Please sponsor my return to Calais to volunteer with the humanitarian organization, Refugee Community Kitchen. Watch the video to see how this NGO is working to provide hot food to homeless refugees.
Over a year ago, distressed by the reports of the many refugees dying while trying to reach Europe from Africa via the Mediterranean Sea, I started looking at what I might be able to do as a volunteer. I wanted to feel like I was helping in the world. At the same time, I had read articles about “The Jungle” in Calais, France. Refugees, predominantly from Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as Eritrea, Libya, Sudan and other war-torn areas of Africa, had migrated to Calais as a jumping off place to reach the United Kingdom. The refugee camp grew piece by piece until it was a large sprawling camp with multiple nationalities, services provided by NGOs and by the refugees, learning centers, shops and restaurants. At its height, the Jungle’s population ran about 7,000 refugees. In April, 2016, the government began the onerous task of closing the camp. About half of the camp was razed. In November, 2016, the camp was completely closed. Again, the structures were razed and refugees were displaced once again.
A new camp had been established by the government in Dunkirk, 25 miles north of Calais near the Belgian border. I wrote to organizations in Dunkirk, saying that I would be happy cooking and serving food to the refugees; happy to do whatever I could to help. I was then referred to Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), a volunteer organization that prepared meals and provided food to the refugees in the camp. They also provided meals to the young unaccompanied minors who lived rough, outdoors in Calais. I wrote to them and received a response the very same day. They made it easy for me to sign up as a volunteer and welcomed me for any length of service.
I arrived in Calais in early February, 2017. I was a 20-minute walk from the warehouse that is “home” to Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK). Much of the warehouse was filled with donations that were sorted and packed by volunteers for refugees in Calais as well as further afield. I arrived on a Sunday and was scheduled to begin work in the kitchen on Monday, so that afternoon I worked in the warehouse. We sorted shoes and boxed them up for shipment to Greece, for refugees arriving there off the boats from North Africa. At one end of the warehouse the kitchen was set up. There were volunteer chefs/cooks who were there from a couple of weeks to several months, and oversaw the kitchen. Most were English but there were chefs from Wales and the U.S. also. In fact, most of the volunteers were English, though I met people from Scotland, Ireland, Wales, the Netherlands, Canada, Germany and France. Not too many of us from the U.S., but there were a few.
Mostly, I worked on the kitchen prep. We chopped, peeled, cut and sliced a myriad of vegetables: carrots, onions, leeks, tomatoes, potatoes, green peppers, cabbage, cauliflower, garlic, whatever was available that day. The vegetables we prepped were used for the following day’s meals. The kitchen prepared vast quantities of curry which was different from day to day depending upon the head chef and what was available. Predominantly the food was vegetarian but occasionally meat was added. In addition, huge cauldrons of rice were prepared and many loaves of a focaccia type bread and a dessert called flapjacks (not like our pancakes). The food was loaded into a van and driven to the camp in Dunkirk, to be served to the residents. In addition, we packed up small lunch boxes that were handed out to the many refugees living outside with no shelter or food.
At the camp, there were two “shops” where the residents could come and get food to prepare in their small, plywood shelters. We handed out milk, produce, canned goods, spices, and bread. The fresh items we had to distribute changed daily, sometimes fruit, sometimes eggs, but always welcomed. Back at the warehouse, every afternoon the volunteers prepared these dry goods and produce for distribution the next day. Sugar, flour, spices, rice, tea and coffee were allocated in single or family sized servings in plastic bags. Canned goods were stacked into plastic trays for transport. Bags or boxes of onions, potatoes and carrots were stacked up to be delivered. In the morning, these goods were loaded into a van and delivered to the two shops.
Volunteers had two jobs at the camp: serving the prepared hot meal or working in the shop, distributing food. The day I served food was cold, windy and raw. The line continued for almost two hours. Nevertheless, the people were friendly and thankful. One little boy, perhaps around 10 years old, was running around, playing and laughing. His pant leg was pushed up and I thought his leg must be cold. Then I noticed that he had a prosthetic leg. I thought about the horrors he must have seen in his young life, nevertheless, he was happy! When I worked in the shop, we were non-stop busy for a few hours. In the late afternoon, the stream of people slowed to a trickle and some of the young men gathered at our window to talk. I was asked where I came from and hesitantly told them from America, fearing the response I might receive. I was surprised by their very positive reactions, their outcries of, “Oh, America! Very good country!” Minutes before we were closing the window, one young man looked to the male volunteer, who had been going there for weeks, and quietly said, “Tonight. I try.” He was saying goodbye because that night he was going to try to stowaway on a truck headed into the UK. After my first trip to the camp, when I returned to the warehouse, I broke down and started crying; I am still brought to tears thinking of it.
I was there in Calais for two weeks and I chopped, peeled, and sliced vegetables, washed pots and pans, wrapped bread, bagged food stuffs, loaded vans and served food, all with the most incredible people. Everyone there was a volunteer and everyone was there for one purpose – to help somehow, anyhow. There have been many changes since I left at the end of February. Crackdowns by police are horrific, the mayor of Dunkirk tried to ban organizations from providing food (this was reversed) and, most devastating, the camp burned down. But the NGO volunteer organizations keep working, keep trying.
Since the camp in Dunkirk burned down, many refugees are living outside, with no shelter, no bathrooms, no food or fresh water. They are harassed by the police and hide in the fields of Calais. Still, RCK is cooking and feeding them, taking the food to wherever they are.
I cannot get this organization, its volunteers, its mission or the refugees out of my mind. I want to go back to volunteer for a month. Here is where I need your help. I am asking for your financial support through Go Fund Me. My goal is to return to Calais the beginning of October. Your contribution will help defray the cost of transportation there and back, as well as living accommodations and food while there, Any money left over after paying the expenses will be donated to RCK.
Your support for this endeavor means the world to me. Thank you so very, very much!
- Suzie Johnson
- Herb Sweeney
- Tess Elizabeth
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