For the last few days I have been in France peeling and chopping, mixing and moving, driving and carrying vegetables. I have been one of the 150+ volunteers working in and around a warehouse on the outskirts of Calais. This centre of activity seeks to feed, clothe and help create shelter for the 7000+ refugees who are living in a confined space within view of the White Cliffs of Dover. So near and yet so far from a new life where they can work, live, support themselves and pay UK taxes. For now they are offered a daily hot meal costing around 30p each to prepare from the charity concern Refugee Community Kitchen. They also receive dried/cold foods which allow them to cook or prepare some communal or family meals.
Whilst I was there the local militaire/police, the CRS, went in and closed down some of the most helpful facilities for those living there. No reason that I can think of makes sense. All the police seem to have done is reduce the liveability of these people, making them more likely to take desperate rather than considered measures to complete their journey and seek asylum. As I understand it, over the months of the camp’s existence little pop-up restaurants and shops have appeared along what is known as the High Street.
There are (or rather were) places to get basic supplies, to meet and share food, and to have the chance to live a little bit of life amidst the huts, tents and sand of the camp. There was one restaurant which specialized in feeding 700 children in a safe area each day. There was another called Three Idiots run by a trio of chefs who could have chosen to move to the UK when they first arrived and the UK was more welcoming, but they stayed, and until yesterday gave support to those who have travelled across Europe. Both of these were closed down by the militaire. Why??? Hunger is dangerous, and the last thing the people of Calais need, or the people on the camp want, is for people to get desperate.
This has put extra pressure on the Refugee Community Kitchen which is one of the departments which make up the whole charity warehouse. Established last December it is tasked to source sufficient fresh food to cook 1700 hot meals per day. This will now need to rise drastically to serve the children left hungry by the militaire actions – a task which the volunteer chefs are considering, because the kitchen is already working to capacity 7 days a week.
I was there to cheer on my daughter, Anna, who has left her job at the Princes’ Trust in fundraising communications to run the prep area which serves the chefs with ingredients each day. It is a brilliantly organized but suitably unexpected operation. She never knows how many volunteers she will have to help, or what donations of foods may arrive to be used. She never knows what cash donations will come in to allow them to buy the essentials which are needed. There is a fundraising team in London working away, and volunteers will often arrive with some cash they have collected. Every penny counts, and the chefs are endlessly inventive to create nutritious filling and varied stews, curries, salads and treats.
Within a day I was delegated to jump in a donated big van and drive to Lille where there is the French equivalent of the Covent Garden fruit and veg market, to fill the van with a pre-order for the week plus to make a detour to another supplier in the market who offer a special price on any “just past their best” veg. They offered a random mix of wonderful stuff to give the chefs another chance to be inventive. On the way back I delivered off to the Dunkirk camp, a smaller operation for around 700 souls, and to pick up 40 black bin liners of mixed breads and croissants which had been won from a local supplier/hypermarket again “just past their best”. They were a very welcome addition to all hot food distribution.
I had allowed 3 days to be there, and I felt awful leaving. It is a magnificent atmosphere. Chopping bags and bags of carrots and peeling endless bags of garlic is exhausting, but the volunteers are there to give time and talent, if not treasure, and I met amazing students from St Andrews, Manchester, Birmingham Unis, actors in training from RADA, orchestra managers from Oxford, school leavers starting their summer, someone from a team of 12 church parishioners from Birmingham who had come over in a minibus with time, talent, and treasure to help for a week. There were French, German, English, Australian, Canadian and American accents/languages around the tables.
The task is relentless and very present. The kitchen is open 7 days a week, cooking from 8am to 6pm and needs constant supplies and workers. As fast as the food is prepared another complete department of the warehouse takes over with distribution to 6 serving stations across the camp. They serve the school on the camp, the women’s refuge on the camp, and now the site where until yesterday there was the kids restaurant. On time. Every day, Rain or shine. And as that food goes out the door, the advance prep begins for the next day.
After just 3 days of driving the truck, loading and unloading tonnes of fruit and veg, chopping and peeling, I am knackered. As I type this on my train back to home I know exactly what will be being prepared at this time and exactly what my daughter will be doing to help make that happen. It is humbling to see this single part of the warehouse operation, and to have felt a tiny part of serving the needs of people trapped.
These 7000 souls are in an unnecessary limbo land caused by the political schenanigans of western powers. Until the refugees are allowed to move over safely to become tax paying citizens in a new home, or (worst case) until the militaire go in and destroy the camp (which they have done in the past) my daughter and hundreds like her will raise enough money (just), have enough time, and enough indomitable talent and energy, to feed the residents of this limbo world.
My next blog will leave the kitchen, meet some of the souls in camp, and check in with some politicians I met on the train,