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Calais in the time of Coronavirus: Stories from the front line of the refugee crisis

 

Aneta Kawecka is a Polish-born ethical fashion stylist now based in Paris, France. She is a wonderful human being I am proud to call a friend. 

Aneta has just returned from her fourth stint volunteering with the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. This time, Coronavirus cut short her volunteering. We were talking about the horrors she has seen first-hand, and her fears for those refugees living with already-weakened immune systems. 

At a time when the world is busy panicking and closing borders, it’s easy to forget those forced to flee their homes who are now at even more risk due to the horrendous conditions in which they live.

Aneta’s words about what she’s seen on the front line of the refugee crisis are powerful.

Her story, and those of the people she has been helping to feed, deserve to be shared. 

What led you to volunteer with the camps in Calais? 

I grew up in Poland, a country with a difficult history. I remember very well learning about the Holocaust and especially the book “Medallions” by Zofia Nalkowska. She begins her work with the words “People dealt this fate to people”.

In my opinion, there is no difference between sending people to die in the gas chamber and refusing to help people fleeing their home countries due to war. I believe that the refugee crisis not only in Calais but everywhere in Europe is a new Holocaust. I remember the history class where I learned about the liquidation of the ghetto, and people dancing next to it while it happened. For me, turning your head away from this crisis is equally morally wrong and future generations will judge us for it.

I have the privilege that I do not have a 9 to 5 job, so during my slower times, I have time to go and help. I do not have any special motivation; I simply believe that in 2020 people should not freeze to death, kill and harm themselves from desperation or go hungry. I believe that if this is happening in front of my eyes, then I need to do something. For me, it is that simple.

Tell me about the first time you volunteered in Calais.

Last winter, I Googled how to help refugees, and found Refugee Community Kitchen (RCK). I registered on their website, booked the train to Calais and left. I have met people from different countries, although the majority are British and French.

RCK is a professional kitchen that serves over 2000 hot meals with dignity every day. During winter-time, there is also Woodyard, which provides wood to keep people warm, and there are legal and medical NGOs. Yet it is not enough.

I work in the kitchen, preparing food for distribution. I don’t cook at home, but chopping vegetables or washing and drying dishes does not require any skills.

How does the situation in Calais compare to what you expected?

Before I went to Calais, I assumed that refugees’ living situation must be terrible, and was sad to find it worse than I imagined.

The official refugee camp “The Jungle” was destroyed by French Police a few years ago. But there are still unofficial camps – the two main ones are in Dunkerque, and the bigger one is in Calais.

People are living in terrible conditions. While there is a Women’s Center that provides accommodation to women and children, most men do not have shelter. It is especially hard during winter-time, when many people get hypothermia because the temperature gets so low. There are also a few women and children living on the street and unaccompanied minors.

Another problem is the brutality of the French Police. They use several methods, the cruellest being the “evacuations”. They show up suddenly and confiscate tents and personal belongings of the refugees. Another common practice is the French Police forcing people to get on buses, and then driving them for several hours without telling them where they are going. They then leave them either in other parts of France or on the other side of Calais. The reason they do it is to prevent a more permanent form of settlement and to cause psychological distress.

Unfortunately, there have been suicides and self-harming. Many people live with severe mental problems linked to trauma.

When I work with RCK, we do not ask personal questions, as we are on the field just for a while, and we don’t want to re-traumatize people. But there are some conversations. Many of the refugees try to connect with families in the UK and made an incredibly long journey to make it as far as Calais. I have heard success stories of people who made it to the UK, but many stories of people who gave up and committed suicide. Every day refugees risk their lives trying to catch lorries to the channel, and many are being harmed.

The one story that I remember is of a guy who tried to swim through the channel during the winter-time. He tried several times. I don’t know if he made it to the UK.

The other story that sticks with me is that during the hurricane when they were serving people food, a dad asked if they had any oranges for his child. Unfortunately, they had only bananas. Then the child offered the volunteers the banana that they gave him the previous day, as a way of saying thank you.

I strongly recommend the Conversations From Calais website for more stories, but be warned that it may be quite triggering.

What have your trips to Calais left you feeling?

It’s a variety of feelings: sadness, hopelessness, and anger are the strongest ones. My host, an older gentleman and fellow volunteer, told me that he remembers this situation from the 1980s. So I am sad and angry that nothing has changed.

I am also angry that my taxes are financing the police brutality in the unofficial camps.

As a Polish girl, I am also extremely sad when I hear terrible racist comments about the refugees from fellow Poles. After all, there are so many of us in France and the UK. Most of us (including me) came here as economic migrants and have tried to create better lives for ourselves, exactly like the refugees want to do. The only difference between them and us is the EU ID card. Also,

it is not a secret that many of us use or have used the generous social benefit system in our new countries of residence.

As a fashion influencer, I am also tired of getting so much hate on social media, whenever I mention the refugee crisis. But I have developed a thick skin by now. I have been called names and ridiculed so many times that I do not care anymore.

On the other hand, inside the RCK is like a different world. I would describe the atmosphere there as the world that I would like to live in; where there is no racism, sexism, homophobia, ageism, ableism nor all the other terrible things that are wrong in this world. I am also impressed that people who have 8 to 5 jobs will sacrifice their weekends and holiday time to come and help. I am amazed by how well it works, as only a few people are there for a long time. We depend mostly on people who come for a short time.

What has shocked you the most about the situation in Calais?

I think the brutality of the Police was the hardest to swallow. Also, seeing 2000 people hungry and desperate for food is not something you forget quickly. It’s horrible to watch children leaving and heading into the forest, wondering if they’ll make it.

The same people who do not give a fuck about the refugee crisis are now fighting over toilet paper. Europe has closed its borders to the people who fled their countries due to war, hunger and violence. Now the entire world is closing borders to us due to the virus. Maybe as Europeans, we will learn something from this situation, like basic empathy, for example. 

Has anything changed over the time you’ve been volunteering?

Yes, to be honest, I am terrified of the Coronavirus crisis. New people keep coming every day, and believe me; they are amongst the strongest people in the world. If they have made it this far, closing the borders won’t stop them. And many of the migrants have compromised immune systems. If the virus starts spreading there, it will be a disaster – not only in Calais but also in the other camps. RCK imposes stringent hygiene standards, but there is a massive group of people with compromised immune systems living in the forest. It is impossible to control.

How has this experience changed you?

I have never wanted to be rich, and our materialistic culture disgusts me. But now I am concentrating on building my business to be able to donate to NGOs helping refugees on the ground.

What would you like people to remember as a result of reading your story?

That this is is the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. That history will judge us. That future generations will ask “How could they be so cruel and do nothing?”.

What do you think needs to happen to make things better for the people in the camps? How can people help?

I think voting for politicians who commit to ending this crisis, campaigning online and donating money or time to volunteer can all help.

Please donate to RCK here.

There is also a recipe Calendar for sale – buying one finances 16 hot meals.

The fashion line Choose Love donates 100% of profits to the Help Refugee NGO.

If you want to educate yourself about the refugee crisis, I recommend Refugee Info Bus, who do a great job.

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