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Volunteering with Calais Light and Care4Calais

With some trepidation, and together with twenty-five other volunteers, I signed up for a three-day convoy with Calais Light to support charities working with refugees and migrants in France.

The Convoys give ‘ordinary people’ like me the chance to do something practical and concrete to help displaced people stay alive and offer them aid and comfort, while the politicians debate and/or ignore the terrible human repercussions of this worldwide humanitarian refugee crisis. I jumped at the opportunity, and I am a better person for the experience!

Mary Stretch, the lynchpin of Calais Light, welcomed us on board and organised everything: car sharing, the ferry crossing, accommodation, and meals!

We stayed in a youth hostel right next to a beautiful sandy beach and within walking distance of the town. Our group was very diverse, with men and women ranging in age from 20 to 75, who were from around the world, including Columbia, Thailand, Pakistan, India, Nigeria, Ghana, and the UK. On the Friday, volunteers showed their true grit and determination to take part, having travelled from Cornwall, Wolverhampton, Newcastle upon Tyne, Lincoln, and Doncaster to arrive at the meeting point in Shenfield by 9.30 a.m.

Most of us were newbies, but what we all had in common was a desire to make a small difference to fellow human beings in dire need of help and offer some tender loving care.

We spent Saturday morning at the warehouse base of a charity called Care4Calais. It was filled to the rafters with large boxes of assorted clothing for adults and children, camping and cooking equipment, sleeping bags, and tents. We were each given tasks, which included sorting out donated kit, preparing services for fieldwork in the afternoon, and loading the vans. After another bonding session over lunch, we headed to a road spur in Calais, which served as a distribution point for the rough-sleeping refugees and migrants in the area. About 200 young men were waiting for us, and they all knew the drill!

We set up three generators to power banks of sockets for phones over 20 points, and I have never seen anything like it. This is a crucial service that enables them to communicate with their loved ones, lawyers, social workers, charities, etc. They played music while they charged their phones, and it made such a difference. We laid out spaces for bike repairs, English lessons, and board games. Tea and coffee were served, and there were smiles all around. The cricket kit, donated by Essex County Cricket Club, was put to good use. Others played football and volleyball. We were told that there is usually a distribution of toiletries, provisions, or some item of clothing. On that hot, sunny afternoon, the men had a choice of jeans or joggers, both of which were quite popular.

I was on barber duty (no, I did not cut anyone’s hair, LOL!). We laid out the chairs, clippers, and hair products so the men and young adults could cut or shave each other’s hair and cut their nails. There was a moment that I will never forget and that summed up the whole trip for me. A young man, who could have been around the same age as my youngest son, or younger, was plaiting his own hair and wanted to shave the back and sides. On impulse, I offered to help him plait his hair for him, and another volunteer joined me.

All of a sudden, the mood changed and took on a party atmosphere. Other men and volunteers sauntered over, laughing and joking in their respective languages. I was hot and sweaty, but it was a beautiful day, Afro-beat was blasting, and I couldn’t resist swaying to the music. We both desperately wanted to finish plaiting the young man’s hair before we packed up at 4.30 p.m., and it was a close shave! We did not understand each other’s language, but the look of joy and appreciation on his face when we finished after about an hour and a half was easy for anyone and everyone to read. Doing someone’s hair is rather intimate and personal. I imagine he might have remembered his mom, sister, or girlfriend as we plaited his hair. I kept thinking of my son and was so proud that I could spend a few moments loving someone else’s son like I love mine. I helped another guy comb out his hair (which was knotted and tangled) and did cornrows (which I am not very good at) for someone else. Those few hours were heartwarming and made me incredibly happy.

If you would like to go on a convoy, donate funds, or find out more about Calais Light, please visit their website

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