Confessions Of A Volunteer Virgin

It was a woman I’d never met who finally swung it. As I lay on a plump mattress under a duck down duvet one night in late April, I thought about what she, Liz, had done with her day. While I’d been sitting on my backside, shuffling words around and working my way through a variety of nut-based snacks, she’d been putting out fires, breaking up knife fights and comforting dozens of bewildered children who know her as a second mum. 

While I live in a relatively quiet street in west London, Liz Clegg lives in the Calais ‘Jungle’. It was her account of life here amongst the 7000 refugees in the Huffington Post that had caught my eye earlier that afternoon. Up until then I’d said to myself - I will do something, just not right now. Bit busy. But once I’d read what Liz does with her days, ‘bit busy’ didn’t really wash.

So the next morning I rang a refugee charity and told them I wanted to volunteer my services as a writer. Just half a day a week, mind you. Can’t spare any more than that. Busy, busy.

I picked CalAid because I loved their story: 5 friends who drove a van full of food and clothes to Calais back in August 2015, then couldn’t walk away. In 12 months they’ve managed to raise a tidy £5.5 million worth of aid, through crowdfunding and the generosity of volunteers. That’s 300 tonnes of aid including food, warm clothing, waterproof footwear, tents, blankets and medicine shipped to refugee camps not only in Calais and Dunkirk, but also in Greece, Turkey and villages in western Syria.

Four months down the line (and a wee bit more than one afternoon a week now), I’ve come across so many acts of bravery and determination, that I find myself blubbing quite a lot. Like the story of 11 year old Safid who walked for 12 months the 5000 miles from Afghanistan to Calais. 5000 miles?! I can barely make it to the corner shop. For a start I’m a huge hypochondriac and such a journey really would be rife with life-threatening stuff. Not the warped whine of my catastrophising mind that tells me the current ache in my upper back is probably kyphosis, aka Spinal Back Hump, which will undoubtedly result in a massive mound of bone erupting from between my shoulder blades, disguisable only by a big padded ski jacket or a brightly coloured shawl. Or the fizzy feeling in my fingers will be another round of Repetitive Strain Injury, only this time I’ll most certainly lose all movement in my hands and arms and then I’ll be unable to type, turn door handles or even stroke puppies.

Photo: Patryk Kosmider


I bet Liz doesn’t suffer from hypochondria. I’ve seen some entries on her lengthy to-do list, so I’m guessing there’s not a lot of time for fretting about Spinal Back Hump:

1. Try to speed up the ridiculously slow process of adopting a 12-year-old boy who, like Safid, also trekked 5000 miles from Afghanistan to Calais. 
2. Make an appointment with social services to see if they’ll allow her to see Kareem, another 11-year-old Afghan boy who recently made it to the UK. 
3. Urgently raise some money.

I compare 3 entries from my own To Do List -

1. Ring dentist to replace bit of tooth that chipped off while eating twice-toasted slice of rye bread. 
2. Replace shower curtain, which is riddled with mould.
3. Track down environmentally friendly way to dispose of old food and gunk trapped in kitchen sink drain.*

Chipped bits of tooth and a partially blocked drain dissolve into insignificance when I read about what people are doing. There’s Sikanda, the refugee from Afghanistan, who helped set up the Jungle Books Library and Cafe to provide a safe place and two free warm meals a day for the unaccompanied children in the Calais camp. And Ellie Tideswell, a young woman from Surrey who leads an all-woman roofing team to mend the makeshift huts. And Chris Bedford, an electrical engineer who told his employer that if he wasn’t given three months leave of absence to go to Calais, he would quit his job.

It’s strange reading - and blubbing - about such stories of astonishing kindness from the comfort of my little home office. Crunching through a selection of sunflower and pumpkin seeds (today’s choice), while trying to come up with ways to do justice to the extraordinary strength and perseverance, of which humans are capable.

This article is also on my Huffington Post blog, click here