A year ago I Googled “how to help refugees” and in 2017 I flew to Calais, France, to volunteer for the British NGO Help Refugees.
I arrived with not enough long underwear, wellies that took up most of the space in my suitcase, outdated pound notes that didn’t work anymore, five printed photographs of my friends and family, and admittedly some fear. I felt assaulted by passport control, by the crowds on the Tube, by the paranoid dreams I had while jet lagged. But I met another volunteer online. We bought bus tickets. Seated directly in front of and beside us were two other young people, and before we left London Victoria Coach Station it became apparent we were surrounded by other bénévoles.
Over the course of 80 days in Calais, I met great cooks, brave barely-18-year-olds, former art students, misusers of the French language, reggae lovers, amateur tattoo artists, people who sold weed from Amsterdam, tiny women who didn’t take shit from anyone, chefs who got gruesome-looking steam burns and didn’t bat an eye about them, unbelievably Scottish people, a proud beef and mutton farmer, an improv comedian, a Canadian who once worked in a cheese factory, bald women, long-haired men, skateboarders, Mormons, lesbians, an actor, a vicar, a contortionist. Most were white British vegans, but also the kind who smoked, often while simultaneously driving and texting and playing “Fuck the Police” on the stereo, who traded in a broad underground market of secondhand clothing, people who wore at minimum two pairs of socks at a time and showered at maximum once every three or so days. We lived in caravans that each had their own interestingly dysfunctional bathrooms, artistic kinds of mold, and childish names for the campsite’s stray cats. We left at 8h45 every morning and came back when enough work had been done, had one or five glasses of red wine, and did it again the next day.
As I write this, I realize how much of this story is already just lists. Maybe it’s because so much of the work all these people actually did was to count things, to reach 600 distributable items of passably equal quality to accommodate five distribution sites six days a week, and serve 2,750 meals a day. 600 long white socks, all checked individually for holes, in some configuration of disintegrating cardboard boxes. 600 Chinese rain ponchos, pink and purple and pastel blue, as thin as plastic bags. 250 of the least-stained duvets crammed into one van and one old car, and 350 thick blankets for two more vans that took two trips each. It was difficult to reach a count of 600 for some items. Europeans mostly donated medium and large sized clothing, but on “the lads”, medium was large and large extra-large. It was painstakingly difficult to slap together enough pairs of small boxers, impossible to acquire enough size 40 – 42 shoes. Exhaustingly, I spent a substantial amount of energy most days just finding ways to recycle donations not suitable for refugees; steel-toed boots, sexy lingerie, white coats.
By far the most difficult thing to explain about this carousel of donations is why it’s necessary. The average lifespan of bedding we distributed was three days, before it would be rendered unusable by the weather or, more likely, confiscated by police. Bedding and clothing have such short lifespans because refugees are denied access to shelter, and all that it entails: warmth, cleanliness, sleep, privacy, safety, dignity. Those things are barred from them by the French police (largely a special force of militarized riot police known as the Compagnies Républicaines de Sécurité, or CRS), who routinely destroy tents, sleeping bags, and anything else in sight, often with incredible violence. The authorities of Calais go to great lengths to make refugees unwelcome in the hope that it will make them leave and become someone else’s problem. But refugees come because they seek refuge from something terrible enough to drive them from home, and they may never stop coming, because we will never stop producing new terrors.
Most are young men from Afghanistan, Ethiopia, and Eritrea. Some are very young, legal minors, called “bambinos” in the refugee pigeon that has reached Northern France from Italy and beyond. Other words you learn on your first day are “soft“, for the toilet roll that you learn to wrap ten times around your hand before rationing it out, “water“, for when a man wants only the liquid part of the curry and not whatever rubbish the English cooks added to it (which is a joke, because the food was consistently delicious), and “chance“, for when a migrant is going to try to stow away in a lorry to reach the UK. That word, spoken as a verb (“I am going to chance”, or sometimes “I am going to try”), consumes refugees. For those who have given all their money to smugglers just to reach the English Channel, it does not matter that the attempts are dangerous, illegal, and astronomically unlikely to succeed. It is the only way to escape France, where they are neglected and harassed, and their home countries, where they have fears equal to or greater than hunger, hypothermia, being detained, tear gassed, beaten, bitten by dogs, or killed on the motorway.
They cannot wear steel-toed boots because they are too heavy to run in, and they will not wear white clothing of any kind because it makes them more visible to the police at night. (Often, it was more practical to open conversations with “You ok? No police trouble?” rather than “How are you?”, because the answer would easily be something like “How am I supposed to be? All night, no sleep. Running, running.”) And brightly colored or transparent underwear was never distributed to refugee women, not because we felt qualified to make decisions about what they might deem immodest, but because of the overriding, nauseating probability that they will be sexually harassed in the Jungle. Elaborate strategies have been put in place to try to shield the enormously outnumbered migrant women and children from victimization, but there were always signs that they were still being used as tools to acquire additional or more desirable items intended for the most vulnerable. It was not uncommon to hear women ask for shoes in sizes clearly too large for them. Highly desirable items like sleeping bags were distributed in identical opaque bin bags to prevent fights over perceived (and just as often very real) differences in quality, and the rare distribution of shoes, the most valuable material aid of all, was carried out with the anxious delicacy of a military operation in order to avoid rioting. There were very many tired, frustrated, and understandably angry men who made distribution on some days feel like a battle against not just governments and police, but also raw human error, well-intentioned but bumbling short-term volunteers, ignorant donors, colonialism, the patriarchy, the confusions of cultural differences, the weather, xenophobia itself, and the refugees too.
I only ever memorized about ten lousy words in Pashto, the language spoken by most of the Afghans I met, and it was notoriously difficult to learn the many dialects spoken by the North Africans, which included Arabic, Amharic, Tigrinya, and more. Instead, the refugees took on the burden of learning English, French, German, or Italian, in addition to what plural languages they might already speak. Many cited their English language ability as an incentive to seek asylum in the UK, and were eager to improve their fluency. Why else London has reached an almost mythical status for the refugees I met is not precisely known to me, but it was never possible to persuade them that the city was not, in fact, necessarily overflowing with good jobs, immigrant-friendly neighbors, and gentle policemen. In reality, in the unlikely event of actually managing to reach English soil, after whatever dehumanizing lengths they have gone to to reach it, they face a long and hostile asylum application process that requires them to bare the most painful details of how they were threatened in their home country, and to prove why they are traumatized. That, or face a lifetime of working slippery undocumented jobs under the fear of deportation.
Sangei? (How are you?)
Zehaiem. (I’m good.)
Manana. (Thank you.)
He travara nashte. (You’re welcome; it’s nothing.)
W’Allah! (Oh my God!)
Massh’Allah. (I swear to God.)
Insha’Allah. (God willing.)
On the plywood ceiling of the coordinator’s office, someone wrote: “THE ONLY GOOD THING ABOUT CALAIS IS THE SKY, AND YOU GUYS.” I could add to that list (curry, cheap wine, the campsite’s bar jukebox which only seemed to play Michael Jackson, cats, bringing out guitars in the evening), but it’s true that volunteering was just hard sometimes. Caravan living, with all its less than glamorous sights and smells, was completely tolerable and even felt like a privilege in comparison to the standard of living we witnessed every day. But that inevitable comparison was what usually proved most difficult. Devoting the mental energy to attempt to understand and help a community of people deprived of just about everything can make it difficult to go to malls, talk to friends and family all too eager to change the subject, and just walk around in a world that feels like it’s turned its back. As illogical as it first seemed to me, I came to understand how time off is mandatory for volunteers. Without it, there is no space to step back from the consuming worry churned up by proximity to suffering. When the guys regularly snatch three or four hours sleep every night between the elements and police raids, and wait in line in the rain just for dinner and the hope of clean socks, it seems ridiculous to complain about early hours, missed meals, or cracked boots. How are we meant to return home without feeling keenly the privileged ease of holding a passport? But in cold truth, volunteers who refuse to stop, who don’t protect their own health, physical and mental, burn out and find themselves unable to do anything for anyone.
At my first monthly mental health check-in, I expressed to the wellness coordinator how amused I was by the new ticketing system that had been put in place just before I started going on distribution. Instead of policing a long and angry line for non-food items, volunteers began distributing numbered tickets so that the migrants could spend their time freely and return when their ticket was called. It was really a brilliant idea, which managed to reduce rioting and the undeniable indignities of receiving charity. They would later be printed in a more sophisticated manner, but for the new system’s first day, I hand-wrote all 300 tickets on donated post-it notes. Our little NGO often operated on what seemed like few threads, going out for distribution in vans with broken doors, doing all the kitchen’s laundry in four continually running washing machines, and going through periods when the volunteers and migrants alike would eat soup and increasingly stale bread every lunchtime because there just wasn’t enough rice to go around. What I ranted about that day to the wellness coordinator was the incredible, infuriating absurdity of it all. This operation, I felt, seems like it should be a temporary solution until help arrives from the grown ups, professionals with money and experience and international attention. “Why are some thousand people in the North of France fed and clothed only because of a bunch of twenty-somethings making tickets out of post-it notes?”
When I was flying home and couldn’t sleep, I made a list of some of those people:
A Pakistani cricketer who often asked me whether it was better to love a beautiful woman or an ugly woman with a beautiful heart, and always disagreed with my answer
An Eritrean woman with perfect English who shared dinner with me on my last distro even though I never managed to get her good enough boots
A quiet young Afghan who waved to me the last time I saw him, solemnly, as he left distribution to go try
An Ethiopian woman who spent ten months in Libya “without the sun”
A shy Afghan who often came and stood by my side but never spoke to me
The only Ethiopian woman to wear extra-large clothing, who taught me the Amharic word “k’onijo” (beautiful)
A tiny Ethiopian woman who, on my last distribution, was finally provided with jeans small enough for her (a child’s size)
A ten year-old North African boy whose mother begged us to just give him a woman’s coat
An Afghan girl, younger than ten, who screamed at the men but whispered her name in my ear like a secret
The one-eyed man, who was some days kind and other days drank and smashed bicycles
The ten-year-old Afghan, who was filled with fury that no one could blame him for
An Afghan photographer, who never stopped updating his Instagram while living in the Jungle
A North African science teacher who was always surprised that I remembered his name
An Afghan electrical engineer who needed to have a steel bar removed from his leg but refused to have the surgery done in France, because the hospital would not operate on him if he did not claim asylum
A Kurdish mother who sighed happily when I gave her a tiny hand-knitted yellow jumper for her baby
A North African woman to whom I gave a pair of purple trainers and watched walk across the lot and hand them right to a man
A North African man who liked to wear his black beanie very tall on his head, and do the volunteers’ jobs at the end of distribution
A North African man who spoke to me about the Bible for a long time
A North African man named “Ema”, just like my name
A woman who cried in the warehouse while we searched for emergency clothes for her and her three-year-old daughter
Various older Afghan men who called me a “good girl”, “beautiful America”, “China face”
An Afghan who wore a hat with a skull on it, and was the first to share dinner with me on distro
A patient old Afghan man with a very long beard, who always thanked the volunteers kindly and politely asked for seconds
The North African who yelled “arigato” at me at every distro
The North African who tried to kiss me once
The Kurdish child who bit me on the leg
A North African boy who I came upon celebrating his sixteenth birthday in a hedge beneath a sheet of corrugated steel. He stopped me to ask if, for his birthday, I could give him and his friends some bottles of water
The best thing about Calais was proof of what could be accomplished by little more than a group of people with some empathy. Over dinner and wine, a circle of unbathed, unemployed youth would gather in my caravan to argue into the night about things like the best way to carry out a fair and safe shoe distribution, with more passion than any academic classroom I’d ever been in. Some of these people didn’t have degrees and might never have held a job, but they were brimming with knowledge from what they lived every day; knew a refugee’s legal rights, how to organize a nation-wide collection of gloves with one facebook account, how to speak to someone having a panic attack, how to hem a pair of jeans down two sizes, how to recognize the symptoms of trench foot, how to prepare a couple hundred kilo of rice 365 days a year. The best thing was when, separated by language, culture, political opinion, race, and power of citizenship, refugees would still share with volunteers everything they had; names, dinners, tea, patience, politeness, energy, laughter, music, stories, kindness.
The worst thing about Calais was proof of what could not be accomplished by governments with inconceivably large budgets, experienced politicians, and histories of accumulated power. It brings me no joy to have less trust in the institutions that we are raised to believe have our best interests at heart, in the authorities that are meant to keep us safe, and the illusory promises that society makes to comfort us. I like to be comfortable. But the more you understand the cost of comfort, the less possible it becomes to enjoy it.
Updates from the wonderful blog of Luke Buckler, Help Refugees Volunteer Wellness Coordinator, which I absolutely have to plug.
Darkness, I think,
Is inevitable, interrupted only by laughter
And light pollution.
We are always running head on into it,
Boarding planes, pulling covers over our heads,
Falling in love at inconvenient times.
In the dark, I squeezed into the warehouse and frightened a black cat.
In the dark, the coat on the wall became the tall boy who watched me all night.
In the dark, my hands reached for scalding hot tea, unidentifiable grime, other reaching hands.
And after checking two hundred and fifty black socks for black holes,
After the musty smells of sleeping bags in six hundred opaque bin bags,
After “where you from?”
After “gimme kiss,”
The men with faces made unintelligible by night disappear back
Into the mist at the edges of what we are willing to imagine.
You cannot question why they must go,
Because you too are being pulled
By something as unchangeable as gravity,
The unseen force that pulls water downward, out of your unwilling eyes.
It pulled us, too, into the darkness of the beach,
Compelling us to walk on and on and on and on and on and on and on and on
Until we met the sea.