I’ve seen the refugees in France on my phone, in the newspaper on the tube, on the telly. Without a nudge from the news or social media, it's shameful how quickly you can momentarily push it all to the back of your mind. Yet to suggest that a slump in reports indicates that life across the Channel is getting better is wishful thinking. Roughly 6,123 people from over twenty different nationalities continue to live in a deteriorating situation in the remnants of the 'jungle', bearing in mind that this is within the context of a migration crisis across Europe. No matter the amount of donations, conversations, reposts or Instagram stories we have or make, practically, geography keeps it all at a comfortable arms length, unless you go there yourself.
A couple of weeks ago I volunteered with five others at the Refugee Community Kitchen for three days in a warehouse in Calais. RCK have been around since 2015, dedicated to helping those living in the refugee camps in Europe. They’re cooking every day of the week, including Christmas. Two hours to Calais in the car and you’re there, I'll be going back next week with a friend for five days. Chopping veg and washing pans, everyone's come to do their bit, each person is there because they want to be. One evening I was able to go on distribution, serving meals. Nervous not knowing what to expect, the men and boys I met were nothing but funny, sweet and calm, despite their situation. They said little but were up for having a laugh, teasing one another and us. The total opposite to the atmosphere created by a constantly antagonistic police presence.
One day we saw a police van stop by the motorway, men getting out in riot vests ready to go tear gassing. On another, police with battons walking nearby to some of the younger men playing football in the grass. Known for blocking off roads to prevent organisations like RCK taking food directly to the refugees and for cutting up tents (the only thing close to a home the refugees have) they want to make life more challenging than it already is. They less respond to particular ‘situations’, than go out to create them, rotated every two weeks to prevent any sort of humane connection being made to people who have been shoved to the edges of society.
Meeting these men and boys, and crucially the other volunteers, including many who have been with RCK for a couple of years, gave me both a confidence in humanity and an immense sense of disappointment and distrust in it when I returned to London. I didn't think I'd had as difficult an experience I expected until getting home, as in comparison to long-term volunteers I had hardly scraped the surface in seeing the conditions of the camps. Yet home immediately felt like a bubble and Calais an overwhelming reality. It's very strange to see in the space of a couple of hours how 'normal' life can continue in an utterly different way.
RCK runs kitchens in Calais and London.