Through the Looking Glass - My Experience Volunteering in Calais and Dunkirk

Angeli Jeyarajah is a committee member of Herne Hill Welcomes Refugees. In her role as Secretary, Angeli has played a central role in the group’s progress towards resettling a refugee family in her neighbourhood. This article describes her recent experience volunteering to help refugees in France.


I have this recurring dream in which I end up somewhere and don’t know how to get home. Initially it’s not distressing, rather everything seems vaguely familiar, but as dream-time ticks on I become more aware of being trapped in a kind of limbo, existing but also keenly aware that I have no way of leaving.


I recently spent a month volunteering with the Refugee Women’s Centre, a voluntary organisation supporting, women, families and minors in and around Grand-Synthe, Dunkirk and Calais. For many of the people we worked with, this sense of disorientation and of being far removed from the familiarity of home was a constant reality. One father could barely stand the limbo any longer, months of movement and of waiting. At least a bomb in Iraq would kill him instantly he said, rather than this painstakingly drawn out uncertainty. He had found himself in a place that looked like Europe but in its small regard for human life and dignity, didn’t quite seem to be.


Europe wasn’t what they thought it would be, more than one person said to me. I listened to stories of a mother and her children being detained, and when finally released being dropped by the police miles away from the nearest train station; police in riot gear threatening tear gas after a minor scuffle at a food distribution; tents cleared regularly and aggressively. The French government has been proactive to some degree, opening shelters over the winter months, and in March distributing 700 meals a day to migrants in Calais. But as one 17-year old boy from Eritrea put it: “the government gives us food with one hand, and takes our tents with the other”. Despite sporadic assistance, the reality remains somewhat dystopian.


As part of a small team of around 7 incredible volunteers from France and the UK, we attempted to make the lives of women and their families a little bit easier in amongst this otherwise chaotic situation. Our days normally began with a drive to the warehouse, home to piles of clothes for women, men and children, as well as backpacks, tents, cooking utensils, soap and other basic items. We would ask families what they needed and gather things for those we would be seeing.


Most days we would then head to a gymnasium in Grande Synthe, well past its early 90s heyday and where around 200 people were being sheltered. The gym was due to close on April 1st but has thankfully stayed open, however fewer people are now allowed to stay with new arrivals forced to sleep outside. When I was there in February and March, the gym was home to more than 20 families, each fashioning an enclosure made of camp beds propped on their sides, blankets laid out on the floor to make a quasi-homely space. Most families I met were from Iraqi Kurdistan, amongst them a former PE teacher, trained beauticians and a chef who showed me a picture of his family on his phone, meat skewers on a BBQ and hazy sunlight – a vision of normality from before things had become too dangerous.


We would distribute items gathered from the warehouse and then do activities with the children, somehow muddling through language barriers to make yarn pom poms and multicoloured pasta necklaces, or playing games outside. We also spent time with the women, feeling tense muscles relax as we gave hand massages and attempting to neatly paint nails under the watchful eye of a lady who used to own a beauty salon back in Kurdistan.


It was remarkable how much normality could be found in such an extreme situation. Cups of sugary tea were insistently handed out despite my polite protestations; children would come up to me to show me their wobbly artwork, beaming as I taped their latest masterpiece to the wall.


Pictures of red brick houses and little Union Jacks, and of bodies submerged in blue in an otherwise beautiful drawing of the sea were a swift reminder of where we were. Both arts and crafts and hiding in the back of lorries in an attempt to reach the UK could be two parts of the same day for these kids.


In France I was embarrassed to find myself yearning for the comforting glow of the local supermarket. Shower gel and instant coffee, organic muesli and cat litter. Special offers, discounts. Cash or contactless? Working with refugees felt like stepping through the looking glass, and into a parallel world. What should be a distorted dreamscape is in reality just over the water, a little over an hour away from London on the train.


Many again now face the prospect of sleeping outside whilst having to deal with aggressive police treatment and a broader political situation that seems to hope that the situation will somehow go away. There are at least 1,100 refugees in Dunkirk and Calais from countries spanning Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Pakistan. The Refugee Women’s Centre continues to do fantastic work supporting them - you can support them with a donation here or buy much needed items directly via their Amazon Wish List here.


Further useful links:


Refugee Women’s Centre:

Help Refugees:

Safe Passage: