Wednesday, 27 October 2021

Why I’m spending my time with refugees

A UNIVERSITY student from Henley will be spending her summer holiday at a refugee camp known

A UNIVERSITY student from Henley will be spending her summer holiday at a refugee camp known as The Jungle.

Jo Unsworth, 21, will be volunteering at the Little Ashram Kitchen, which feeds 700 refugees a day.

It will be the third time she has gone back to the camp having first gone there in during the Easter break in March to drop off donations, including tents, sleeping bags and blankets which she collected herself.

Miss Unsworth, who lives in Reading Road, drove her Suzuki Carry van to the L’Auberge des Migrants warehouse and was then invited to work as a volunteer gardener inside the camp.

“A lot of people don’t get a chance to work in the camp,” she said. “It’s quite hostile and they don’t usually let new volunteers in but someone wanted me to help them with irrigation and gardening.”

After a few days in the field, Miss Unsworth came across the Little Ashram Kitchen which was willing to take her on after some longer-term volunteers.

She enjoyed her time there so much she decided to do back during her next holiday at the beginning of May and would fund-raise for supplies in the meantime.

But three weeks after she returned there was a fire that destroyed the kitchen.

“A lot of the camp had been burnt down,” Miss Unsworth recalled. “It is a desperate environment there so it was definitely important to help get the community space built again.”

Miss Unsworth, who studies fine art at Falmouth University, did a lot of charity gigs around Falmouth to try and get enough money to open a new kitchen that was bigger and better than the last one.

“The kitchen we have now is a 40-by-40ft tent,” she says. “It was given to us by one of the imams because we were struggling to find anything suitable.”

She says the new area is somewhere that refugees can meet, drink chai with friends, receive English lessons, get help with asylum information and play games.

Miss Unsworth, whose father Martin is a teacher at The Henley College and mother Sally Satch teaches at Shiplake College, returned home on July 4 for a short break before travelling back to Calais last Saturday. She will return to Falmouth in September to finish her degree. Miss Unsworth says her work at the kitchen is varied.

She encourages donations using social media, co-ordinates other volunteers and takes English lessons. She also helps take people to hospital.

“Working in the ashram is pretty exhausting,” she said. “When we’re working in the community space we have eight or nine hours’ contact time with refugees and during Ramadan it’s 13 hours a day.

“We talk to the guys and help them with a lot of issues like banking and getting in touch with family.

“It’s a community kitchen so we don’t actually do much cooking but people come in and cook foods from their country. It changes every day.”

The responsibility of running the kitchen was something Miss Unsworth had not experienced before.

“I think I struggled with the amount of responsibility,” she said. “I had never experienced something like it. It’s trial and error, and trial and error.”

She says that helping to oversee the construction of the new community space after the fire was one of the more challenging tasks.

Miss Unsworth said: “The police don’t let you build there so it’s hard to get materials past them. That was quite stressful. We also had to hold things up with ropes and then try and make it nice inside. We built seats out of the mats you would use for gymnastics at school.

“I had to buy specific things to make tables and a kitchen that will function and feed 500 people out of donations. It was difficult but it’s come together.”

Now the Little Ashram Kitchen has raised enough money they have bought their own van. This means they can move the kitchen about with the changes in the camp.

Miss Unsworth said: “We wake up at 7.45am, get all the food we need and everything for the whole kitchen has to be packed up every night. If we left it, it could be stolen or broken. It takes about an hour-and-a-half to clean it up and pack it away. We drive to the site and we do chai and coffee all day.

“We do a breakfast service at 11am then another serving at 4pm because people have different sleeping patterns.

“Other kitchens do different times but we work with the camp and what they want. We listen to the guys because we’re a community kitchen where they can cook.

“We usually stay until 6pm but during Ramadan it’s longer. Once we’re there we might help them to build houses or teach them English lessons.”

During Ramadan the shifts get even longer so the meals fit in with the fasting timetable of the Muslims who live in the camp. This means the volunteers Miss Unsworth is with don’t leave the site until 1am.

“We’re still making food for people who are not fasting at lunchtime but then we do a meal at 9.30pm when people break their fast,” she said.

“At that point everyone is really tired and hungry, that was difficult. Then we have to take everything out and clean it before we go back in the next day.”

Despite Ramadan being over the work is not finished for Miss Unsworth in the camp. Another camp nearby, called Dunkirk, is being evacuated and hundreds of people are expected to arrive every day.

She is also looking to recruit new volunteers who can continue running the kitchen when she goes back to university. In particular she hopes to find people to stay long-term who know how to deal with the sometimes hostile environment.

Miss Unsworth says: “For as long as I’m there I feel like I’m in the right place. I’m not responsible for the decisions by our government or any other government. I’m there to help people and bring social solidarity.

“For me it’s really difficult to sit at home and watch the news about these people when it’s only 22 miles across the sea and it takes a few hours to get there.

“The community space becomes somewhere that a lot of people rely on. When people come in it’s great to be a shoulder for them to lean on or give them a hug.”

She added: “A lot of them have been scared and have not had any support. We want them to support them which means a lot to them and it goes together with not wanting them to be scared anymore.”

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