It is very difficult to start this section – it feels almost impossible to describe and sum up my time working in Calais into a neat little blog post. It wasn’t a neat or little experience. It was one of the most intense and engaging experiences of my life to date.
I wish I could write in great detail about all the organisations collaborating at the Calais warehouse. There are many and they are all brilliant at what they do. However, during our time in Calais, Haydn and I, were mainly working for RCK (Refugee Community Kitchen). This is the organisation that feeds all the displaced people in Calais, in different locations, around the clock, every single day without fail. While I was working at the warehouse the number of daily meals being prepared and distributed rose from 1,300 to 2000.
We initially thought we would stay at the warehouse for one week, we ended up staying for one month and a half.
But on my first day at the warehouse I was clueless to this and just walked up to the food preparation tables where the music was thumping and offered my hands up to the work.
An hour into onions and it was the conversations across the tables that took my mind away from systematic cutting and peeling and onto what a mind-alteringly incredible place this was. Every person that I spoke to had an openess and a compassion about them that delighted and enchanted me. Here we were, all these strangers doing a fairly mundane task and everyone wanted to find out about the person next to them with the same curiosity, humbleness and generosity of spirit. It sounds so simple but the quality of the human beings at that warehouse in Calais is really something else. And on my first day at the prep table, I had only seen the tip of the iceberg.
I couldn’t help looking up from my onions to the kitchen area, where a line of vast stainless steel pots sat bubbling away on top of burners. The chefs seemed to be stirring what was in the pots with huge metal paddles, a metre long or more. I saw people soaking and then washing huge quantities of rice in the corner. They looked like they were sieving for precious metals with huge sieves to strain the liquid away. But I would soon learn it was each grain of rice that was precious – this was the key – the daily staple. The special saving grain.
Those in the kitchen seemed to be the people who knew what they were doing. The longterm volunteers who knew the true grit of this fight to feed those in need. It was they who were the integral cogs in the wonderous RCK machine. I could see the strain and dedication and enormous love it took, to keep this process running everyday, revolving and turning out the enormous daily quantities of delicious, nutritious food.
It wasn’t too long before me and Haydn were the inexperienced cogs in the kitchen. But we learnt as quickly as we could and after a week or two of shadowing the long-termers we were making rice. From working out vast quantities, to soaking, to washing, to choosing and tempering huge amounts of wonderful spices in giant pans, getting timings and temperatures right, fluffing the rice with huge plastic paddles and dishing the steaming hot rice with plastic plates into industrial gastros for distribution. This was and is done by one or two longer term volunteers – twice a day – every day. And that’s just the rice! There is also a vast amount of delicious curry and salad to be prepared and distributed every day.
Just to give you an idea, while we were there, 200kg of rice was being cooked and distributed everyday. That’s 1400kg every week. And 6,000kg every month. That means that just while Haydn and I were at the warehouse, give or take a few grains, 9,000kg of rice was cooked and distributed.
RCK is a constant production line, all day, everyday. In the morning you cook for that days lunch and prepare for the evening meal and in the afternoon you’re preparing food for the following day. Round and round the cycle goes. So many loving hands needed to keep the constant process going.
The love seems to burn even stronger and brighter when resistance is offered and the most severe resistance to RCK’s enormous efforts comes from the CRS (Compagnies Republicaines de Securite), or for anyone who hasn’t encountered them (lucky you); privately hired intimidation services. The CRS in Calais are funded by the UK. Go figure.
While we were in Calais, at a normal lunchtime distribution on a scorching hot day, the CRS, armed with guns, tear gas and pepper spray, physically stopped us (hippies in aprons) from giving out either food or water to homeless people who had experienced some of the worst that the world can throw at anyone. Even writing this sentence now baffles me. Read it again.
There came a point after about one month working for RCK where I felt I wanted to explore other areas of the warehouse and try to offer some of my other skills to the place. I did a big mural on some wooden clothes hoppers that a friend and I had built. I helped the incredible every-job handyman with some basic carpentry and his eternal attempts to keep rodents out of the stored food. I sorted clothes and blankets and met the wonderful donations warehouse fairies. Every new job brought with it a new set of connections, smiles and stories with fantastic, committed, selfless people.
All of these different experiences had huge highs and lows and gradually became intensely tiring, day after day. But it’s the people at the warehouse that keep you coming back again and again. I came to the warehouse completely naive, thinking I was setting off on a big cycle to raise money for a grass-roots charity that had a warehouse in Calais. When leaving, I had to tear myself away from that warehouse and the people there, streaming with uncontrollable tears. I had fallen so in love with a new family of people who had filled a crevasse in my experience of the world. A crevasse I hadn’t known was there. I had met a family of people who loved the world and all that was in it just as much as I did. People who had enough massive love and dedication in themselves to offer something completely selfless and enormous, day in – day out. I had always thought that perhaps I didn’t have one, but here, I had found my tribe.
Please donate to RCK and help them to keep doing the incredible work they do everyday – refugeecommunitykitchen.com/donate-money/