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Help others, help yourself

Last week I travelled to Calais with my mother to spend a couple of days volunteering at help refugees. I was not sure if I wanted to share my experience on LinkedIn at first, the line between personal and professional is nowadays too blur. However, I got so many people asking me on Facebook and Instagram about my experience after seeing some images, having genuine curiosity about the 4 days I spend in Calais and wanting to know more about it, I thought it would be beneficial to share my volunteer work with my professional network too. Generous friends started donating via my Facebook post, after being there I understand now how crucial there work is and if after you read this, you feel like volunteering yourself (hopefully) or chipping in a couple of pounds – a little bit of oversharing for a good cause seems justified to me.

Day 1 | onions, garlic and 400 kg of pumpkins 

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We arrived at the warehouse from Help Refugees charity in Calais. It is a 40 minute drive from the centre of the city in public transport. When we got there, we were welcomed by other volunteers that were newbies like us as well as the people that run the charity. Hot coffee and a warm smile is a great way to start the day. After a short morning induction we joined the kitchen team. We got our cooking gear and cracked on cutting vegetables nonstop! The Kitchen at the Warehouse serves over 1400 meals A DAY!!

Those that know me, would be more than shocked admiring my new acquired knife skills, after 2 hours cutting onions I feel ready to join Master Chef! As you can imagine I have never cut so many kilos of onions, garlic and carrots – ever!!! What makes the tears sweet – no my eyes do not like onions 😭 – is to know this is for a good cause!

PS: the small pumpkins 🎃 box may give you an understanding of the volume of food we are talking about

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Day 2 | Stitching, stitching ….

We went to the warehouse on our second day, with garlic smell in our hands, we decided this time to work in SOHO, the sewing area. Help Refugees gets a lot of donations but not all the pieces of cloth are in conditions to be distributed, there is some fixing needed. As I studied Fashion Design years ago, my mother and I felt it would be good to put our skills in good use. We spend the whole day stitching, cutting and repairing … making sleeping bags and fixing blankets for the winter ❄️ It was very nice to find every now and then in between the piles of cloth that needed fixing small notes the other volunteers had sneaked in to inspire and motivate us to keep the good work up! 💙 ✂️ From smiles to hearts to “please repair me wonderful Soho team” notes, the positive and the respectful vibe in the warehouse is inspirational.

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Day 3 | Kitchen, Adele and the jungle 

The 3rd day was a special one. We started cutting lots of cabbage, carrots and bread to get the curry ready for the refugees that live in the cold. We got confirmed to be the ones going to serve the food to one of the camps. Before we loaded the van with the food in the afternoon, we had a gathering in the back of the kitchen area. We got some safety instructions, explanation of how the food distribution would take place and some example of past experiences we could relate to. After that, we got into the car, drove 30 minutes and during the ride the two distribution managers shared some great anecdotes from the field with us. Once we arrived there, we saw what seems like a parking lot, which a big fire and hundreds of people waiting for us. We spend the next 2 hours serving rice, tea, bread, curry and salad in Dunkerque. Other charities were there too, providing WiFi so the refugees could call their families as well as batteries to charge their phone as they are living outdoors they do not have electricity.

The council had been there 2 hours before us, destroying one of the wood bridges in the area to make it even more difficult for the refugees to move in that area freely. They did also burn the wood and all the refugees were gathering around the fire to warm up in a very cold afternoon. It was getting dark and we had to go, our short visit to what is left of the jungle got to an end. I look back while I am in the van, we are all in silence, I can see a fire from far lighting the night. It’s cold, we go home, but we leave 400 people behind us that will sleep outside and share a tent in the rain.

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Day 4 | nail salon 😅 under the rainbow 🌈

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Our last day at the warehouse! I decided to join the wood station – the so-called nail salon – enjoying the fresh air and the rainbows. We cut wood for the refugees for them to make a fire and stay warm in the cold nights. Take the nails from the donated wood, cut them in pieces and put them in bags! Ready for the evening distribution.

No human being should be living in the forest hiding from the police and getting warm around a fire with used blankets and tents.

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The warehouse is massive and very well organised. You are a volunteer so you can contribute in your own speed but the tasks are split and the instruction of what to do are clear. You can work in the kitchen, in the woods station or at SOHO like we did. But there is plenty of other roles in the warehouse. Visit their website and find out more online.

We had indeed 4 intense days. We have learnt a lot about Calais, the refugee crisis, the charity help refugees, about the refugees but even more about being humble, grateful with what we have and the importance of empathy. I will need time to digest the experience, but its a touching experience that puts things in life in real perspective and that teaches us how spoiled we are taking so many things for granted every single day.

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