In a section of an Industrial park, there is a kitchen. It is a fairly extraordinary kitchen.
It is a kitchen entirely staffed by an always insufficient number of dedicated volunteers. Though these volunteers often work daily shifts of ten hours or more, there are no complaints. all are there happily in common purpose: To prepare, cook, and distribute food for the 1000+ refugees who live rough in Calais, Dunkirk, and the surrounding area.
This is the Refugee Community Kitchen.
The kitchen was established to feed and deliver food to the refugees of 'The Jungle' large, improvised refugee camp in Calais which was haphazardly demolished last October. Since the demolition, many refugees have returned and now live destitute and homeless.
In the early evening in Calais, you can often see refugees wandering the streets in search of food or purpose, now lacking the meager support structure and community which once existed in 'The Jungle'.
I was here for five days (I intended, and still intend, much longer, but I anticipated possible health problems which would have affected my work and stay). During my time there I spent hours washing dishes, cleaning, or cutting vegetables, while other skilled volunteers cooked or boxed meals. Some had been there before (like me ) had been there a long time and now function as managers or overseers, others were there for the first time as a way to travel with a humanitarian focus. People were there from all walks of life. Despite the differences, the sheer humanity of their work was universal and built strong bridges between us all, creating a small (far too small) but effective team.
What surprised me most about the Refugee Community Kitchen, was how small it was, the kitchen was only slightly larger than what you may find in a large pub or restaurant. But unlike those places, it serves far more people and survives entirely on donations (of either time, money or food). It is a monumental and hugely impressive operation. Made more impressive by the fact that it works, and has to work all day every day, no matter the season or weather. Were it to close for a day, then several hundred would go without food. It is that simple.
It has functioned this way for a couple years now.
Despite the massive necessity of it, the kitchen is under threat of closure. This is not due to a lack of donations (which, again are always insufficient) but is threatened directly by French authorities.
It is seen as an enabler, a further reason for refugees to flock to Calais and as such it is thought, were the kitchen to close, there will be fewer refugees (though of course, the refugees will still be present...somewhere in France).
It is common for the police to watch and limit food distributions (a couple months ago, the mayor of Calais sought to ban any food distributions, however, the kitchen remained open, delivering food covertly, on the edge of legality, until the proposal was thankfully overturned).
Indeed when I was there, health inspectors visited the kitchen. During their inspection we felt like Damocles underneath the sword, this is not without reason. It's believed by those managing the kitchen that any perceived imperfection will be magnified until the imperfection threatens the kitchen itself.
We passed the inspection, barely, with notice to immediately make improvements and adjustments to the kitchen. Adjustments which will be dutifully done, though whilst they are put into place the overall efficiency of the kitchen will be affected.
We all believe it is a moral duty to help those in need. Indeed, when I was last in Calais, this was put succinctly by a fellow volunteer who said (paraphrasing): "Being in the position to help, is exactly the same thing as being obligated to".
I believe such a view is universal, though we may be impeded by not knowing how to help, where to help, or may have other obligations limiting our ability to help.
So we all try to add our share of the overall goodness in the world. The Refugee Community Kitchen is an emblem of this, yet it is under threat. In Calais, and elsewhere the situation is always desperate.
There is a risk that, in Calais, with further threat, with insufficient volunteers, with insufficient food donations, with insufficient money. This emblem will disappear, and the donations and the food will stop.
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