Liquid ball of red-gold rises over frosted fields. Day dawns. In the warehouse it’s cold. Feet cold, nose cold, core cold, Calais cold.
Peel onions, chop tomatoes, wash celery stalks in water so cold it burns. Slice leeks, dice cucumber, peel carrots, make cauliflower florets. Bag up rice, sugar, salt, tea, spices. Load the van.
Drive to Dunkirk.
“Bonjour. L’Auberge des Migrants.”
We greet the security guards at the entrance to Grande Synthe refugee camp. I’m with Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK), a grassroots collective founded by UK-based activists and festival folk; at Grande Synthe we’re under the auspices of French charity L’Auberge, which provides us with insurance and the laminates of respectability required to get us through the gate.
First stop, the ‘German Kitchen’, run by independent volunteers with an anarchist ethos, based in a tumbledown brick building. Local boulangeries donate their day-old bread and we collect it from the storeroom here, cramming bin bags filled with baguettes into the van before driving to Community Kitchen One in the heart of the camp.
We unload the van’s contents into a shipping container with serving hatch which faces into a wooden shelter. The shelter’s walls are blankets and plastic sheets. Rough-built tables and benches create a horseshoe around a central wood burner. This is one of the camp’s community hubs; the attached shipping container is a ‘free shop’ run by RCK.
For the next five hours I whirl around my container.
“Give me bread.”
This command is usually accompanied by a chopping gesture on the forearm. It refers to a half-length baguette, the most popular loaf in camp.
“Nok, nok. Pias.”
“Please give me fassouli. Brinch, brinch.”
That’s kidney beans, and rice.
What else is usually in demand?
“Patata? Um… tomato?” I offer, having used up my Kurdish vocab.
Most of the residents of the Grande Synthe camp are Kurds. There are quite a few Afghanis and Iranians too, some Yazidis. Most surprisingly, there are about 20 Vietnamese here. How… why…? A volunteer who has a few words of Vietnamese discovers they “ran out of money, so they’re taking the long route”. A newspaper reporter asks how they got here: “By bus and walking,” apparently. A Calais local suggests they were trafficked and escaped a slave labour basement in Paris. We don’t really know.
The Vietnamese ask for spaghetti, sweetcorn, sweet potatoes and carrots. The Kurds mostly choose tomatoes, pulses, rice and potatoes as their staples. Providing familiar ingredients, food that might actually be enjoyed rather than just staving off hunger, is the primary mission of RCK – within the constraints of being a self-funded, donation based outfit.
“Sugar… tea… biskweet?”
“Sorry, no biscuits today.”
We try to provide something special every day, although the definition of ‘treat’ is sometimes stretched. Today the delicacy is bananas. Tomorrow it’ll be tinned fruit. Yesterday it was washing-up liquid and dishwashing sponges, everyone asking for “shampoo” while making washing-up gestures. We’ve also got free-range eggs this week, sourced cheaply and transported in huge boxes from England – gently – by one of the RCK founders.
“Fish, fish… circlee.”
Soon I understand that ‘circlee’ means ‘circular’ and circular fish is tuna rather than sardines or mackerel. Only the Vietnamese prefer rectangular fish.
Some of my customers are abrupt, rude, demanding. Abrupt is easier to deal with than sad and broken. I worry about the timid. The exhausted women, the kids, the damaged in body or spirit, the young men with their brittle bravado, the old men with their tired kind eyes. Everyone. Every one is human, fragile, hurting, enduring.
How come I can get a ferry back to a warm home in England when I’ve had enough?
I genuinely don’t get it. We are all humans, we live on this earth. I am no better, no more deserving, just because I happen to have been born on one particular island. Why do people believe that the country they were born in belongs to them? England’s relative wealth and stability is not of my making, why should I have the right to benefit from it while the people here are kept out? And if England is mine to benefit from, why shouldn’t I share my slice with some of the people here? Gah! I sound like a simpleton but really… Why? No one seems to be answering these most basic of questions. Or even asking them.
Some of my customers speak excellent English. Some speak English with regional accents. How? Because they travelled to the UK when they were young and lived there for years before being deported, usually back to Afghanistan where – with their Western ways – they’re easy prey for the Taliban. So, if they don’t get killed straight away, they set off back to the UK all over again. Why are we playing snakes and ladders with human lives?
These guys, the ones with Brummie or Cockney accents, ask for pasta twirls and want to know where in the UK I’m from.
Some of my customers speak no English at all, we gesture and mime and point. Some speak ein bischen Deutsch, having spent a few months in Germany before attempting to continue onwards to join family or friends in the UK. A few try tentative French, but learning French isn’t high priority for people who spend every night trying to climb into, onto or under trucks to get to England, the imagined land.
Why does everyone want to get to England? Maybe because they speak English, they know people there… or because they haven’t been there yet. They’re still able to dream about a happy future in the UK. England hasn’t treated them like shit yet, unlike pretty much every other place en route. Most of the solidarity volunteers in Calais and Dunkirk are English; perhaps they think everyone will be like us; it’s painful to know that if they do make it to Blighty, the welcome and choices on offer may be a disappointment.
Every night, the people of the camp are out ‘trying’. Trying to get onto trucks, to cross the channel, to escape this place and fulfil their dreams. Every morning, trying to grab some sleep in cramped shabby shelters in this bone-searing cold. There aren’t enough sleeping shelters and the authorities won’t let more be built, in fact they’re gradually demolishing those that exist and they aim to clear the camp by Spring. Clear it? Disappear the people? Like they did with the Calais Jungle, only the people didn’t disappear, they were just dispersed. Now, every day, ex residents of the Jungle are turning up at Grande Synthe and the meagre facilities here are stretched. Every day there are more and more huddled bodies trying to get some rest on the cold kitchen floor when we open the free shop. Officially, these bodies don’t exist.
At lunchtime Refugee Community Kitchen provides a hot meal; in the evening, the German Kitchen does the same. Between-times the free shops are open and we give out food for people to cook themselves over fires or small cooking stoves, or on the woodstoves in the community kitchens. Trying to provide some small possibilities of choice, autonomy, dignity. Small, small.
There’s a Women’s Centre, Children’s Centre, Adult Education Centre. Facilities are limited, volunteers in these centres are kind but often only here for the short-term. The Women’s Centre keeps getting wrecked and burned. I don’t know who by; I don’t think it’s the women.
There are power games in the camp, and there’s corruption. Politics, hostilities between refugees of different nationalities, tensions between volunteer groups, distrust between volunteers and the state authorities nominally running the camp. It’s peaceful here compared with the Jungle, but our camp training covers what to do in the event of fights, fire, tear gas and police violence.
It’s dark and I’m exhausted and dehydrated by the time we’re done. We drive back to the warehouse. It’s warm in the van, cold everywhere else.
I’m humbled. These weeks in Calais and Dunkirk are tough. It’s hard work, long days, in bleak surroundings, cold cold cold. I’m staying in a shared house with up to a dozen other volunteers; there’s no privacy, just one toilet and shower to share. On Christmas eve I come down with a headache and fever; I spend Christmas day shivering and sniffling on my mattress. I feel miserable and I want to go home.
Humbled. The people in the Grande Synthe camp are luckier than those on the streets of Paris or in the muddy ditches of Calais; luckier than those stuck in Moria detention camp on Lesvos; luckier than the families bombed out of Aleppo; luckier than the starving in Yemen, the imprisoned in Libya. Luckier than so many and yet still stuck, deprived of the freedom to be self-sufficient, to progress in their lives, deprived of warmth, deprived of humanity.
And here’s me, whining to myself about having a cold on Christmas day.
Humbled too by the volunteers who’ve been here for months, who’ve given up so much to provide co-ordination and continuity for the grassroots projects here. People who could be with their families at Christmas, who could be working and playing, travelling, progressing their own lives.
It’s not an obvious choice, to come here to chop veg, clean warehouses and serve unpaid in a tin shed shop; and so, if you do it, you become part of a quirky, collaborative community. Doing something, even just a little drop in the ocean of a something, is physically harder but psychologically easier than sitting at home with a sense of horror and disempowerment looking at pictures of dust-covered victims of bombings or people in tents collapsing beneath the weight of snow. It’s less depressing to meet some of the people of the migration, learn a few words of their language, smile and grimace and laugh with them while apologising that the half-length baguettes have run out… than it is to watch the news of Aleppo falling. It can be heart-rending to hear their stories, but less depressing than clicking sad-face social media emojis.
It’s amazing, what ordinary people can achieve, and how resilient humans are. How much compassion and empathy and humour and love still exists.
Go to Calais. Refugee Community Kitchen still needs you. Or go to Greece. Lighthouse Relief, Team Bananas and dozens of other independent, volunteer-led groups still need you.
If you can’t go, donate. Donate money if you can, because then it can be used to buy exactly what is needed and to help the local economies around the camps and borders.
Donate to Refugee Community Kitchen
Donate to Lighthouse Relief
Donate to Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island
Donate to Team Bananas
Do your own research online, donate to sea rescue organisations or medics in Syria or No Borders groups or MSF. Join in conversations, sign petitions, do what you can.
My fever only lasted two days. By the time I took my leave of the volunteer house, of RCK’s warehouse and my tin shed shop, I didn’t want to run away. A part of me wanted to stay in the frozen fields of Calais indefinitely.
I expect I’ll go back.
With RCK founder and friend Janie Mac, in the Calais warehouse