I decided to go and volunteer in France following September’s ‘Refugees Welcome’ march in London. I am a medical student taking a year out of my studies and had planned to spend the latter half of Autumn studying Spanish in Granada, however as I stood in Parliament Square listening to peoples’ experiences it became immediately clear the only thing to do was to try and help.
I’m normally incredibly indecisive but the moment the idea dawned on me it seemed so obvious I was embarrassed not to have gone before. Some months later, standing on a balcony in Paris, I was speaking to my flatmate about how, if at all, she felt her time volunteering had changed her. She replied that she did not feel it was the period of volunteering that had been the source of change but in fact that moment of realisation, when not going suddenly becomes so much more painful than going.
Porte de la Chapelle camp
I had originally planned to spend 6 weeks just working in Calais however the Jungle evictions changed this and after a week there I moved on to a new camp that has been built in the north of Paris. By total coincidence the day I arrived turned out to be the camp’s official opening day and so I worked there right from the very start.
Though undoubtedly challenging this was a fascinating experience giving ample opportunity to help improve systems and be truly involved in the camp’s operations. I was working for one of the two charities running these systems, Utopia 56, the other being a much larger charity called Emmaus which is famous across France for its work to alleviate homelessness.
Utopia were in charge of clothing donations and distribution as well as queue management. This latter activity was particularly problematic in the early days of the camp as communication difficulties between the two organisations as well as clashes with the police led to people queuing for hours only to be turned away until the next day, different information having been given to those outside the camp and those allocating the beds for that night. Thankfully things rapidly improved and a month in the process of allowing people to enter the camp had become markedly more fair and orderly.
My activities in the camp centered on clothing distribution, a process that involved each camp resident receiving 2 sets of clothes during their stay. A set of clothes included: 1 short sleeved t-shirt, 1 long-sleeved t-shirt/shirt, 1 jumper, 1 pair of trousers, 1 pair of socks, a pair of pants and then depending on availability, a hat, pair of gloves and a scarf.
Those without a good coat or shoes were also entitled to replacements however this was where things began to get tricky. Shoes in particular became a key point of contention, most people wanting a new pair whether or not they already owned some – as one man angrily pointed out, we (the distributors) all have more than one pair of shoes, why shouldn’t he? Despite wholeheartedly agreeing with this sentiment, the fact of the matter was we simply didn’t have enough shoes for everyone and this remained an issue for the entire time I worked there.