Sara Allan reflects on her work among migrants in Calais
I first visited the Calais migrant camp in October 2015; and from that day I knew my life would irrevocably change. It was overwhelming to be confronted with thousands of people who were desperate, hopeless, and who had often left tragic circumstances behind. I could never again return to my “normal” existence, working full time in the City, when I saw for myself how many people in the world need our help and love. They still need our help and love.
The Calais Jungle was a remarkable community. Given the context, thousands of Sudanese, Afghans, Eritreans, Syrians, Kurds, and Iraqis managed to live peacefully and respectfully. I tend to draw this analogy: if we were to put 8000 young Man U, Man City, Liverpool, Spurs, Chelsea, Rangers, and Celtic fans in a muddy field for one year with little food, nothing to do, far away from their families and with no hope for a future, what would be the likely outcome?
Religion played an important role in the camp, too. The large Eritrean community built a beautiful church, which was demolished by the authorities. There was an equally lovely mosque, which burned down. Both places were deeply revered by migrants and volunteers alike, and flourished side-by-side in harmony and mutual respect. Built together by volunteers and migrants, they allowed people – often at their most desperate – a time of reflection, prayer, and sanctuary.
The refugee crisis has shown a dark side of humanity. Western rhetoric often demonises those who have suffered the most, and there is a climate of fear. When you come face to face with such hate, at times it hard to find any faith – it can leave you feeling hopeless and helpless.
It can also, however, lead to amazing acts of kindness. I watched a group of English volunteers help re-build the burned-down mosque. I worked with two Syrian teenagers who themselves volunteered every day in one of the kitchens, helping to feed others in the camp. Whenever I was in the camp I was invited into shelters for coffee, “chai”, and a chat. People who had nothing would still share what little they had. Never once did I feel at risk or in any sort of danger, and at times the atmosphere was magical.
Volunteering in any capacity can be hugely rewarding and educational. In learning the sufferings of others, you learn more about who you are and what you want your relationship to be with the world and with your neighbours. And whatever your religions or cultural background, I can guarantee that for those wanting to explore their faith further, there is no better place to do it than in a refugee camp. While the Calais Jungle has gone, there are still 60 million displaced people in the world. The migration crisis is not going away: we can either ignore it, or take action.
Sara Allan works in the humanitarian sector.