Ambaravajri was one of many citizens who stepped out of their comfort zones last summer to go and help refugees in Calais.
Our mission started on a Wednesday, with Amitasuri offering to help out some friends who had more donations for the refugee camp in Calais than they could fit in their van. She appealed for a companion, I said yes and by Thursday morning we were discussing strategies. By then it was clear that it wasn’t going to happen unless we collected donations ourselves, so we had a 24-hour donation drive in Manchester and London. By Friday afternoon we had a load of the most needed items (tents, sleeping bags, warm and waterproof clothing and shoes) and Amitasuri was on her way from Manchester to London.
I surprised myself and my friends by offering to accompany Amitasuri to Calais. I don’t think of myself as a particularly outgoing, practical or even generous person. My life in London is busy and I frequently crave solitude and space. But when I look back I know it’s exactly what I needed to do. Almost everyone who donated to us thanked us for the opportunity to do something practical, and I knew exactly what they meant.
In many ways we had not thought this through, but that too was probably just what was needed. Too much time to think about it, for me, might have been a chance to think my way out of it. Having said that, Amitasuri had done her research: we had a contact in Calais ready to receive our donations, and we were very clear what items were most needed. We just didn’t know what we were going to do once we’d dropped off the stuff.
Early on the Saturday evening, having driven that morning through the tunnel and spent the afternoon with our contact at the Secours Catholique in Calais, Amitasuri and I found ourselves on the road near the camp. We’d spent the afternoon learning about the needs of the ‘jungle’ and how donations are distributed, as well as taking photos and videos to share. We were relieved and happy, but also a little overwhelmed at the extent of the help that was so clearly needed. We were trying to get hold of another contact in Calais whom we hoped to meet that evening, and Amitasuri was having some problems with her phone. As the light began to fade, we pulled in at the side of the road while streams of men poured past us, most on foot wearing sandals or flip-flops, a few on bikes, many weighed down with bags of food and clothing as they returned from the town to the camp.
At this point I think we were both anxious: as I’ve said, we hadn’t thought this through. We were happy to have dropped off our donations, grateful in fact, but we couldn’t get in touch with our friends, we didn’t know where we were going to sleep, and we were two women alone in an unfamiliar place. At the same time I was aware that for new refugees arriving in the camp, men or women, the experience would be the same, only a lot more frightening.
I imagine we were giving out confused signals. I’ve said we were anxious, and we probably looked it. Amitasuri was frustrated with her phone not connecting. Then a group of young men banged on the driver’s-side window asking for the bananas that they could see in the back of the van. Neither of us wanted to open the window or door and give them the bananas. I’m not sure why – it wasn’t about the bananas. Still they kept asking, and pushing, and banging harder on the car trying to get in, while we held our ground. I felt deeply uncomfortable at the separation between us – them outside wanting something from us, us inside not wanting to give it – especially in light of what we had come there to do.
If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.
While this was happening on the driver’s side of the car, I became aware of a group of three older men on my side, gesturing to us, offering tea. At that point I just wanted to say yes! To get out of the car, not to be separate, to let go of my fear and connect.
Buddhist teaching says that, fundamentally, we are not the fixed, separate ‘selves’ that we think we are. We are in fact profoundly interconnected. I find this beautiful and true. It keeps me human in ways I am deeply grateful for, and helps me navigate those situations when I don’t know what to do. This was one of those moments. I didn’t open the door, the men moved on, and the evening drew to a close. But to experience that tension has had a lasting effect. A few days after we got back, I read a post on Facebook: ‘If you have more than you need, build a longer table, not a bigger fence.’ The weekend was a life-changing experience for me, and those few words have helped me to realise why.
Next morning in Calais. Having met with our friends, shared our experience of the previous night, and eaten and slept, Amitasuri and I parked the van and walked into the camp. We were deeply moved by the friendliness and welcome that we received. We learned many people’s stories that day, from many parts of the world: the ten-year-old Egyptian boy whose memory of the boat trip was that he’d be thrown overboard if he didn’t sit still; one Syrian man who is the last surviving member of his family apart from his sister and yet is not able to join her in the UK; another who showed us pictures of his beautiful city, now rubble. It was a warm sunny day, and at one point Amitasuri remarked to me how different it felt to the night before. She was right. It was how I imagine it might feel, when faced with hundreds or even thousands of desperate, cold or hungry people, to build a longer table instead of a bigger fence. ■