On World Refugee Week, Suzanne Harrington’s daughter took a trip most other teens wouldn’t. She volunteered at the refugee shanty town in Calais known as the Jungle.
On a recent bank holiday weekend, my daughter and her friend, who are both 15, helped out at the refugee shanty town in Calais known as the Jungle.
For two days, they worked in a nearby warehouse, a hive of volunteer activity in a run-down industrial estate on the edge of France’s least lovely town.
The address of the warehouse is secret, to avoid right-wing attacks.
It is run not by NGOs or major charities, but by a few tiny independent charities and a stream of transient volunteers living in donated caravans behind the warehouse in primitive conditions, or, for short-term volunteers, staying in the ultra-basic youth hostel in town.
When my daughter and her friend finished their first day’s work at the warehouse, I took them into the camp, so that they could see the conditions first hand, and also so they could sit down and meet people, and chat over a hot sugary cup of chai outside Jungle Books, the camp’s makeshift library.
Interact in a normal, human way, amid the most abnormal, inhumane circumstances; many refugees want to practice their English, but most of all they just want to have a chat and feel normal.
So why would two 15-year-old girls want to spend their bank holiday chopping veg and sorting clothes in a cold draughty warehouse with the most basic, no-frills facilities?
Why drink chai with refugees on a bulldozed French wasteland ringed by teargas-wielding riot police when they could be hanging out with their mates back home, doing whatever Instagrammy things teenagers get up to? What made them do it?
A few months ago, my daughter and a few of her friends at school had a massive bake sale and raised €1,500 for a small charity that uses a converted double decker bus as a mobile school for the refugee children stuck in Calais and Dunkirk.
She and her friends are members of their school’s Amnesty International after-school club, which is how it all came about.
They are all quite Lisa Simpson.
“I wanted to see the school bus, and the camp,” she says.
Also, her decision to go may have been influenced by my own trips there, and that of many of her older friends — since last September, I’ve been a regular visitor to the Jungle, making the short journey across the Channel from my adopted home town of Brighton, always coming back elated and despairing at what I have seen.
I am one of an informal network of about 10,000 volunteers from Ireland and the UK.
I’ve never been moved to action before, but then there have never been thousands of cold hungry desperate people so near my doorstep before, being either ignored or persecuted by the authorities.
The feeling was that you had to do something. Anything.
On this visit, my daughter and I meet a family of six from Armagh — mum, dad, four children, the youngest of whom was nine –— who are visiting in their camper van to help out.
The mum says they are regular volunteers, and have been criticised back home for bringing their children to the Jungle.
“They say we’re mad to bring our nine-year-old,” she says.
We meet a young man from Limerick on his first visit, who seems slightly shellshocked at what he has seen, but is determined to come back and stay longer.
“There’s not much going on at home workwise. I’d rather be here, and be useful,” he says.
Some of the long-term Irish volunteers in Calais have moved onto the Greek islands, where the need is far greater.
So how was it for my daughter and her friend?
They had worked hard, in the manic, music-pumping atmosphere of the warehouse, sorting donations.
Sweaters, trousers, tops — flinging them into bins marked small, medium, large.
Too many large donations, not enough small. We Europeans are a lot bigger than many of the refugees.
Then chopping onions and garlic until their eyes watered.
Part of being a volunteer is an obligatory lunch break and free lunch, made at the other end of the warehouse — 2,000 delicious vegetarian hot meals a day prepared by volunteers using donated food, so that as many people as possible at the camp get some kind of hot dinner.
There are many more camp residents than 2,000, so not everyone gets fed.
Since the southern part of the camp was bulldozed in March, the camp has not much been in the news and donations have fallen even as the need remains as great as ever.
After lunch, eaten balancing on pallets outside the warehouse in the sunshine, the girls are back on clothes-sorting duty until the daylight fades.
There is no electricity at the warehouse.
The 2,000 meals are cooked via gas bottles and car batteries.
Afterwards, back in the hostel where we are staying (Calais is not a place of luxury), the girls are exhausted.
They flop on their beds, dusty and drained.
Was it too much for them?
“No,” says my daughter’s friend. “It was eye-opening.”
Despite their exhaustion — emotional as well as physical — they chat all the way home through the Eurotunnel about when they can next come back, and if their other friends can join them.
“I wish everyone in our school could do this,” says my daughter. “It would change how they see things.”
“Yeah,” says her friend. “They’d never moan about anything again.”
Apart from the eye-opening aspect of volunteer work, where you step outside your comfort zone and into the discomfort zone of others, there is an extraordinary impact on your own self- esteem.
My daughter and her friend feel proud of themselves — not smug, but proud — as something inside them has been ignited.
They talk about the summer holidays, and going back.
They want to do more bake sales, raise more money, collect more donations.
Back home I make contact with a local youth group from a poorer part of town, who have decided they too want to help the refugees.
I talk briefly to them about the conditions in Calais, and a week later, I collect their donations.
These teenagers are unemployed, and have managed to fill my car to the roof with donated food.
Young people & volunteering
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