Written by Valerie, Stade Rennais supporter
As I go back to my warm house and my comfortable life after a weekend spent in Calais and Dunkerque refugee camps, I can’t shake off the thought that the people I saw and met are still there. I knew what to expect, so nothing surprised me in the camps; not the lack of facilities, not the mud and certainly not the desperation. But the ‘normality’ of it brings much sadness. However long they last, these squalid conditions are currently the norm for residents.
Don’t be fooled by the sprouts of capitalism that have emerged in Calais in the form of little wooden shops, nor by the jolly “Welcome to the City” sign at the entrance. Beyond this is a sea of tents barely good enough for an English summer, let alone for a cold and rainy winter. Don’t be fooled either by the smiles and the friendly greetings. Everyone here is desperate, everyone is hoping for something better. You wait, you hope. And in the meantime you live here as best as you can.
I’m an ordinary 43-year-old French woman living in London. I can’t say that I have any solution to offer, and the problem is much too complex for me to delve into the how and the why. So I choose not to think about it; I choose to concentrate on the now. Whatever the reason, whatever the circumstances, the fact is that people are in the camps now, living in this desperate ‘norm’ they have been forced into. So if I could do something to help, I thought I should. Since December, I’ve been baking for friends and family to raise money to help feed the people in the camps. All the proceeds go to ‘Kitchen in Calais‘, a small group of volunteers cooking much-needed meals for the refugees every day.
With the support of my friends and family, my recent collection allowed me to buy 80kg of lentils, 20kg of chicken, 100 cucumbers, 4kg of spices, 1,000 serving plates and some bottled gas. That might not sound like much, but it was enough for a meal for a thousand residents. If four people could buy a thousand meals every day…
Started a few months ago in a small caravan turned food van, Kitchen in Calais has slowly grown and now prepares more than a thousand servings a day, as well as countless cups of tea. At the heart of this formidable team is Sofinee, one of the most upbeat people I have ever met. Her infectious laugh makes you want to smile whatever the circumstances. But don’t stop peeling those potatoes as Sofinee has no time for slackers. She rules her kitchen with a no-nonsense attitude focused on one thing only: delivering the daily meal that residents of the camp have come to rely on. She is all too aware of the fact that she can’t cater for all of them, and that saddens her. She wonders how long this situation will last, how long she will be able to help and what will become of the camp and its residents. But for now, she keeps cooking.
It was my love of everything culinary that drew me to Sofinee and her kitchen. While cooking is not my job, I am a bit obsessed with it. I love nothing more than spending time in my kitchen making pastry the way my granny taught me or burning my fingers on caramel. So not only is my charity collection very easy to run, it also allows me to do something I love for a good cause. I would urge you to think of any hobby of yours that you might be able to turn into a not-for-profit money making scheme. No help is too small, and your project doesn’t need to stretch your abilities.
Back in Dunkerque, the norm is ankle-deep mud. The norm is for helpers to have to smuggle into the camp any item that the police prohibits, like small gas canisters that will give a family a hot meal that evening. The norm is going hungry if you have no cooking equipment, cold and wet if you have no roof. On the first evening I met two men who had just arrived, who hadn’t slept for four days and who were barely managing to stand up while trying to put up a tent that they did not understand.
They didn’t even have a plastic sheet to put on the ground.
And then there is the dirt. Before leaving, the team I was involved with organised a litter picking mission, a much-needed effort since the residents do not have any of the facilities they would need to keep the place clean.
We went from tent to tent picking up the litter that was inevitably surrounding residents’ ‘homes’, from dirty nappies to discarded packaging and unsuitable clothing. Rats were running away as we rummaged through piles of rubbish. “We’re used to them now”, said two women who peeked out of their tents as we were clearing around it. I guess they are still there.
Follow @Dulwich2Dunkirk on Twitter
Find out more about how we help residents in the camps