help them. The police brutality is reaching new highs. Tons of unaccompanied children are left alone to fend for themselves on the streets. Different associations are prevented from distributing food and water on a daily basis. And unfortunately, this situation is far from being limited to Calais and Northern France.
Refugees fleeing wars in hopes of a quieter life are facing horrendous situations. Not only are they being abused by smugglers, police and scared locals, but they’ve got nowhere to go. And most of them have left everything and everyone behind. They rarely have access to a power point to charge their phones, they’ve spent all their money getting here and are now refused access to the basics. And to add to the physical hardship, they have no way to know if their loved ones are still alive. They are alone and scared. And realising that people are not any more humans than the people they fled from in the first place.
How would you react if you were the one in that situation? You and I would probably hold on to the faint hope of making it somewhere calm and peaceful, finding a job, sustain ourselves and live a quiet life. Not making waves, simply surviving. Licking our wounds, trying to help others do the same.
Humans are resilient to an extent I would have never even imagined, but even the seemingly endless positivism of the people I met in the Jungle, or the volunteers has its limit.
Because the refugee crisis is not really in the news anymore, the associations I work with struggle even more than they did when I was there. If you want to help out in any way, they are always desperate for money, donations, and volunteers. You can find out more at HelpRefugees and L’Auberge des Migrants.
To learn more about my two experiences in Calais, it’s here, here and here.
In August I returned to Calais for three months. These three months were extremely busy at times, challenging, inspiring and tiring. I’ve now been back for a little while but I wasn’t ready to write about my experience quite yet, I needed time to process my feelings and emotions.
This is a long post and here is a very important disclaimer: if you are reading this post because you want to read about the numerous hardship refugees have had to go through, you will not find it here. The reason is quite simple, there’s already multiples articles about just that and I do not want to promote any of that voyeurism. To you, it might be only a story, but for the people who live in the refugee camps, it’s one of the most difficult times of their already impossibly hard lives. And it’s not my place to share other people’s personal stories. They are very capable of doing so themselves should they actually want to. And they should have the option of moving on if that’s what they want. For the same reasons I wouldn’t ask you to tell me about one of the most difficult times in your life until we reach a certain point in our relationship, I will also provide the same respect to my refugee friends.
Being in Calais and volunteering with tonnes of other volunteers trying to help fellow humans by providing the basics was extremely humbling, inspiring and very difficult mentally, physically and emotionally.
Just like the first time, I find myself so unbelievably lucky to having been born in a peaceful country, to be holding a passport that allows me to move freely in and out of a lot of countries. I’m so lucky I don’t really have to worry about my friends and family’s safety, they all mostly live in stable countries. When they don’t reply to my messages or call right away, I’m not afraid the message they had sent me previously might have been the last one because their country is being bombed. Or because there’s now famine spread all across their country. Some of my friends are not as lucky, though. And I honestly do not know how they cope. They are the strongest most inspiring humans I know.
To now be in London, just before Christmas, and seeing everyone busy with their holiday shopping makes me want to scream. I do restrain myself from doing that because a) it would look really weird and b) I remember that this is how it should be. People should be worried about what do buy their friends or loved ones for Christmas, how they will introduce their parents to their new partner, not if they will still be alive tonight.
Being in Calais was inspiring by the sheer amount of simply amazing and resilient people I’ve met, both refugees and volunteers. People managing to somehow still smile and be hopeful gave me hope for a better future. Volunteers giving all their energy to help fellow humans. That was inspiring. But also very difficult. I was balancing contradictory emotions every day. Amazed at how strong people are and bewildered at how such a situation could even happen in the first place.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, we are all humans and we all deserve to be safe and happy. No one deserves to have their country torn to bits. Just because we happen to be born in a stable country doesn’t give us any more rights to happiness and safety than others.
It’s been very nice to meet people with similar values lately. A lot of the volunteers were younger but there was also a fair amount of older people. The diversity of backgrounds, ages and walks of life was amazing. And the fact that we all decided to do something and go to Calais is encouraging.
Long and difficult days
I was in Calais last winter, so I knew that coming back as warehouse manager was going to be very challenging. The mornings were always quite hectic until about 10:30 and then it was a lot more sustainable rhythm.
My responsibilities were to make sure that we were using the humans and material resources to the best of our ability. That meant doing the morning briefing, explaining to all new volunteers the rules about the warehouse, why we weren’t sending everyone into camp just to see it, and try to find the right volunteers for the right jobs all while ensuring the stock that needed to be sorted was indeed sorted.
The first challenge about this part of the job was to show enthusiasm every day, rain or shine, tired or not. It was also confusing most days to work out how many volunteers were going to show up, or how much and what kind of donations we were going to get. Dealing with so many unknown values every day was sometimes puzzling. It did however mean, there was never two days which were the same.
Another sometimes difficult task was to be working with other extremely tired volunteers trying to make the best of what very little donations and energy they had left. Communication is key in such challenging environments, but it’s also usually the first thing to disappear when things get tough.
Coming back to the position of warehouse manager meant I had a lot more pressure on my shoulders than the first time around. People now had expectations. I had to do a good job. And the person I was replacing had been there for over a year. Those were massive shoes to fill. She knew absolutely everything, had learned how to deal with difficult volunteers, how to be inspiring every day, how to deal with the unannounced journalists fishing for juicy information to share, etc. A lot of things I knew nothing about. Managing stock and people is what I felt somewhat comfortable with. Everything else was new.
The job in itself meant there were so many things to take care of and ultimately decide on.
Some days I had to remind myself, that as I would tell anyone in this situation, one issue at a time and one day at a time.
Most days I succeeded in dealing with the stress by breathing and reminding myself we were already doing amazing things and I couldn’t be expected to be doing miracles. But sometimes, people would come up to me and reminded me of the fact that I had a lot of weight on my shoulders. They would usually mention that when I would have managed to focus on the task at hand and forget about my stress. When people started pointing it out to me, I would suddenly get really nervous. Otherwise, I would plough through and get as much done as possible.
You’ve got to love people
The best and most difficult part of the job was dealing with too many or too little donations and volunteers.
Most volunteers coming to Calais were expecting to go to camp. While I did understand their need to see it from their own eyes, it was very challenging to explain why it was not necessarily a good idea. Telling people that because they were curious to learn about the refugee’s journeys didn’t mean they were entitled to ask questions. It’s not always easy to understand how detrimental it could be. And while most people understood why we were only sending long time volunteers into camp, every day I had to have the same conversation over and over again. It was hard for people to be able to put their curiosity aside and not treat this like a zoo. And to understand it was not an integration experience.
We were simply providing things that would bring a certain comfort to the refugees, mostly in the form of hot meals, kitchenware so people could have some independence and cook their own food, clothes, tents, bedding and hygiene products.
Some days we had barely any donations coming in and it made it very difficult to give satisfying jobs to volunteers. Finding the balance between asking people to work hard on sorting things, and also providing a changing and interesting environment so short-term volunteers would like their experience enough to either stay longer, come back or tell their friends was an everyday challenge.
Working with people day in day out was so enriching and at the same time so frustrating. And if I’m being totally honest, some days it felt a lot more on the edge of frustrating.
At the warehouse, I quickly learned that personal space didn’t really exist. Everyone would hug and touch all the time and I think it was part of our mechanism to cope mentally and emotionally. Not being a very touchy kind of person, it took some time, but I grew to like it and I rapidly became a lot more comfortable with that. I even ended up being the one to initiate hugs.
It was very easy to get caught in the daily challenges and forget how amazing this whole experience was. Some volunteers came back, and one, in particular, made me feel a lot better. She had been in Calais for a long weekend and had done a great amount of work and helped me immensely. When she came back, she made my day when she told me why she had decided to come back. It was thanks to the coordinators. She liked the fact that we were down to earth while getting shit done. It was such a nice compliment. It fueled me with energy for a few days.
Some of the things I found especially difficult to deal with was journalists. I’ve never had media training so I find it very hard to know what I can and can’t say and how to be effective, yet inspiring and able to shine the light on dire situations.
One thing that drove me absolutely nuts was dealing with the journalists who didn’t follow the normal procedures and protocols, instead simply showing up and expecting me to be able to find someone to drop what they were doing and take them on a tour of the Jungle. As if it was an attraction. There’s a thin line between balancing the media image and keeping the focus on what we were there to do. Providing help to refugees, all while being aware we needed the medias to be there covering the situation in order to get further help. This was very challenging for me. Most days someone else was doing this part, but sometimes they were either busy or away and I had to step in.
Making sure the volunteers were taking some time off and not burning themselves was also another unexpected part of the job. It was hard to remind myself and others that as unfair as it sounds we can’t save everyone and, sometimes you have to learn to be okay with that. And there’s no point in ruining our health, both physical and mental, to help anyone else. It’s never worth it and we should always be our only priority.
At one point I felt like I was spending most of my days talking to people and telling them, (and sometimes arguing) to take their fucking days off. I don’t really know when my focus somewhat changed to volunteers well-being but I did feel some responsibility in ensuring the volunteers were also taking care of themselves. It must have been my mum or teacher side. I thought back to my days working in the school and remembered that leading by example is always the best policy. So I took my own days off in order to stop feeling like a fraud!
Working in a humanitarian situation, in an area where there are many different organisations working meant that there’s also tonnes of meetings and politics to deal with. Whether you want it or not, there’s always other people with different agendas. I’m glad this was not the main part of my work, however, I attended my fair share of inter-associations meetings. While I did like the meetings were we all kept our focus on improving the refugees’ situations, sometimes I struggled with all the political greed. Some organisations did end up working really well together, sharing volunteers and that was lovely. A nice break from all the drama.
Speaking of drama, as not everyone agreed with what we were doing, sometimes volunteers would leave the warehouse at the end of the day and have a very unfortunate surprise in finding their car with smashed windows. Smashed windows were rather annoying, especially when you call the police and they end up telling you it must have been ”some of your black friends”. Some of the police officers were very nice and civil, but it was definitely not the case for all of them and this was a highly inappropriate comment coming from people supposedly here to serve and protect.
Sometimes, though, the bad surprised were taken to another level. One day, a volunteer went to leave only to find out that some people had taken one of her wheels off, including all the bolts in order to make sure she couldn’t simply use her spare tire. Very frustrating when we were simply trying to help fellow humans.
One afternoon while a well-known celebrity was there filming to bring more awareness to the situation, someone came up to me. They needed to talk to me without delay. I was expecting some issues with deliveries, that our distribution teams needed extra blankets, or maybe even that there had been yet another fire and we needed to put together emergency packs. Little did I know it was a lot more disgusting than that. They had discovered a bag of eyeballs in a bag of shoes to sort. A full freezer bag of cow or sheep bloody eyeballs. And of course the plastic bag had punctured and there was now blood and other liquids all over the shoes. That was a first. And thankfully the only incident this gross.
I didn’t go to camp as much as I would have liked, but as I kept telling people it was not a tourist attraction and I had loads of work to do in the warehouse, I couldn’t possibly justify going to camp without a job to do. Once again leading by example.
One time that I went, though, I joined the women’s and children’s distribution team. As you can imagine, it can be quite challenging and demanding, and rather humbling to distribute clothes and hygiene product. Because we rely almost solely on donations, not all the products are equally interesting and that sometimes can, understandably, create tensions. The girls running the women and children bus were simply amazing, knowing almost every single refugee and their kids by name, knowing what they liked and what they didn’t. Having clearly spend a lot of time getting to know the women. During the distribution, some women came in with their kids, to get some stuff for the little ones, but also because there’s nowhere to leave the kids. As I was stationed at the first stop, I played babysitter with some kid so the mums could have their hands free to find some clothes for themselves. It must be really hard being a mum in camp as you can’t have any alone or quiet time. While I was playing with three little girls, the smallest one wanted in my arms so I took her and she fell asleep. It was adorable and heartbreaking. I truly admire the women in camp to be able to put up with all of the hardship that comes with living in a refugee camp. There are the strongest most beautiful people I’ve met.
Another moment that’s been engraved in my memory is seeing the warehouse and all we do through the eyes of someone who used to live in the camp. It was so touching. He came in with one of the ladies that has been helping out in Calais for years, so I took him on a little tour of the warehouse. We went through the Refugee Community Kitchen (providing daily hot meals), the Calais Kitchens (providing food packs so people could make their own food), the Calais Woodyard (processing firewood so refugees could stay warm and cook their food) and the warehouse with all our different sections (tents, bedding, hygiene products, clothes, shoes, school supplies, etc). Seeing through his eyes all the work that was put together in order to send every specific item into camp, noticing the many volunteers giving their time to make a difference, noticing all the different countries represented, it was very impressive. Because it was my new normal, I had forgotten how amazing it was that a lot of people came in to volunteer just because they actually cared about their fellow humans and wanted to help and do something.
Learning a great deal about what I can and can’t do
Coming to Calais and facing new challenges means that I’ve learned a lot about myself. I’ve become a lot more confident and comfortable in how I deal with criticism and ideas. I also realised I gained a lot of maturity and experience in the last few years and it was very important to be able not to take stuff so personally anymore.
I’m proud of myself to have been able to admit when I needed time off and also when I needed help. And being able to say: I don’t know. In line with the fact that I’m really trying to be honest with myself and others and set an example of not being afraid to admit some things are very difficult for me, this was a great opportunity for personal development as well.
I also did realise while talking to others that I do have some healthy reflexes now when it comes to mental health. It’s far from perfect but I do know myself now and I can see that I have changed a lot and learned from my previous experiences. From advising people on how to best deal with others, seeing why some stuff annoys me and trying to understand the emotions associated with the problems, learning to admit that I don’t know, or admitting what is not my strength, I’m more and more becoming a fairly stable and well put individual. Mentally that is. I’m proud of how far I’ve come and it motivates me to keep going.
Helping others can become addictive
Some people seemed to become dependent on helping others. It does allow you to forget all about your own life since you are so busy taking care of other people. It is good to help but it’s good to be able to stop and remember why you are doing it. If you are helping to run away from your own problems, it might be a good option to deal with your own issues also!
One more thing I really liked about Calais was that because we were working as a team we could actually take some time off. And even though it can be hard to admit, everybody is easily replaceable even though no one likes to think that way. But in such a situation, it’s great. It means that great things will continue to happen once you are gone since other lovely humans will step in and take on the responsibilities.
Catching up with the Calais family afterwards
That’s has got to be another one of the best aspects of my experience in Calais, I’ve met some amazing people, truly inspiring individuals wanting to make this world a better place and caring for their fellow humans. It also means that when we catch up, we can talk about anything, from the most trivial subject to the more in-depth conversations I love so much.
I’ve met up with some of the volunteers since coming back to London and I realised that besides being in Calais at the same time we had absolutely no other interests in common, which is totally normal, but there’s a few where when we met again, we realized we had tons of other interests in common, and actually really enjoyed each other’s company.
This is by far one of my favourite things about the experience. While in Calais we were all so busy we barely had any time to talk about our own personal lives, to meet up in the ”normal” world means we still have tonnes to learn about each other. So not only did we all meet inspiring humans, but it’s easy to become good friends since we shared that bond and that experience together.
The situation is still very difficult in France and in refugee camps around Europe. Now that the Jungle is closed, a lot of people mistakenly assume that there’s no more need for volunteers and donations, but it couldn’t be any further from the truth. The Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants warehouse in Calais no only still provide for the camp in Grande-Synthe, they also work hand in hand with other organisations in Paris and regularly send stuff to the teams in Greece, Lebanon and Syria.
We can no longer stay silent and let stuff happen to other humans. We can’t ignore it any longer. If you are like me, use that frustration as fuel to keep you going. Fund raise money, donate clothes, look around you: there’s always people who could benefit greatly from an extra little bit of help. Maybe there’s a family you know that could benefit from a home cooked meal, or maybe there are students at your child’s school who will not have anything to eat over Christmas.
If you can and want to make it to Calais, Greece, Lebanon or other places, that’s great. But don’t use the excuse that you don’t have time or money to do something. There are tonnes of organisations that always need volunteers and donations. Do your research to find one that has values in line with yours and get involved.
Wanting to Choose Love and donate time, money or clothing to Help Refugees and l’Auberge des Migrants? Head up here.
About two months ago, I receive a message from one of my friend from the Antarctica trip. He was organising a surprise birthday party for his now wife for her 30th anniversary in the Pyrenees. This sounded like the perfect opportunity to catch up and get some fresh air and hiking. I made sure to count my days left in my Schengen zone visa so I wouldn’t run out before the birthday. Being Canadian, I’m allowed 90 days in 180. While I’m often tempted to complain this is not long enough for my liking, I’m acutely aware now that at least I am legally allowed in the country for 90 days at a time, which is actually pretty good. In order to get enough days, I took a week off from volunteering in Calais and went back to the UK. But of course I miscalculated my days and it turns out I had to leave France one day earlier than I would have liked, but nevertheless, I had just enough days to be there for the weekend.
I left Calais and stopped in Paris for a couple nights. At first, I thought I would go see if Paris had changed since the last time I was there years ago, but that was silly thinking of me. I was so exhausted I ended up sleeping, only getting out the hotel to get some food at the nearby supermarket before coming crashing down in my very comfy bed. I guess I’ll now have to go back to Paris to have a proper look at the city of love!
Quick catch up with a childhood friend
When I decided to go visit Audrey and Pascal in the Pyrenees, I realised I could hit two birds with one stone and also catch up with a childhood friend of mine who just happened to have moved to Bordeaux.
I always love it when you meet up with friends you rarely see, yet every time it feels like to time has passed at all. That’s how it is with Vero, and I love it! We had a lovely time, dinner, drink and walk by the river at night. Bordeaux seems to be a nice city and I’ll definitely have to add it to the ever-growing list of places to return to.
Surprise birthday party
I have to admit, by the time I arrived in Aucun, the small Pyrenees village we were spending the weekend in, I thought that for sure my friend would know by then that about 60 people were gathering to celebrate her birthday. Surely someone would have dropped a hint or something. But when she came back from a hike to have dinner with what she thought was going to be only her father, the look on her face said it all. She had no clue! She looked in shock for the whole evening, which included many challenges: eating insects, a geography challenge of some countries they had not visited in their three-year round the world trip, and a dance challenge. To say that she succeeded at all the challenges would be lying but she really gave it her all!
Met lovely, inspiring people
I met some of Audrey and Pascal’s families and they are so nice. I mean genuinely nice and interested in others. Something I definitely needed in order to land back smoothly into the normal world after Calais. I was not the only one having made changes in my travel plans to make sure I was there, there was a sweet woman from Colombia and another one from Singapore. It surely reflects on how much we love Audrey and Pascal, that we would all be ready to move our plans around to make sure to be there to celebrate with them. They are some of the nicest and most amazing humans I know.
Hiking in the Pyrenees, simply beautiful
We couldn’t have asked for better weather. It was sunny and warm. Warm enough to be wearing only a t-shirt instead of 2 jumpers, a jacket and a scarf! I had never been to the Pyrenees and I must say, it is stunning.
The rugged mountains in the background, the colourful autumn leaves and the great company made for our first short hike a great moment. Plus I really needed to walk off some of the many, many calories ingested during the weekend! At one point it felt like all we did was eat. We had breakfast, lounged in our amazing lodge, joined everyone for lunch, went for a very short walk and it was already time to come back for dinner. Don’t get me wrong, I love eating, but this was a lot of food!!
Finally back into the nature
I was not the only one needed to walk off some of the food, so much so, a group of 15 of us went for a walk. The sun was shining and the turquoise water sparkling. It was splendid. We made our way to a little cabin used in the past by shepherds. They would find shelter under massive rocks, and at one point they probably thought, why not build actual walls and call this a home.
After our lunch break, we kept going up the mountain and when entering a little valley we encountered a group of pretty cute chamois. I really don’t understand how agile they can be to climb up the mountain, but that’s definitely a skill I need to work on. There’s no way I could ever be as graceful as they were but I’m sure I could be slightly less inelegant!
After a few days, it was already time to head back to the UK and leave the Schengen area. This whole weekend, with all its gorgeous scenery, welcoming people, and the summery weather was definitely what I needed, even if I didn’t know it at the time!
Merci Vero and Paul, Audrey and Pascal and all your friends and relatives, I had an amazing time!
Have you ever to organise a big surprise birthday celebration and managed to keep it a secret until the very moment the person walks in the room? If so kudos to you!
What are your favourite spots for a rejuvenating outdoorsy few days?
Sitting on a beach in Calais, with the sun warming my skin and the fresh air from the sea, I’m lost in my thoughts, as one does. I’m surrounded by people on vacation, seemingly oblivious to what’s happening only a few kilometers away. As Thomas Gray said: ”ignorance is bliss” and in this precise moment, I couldn’t agree more. How I wish I could sometimes stop caring. I wish I could walk past a beggar or someone in a wheelchair and not have any second thoughts. Not to worry about their well-being. To a certain extent I do manage to move on, but some days I’d like to be able to ignore some things. It would give me a break. I can’t help this part of me but I can do something about it. I know I can’t help everyone. And I am well aware that some people in Canada need help as well. But for the next three months, I will help here, in Calais.
I have now been working for Help Refugees and l’Auberge des Migrants in Calais for about one week. Once again I’ve been meeting inspiring people, from the volunteers to the refugees.
And being surrounded by so much resilience and seeing people working together towards a common goal really inspires me to keep going.
Not everybody agrees
I had a rather interesting chat on my way from Charles de Gaulle airport to Calais with my ride. The driver is a customs officer at the port, so every day he’s in touch with people trying to cross over, truck drivers trying to avoid coming to this area at night and locals tired of having a refugee camp in the neighborhood. It was lovely to chat with someone experiencing a totally different angle than the one I’m used to.
Perspective is everything. When you see only one part of the puzzle, it’s a lot easier to assume you are right or to judge others. But when you take the time to calmly discuss with people holding different views, it helps get a complete view of the situation. In this particular case, nobody asked to be put in this situation, none of the refugees want to live in a camp. None of the locals wanted to have people living in this kind of conditions. So we have to keep this in mind when dealing with any issue arising.
Keeping people interested
One of the main issues at the moment is that most people and journalists lost interest in the refugees’ situation. Things haven’t changed all that much, many men, women, families and unaccompanied minors keep arriving every day. The Southern part of the camp was destroyed during the last eviction last spring and while some people left to go to centers, most people moved to the already packed Northern part. And with the many new arrivals every day, there’s more and more pressure on charities to help cover the basics needs of people in the camp. The Jungle keeps growing and at the last census, the population was over 7000 people.
I, for myself, do not like hearing about everything going wrong in the world every day, but even if it’s not pretty, we do need to be aware of what is happening, and it’s our duty to express ourselves loud and clear when we witness abuse, lack of supports or any situation where basic human rights are being violated. If you and I look the other way, abuse can continue with relative impunity.
Because of my new challenges, while being in Calais, I will now aim to publish a new article every two weeks for the next few months. So if you do not hear from me as regularly, do not worry, we will have time to catch up a few months from now!
If you wish to donate, volunteer or learn more about the situation in Calais, have a look at the Help Refugees website.
By now you probably all know I’ve been back in Canada for a while already. And as it was to be expected, it’s been rather interesting, difficult and challenging. Visiting my friends and family, reconnecting and spending time together all while being fully aware that it is, once again, temporary. Trying to see people, but also having days where I wonder if it’s even worth the effort as I know I’ll pack my bag and leave once again.
The last few times I had talked to my parents before deciding to come back, we had talked about how my grandparents are getting older. My grandfather is starting to get confused and not that long ago my grandmother fell. She’s been using a walking aid for the last few months. She’ll get back to her normal state, but it does take a lot longer when you are reaching a certain age. I came back mostly because I didn’t want to have regrets later on and spent time with them while I could.
Same goes with my parents and friends. Being away when you can video chat is one thing, but when you can’t see them, you feel much farther away. And if I’m being totally honest, skyping has nothing to do with actually hugging people, or spending time together, cooking, laughing, arguing. Truly living together.
Even before I decided to come back, my biggest fear was to feel stuck back home and not knowing how to leave again. Drama queen, I know! Sure enough, I did find myself in this situation but as I’ve done it before, I knew I could do it again.
Considering settling down
I have to admit it. I’ve been considering staying in Québec and settling down. It didn’t last long, mind you, but I still did ask myself: Do you still want to travel and move all the time, meeting people every day but not necessarily creating meaningful relationships? It’s been really good to have my friends and family with me. And with most of my friends now either married with a bunch of kids or talking about having them it made me wonder.
During my thinking about family life and the meaning of a fully lived life, some of my friends still travelling contacted me. All with amazing different projects in various places in the world. Considering of maybe catching up with them somewhere on the road got me so excited, I realized that while kids are cute, and I do understand the need for some people to have them there’s no way that’s where I am at the moment. So no settling down for me quite yet!
I’ve been journaling every day for about a year now and as I’ve written in my journal previously: Even though I am going back to Canada for a little bit I really doubt I will be able to stay and settle there so there’s probably no need to worry about it. It’s okay to feel like going back home and actually going. Every so often I need to remind myself that it is not a failure to stop moving for a bit as my goal was always to travel and go back from time to time.
Sometimes it’s quite good to look back and realize you’ve known things all along. You just got lost in the maze of your thoughts and forgot along the way.
I’ve had way too much free time on my hands lately, which means I’ve been thinking and over analyzing everything. Knowing me, you know this is a very common occurrence. I can’t help it. Which is why I usually try to keep myself busy to stay out of my mind’s web of never ending questions about life and it’s meaning.
During one of my many involuntary thinking sessions, I came to realize one thing. I found out that all my favourite places in the world had one thing in common. They are all places where I spent 40 days or more. It’s hard to know if I like the place because I stay longer or if I stay longer because I like the place, however, I do know that staying in one place or a country for a little longer, allows me to make local friends, discover the cultural differences and finally understand the public transport systems.
Having finally realized that (I can be quite slow to understand things sometimes…), I will keep this number in mind. 40 days. Another great thing about this number is that for many countries it is still within the allowed duration of stay without a visa.
Temporary break before a new adventure
While I was wondering if coming back was the right decision for me, I do know now that it was. I needed a break. I needed to come back and experience life as it was before, just to make sure I am still living the life I want. I needed to take care of myself. And I needed to work on my relationships with my friends and family members. Relationships do not fix themselves if you do not work on them. So, if only for this, it was worth coming back.
After thinking about my options, I decided the best use of my time and energy at the moment was to go back to Calais. I’m leaving today, flying straight from Quebec City to Paris and then catching a ride to the Help Refugees warehouse where I spent about one month volunteering last winter. This time, I’m going back for a few months as a warehouse manager.
Once again. I am sad to leave my family and friends behind, especially after having such a great time but the excitement of having yet another blank book to fill is still as strong as ever.
A special note to my family and friends: thank you for loving and supporting me in all my travels and adventure. I know it would be a lot easier if I stayed put in one place, so the fact that you agree to put up with my itchy feet means a lot to me! I know I don’t say it often so here it is: I love you.
To learn more about the refugees and the situation in Calais or to find out how you could get involved, visit the Help Refugees website. You can come see me in Calais to volunteer, or if you prefer, you can donate money or even have some of the much-needed items on this list delivered straight to the warehouse, ensuring a quick delivery to the people in need in the Jungle. On behalf of the amazing people stuck in terrible conditions, thanks!
Since coming back to the UK and writing this, a lot has changed. The French authorities decided to destroy the South half of the camp, and even though they promised it would be gradual, humane and respectful of the dignity of the people living in the camp and that the approach would be humanitarian, this is definitely not how things have been happening. You can get current updates on the situation here.
In the light of the latest terrorist attack, I also feel the urge to add a reminder that refugees fleeing countries at war are trying to escape the same people responsible for the attacks in Turkey and Belgium. They are not coming to Europe because they want to ruin your lives, but only because they want to increase their chances of survival and normal life.
Working in the warehouse
On my first day of volunteering in Calais, I wasn’t sure what to expect. I was a bit anxious to find a ride to get to the warehouse when I went down for breakfast but I easily met people willing to give me a lift. We, unfortunately, arrived after the morning briefing consequently I was not assigned to a specific job. As soon as trucks filled with donations started to arrive, I quickly got to work unloading clothes, sleeping bags, blankets, tents, etc.
Once we finished with the trucks I didn’t know yet what needed to be done so I asked the first person I saw in the warehouse and it turns out they were sorting shoes. I spent the remaining of the day in that section. There are four categories for shoes to be kept: hiking boots, trainers, shower shoes and wellies (rain boots). It’s crazy what some people think is appropriate to send, for example, high heels slippers with fur. Of course, that’s what is most needed in a muddy camp, right?
The next few days I worked in different stations. Most days I would make what we call Men Full Kit. They contain a hygiene kit, a jumper or fleece, a long sleeve and a short sleeve t-shirt, two pairs of socks, a hat, a scarf, underwear, and gloves if all of this is available when we do the packs. If not, we make do with what we’ve got. We put each kit in a bin bag, close it and label it either small, medium or large. Hundreds of them are distributed two to three days a week, on Saturday, Sunday and sometimes Monday, when there’s enough stock.
I loved my experience even if I was tired, sore and wearing that new cologne, dusty smell of warehouse, pretty much every day. One day, after helping to unload more donations, I was presented with an orange Hi-Vis vest. This meant that I was now one of the people to ask questions to. Orange wearing people are the ones to go to when one has questions or need any kind of help, because they either have been there for a while or they understand the different systems. Most of the warehouse jobs are getting everything ready for the distribution teams. One day it’s jackets, the next it’s trousers, shoes, Men Kits, and so on. Unfortunately, we often don’t have enough stock to send to camp as the charities relies solely on donations. Hiking shoes, clothing items in smaller men and women sizes, sleeping bags, blankets, and tin food items are always needed. The list is regularly updated on Help Refugees websiteshould you want to make a much needed and very much appreciated donation.
My favourite thing about volunteering with L’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees was to see how many people wanted to help and how relatively smoothly things were running in the warehouse even though there’s a lot of different people coming in every day. I find this quite admirable. The managers are running a great operation and they are genuinely concerned with the well-being of all the volunteers and refugees.
One day I went on a blanket distribution in the Jungle. We got two teams ready and filled the cars with suitcases and blankets. When we finally managed to find the camp entrance, after getting lost in Calais while following the first car, we took a suitcase each, filled it with as many blankets as we could and headed into camp.As soon as we entered the camp, some people surrounded us wanting to help. A lot of people were asking for shoes and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any. Once our suitcases were quickly emptied, we went back to the warehouse to pick up more blankets. As usual, the supplies of thick blankets were really low.
As soon as we entered the camp, some people surrounded us wanting to help. A lot of people were asking for shoes and, unfortunately, we didn’t have any. Once our suitcases were quickly emptied, we went back to the warehouse to pick up more blankets. As usual, the supplies of thick blankets were really low.
We parked again in a street next to the camp entrance, filled our suitcases with more blankets before going back to the Jungle. This time, we knew where to go so it was a bit more effective. As we were finishing handing blankets some of the guys invited us to come in for tea. We said we needed to bring back more blankets but we would be back later. On our way back to the warehouse we were following the other car once again and they got confused by what looked familiar, so we ended up back at the hostel!
We had talked about Banksy and how we liked his artwork, so while we were now back at the hostel, we did a quick detour to have a look at the piece on the beach. On our third trip to the camp, two guys offered help to carry our suitcases. I wasn’t sure if it was a good idea at first, but it was obviously fine. The two guys had arrived ten days before and they just wanted to chat and help. Once again, after distributing blankets, in typical fashion, we were offered tea from everyone. But because we had already said yes to a group earlier, we found their shelter and visited them. The shelter they lived in is about the length of a bed, square. And three of them actually lived in it. No electricity, only some roll mats and sleeping bags on the floor, and blankets to add insulation on the walls.
The guys were from Irak, Syria, and Koweit, all living together. A lot of people kept coming in and out to say hello. They were all so nice. Most of that group were aged between 22 and 34, all with family members in the UK and Sweden. I’ve never felt so much love and so much pain at the same time. At one point an Italian journalist poked his head in and started asking personal questions about the guy’s journey and it felt really intrusive. The guy’s attitude also changed drastically. They did not mind us asking some questions, but somebody coming in uninvited and starting asking questions about their journey was very insensitive and rude.
We enjoyed tea with all of them until it started getting dark. When it was time to leave we took pictures and exchanged contact info. I will however not post the pictures I’ve taken in the Jungle as it can affect the refugees asylum claims when they finally make it to the UK or any other destination. One of the young guys walked us back to the entrance and thanked us for the blankets once again. He was so grateful he was not going to be as cold at night from now on. At night, the main street in the Jungle turned into a little market and everybody was out, socializing, trying to make this experience as close to ”normal life” as possible. It felt just like the evenings I had experienced in Jordan.
Back from the jungle, however, I’ve never felt so privileged. I was not sure what to make of this. The shock from leaving the ”house” where we had tea with a very nice group of people to walking into civilization and the hostel hurt. To know that I was going to be warm not only that night, but all the following ones as well, and they wouldn’t really breaks my heart. I felt so powerless.
Managing the warehouse
When I arrived one morning, I was told I was doing the briefing and I was so not ready for that! I was very nervous and I didn’t know what to say or have a plan. I was more prepared the next day… slightly. The main warehouse manager left on a Wednesday. He kept telling me I would get the keys when he would leave, but I thought he was joking around. Little did I know both him and the front of the warehouse manager would be gone at the same time. Emma, the volunteer coordinator and my instant new best friend and I had to step in.
Briefing, dispatching and training people, welcoming new arrivals, receiving and sorting donations quickly became our new routine. The days started to blend together and go by really quickly.
There are a few times where I truly didn’t think I was going to make it. I ran like a maniac all day trying to get everything that needed to go out, coordinating the waltz of trucks, all with very little amount of volunteers and a lot of things to do. It was really hard work and even though everyone seemed to think I was handling it well, I felt overwhelmed every day, multiple times per day. It gets so hard to deal with the emotions associated with this whole ordeal. I think that’s why everybody here is so focused on work, work, work. It’s the only way to keep going and not fall to pieces.
At one point, you get tired and everything seems worst than it actually is. And you become less patient. I almost lost it on two volunteers one day, but finally took a break and went to the kids section and sat with a teddy bear for a short while to calm myself down. No wonder the previous manager seemed a bit rude sometimes with people. Common sense is not so common after all!
One night, as everybody had left and we were closing the warehouse, I had to turn away a group of people bringing some donations. After all the volunteers were gone for the night of course. I was tired and unsure what to do, but I tried to keep my sense of humour. I asked if the donations were sorted and when they said they weren’t, I told them it was up to them really but there was a good chance of me growling and biting if they were delivering tonight but if they came back the next day with sorted donations I would welcome them with a smile and maybe even a happy dance! They opted for that sensible second option. There’s already so much to do in the warehouse when stuff arrives unsorted, or when it is inappropriate, it takes times and energy that could otherwise be spent doing useful things.
Dealing with the fact that I am free to go wherever I want
After my experience with L’auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees, I have mixed feelings about a lot of things: leaving the warehouse, going back to a ”normal” life in Scotland and reconsidering my work and life choices. Plus having to say goodbye to new friends and leaving yet another little bubble of parallel life.
It was so heartbreaking to be on the ferry knowing that just because I was born in Canada I could travel freely and that the lovely people I had met were stuck in Calais because they were not as fortunate as me. I feel so privileged to be born in Canada and to be allowed very easy travel between France and the UK without having to actually risk my life. I’ve met great people in camp living in terrible conditions, risking their lives daily with very little chance of actually succeeding in crossing when I can just show a little blue book with my picture on it and I can get across no questions asked.
Such a human experience
Volunteering for l’Auberge des Migrants and Help Refugees has been such a great experience. Very challenging of course when everybody left, but Emma and I definitely rose up to the challenge. I feel like I’ve met such amazing people who truly care and want to make a difference in some strangers’ life. It is truly inspiring.
Don’t get me wrong, though, I know some people in the camp have less than desirable agendas, but the people I’ve met all share a common goal. Fleeing war-torn countries and improving their life conditions. And as much as there are tensions in camp between refugees, police, and locals, there is also a lot of people working together, helping each other and trying their best to make this situation a better one for everyone involved.
I feel lucky to have met such amazing people doing amazing things just out of the simple fact that they care and want to help their fellow human companions.
Struggling to be back in the real world
When I was walking back from the train station in Edinburgh, a beggar told me to smile and as I walked away he added it could be me in his situation. He obviously assumed I had more money than he did as I was traveling, which may or may not be right but it upset me. He had assumed things about me. He assumed I was having an easy life, backpacking through Europe. He could not know that I had just arrived from volunteering in a refugee camp where I lived in a caravan without electricity, heating or water. (It was just easier to leave the hostel to be right on site after the managers left). This judging without knowing hurt me a lot. It’s the same judgment refugees face every day. People assuming they are trying to use benefits and get free housing in a new country, where in fact they had to leave their homes, their friends and family, just to try to get a chance at a better life. They do not want to live in the camp. They want to be reunited with family members who made it across, be safe, warm and have access to food, and maybe have a chance at starting a new life.
Call me an idealist, but I prefer to assume people are nice and don’t intend harm. And I truly believe compassion and understanding are what will change the world. One good deed at a time.