Alongside the Migrant Camps of Calais

This past April I spent a few weeks volunteering with the Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK) in Calais, France to serve hot foods to the displaced migrants arriving in Northern France. 

On the other side of the Channel in wake of the recent increasing UK hostilities towards refugees, it definitely was a raw revelation of the UK’s gaping hole in humanitarianism.

My arrival to Calais consisted of a groggy succession of trains and buses (and then trains and buses), in which I stepped off into the warehouse district of the port city. 

On the second leg of my journey I noticed a distinct temperature change among our hosts. From English countryside to strict security and border checks as we entered Dover, the number of police officers persisted into Calais, especially around that industrial district where both migrants and we volunteers inhabited. 

Groups of police sat in their vans alongside the road and followed migrants around in intimidation. It was immediately unnerving. I understood I had entered a poignant site

of crisis and hostility in modern history like no other.

I walked into the warehouse, in which organizations of all types supporting the refugees in Calais base themselves, to a charming amalgamation of mismatched chairs in the outdoor common area. Colorful clothes, wacky hair, unshaven arms, food being constantly passed around with big smiles, it felt like I had walked into a wonderful hippie-socialist commune. 

People came in from all walks of life: those who had just quit jobs happy to stay- for the time being- indefinitely, the ‘serial offenders’ who continue to return to help, and people who have come from their 9-5s to work at the end of the week.

A day in the life in the kitchen with RCK consisted of a 9am start.  We usually began with a small mountain of washing up in the very fashionable full body waterproof apron, rubber glove, and plastic sleeve getup. As the funky disco music is queued and the mains chefs, also all volunteers, begin blooming the spices for the day’s stew or curry in the gigantic pots along the sides, they waft the kitchen with noise and fragrant smells. 

From then till the afternoon, we prepped and participated in whatever tasks were on the menu: from tens of kilos of onion chopping (lots of tears shed) to date cake making, and just very sweet exchanges of conversation with neighbouring choppers who have come from all walks of life.

The RCK kitchen was run with amazing openness and care: ‘serving with dignity’ was our way of providing for the people in camps. There was absolutely no space for any sort of white saviorism or patronization and dehumanisation.

In the afternoons, groups of us would go on distributions and bring the cooked foods to the migrant camps. 

I remember very clearly the first day I had gone on distribution, in Grand-Synthe, because there had been an unusually large surge of people arriving the previous day that we had run out of food to give, and it had been distressing, having to turn away over 100 people. 

We went in with perhaps a bit of concern, and vats and vats of extra food. 

As we set up our dates, rice, and curry, people began to trickle in from their tents just about out of sight. It was a sunny and calm distribution, to our relief, and just steady spooning and sometimes short lighthearted conversations with the migrants before they set out to have their meals in clumps. 

As we distributed, we saw streams and streams of families with bags heading north: towards the sea. 

They would be getting ready to cross the English Channel that evening. 

Every now and then, a man we would be serving would tell us that he was going to cross the Channel that evening- and wished them good luck. 

At the end of the day, that was very much what the migrants were in Calais for: to make it over to the UK and seek asylum.

I couldn’t help worrying for them as I wished them luck, though. The journey would be cold, long, and extremely dangerous. Itís horrible to think that this is how things have to be done, the hostility shown by the United Kingdom pushing people to risk their lives is racist and atrocious.

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Allison Ko

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May 2022
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