At the beginning of March I had the opportunity to be part of a team of volunteers visiting The Jungle in Calais – made up of people from Shaftesbury, Sparkford, Skipton and beyond! Since October last year several teams, including members of Father’s House, have travelled to Calais to volunteer amongst the growing numbers seeking refuge in Europe. They have sorted and packed clothing, made up food parcels, built shelters and been a smiling face and a comforting arm.
I’m quite a ‘facts & figures’ type of person and so I find statistics really interesting and helpful, and for me it was important to not only by led by compassion and the Holy Spirit, but also to understand some of the reasons why we need to help;
- Although the ‘Jungle’ has been in existence, in one form or another, for over 10 years, recently the numbers have swelled to around 6000! This figure rose from an estimated 1300 in September 2014 to 2500 in December 2014 and has continued to rise since.
- Since the ‘Arab Uprising’ in 2010 there has been unrest and civil war in many countries
- In 2013 Syria overtook Afghanistan as the top country for asylum seekers, others include Somalia, Sudan, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Egypt, Iraq and Iran
- A quarter of the Syrian population (6.5 million) have now been displaced
- Lawless conditions across the Middle East and North Africa have allowed the people smuggling business to go unchecked.
Conditions inside Syria alone are unbearable for those living there; 12 million people are in need of aid to stay alive; 8 million have been forced from their homes, seeking refuge in camps or abandoned buildings; 4.8 million Syrians are in places that are hard to reach; including 241,000 who are trapped in besieged areas, cut off from humanitarian aid and unable to escape; more than 250,000 have lost their lives, 55,000 of those in 2015 – the fifth year of the conflict; many of those deaths in unspeakably brutal ways.
(Against this backdrop it is little wonder that many are risking their lives in the hope of finding safety elsewhere)
And so it was with this ‘knowledge’ that I joined the team heading out in March, to help make a practical difference, however small – but, as is often the case when we say ‘Yes’ to God, He does some very unexpected things!
I was ready to be used in any way, and when we first arrived at the warehouses of Care4Calais we were divided into 2 groups and thrown straight in to either sorting clothes or making up food parcels. After quickly unloading the mini bus with the aid we had brought with us we were then handed our Care4Calais tabards and given some quick instructions on our tasks for the next 2 – 3 hours! Care4Calais are very well organised and have volunteers arriving constantly, some are ‘long termers’ and others, like us, come for just a few days. After leaving the warehouse at 5pm we made a quick stop at the Jungle, on the way to our accommodation. We were able to park and walk in, and spent about half hour walking through the camp.
At the end of this first day Anna, who had been twice before, asked me what my first impressions of the camp were. It took me by surprise when I found this question really difficult to answer – not because I was overwhelmed or couldn’t process everything, but because I expected to be full of emotion, and wasn’t! My answer was about what I had observed rather than what I felt. Almost a little detached! I went to bed mulling this over and found myself praying something like ‘Lord, help me to really feel, to be moved in the way you are moved.’ Oh dear! We all know what happens when we pray prayers like that!
The next day we again spent time at the warehouse, searching for items amongst the mountains of donations, sorting, packing, even forming a human chain to get things from one side of the warehouse to the other – which was surprisingly good fun and gave us all a real sense of teamwork, as we stood alongside volunteers of different nationalities and ages. As we sat down for lunch, in a rare moment of sunshine, I was struck by the sheer diversity of people gathered together, and yet all were there for the same reason and with the same heart to help. It was really challenging to realise that, in any other scenario, I may have wrongly judged some of them simply because of their appearance, speech or beliefs, without getting to know the heart beneath.
After lunch I had the opportunity to go into the Jungle and distribute the food parcels that we had made up the day before. As we chose the right spot and parked up the van we began to be approached by men saying ‘Line, line?’ Meaning ‘shall we line up?’ There was no pushing, shoving or impatience from any of them. I was so moved to see these men, many whom have left homes, jobs and relative wealth behind, patiently queueing for a small parcel of food and receiving it with genuine gratitude and gentleness.
My heart was starting to feel deeply, as I looked them in the eye, touched them gently on the arm and whispered ‘bless you’ as they walked away with their meager bag of food.
On our third, and last day, we decided to be slightly rebellious and not go to the Care4Calais warehouse but instead go straight to the Jungle and walk and talk, to meet people and share a bit of life with them, and to see for ourselves the huge parts of the camp that we’d heard had been demolished. I was quite nervous about doing this, without having a specific role or reason for going in – but it was both humbling and uplifting and a day I’ll remember for a long time.
I encountered so many warm hearted, generous people; a group of Sudanese men who gave up their places by a fire, insisting that we sit and warm ourselves; a group of Kuwaiti men who welcomed us and made us hot, sweet chai. Smiling faces and cheerful waves belie the fact that there is very little hope – we heard many desperate stories – and yet many continue to hope and choose to remain positive. How at odds this is, with the culture surrounding us here?!
I returned tired and full – full of what I’d seen, experienced and of what God was doing in me. But still not fully able to express it all. Raymond helped me out with that on the Sunday morning though!
Raymond preached a wonderful message about being imitators of Christ, from Ephesians 5:1-2. The message version puts it this way;
“Watch what God does, and then you do it, like children who learn proper behaviour from their parents. Mostly what God does is love you. Keep company with him and learn a life of love. Observe how Christ loved us. His love was not cautious but extravagant. He didn’t love in order to get something from us but to give everything of himself to us. LOVE LIKE THAT.”
When we keep company with him and love as he loves, when we lock eyes with someone and share just a little bit of life with them, we start to feel with the compassion that he feels. We see the heart that he sees. Whether that is a refugee, a fellow volunteer, a neighbour or someone that you pass in the street; we are called to love extravagantly!
Raymond’s message had summed up what God had been speaking to my heart and in it was His answer to my prayer ‘Lord help me to really feel, to be moved in the way you are moved.’