Austin Basallo, a Gallatin senior studying philosophy, studied abroad in Spring 2016 as a sophomore. While there, he participated in a volunteer trip to the Calais refugee camp. The trip involved students from both NYU London and NYU Paris and was both illuminating and intense for all involve. Austin reflects upon his experience for us:
I did not appreciate the gravity of the situation NYU London was signing me up for. It was a simple email invitation, like so many others, offering abroad students another extracurricular chance to do something “neat,” and for free, in another country. When we boarded the coach parked parallel to Coram’s fields I had little idea how we were getting to France, nor what I’d be doing. It was until a few hours later when our vehicle entered a train which ran through a tunnel to the coast of France that it dawned upon me: I was in a very different place.
Once we exited the train, we drove on a long dirt road along the coast. To our right, the small town of Calias. To our left, a chain wire fence separating us from an appalling site: an endless ocean of tents—rags really. Blues, reds, orange, tattered, high up, down low, and all dirty. All belonging to the refugee camp. We were brought to an isolated warehouse, surrounded by greenery, a quasi-secret base of operations. We actually were at a refugee distribution center, a joint effort ran by Help Refugees and L’auberge des Migrants, two refugee aid organizations.
The moment we hopped out of the coach we were given forms indicating that we would not take photos advertising the location nor would we be handing out this sensitive information once we left. Quasi-base was turning into actual base. I was beginning to experience firsthand just how charged the subject of refugees, and more controversially helping them, was in Europe.
Once signed and handed off, we were guided into the distribution center. Divided into three main sections, the warehouse was home to the three essentials for any human’s survival: food, clothing, and shelter. The food for feeding, the clothing for warming, and the shelter for protecting. All things the refugees were fighting for. Each section had its own system of packaging and sending out their specific materials.
I was assigned to the food section, experiencing firsthand how efficiently 10 people could assemble “care packages” of food. The system was based around packaging boxes based on family size. For a family of ten: 2 liters of oil, 5 kg of rice, 4 cans of beans, etc. Hopefully, enough food to last the recipients a week. Surrounded by industrials racks holding large reserves of food, a collection of tables had bins filled with all of the supplies required. Warm folk music turns on, and people get moving. The veteran volunteers run laps around the newbies, deftly filling up box after box with a variety of food items, knowing that the rice stacks well with the beans but not the oil, and sugar and spices always go at the top so the bags aren’t damaged and the contents spilled. But as time passes, the newcomers find their stride and began filling up boxes just as quickly and effectively. Not much talking happens, everyone is laser-focused on filling up the boxes, as though if lives depended on it. I only realized later that lives did, and continue to, depend on it. Within hours, some two hundred boxes were packaged and ready to be delivered.
After all of this work, lunch time came about and the community of volunteers came together to break bread. All walks of life were present. An old French pair, chatting while eating lentil soup. Several groups of students from both NYU London and NYU Paris, exchanging their experiences abroad. World travelers, people who can’t stop moving but help everywhere they can along the way. A gypsy couple tattooed from head-to-toe with ornate dreadlocks. The environment was so peaceful, removed from all of the politicking about the refugee crisis. These were just people who wanted to help. From the moment I entered the warehouse, I felt like I was a part of a community. A community of helpers, working towards something greater than all of us individually. It did not matter where we came from, or where we were going—the problems of the refugee were so great we all wanted to do something about it, even if only for a moment.
The day was coming to a close. Packages had been sealed, clothes organized, and the warehouse a little tidier than when we found it. We said our goodbyes to newfound friends, walked out of the warehouse, and boarded the coach. On our way back to London, I just began realizing that the experience had been surreal. I accidentally became part of movement that is rocking a continent. The implications are huge, brining in questions of human rights, national sovereignty, and international politics. These controversies played out in my head, inundating me into a deep sleep. A few hours later, I found myself waking up in Bloomsbury. I’m still not sure if I ever left.