My Unforgettable Experience Volunteering in the Refugee Community Kitchen
By: Barbara Campos, Senior Instructor, Salesforce
Have you heard of refugenes?
I only recently discovered the term, and I have them – refugenes, I mean. My grandparents were forced to emigrate from Germany to Brazil in the 1930s, and never left. If it weren’t for the goodwill and compassion of that country and its people, it’s pretty safe to say I wouldn’t be here today.
The stories my Grandad has told me are stories of hope and resilience, but also of deep sadness and great fear. I think of them whenever the plight of refugees is featured on the news, and imagine what stories these refugees’ grandchildren will be hearing. That’s why I support the refugee cause. Someone once did such things for my family, and it feels great to be able to pay it back.
In the two years since I’ve joined Salesforce as a Senior Instructor, I’ve been involved in several activities supporting this cause. Last year I taught English to refugees at a refugee camp in Calais, France, known as ‘The Jungle,’ and it was a profoundly impactful experience.
Since then, I’ve become aware of how badly things in Northern France had deteriorated since my last visit. The main camps had been destroyed; men, women and children were sleeping in the woods; there is no shelter, no sanitation infrastructure, no food, no water – and no dignity. I decided I needed to go back.
This year I headed back to Calais with my sister Lila for a week-long volunteer activity. We are both keen cooks, so I arranged for us to volunteer at the Refugee Community Kitchen, or the “RCK”, and off we went to cook for refugees.
The kitchen is located inside a massive warehouse, where Help Refugees and other grassroots groups receive and sort essential items such as tents, clothes, hygiene items, and blankets. The RCK prepares and serves 1,200 meals a day. The meals – always rice, a curry, and a salad – are cooked from scratch using fresh produce. It’s healthy, nutritious, and very tasty.
The work in the kitchen is hard and non-stop. The music is loud, the volunteers are cheery, and the atmosphere is full of love. Vegetables need to be washed and prepared, huge pots and pans need washing up, the floor needs to be swept. The days are long – up to 11 working hours each day.
Food distribution takes place twice a day, and is about much more than just providing hungry people with food. Volunteers strive to give the refugees the dignity they deserve. The distribution is treated as a customer service experience – the setup is professional and organized, and customers are greeted by a friendly, smiling team.
Preparing food in the RCK
The majority of our customers are young men from conflict-torn parts of the world, mainly in Africa and the Middle East. There are also many women and children. Their backgrounds and experiences vary, but they all find themselves in Calais in the hope of one day crossing the border to the UK.
Lila and I joined one of the evening distributions, when we delivered around 250 meals. We were welcomed with smiles, and the long-term volunteers greeted many of the refugees by name. There was an atmosphere of camaraderie and friendship, and there was enough food for second helpings.
But despite the relaxed atmosphere, we couldn’t forget that we were deep in a tragic situation. One day I handed food to a pregnant woman. I smiled at her, but she didn’t smile back. Since then I couldn’t stop thinking about her and how she copes with life at the moment, sleeping in the woods with no access to care or basic infrastructure.
One afternoon, while we peeled what seemed like endless quantities of garlic, I discovered that Help Refugees had just acquired 10 donated Salesforce licenses and needed help implementing them. I jumped at the opportunity, and we are now working together to manage their volunteers database and back office work in Salesforce, which will help support multiple projects across Europe and the Middle East and ensure help quickly reaches people in need.
I was only in Calais for a week, but I came home feeling energized and determined to continue my work with refugees there and in other parts of Europe. Organizations like Help Refugees and the Refugee Community Kitchen are plenty, and they all need help, which can come in lots of shapes. I encourage you to get involved because together, I know we can make a real difference.
Refugenes or not, anyone can help ensure today’s refugees can one day tell their grandchildren stories with a happy ending, just like my Grandad could.
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