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An Update from Calais

A mural in the refugee camp in Calais.
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Maurice Mc Dermott was one of the participants in our online pre-decision course. Here he writes about his time volunteering in Calais in solidarity with the refugees living in the Calais refugee camp

Calais had been just a name of a town in France to me. I had seen the news reports about the refugees but that was nothing to me. I was no activist. I had no experience in that sort of thing and besides I had plenty of problems of my own. Then I saw a Dochas newsletter asking for volunteers to help the Dublin Refugee Solidarity group to sort donated clothes for the refugees. I volunteered to do a day’s sorting and while there I met several people who had been to Calais. As I listened to their experiences I suddenly realised that I could do that. Someone asked me why wouldn’t I go over myself and I couldn’t give a valid reason. I contacted Clare Mosely at Care4Calais and she enthusiastically invited me to work with her organisation in Calais. I booked accommodation for the hostel in Calais for two weeks and three weeks after my initial volunteering I was on a flight for France. The adventure had begun!

By the time I got to Calais I had decided that I would be quite happy spending the next two weeks sorting clothes in the Care4Calais warehouse. That illusion was soon shattered on day two when I was asked to go on a distribution of the clothes in the camp. Despite my nerves I agreed and so my first experience of the camp was distributing jeans to the refugees. There was mud everywhere and the camp was full of small tents with the occasional wooden shack for the lucky few. We had parked our van on the side of the main road in the camp and as soon as we stopped a line of about fifty refugees with faces full of eager anticipation formed at the back of the van. We followed a set procedure for our distribution which ensured that the queue was orderly and the distribution respectful.

I was extremely nervous that first day though gradually that lessened. Over the next  two weeks I went on many other distributions in which we distributed blankets, sleeping bags, trousers,  coats, jumpers, underwear, toiletries, and shoes. The lack of clothes-drying facilities for the refugees meant that once clothes got wet there was practically no chance of getting them dry. This necessitated a regular supply of clothing from organisations such as ours. I cannot claim to have done everything right but my mantra became ”tomorrow I will do better” which worked for me. Throughout my time in Calais I was impressed by the patient, resilient and stoical behaviour of the people in the camp. I often wondered what Irish people would do in similar circumstances.

I cannot deny that the work was difficult however I have many memories that will live with me for many years. I have no epic tales to tell but it was the little events that connected me to those in the camp. Sometimes a suspicious look on a face of a refugees could be transformed into a smile by the simple act of my acknowledging him with a nod. The refugees were comprised of many nationalities many of whom did not speak English. Often I had to use body language as the main form of communication. I didn’t always succeed but I do feel that I was good enough to make a small difference in the lives of some of the people I met.

The work was a mixture of the physical exertion of sorting clothes and helping out in the warehouse combined with the mental exertion of distributing the clothes to the refugees in the camp. Most evenings I was tired and looked forward to a good meal and a glass or two or red wine with my fellow volunteers. I will always cherish their friendship and support. We were an unlikely crew of volunteers with most of the volunteers coming from the UK while Brazil, America, Columbia, Switzerland, Germany, Portugal, France and Sweden were some of the other countries represented. The volunteers stayed for varying lengths from one day to three months, coming from many occupations and many different backgrounds.  There was a very tangible feeling among us that we were doing something remarkable in the service of a goal greater than anything that we could do individually. It was solidarity in action and the only question that remains for me is how soon can I go back?

Maurice recently wrote a blog about his experience doing Comhlámh’s online pre decision course.

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