Yoga off the mat - my volunteering experience in Calais
Many of you said you were interested to hear more about my experience volunteering in Calais, and so I thought the easiest way to share my experience would be to write a blog post.
But before I get into the detail of that, I wanted to give a massive thank you so much to everyone who supported my fundraising appeal!!
Whether you donated clothes, money or just gave verbal encouragement I really appreciated it!
I particularly want to thank those who donated some funds to the appeal I set up. I know it can sometimes feel uncomfortable to part with our hard earned £’s, especially at a time of year when money can feel a bit tight…but the generosity of people was amazing to witness…together we blew my £400 target out of the water, and so far donations sit around £850. But, let’s not stop there…
I would love it if we could crack the £1000 mark, so if you haven’t yet given a small donation, please consider doing so.
Having witnessed the thriftiness of the operations in Calais, I can testify that the money really does benefit those in need!
Anyway, back to the story…
I arrived at the warehouse - where Help Refugees partner with other local charities such as L’Auberge des Migrants, Refugee Youth Service, Refugee Community Kitchen and Refugee Info Bus to name a few - on Saturday lunch time and spent my first 1/2 day sorting clothing donations that came in.
What surprised me about helping out in the clothing department was that a rather large proportion of the items donated were not actually suitable to give to the refugees.
Many clothes were either not warm enough, stained/worn out, or too big (most male refugees are of slight build). And in the women’s clothing section, many were too formal, and just not practical for the conditions of living outside in the cold.
While of course these donations were gifted from a well intentioned place, the reality of the unique needs of the environment there meant many things had to be redistributed to other charitable projects in France, and hence this detailed sorting process distracted time away from other tasks that could directly benefit refugees right then.
So if you, or anyone else you know is considering donating supplies please stick to the needs list here, and spread the word about the importance of this. Tents and other shelters are by far the priority!
Also, I was struck by how cold it was already…the warehouse is open all the time, so working in there is essentially like working outside.
Hot food and drinks were essential to keep us all warm, as well as wearing all our winter layers.
It made me realise how terribly difficult it must be for the refugees outside under all conditions in this weather, especially if they didn’t have access to warm clothing and shelter!
I volunteered in the wood yard!
A more physical day, which helped us keep warm…our layers of clothing were gradually stripped away! Here the challenge was the sheer volume of wood required to go out on a daily basis!
And I was amazed by the realisation of how many volunteers were required to prepare the wood - essentially this involved breaking apart old pallets, removing nails and then chopping it into small pieces, before bagging it up and loading the many many bags into the van to go out for delivery.
Team work was essential and the more people on hand, the more efficient and manageable this gargantuan task! And because the need for wood for building fires and keeping warm is so crucial to the more than 2000 refugees in this area, this wood prep and distribution needs to happen on this large scale on a daily basis! You can read more about the importance of the woodyard work in a recent blog post here.
I volunteered in the kitchen.
A proper industrial scale kitchen! I’ve actually never worked in a kitchen of this scale before, and it was fascinating to see how all the different processes came together - coordinated by a couple of lead volunteers and cooks.
So I washed veg, I peeled veg, I chopped veg, I washed dishes. We kept our spirits and energy up by having the music pumping and lots of great chat and laughter amongst the team!
Again, I was amazed by the sheer volunteer of people required to make this process work.
The kitchen produces and distributes over 1000 meals a day, every day!
So there was little rest for many of the longer-term volunteers who are leading the team.
At the end of day of day three I was teaching two back-to-back yoga classes to other volunteers. Mostly the long-term folk. I was hoping to offer a much needed respite from the long hours, and hard (often physical) work the volunteers are putting in, as well as create a safe space for them to relax and unwind from some of the mental challenges also.
The feedback from them was really positive, and definitely goes to show that in confronting and difficult circumstances we need our yoga practice all the more. We need that space to connect with our bodies, to switch off a little, to discharge some of the difficult feelings and to simply relieve deep held tension.
I hope I could be in service to their needs at least a little and that even one yoga class could restore their strength and determination for the days ahead.
It was so impressive that this work is done entirely by a volunteer team. Many volunteers who’ve been there for 6 months to a year, and very much a crucial part of the operations. The commitment to spend such a long period of time there is so commendable, I really take my hat off to them!
The coordination between the work of the different organisations at the warehouse was also really great to see.
Of course, it doesn’t always run perfectly…the warehouse toilets ran out of loo roll at some point. And coffee supplies were left dry for 2 days. But these are totally forgivable when you see the commitment of everyone involved and the important and much needed efforts happening to support displaced people from many different nations, who just couldn’t survive without it.
It’s unlikely I’ll be able to go to Calais again for a few months, but I’ll definitely keep it in mind for the new year.
In the meantime I’ve signed up to volunteer with an agency in London who set up refugees who’ve arrived here with local people in a befriending service.
Because often when refugees arrive in London it can be very isolating and lonely. Separated from family and with limited money to get by, a little bit of friendship from someone who is familiar with the big city can go a long way.
Ways you can help….
Instead of, or in addition to - buying gifts for family and friends this festive season, buy something for someone who truly needs it. The Choose Love store has recently opened on Carnaby Street, or you can buy online as well here: https://choose.love. The store features loads of really practical items that are so needed right now.
You can volunteer yourself, as I did in Calais. Even short visits for a weekend or a few days is much appreciated and so helpful! As I mentioned above, the sheer number of bodies required to get all the tasks done is high, so a regular trickle of volunteers is essential. You’ll meet some great people, join a fantastic community and know you’re doing something super helpful to those in less fortunate circumstances to yourself.
Perhaps volunteering closer to home is more realistic for you…in which case (if you’re in London) Host Nation is a befriending project you can support by giving up a few hours a week to spend time with a refugee and showing them around London. They need more men involved as befrienders and people living in the outer suburbs of London as well! So if that is you, please do consider this, it's only a 3 month commitment of a couple of hours a week.
Sign up to the Help Refugees mailing list to stay notified of their work, and appeals for when they might need a bit of extra help.
Campaign against the injustice in this humanitarian crisis, and ask those in decision making positions for long-term change. More about the current campaigns can be found here.