Nine things I learned volunteering in the Calais refugee camp

I’m still in shock at how wrong my perception was of what a refugee is and what the ‘Jungle’ camp is like


I’m still not sure why I decided to go to northern France to volunteer at the refugee camp in Calais. I’m not political. I’m not an activist. I work three jobs in the fashion industry. I love makeup and fashion and am obsessed with all things celebrity. I am 26 and, except for a brief trip to the US, have never been outside Europe. But, like most people, I saw the photographs of little Aylan Kurdi’s body washed up on a beach. As I had some free time I just thought, Why not go over and help? So I contacted Ireland Calais Refugee Solidarity.

What followed was the most eye-opening experience I have had. Most of my 53 fellow volunteers had political, activist or charity-work backgrounds; I must have been one of the few who walked into the camp with no idea of what to expect. I hope what I saw there might persuade even one other person to reconsider their view of what a refugee is and what the camp is like.

1: It’s not a jungle

The series of camps around Calais are known as the Jungle, but they certainly don’t look like one. What we’re talking about here is a small corner of France inhabited by about 4,000 people. It’s a crowded piece of land surrounded by six-metre-high barbed-wire fences. Playing football with some Sudanese guys, I felt as if I could have been in a shanty town in Mumbai. Britain and France spent €18 million building the fence around the camps. But the few toilets are left unemptied and overflowing.

2: There’s nothing to be afraid of

As we drove from the ferry to our hostel the night we arrived we saw hundreds of men walking through Calais towards the Channel Tunnel and, beyond it, England. I was almost in tears with fear. When I realised that the wine in the hostel was only €1.20 a glass, I drank quite a few, to help me sleep. One our first day in the camp I drove in with a builder. Men and women were shouting at us. I was shaking. When I got out I realised that they were shouting, “Welcome! Welcome!” Then they asked if they could help us build. Who knew? Refugees offering help, not looking for it.

3: It was actually quite safe

I spent the first day in camp with my iPhone practically padlocked to my knickers. I’d read about people being mugged for their phones and about how, if you were seen with one in your hand, men would fight over it to make a call. Within a couple of hours I knew I had nothing to worry about. At one point I dropped a €10 note on the ground. A stampede of guys fought about who would hand it back.

4: Refugees are generous In their eyes

we were guests and it was their responsibility to look after us. I had my first-ever cup of tea in the camp. I’ll probably never have a second anywhere – but under a tarpaulin, shielded from the rain and around a fire with some of my fellow volunteers and two guys from the camp, it became a really nice memory that I’ll keep forever.

5: Children live in the camp

I heard initially that it would be all men in the camp, but more and more women and children arrived, mainly from Syria, Sudan and Eritrea. I was taken aback by how seldom some of the children smiled, but I guess they’re used to volunteers coming in and out of their lives. At one point I was called into a tent that housed a family of three. The son, who was no more than a year old, was sick. He lay on the damp floor of the tent, staring into my eyes. I hope he gets out of there and gets to have a childhood that is even 10 per cent as privileged as mine was.

6: The food was delicious

I hadn’t thought it would be safe to eat in the Afghan restaurant run by a few guys in the camp. As there was neither sanitation nor hot water, I was sure I’d be vomiting for a week. How wrong was I? The food was so good that we ate there every day. I miss the rice and beans now I’m home. The camp also had a barber’s, a few shops selling basics such as water, cigarettes and chocolate, and a nightclub where everyone lets off steam. Living conditions are atrocious in the camp, so they’re making the most of what they have.

7: No one knows the difference between Ireland and Britain

At first I was livid about this, but when it dawned on me that I couldn’t find Sudan on a map I got over it. Listening to the stories of people living in the camp, it seems there are three main reasons that they’re heading for Britain. Number one: English is most of the refugees’ second language. Number two: many men in the camp already have families in Britain, where the family-reunification period is shorter than in many other European countries. Number three: Britain is considered a place of hope, where people from all over the world have been able to create lives for themselves and safely raise their families.

8: The camps are home to some seriously educated people

I met some Syrians who told me that they had two choices at home. They could enlist in the military to fight Islamic State or they could enlist in Islamic State itself. If that were my choice I’d leg it, too. Most people I spoke to in the camp were highly educated – hence the perfect English that meant I could talk with them – and just wanted to get to Britain to get decent jobs. I didn’t speak to everyone in the camp, and I’m sure that some have fewer skills to offer than others. I met one guy, a dentist, who promised to fix my teeth if he ever gets to Ireland. Fingers crossed. We also met builders, translators, doctors and engineers.

9: You can make a difference

It’s pretty easy to live with the idea that it’s impossible for one person to make a difference, especially in a crisis of such magnitude. But, collectively, our convoy had a huge impact on the camp. A lot of my friends have messaged to say things like, “The world needs more people like you.” I’m not exactly Mother Teresa, so I see no reason why they can’t be those people themselves. Be the change you wish to see in the world. The more you lead, the more people will follow. No matter what you believe in, stand up.

Holly Shortall blogs at;

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