Last September, I decided to volunteer for Refugee Youth Service in Calais. As Outreach Support, my role involved:
Every day, the RYS team visits the different living sites across Calais in order to meet, inform and support displaced unaccompanied minors. For each visit, the RYS team brings a set of activities for the children to engage with such as boardgames, sport equipment, drawing material, music, or educational resources. In a context of survival and emergency such as Calais, games might often seem futile. Yet, in their normality and spontaneity, these activities can often bring respite from high levels of stress.
A quick football game, an intense Molkki competition, an improvised boxing training, a focused drawing session or a famous song are often mood changers that momentarily challenge the hostility and insecurity these children face every day. Most importantly, these fun and relaxed activities enable us to establish relationships of trust with the children we meet and therefore to better support them in their choices at this stage of their journey.
One of the highlights of my volunteering experience at RYS has been the implementation of language learning sessions. At first, a windy parking area or a muddy roundabout felt far from ideal to conduct language learning activities. However, as we started to offer French and English educational resources, the need for it became clear as well as people’s eagerness to learn. Learning a new language is longing to understand and to be understood. In an environment that constantly belittles you and questions your worth, it is also about the respect and dignity that come with it and the idea that self-improvement is still possible and meaningful.
One of the things I have enjoyed the most about our activities programme is that it enables us to take the time to be with and speak to the children. Whether it is having a conversation about our favourite food, sharing some tea, teaching new words or helping someone with his phone, stopping and taking the time to listen is a mundane but valuable act of care. Because, in Calais, it is ultimately in the ordinary that European politics of exclusion and criminalisation are the most felt – in the everyday indifference, insecurity, queues to get food or a shower, police evictions, waiting games, lack of information or struggles to find warmth - that produce an empty and perpetual temporariness in which people are controlled but also abandoned.
As coronavirus continues to spread and Brexit threatens to undermine the rights of displaced unaccompanied minors in Calais, humanitarian organisations relentlessly continue to support these stranded populations – but this often remains a sticking plaster. More humane, empathetic, and efficient governmental strategies are needed to uphold displaced people’s fundamental rights.