By Mark Lynch
14 NUI Galway students from Fáilte Refugees Society went to refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk to volunteer over the Christmas break. They worked for 3 days with Refugee Community Kitchen, providing hot meals for the people who reside there. SIN spoke to 3 of that group, Christian Arra, Karen Fenton and Sarah Corsini, to find out what they saw, what they did and what they experienced.
SIN: What was your main role for those three days?
Christian: You work from the warehouse and distribute food once a day
Sarah: Everybody prepares the food in the warehouse and then you’ve got team leads and professional chefs and everything, but then, once a day, you do bring it out to where the refugees are, where they’re staying and it’s one big meal a day. They have camps set up in Calais and Dunkirk.
Christian: It was more of a Kurdish community in Dunkirk and then more of an African community in Calais. Basically, what we did most of the day was chopping veg, preparing veg, because you’re cooking enough for 2,000 people a day.
Sarah: Literally, yeah, 2,000 meals a day.
Karen: There was between 1,500 and 2,000 people. They say it’s more like 2,000 meals because there might be the father coming up to get 5 meals for the family, or people come back for seconds. It’s not, like, take one and move on.
SIN: Talk me through a bit of the daily schedule, starting in the mornings…
Sarah: We stayed in an AirBnB and there was free transport to Calais. We were there at 9 o’clock in the morning (at the warehouse).
Christian: There was a morning brief, so you’d try get there for 9. People come in around 9/10 o’clock. So, you’d do the morning brief and there was a wood yard at the back as well, so people can go back to the wood yard or into the kitchen. I think only a couple of people did the wood yard. Most people were in the kitchen.
Sarah: The wood yard then, people would make bundles of wood to give to the refugees for their camps, to keep warm at night and stuff.
Christian: In the kitchen, you’d be chopping veg, cleaning veg. You have to do it to an actual restaurant standard, because last year, they were saying that the police and the government don’t really like the charities being there, working and helping the refugees. So, they’d come in and basically shut it down if it’s not compliant to standard.
Sarah: But they were very good, they told us exactly what we needed to be doing, gave instructions, showed us how to do things. You were never really left wondering what you’re supposed to be doing.
Christian: You cop on to it really quickly.
Karen: And the food is lovely. It’s all vegan and vegetarian, because you need to cater for a lot of different nationalities. As well, in the kitchen, it’s safer not to be cooking meat.
Christian: If you were prepping meat the whole time, it’d be way too much to do and if one thing ended up being bad, you’d get a load of people sick. And for storage, you can store plants so easily.
Karen: It’s brilliant as well, because the kitchen is zero waste. So, even the leftovers from distribution are our lunch the next day.
Sarah: And even the peels from the onions would be kept and put into stock, the bags are used to put wood into.
SIN: You mentioned they don’t like the charities being there, why is that?
Sarah: They think the people won’t move on from there if they have hot meals provided for them. The French police would hesitate to arrest them as well, though, because, by human rights law, you have to seek asylum in the first European country you arrive in, so France doesn’t want to recognise that these people are there because then, they’d have to claim asylum there and stay there. So, they don’t want to arrest them either because then they couldn’t move on to, say, the UK, and they do want to get rid of them.
Karen: And we have our meeting before we go on distribution, and you’re told you can’t take pictures, one; because it’s kind of voyeuristic to see people in these conditions, but then, as well, if these people were caught and there’s photo evidence of them being in France…
Christian: Their whole asylum claim would be in trouble. One big thing that happened almost every night, the CRS (French riot police) were raiding the place and ripping everyone’s tents apart.
Sarah: The police presence there was unbelievable. The day I went on distribution, we were driving down and there were just vans of police around the place just watching.
Karen: And in Dunkirk, you drive down to this muddy car park and up on the hill, on the motorway, there were 2 police vans just flashing their lights as intimidation.
Christian: They do try and make sure that their presence is known.
SIN: Did you feel more intimidated by the police than safe?
Sarah: The long-term volunteers and the organisers there have you so well prepared that you’re not intimidated by the police. They have you warned before you go that there may be police there, and they’ll ask, “Are you still okay to go out on distribution? Are you comfortable with this? If you’re not comfortable, say so and you can go sit in the van”. There’s never a situation that you’ll be in that you’re not comfortable in, or that you can’t get out of straight away.
Karen: Before you go, you do a briefing, and they go through all of the potential risks, and they all probably won’t happen, but it’s good to know that it’s all planned out and there are code words and everything.
Christian: Even afterwards, you get back and have another briefing. There are lots of things available, like if you need to talk to a psychologist or something like that.
Sarah: There are websites you can go onto to talk to a counsellor as well.
Christian: It’s amazing how well it’s run.
Karen: A specially trained psychologist comes to the warehouse 3 Fridays in the month and you can book an hour with them for free just to talk if you are upset by something or just need to chat to someone.
SIN: Did you have much contact with the refugees? Did you see how bad conditions were for them?
Christian: Yeah, when you’re on distribution.
Sarah: You can speak to them and everything.
Christian: You might see tents and a few people gathered around a fire, and it does hit you when you see it, because you know it in your head, but when you actually see it, it’s actually right in front of me. We’re in France, in Europe, that’s meant to be this beautiful country and this is what’s here. And they wave at you as well.
Sarah: They’re waving at you, yeah, they’re so happy to see you.
Christian: Like, they’re very nice. It’s amazing how nice they are.
Sarah: I was talking to one man and he said he had been walking for 4 months.
SIN: Across Europe?
Sarah: Yeah, he came from Iraq. He was asking me, “Where would I get a sleeping bag?”, and I said, “I’ll put you in contact with this lady now, this is just my first day here”, and he was like “It’s my first day here, high five!”
SIN: Do they see any end to their time in Calais?
Sarah: They’d be talking about “trying”, like they’re going to “try” tomorrow, and they’re talking about trying to get to the UK on a boat, or whatever.
Christian: The vast majority of them, 90% or higher, are there but planning to try and get to the UK.
Sarah: It’s the last port of call before the UK.
SIN: Given your experiences and interactions, if these refugees were given the opportunity, what do you think their message would be to the wider world?
Karen: I was talking to a guy and he was saying how he was going to the UK the next day. He was 19, and I’m 19, so that hit me. I feel like that was when I got upset because there’s no difference. It was just a geographical lottery. These people happened to be born in this country. It could be any one of us. There’s no difference.
Christian: We’re all humans. That’d be one thing that, definitely, would stick out. I can imagine that they see us and it’s so easy for us. The next day, we got to just go across, take the Eurostar to England, go across to Ireland, just because we were born in a country where the passport can get you places.
Karen: I cried when we went through security coming home. I feel like when you leave, that’s when it hits you. So, when we were flying back, and got through security, I just cried, because it was so easy for me to just go home.
Sarah: What got me was one man came up to me and we were chatting away and he was like, “The world is such a terrible place”, and I agreed, thinking he was talking about his situation. And he was like, “It’s so terrible, all those poor animals dying in Australia”, and I was thinking, ‘oh my god, you’re in this situation and that’s why you’re saying the world is terrible’.
Christian: It does really hit you when they leave after giving them the food, and they have to line up just for a meal as well.
Sarah: The power complex wasn’t nice, that you’re serving them.
Karen: It’s uncomfortable.
Christian: We were obviously able to just go back afterwards then, and get a bus into town, go to the AirBnB, put the heating on, whereas that’s them for the night.
Sarah: The girls that went to Calais were especially taken aback by it, because they were told that a man had been found dead, face down in Calais that day, so the spirits mightn’t be as good in the camp there. I think they felt it a bit more than us the day they went.
SIN: Do you think that their spirits can be lifted by seeing you come? Seeing that despite all the hatred out there, there are people that care?
Christian: Definitely, like, that’s why there’s such a good relationship there between the volunteers that go on distribution and the people there. They’re usually very nice and they’ll chat away to you.
Sarah: They’re so beyond grateful. I kept thinking that if I was in that situation, I don’t know if I’d be as nice.
Christian: Because you’re lining up to get food off someone, it’s humiliating.
Sarah: They’d even come over and help us to unload the van and clean up.
Christian: I remember going around cleaning before and they’d be picking up the rubbish as well.
Karen: It’s hard seeing anyone in these conditions, but I had to take a minute when I saw families and really young kids and then when we’d leave, you could see them walking back on this dirt road and horrible, rainy weather. That was the most upsetting thing. Another thing, I remember we were talking to a long-term volunteer and I was just having a chat with him, saying how awful it is and he was saying these are people that are better off. It’s 10 grand to come across in a lorry. There are still people who couldn’t afford that. It gives you perspective, but the one thing that killed me was seeing kids there.
Christian: It is expensive for some people to get all the way to Calais, so they obviously had nice lives. Imagine having to make that jump, from being able to provide for your family and all that, to waiting for the van to come every day to get a meal.
Sarah: These people weren’t coming from nothing, by any means.
Christian: And that’s what makes you realise that they wouldn’t leave unless they actually had to. They’re not just going to be like, “Let’s sleep in the rough for up to a year, hoping to get to the UK”.
Sarah: Or, “Let’s walk for 4 months to get some food from a van”.
Karen: These people are smart, educated and have so much to offer whatever society they’re in. You can utilise that, it doesn’t matter that they’re from another country, or that they had to come here because of whatever circumstances. These people were just in an unfortunate situation, they have so much to offer. That’s what people need to realise, they just had to go, they couldn’t stay, I’m sure they’d love to. It’s not that they want to, they have no choice.
Christian: I’d recommend people look into things like Calais and Dunkirk and what goes on there, because you see comments on social media where people say, “These illegal immigrants coming here on a plane so they can get benefits”. If you actually see the way they have to try and get here. Just realise the steps they had to take to even get to the country. There are probably people in direct provision here in Galway who were in Calais.
SIN: How important is it for people to help out any time they can, even a couple of days?
Sarah: They were saying they can only function if they have short-term volunteers.
Christian: Any time at all, even a couple of days. You don’t have to go there, even something in Ireland. People don’t realise how much of a difference just doing one little thing can do.
Sarah: Once they reach the UK and Ireland, it doesn’t stop there. They’re put into direct provision. There’s so much more that can be done on this side as well, you don’t have to go to France to make a difference.
Christian: Even donations. Little things like that would work too. Literally anything you can do.
Karen: They have hoodies as well, which cost €50, but that’s 47 hot meals.
SIN: How can people get involved, either on the French side of things or here in Ireland?
Sarah: Join Fáilte Refugees Soc
Christian: Or join your local anti-racism or refugee groups
Sarah: There are direct provision centres in almost every city and town now, like, reach out
Christian: Especially for students, join a society, get involved, because there are so many things that can be done.
Sarah: Not to make it political, but there’s a general election next month. When the TDs come knocking on your door, tell them this is what you’re concerned about.
Christian: And email the, send letters
Sarah: On your doorstep, they’re going to be asking you what you’re concerned about – they’re trying to get your vote. Tell them this is what’s going to get your vote. End direct provision, make Ireland a better place for asylum seekers.