Impressions from Calais

Holly Kal-Weiss volunteered in Calais for the second time last week. If you would like to join her in volunteering in Calais, visit our Volunteer in Calais page to find out how to get involved.

Calais camp

My second weekend to support refugees was very different from the first. I went the first time with trepidation, excitement and conviction that I was at least ‘doing something’. My second trip I went only with knowledge. Knowledge that it was necessary, knowledge that it was the best response I could make to a huge humanitarian crisis, but most importantly, knowledge that the only way to change the situation was to inform and educate and inspire others.

The refugee crisis is the biggest we have faced since the Second World War. Yet, we seem to have dragged our heels, closed our eyes, and listed a thousand reasons why ‘there is nothing we can do’.

Yet I know, and you know, that history teaches us that bad things happen when good people look the other way. I refuse to look the other way. I don’t like what I see but I look anyway. If nothing else, I will bear witness.

Calais constructionThis weekend was a blur of ferrying medics to camp to use plastic spoons as tongue depressors and lance infections with a few basic tools. It was hours of sorting well-meaning donations into piles of absurd high heels and summer shorts apart from the very much-needed warm coats and boots. It was distributing winter coats out of the back of a van to teenage boys not old enough to shave. At that distribution there was a moment when a soft spoken man, dressed as neat and tidy as he could in a refugee camp, asked me in perfect English for a medium warm coat. My heart wrenched. He was most likely Syrian, educated, and could have been my brother or my husband.

My team of 12 were amazing. Mike Brunner and Lizzie and Sandy Robertson worked long hours to help the injured and ill. Paul Demby came all that way for a day to help sort and organise in the warehouse. Jonathan Bruck did everything in 48 hours: sorted in the warehouse, helped build structures and distributed clothes in camp and even managed to make some good friends who invited him in for tea. Eloise and Daisy Jacobs, Amanda Weiss and Jane Robson sorted, organised and distributed very much needed aid into the hands of refugees. In true ‘see one, do one, teach one style’, Amanda led her own distribution into camp after only a few hours, distributing food parcels and sleeping bags. Simon Levy and Mike Weiss spent an entire day building prefab houses that were put together on site in camp. Mike has the bruises to show for a day of heavy lifting, sawing and moving onto site. As for me, I felt like an old hand coming back to good friends. The team of long term volunteers are mostly young and all enthusiastic but they are exhausted. I was able to help share some of the organisational load as well as act as a taxi for goods and people moving between the warehouse and camp as well as assisting with a distribution.

Comments from my volunteers:


I came, I saw, I helped a little, I learned and I really hope that I can pass the message on to many others who will be able to see the difficulties faced and help too.


I needed a nudge! I had been watching the news and feeling powerless. I had to do something, however small. My visit to Calais was at times frustrating; always eye-opening and hugely rewarding. To look into the eyes of each one of 50 refugees, waiting patiently in line to receive a donated coat to keep them warm and dry this winter, was something I will never forgot. These are not just ‘refugees’, they are individuals with a life, a family, a journey, a story to tell. They are human beings just like you and me. But we are safe and secure, they are not. Make this your ‘nudge’. It WILL make a difference!


I left my home feeling hopeful. I left Calais feeling despair. The refugees left their homes feeling despair.  Let us come together to give them our time, our smiles, our energy, our tolerance and our compassion that they might one day turn their despair into hope. 

Mike W:

The contrasts were stark – poor migrants versus the comparative rich peoples of Europe; peoples’ lives on hold in the camp whilst the rest of the world carries on regardless whizzing past at 90kmph in their cars on the bridge over the camp; the generosity and humanity of the diverse group of volunteers that were there to help, and the shameful neglect of these people by our government. Perhaps the most extreme contrast is that our plans are long term, whilst the migrant can only try and plan for the next meal, and how to keep warm, dry and safe tonight.

Our message is clear. We do not want your physical donations. We want you and your time. Volunteer for a day, a weekend or longer, but come and show your support. The refugees need to see us, they need to hear us and they especially need our services in the warehouse sorting aid and in the camp. When you see the news, do not look away. Email [email protected] and offer yourself in the hope that together we can change the course of history.

Calais team


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