Reflections on donating and volunteering in the Calais Jungle refugee camp

5 min readSep 16, 2016
Loading up the car

Over 9,000 people live in the Calais Jungle. Conditions are desperate, and there is a shortage of food. I read this and wanted to help.

To understand the situation better, I decided to go to Calais. Last week I did some planning, raised some money via a post on Facebook, and did a big food shop. On Monday I drove to Calais with my friend Sylvie to deliver the food and volunteer for the day.

Here are some reflections on my experience.

1. Figuring out how to help is tricky

There are loads of grassroots organisations in Calais supporting refugees. It’s hard to navigate everything online and figure out how to help.

I went through Help Refugees to organise the drop. I completed their Donation Form, stating my arrival time and what I planned to drop off. They advise people to come in the week, as it gets crazy on the weekend. They also publish a list of items needed. This helped me prioritise my shopping.

2. It’s hard spending other people’s money

Friends trusted me with their contributions, so I felt a responsibility to spend wisely. I checked costs. Surprisingly, Tesco turned out to be the best value for my shopping list, beating wholesalers such as Costco and Makro.

To make it trickier, Help Refugees have guidelines. Large quantities of fewer items are better than small quantities of many items. They prefer products in 1kg bags (rice, sugar etc) and 1L cartons (long-life milk). They want cans with ring pulls, which rules out some products.

Thank you to all my friends who contributed. We raised £850 but I only managed to spend £607 due to limited space in the car. I plan to go again and do another food drop, so I’ll spend the rest then. For those interested, here’s what I bought:

  • 142 cartons of long-life milk (1L each)
  • 47kg of rice
  • 25kg of sugar
  • 252 tins of tomatoes
  • 12,000 tea bags
  • 60 boxes of grapes (500g each)
  • 60 packs of nectarines (4 or 5 in each pack)

The volunteers were extremely grateful for the food, especially for the fresh fruit. Fresh fruit and veg is top of the list under food items, so I’m thinking next time I’ll concentrate on that. I’ve since heard that New Covent Garden Market (open 12 to 10am) is the place to go for cheap fruit and veg.

The volunteers notice board

3. Volunteers are wonderful and amazing

The volunteers I met were a mixed bunch. Most were students. Some were retired. A few people took holiday from work so they could volunteer.

People gave different reasons for volunteering. Some want new experiences. Some want to meet new people. Some feel ignorant about what’s going on in Calais and want to see things for themselves. Everyone out there wanted to help others. Compassion levels are off the scale.

All the volunteers were wonderful people. Collectively, they do amazing work. It’s hard not to feel inspired by these guys.

Welcome to the Calais Woodyard

4. Wood has immense value in a refugee camp

New volunteers get a quick induction and a morning briefing. Then they are asked where they want to help. My calling was the Calais Woodyard. In the morning I chopped chunks of wood into firewood. In the afternoon I helped distribute the firewood in the camp.

I learned that wood is immensely valuable in a refugee camp. Fire offers people the freedom and independence to cook what they want, when they want. It also creates a focal point for groups to gather and socialise around, doing wonders for everyone’s mental state.

The volunteers in the woodyard work tirelessly. As the nights draw in, firewood will become even more essential. In case anyone is interested, you can donate directly to the Calais Woodyard to help them achieve their mission of providing free firewood to the refugees in Calais.

5. There are many problems to be solved

I went to Calais for two reason. One was to drop off some food. The other was to go and see things for myself, so I could see how I could be most useful. There are problems of all shapes and size. Here are a few.

Small problem

Refugees come to collect their wood from the back of the van. If they don’t bring a bag when collecting their wood, they can’t take their wood away. Because of language barriers, trying to communicate this creates confusion, slowing down the whole distribution process. A simple solution might be to have a sign on the door of the van that says “No Bag, No Wood” either as a graphic or in a few relevant languages.

Medium problem

I mentioned this already. Using the web to figure out how you can help in Calais is difficult. Someone has created Calaid-ipedia, a site which contains loads of resources. It’s useful, but it could be more user friendly. I’ll see how I can help.

Big problem

One big problem is sustainability. There is so much to do for so few volunteers. Chopping wood, distributing wood, preparing food, sorting through donations, pitching tents, mending the camp, and so much more. While I chopped wood, I wondered if the refugees could help with various jobs. 90% of the them are strong young men with nothing to do, often quite bored. Is it possible to get them involved? It’s something to explore.

My trip was only a day but well worth the effort. It was insightful, but not nearly enough, so I plan to go back for a little longer and implement some ideas. I’d urge others to go. People with different skills will find different problems to solve.

Thanks again to everyone who contributed.