Photo credit: Liying Zhang

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Calais, the northeast city of France, faces the UK across the sea. The majority of migrants in Calais are waiting for the right day to cross the English Channel. They are mainly from Afghanistan, Sudan, Eritrea, Iraq, Iran, and Syria, some of the most dangerous countries in the world.

Recently, I had the opportunity to volunteer for two weeks in Calais. In the mornings, we would stay at the warehouse to sort and check donations and prepare for distribution and services. In the afternoons, we would go to campsites in Calais or Dunkirk, providing hot drinks, equipment for cutting hair and sewing, games and opportunities for English practice. Usually, distributions of brand new and second-hand clothes, waterproof boots, trainers, and hygiene supplies also took place.

I learnt so much in these campsites. One day, I met an Afghan man who had been forced to leave home 9 years earlier, but had never had video calls with his family because it’s forbidden in his country. Another day, I met a 17-year-old Sudanese boy who was wearing a pair of new pink gloves.  I said to him that I loved his gloves, that they looked so fashionable. He said twice that he had one more pair, and he could give it to me. Of course I said no: how could I take stuff from people who need our help? But I was touched by his kindness and we chatted more. He had left his country due to violence and wanted to go to the UK to study Computer Science. He had to cross the English Channel, but he said he was not afraid. I was touched by his bravery and determination, and also thought about my privilege to study in a peaceful environment.

There were also some challenging moments for me. As a young Asian woman, I also had experiences where I felt discriminated against and sexually harassed. Many of the migrants asked me if I was Chinese, and I said yes. Some said they love China, others smiled uncomfortably. One person used racial slurs against Chinese people. Another day, as I was distributing biscuits, a man came to me and said he loved me. I replied that you could not love me by my appearance. When I continued handing out biscuits, he suddenly hugged me, and I said NO, NO, NO. I have been flirted with or received marriage proposals before, but this time, a person invaded my boundary. The organization and other volunteers showed their care to me, but from then on, I pretended I was married, and I hardly showed my smile anymore. This experience led me to reflect on the gender and race dynamics and wonder how other women have suffered, as migrants, survivors, volunteers, and workers in the humanitarian sector.

On the last day of my stay, I donated some money and received a T-shirt that says MIGRATION IS NOT A CRIME.