Towards the end of this month (24-26 November), 25 ordinary people will be crossing the channel for a Calais Light weekend to support charities working with refugees living in dreadful conditions in France. They will do a variety of practical activities, such as sorting donated clothes, helping prepare food, cutting hair, befriending and talking to refugees, and distributing supplies. This will be the 25th time a volunteer convoy has been organised by Mary Stretch, who founded the charity over seven years ago.
“We’ve asked each volunteer for this milestone trip to ask family, friends and colleagues to sponsor them with donations via GoFundMe on the Calais Light website,” she says. “Alongside the convoys, we help, befriend and fund refugees here in the UK and organise mass brand deals for clothing for refugees in bridging hotels. It all takes cash and effort – and we really need people to show their faith in this work.”
You can find out more about Calais Light’s developing work here: Could you befriend refugees starting a new life? – Brentwood Diocese (dioceseofbrentwood.net) and read a first-hand account of a convoy below.
If you would like to donate to the charity, please go to www.calais.light.com
Commentary from Calais
Danbury and South Woodham Ferrers parishioners Margaret Godfrey and Francis Hunter talk about their trip to support Calais refugees earlier this year, which they found safe, fulfilling but desperately sad.
After an appeal for volunteers in our parish newsletter, with some trepidation, we signed up to a three-day Calais Light convoy to support charities working with refugees and migrants in France. Mary Stretch, the lynchpin of Calais Light, welcomed us on board and organised the ferry and accommodation. Very soon, we found ourselves ensconced in the Calais youth hostel close to the beach and within easy walking distance of the town.
We were part of a very diverse group from 20 to 75 years old, from origins as far-flung as Colombia, Pakistan, India, Thailand and Ghana, and having travelled on the day from as far as Cornwall, Wolverhampton, Newcastle upon Tyne, Lincoln and Doncaster as well of course from Essex. Possibly 20 out of 26 were on their first convoy, including us. What we had in common and what bonded the group so strongly was a desire to make a difference, albeit small, to fellow human beings in dire need of help.
We spent Saturday morning at the warehouse base of a charity called Care4Calais, (care4calais.org) filled to the rafters with cartons of assorted clothing, camping and cooking equipment, sleeping bags and tents. There we sorted donated kit and loaded the two vans for the afternoon. After lunch, we headed to a road spur in Calais which served as a distribution point for the rough sleeping refugees and migrants in that area. There, perhaps 200 young men were waiting for us.
We set up three generators to power banks of sockets for phones (a crucial need so they could communicate) and hair clippers, laid out spaces for bike repairs, English lessons, and board games, whilst water, tea and coffee were served, all with smiles from servers and recipients alike. Games of football and volleyball ensued whilst cricket kit newly donated by Essex County Cricket Club was put to use. During the course of the hot afternoon, we helped distribute a choice of jeans or joggers.
At five we packed up, deeply moved and impressed by the cheerfulness, camaraderie and mutual support for one another of all those we met despite all their hardships, experiences and diversity of cultures and backgrounds. And we sadly reflected on the plight of victims of war, famine, and prejudice – at another time, we ourselves, our forebears or those who come after us could be in their shoes.
The routine on Sunday was the same. In the morning, we sorted tarpaulins and backpacks, and loaded the van for afternoon distribution. Then we repackaged undistributed jeans and joggers from the previous day.
In the afternoon we went to a site in Dunkirk adjacent to an area of woodland where up to 500 people including women and children were living and sleeping. After set up, our task was to hand out advice leaflets in eight different languages including Arabic, Kurdish and Urdu and also to litter pick and clean up, to minimise the risk of infection and disease as well as to improve the environment for those living rough. This is a key role of Charitable Roots, another charity that we were supporting on this site which also supplies drinking water and hot showers.
After packing up, we headed back to Calais for the 6pm ferry and were back in Little Baddow by 8.30pm, after a very successful weekend, making new friends whilst also making a difference. Apart from being immensely fulfilling, at no point did we feel threatened or unsafe, the trip being wonderfully well organised by Calais Light. We’ll be back!!
Sadly, we have since heard that the site in Dunkirk has been “trashed” by the French police inflicting more misery upon the people living there. To quote from one of the volunteers on hearing of this, “Utterly heartbreaking. Where is the humanity? I can’t stop thinking of the little girl who we were teaching the names of animals to, and the young man newly arrived there who hadn’t yet found anyone to befriend him, and a Sri Lankan man who is a farmer and wants to come to the UK and work on a farm.”
The ambition of Calais Light goes beyond the organisation of convoys. Mary has been very successful in tapping into her impressive contact list to get container loads of branded clothing and toiletries for the migrants. She is hugely passionate about basic human rights and, in Calais Light, she has created an organisation focussed on aiding front line charities, making it as easy as possible for people like us to do our small bit. Please consider supporting Calais Light, we don’t think you would regret it.