Arriving at the Everybody Welcome shack, Chris gets out of his van and starts the commotion. Since last November, he’s been volunteering in the Calais ‘Jungle’ refugee camp, distributing food. Queueing for hot food in the ‘Jungle’ starts at 1pm and Chris needs to put up a marquee to shelter people from the heavy rain that is about to start. He’s got two volunteers to help with it.
When Chris first started working for the Ashram Kitchen last November, it was only him and another friend. They had to make do. It got harder as the refugee numbers increased. But help came too and the Refugee Community Kitchen based in the main warehouse was in full action. By January, there were six core volunteers at the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK); three of them living in the caravans at the Calais warehouse, another two living in a caravan in the camp and one residing in the warehouse itself. Chris became the man-with-a-van, distributing food everyday.
Refugee Community Kitchen is a complete team effort. Volunteers work together to get the food, cook it, and make the distribution place a warm and welcoming environment. “There’s no hierarchy, we all just chip in!” – Chris explains.
I met Chris as their Everybody Welcome distribution shack was next to the Hummingbird Medical Clinic where I volunteer. As they were starting lunch distribution at 1pm, we used the same shack for our tea kitchen. Watching him pack and unpack the van before and after lunch with such dedication, I had to know more!
Chris had been living and working in Vietnam for two years, and moved back to the UK just as the refugee crisis got out of control. Like everybody else volunteering in the camp, he felt he had to do something. ‘I love doing what I can here but I feel the impotence of it all, patching a wound. Unless we can get people to remember we are all people, who love and hurt and laugh and cry, we can’t help anyone.‘
Despite the hardship in the ‘Jungle’ and challenges distribution brings every day, there is a lot of laughter and good times. He tells me about the New Years Eve when his sister, moved by the stories of hardships he told over Christmas back home in Yorkshire, came down to Calais to volunteer. “She arrives and there is this great party in the Ashram Kitchen, refugees and volunteers having a good time, eating, drinking and dancing. She didn’t expect that,” Chris giggles.
One of Chris’ favourite moments was going to a Sudanese friend’s shelter where they performed beautiful songs with drums, chanting and singing.“We ate sweet spaghetti together” – he warmly reminisces. Even the hardest of moments can be filled with laughter, like evacuating refugees the buffer zone marked for bulldozing by the French local authorities: “Literally picking up shelters from all four corners and moving them to the next spot, working together with refugees, laughing throughout!”
Talk about being in their shoes.
But the hard times are really hard, especially when uncovering horrendous refugee war stories and family tragedies, either in their home country or en route to Calais. Watching refugees’ shelters built by volunteers bulldozed to the ground in March was heartbreaking.
I went back to Calais in March with Brighton MP Caroline Lucas as the south side of the ‘Jungle’ was being demolished. Everybody Welcome shack was gone, as were the shelters of the community it served.
After helping refugees move their shelters to the north of the camp, Chris was gone too. This time to the Idomeni refugee camp at the Greek-Macedonian border. He will continue to volunteer and Be In Their Shoes.
Refugee Community Kitchen continues to serve food in the ‘Jungle’ with their van, following refugees wherever they are. Their shack may be gone, but the spirit remains: EVERYBODY WELCOME!
Be In Their Shoes © Jeta B 2016