Refugee Camp Volunteering Diary | 2

on September 9, 2017

This is the second installment in my short series about volunteering in a refugee camp in France. You can read my first post here.

I have now been in France for six days. It is my first day off (we will normally work 9am-9pm daily, with one day off a week). Even the decision to take a day off seems ridiculous when I know there is so much work to be done. I don’t even know if I would have taken today off apart from the fact that Hurricane Irma is barreling toward my family in southern Florida, and if I have to have a day off I’d like it to be a day when I can update the storm path.

I have a lot of things to say, but none of them seem enough. If I write about my experience here I feel that I am being naive and self-centered and how privileged to make this devastation into something about myself? On the other hand, if I write about the stories I hear every day, the frightening interactions and the sweet interactions, I feel like I am stealing someone else’s story. I do not feel it is my place to tell these stories because how can I possibly understand? They are not mine.

Instead, I fall back on poetry. Not necessarily the writing of it, but the cognitive process behind it that has become my coping mechanism from years of writing. And this mechanism? I notice. Every day, every small thing, I notice. I write it in my mind in short stanzas or couplets. From the swaths of mud, the dusty warehouse, the oily vats of curry, the paint stained knees, the children who hug my waist or the men who shake our car as we drive into the jungle. The wet tarps and every greeting: hug, kiss, kiss, warmth. So much warmth.

I always find it strange seeing people wear my country’s flag abroad. Here it is among a donation pile.

No more women’s waterproof coats left in the donations warehouse.

Loaded down with emergency hygeine donations

A beautiful nail job by one of the children πŸ˜‰

noticing the small things

my current home

The weather is shifting into Autumn, well it feels like more of a thrust than a shift. Every day there is downpour and wind that wakes even my heavy sleeping. In my sleeping bag in my thin and disheveled caravan I live in, I think about gratitude. Partly because I am constantly behind but trying (one day) to take part in Carolann’s gratitude project. Partly because how can you not think about gratitude when it is pouring rain and you are dry indoors whilst every man, woman and child you met that day is lying in a forest. Surely even those with tents are still wet.

Last night we went to another volunteer’s caravan for dinner: vegan pasta and olives and Auchan brand Sauvignon Blanc. On the walk home I stepped in a puddle – the kind that is more a pond than a puddle and your foot doesn’t land as soon as you expect. I swore at my one soaked shoe and laughed as I took it off in the doorway. I lay in bed, feeling the Sauvignon Blanc and listening to my roommate speak softly in the kitchen, the rolling brew of the tea kettle. On the flat roof, I heard the patter of rain. After living in England, this has become my most comforting sound. In Plymouth, I pushed my double bed across my bedroom so I could fall asleep by the window, wake up to raindrops on the glass. I love the sound of rain, a bizarre love among my British friends but one that I nevertheless find comforting.

Last night, as I listened to the steady patter, I felt guilt in my stomach. Knowing this rain that brings me comfort is the same rain beating down on hundreds of refugees, lying in their thin and broken tents, beneath plastic tarps, or beneath nothing at all. I know at least three new families, families with tiny babies who have no tent at all.

So what am I grateful for? I am grateful for roofs, I am grateful for dry-ness and sleeping bags and the opportunity to help those who are without.

If you would like more updates on my experience volunteering at a refugee camp in France, you can find more on my instagram or in my volunteering series.

Sarah xx

{L O N G P O S T} Another forest in a country far away. Last week we set our alarms to 5am for steep forest hikes of sunrise views of Lake Bled. . . . Now, I set my alarm knowing I will spend my day in another forest – we call it the jungle – full of mud and wet tarps that people call home, burnt out fires and rubbish. The small struggles of interrailing seem minuscule now, so distant and ridiculous. The thought of Instagram or travel blogs or even checking my abandoned email are almost laughable. . . . In the refugee camp, I will spend my day being hassled and hugged and physically shaken and received by the most incredible warmth. All this. All at once. . . . I have been here long enough now that the children recognize me, call out my name when I arrive, hug my waist and ask for things they know I cannot give – or maybe show me new tricks like paper airplanes and fidget spinners and English words. The toddlers climb the car, over and over, just for the squeal of me lifting them off. . . . Yesterday a child taught me step-by-step to make a paper boat, correcting each wrong fold patiently despite our lack of a common language. He raced me to the brown river and we placed the boats in the water, marveling at how they floated. His grin was euphoric… standing on the muddy bank, I wanted to cry because I had never seen a child so happy, and there we were surrounded by devastation. 10 meters away a French highway of cars and trucks and people living life like this is is not happening on their doorstep. . . . We watched our twin boats bob briefly – until one became stuck in the grasses and the other sat still in the tepid water going nowhere. Like many, this child and his family hope to go to the U.K., not knowing what awaits them there like I do, but instead imagining a house, a job, a life, a radiator and a bed, anything more than current life in the jungle. What I know is much more complicated, disappointing, an indefinite period of waiting. . . . We watch the paper boats dampen – not from their careful architecture but rather the fat drops of evening rain. [For more on my experience working in a refugee camp with the Roland Levinksy Fund, see my blog] πŸ›Ά

A post shared by Sarah | travel, yoga, poetry | (@endlessdistances) on

  • I can’t imagine what you are experiencing right now. You want to put yourself in their shoes, but it’s hard. You are doing such a great thing in France right now Sarah!

    • Thanks so much Christine! I don’t think it’s ever possible to put ourselves in their shoes. The best we can do is help and treat them like the humans they are and deserve to be treated as.

  • This is absolutely beautiful. Thank you for sharing this personal experience with us. You are truly an amazing woman to be doing this and giving of yourself in this way.

    • Thank you Carolann <3 It really is a personal experience and feels odd writing about it on my blog, but I think it's so important to share. That's why I started this site after all!

  • Wow, incredible. I’m full of admiration for the work you and the other volunteers are doing.

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