Volunteering in Calais: Experiences and Challenges by Liying Zhang

Volunteering in Calais: Experiences and Challenges by Liying Zhang

Photo credit: Liying Zhang

You can connect with Liying on Instagram and via LinkedIn

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.

It Takes a Village,  by Birsu Karaarslan

It Takes a Village, by Birsu Karaarslan

Image credit: Heldáy de la Cruz

Birsu Karaarslan is a former UN employee and a Master’s graduate of the Geneva Graduate Institute. She is now based in Istanbul, pursuing her career in journalism and art. You can follow Birsu on Instagram.

It takes a village to raise a child they say, it indeed does – but where does the village go after we are adults? Is this why we hate being an adult?

I hold a Master’s degree and I am a former UN employee, but I left it all to move back home to Adana and became a kindergarten teacher. Adana is a city in the southeast of Türkiye, known for its kebab and extremely hot weather. It was a really tough time in my life as I had just experienced a huge disappointment with my job which meant literally the WORLD to me, followed by one of the deadliest earthquakes which happened in my region in Türkiye. So, I left it all: my dreams, the city I had wanted to build a life in, my friends and feelings of immense loneliness. I thought: What if I help raising kids? Because I certainly believe that it does take a whole community to raise even one child. Now, I am here to be a hope for them, to contribute to their emotional, mental and physical growth. Since I started this job, I have been realizing how, as individuals, we are in extreme need of a community and the right communities can save lives. In the kindergarten, at least 20 of us contribute to the well-being of the kids with immense efforts.

One day as I was on my way back from work, I was feeling sad and my mum asked me to join her to visit the new born baby of her friend’s. Because I was feeling the blues, I thought being around people would help. As we were there, the baby started to cry in her crib so her mum took her and brought her to the living room where we all sat with her grandparents, neighbours and others. All of us did silly things, hugged and kissed her to stop her from crying, and at that moment I thought: it really does take a village to raise a child. It takes a village to remind children that they are not alone, and that sadness can be overcome. At that moment, I felt resentment towards adulthood and growing up. So I said to my therapist that I don’t want to grow up. But when I say this I don’t mean that I don’t want to get wiser, I mean that I still want to be like a child, where the community still holds me tight and where I still matter – because we often need that reminder.




Thoughts on a month in Calais, France by Tobias Drilling

Thoughts on a month in Calais, France by Tobias Drilling

Thoughts on a month in Calais, France

Tobias Drilling

Tobias (they/he) is a social anthropologist, humanitarian, activist, and catalyst for systemic change committed to supporting people on the move.

Instagram: @_chilisauce_

Linkedin: Tobias Drilling

Access the original German version of this text, Gedanken zu einem Monat in Calais, Frankreich, on www.medium.com

Photo Credit: Tobias Drilling

November 2023. A month in Calais and Dunkerque, a month of working almost every day, a month full of cold, full of emotions, full of laughter and sadness, a month like few others.

Burnt rice, muddy rubber boots, instant coffee, oversized reflective jackets, friendship bracelets in Afghan colors, connect four. People on the move live in tents scattered around the edges of the forest of Calais and Dunkerque. I mainly meet young men from Sudan, South Sudan, Kurdish areas and Afghanistan. The men have different stories and reasons to be here. Some have been on the journey for years, others for just a few weeks. For some, the route through Europe is the easy part of their journey, others can barely make it through here. Some have enough money, others are poor.

Still, they are all queuing for our distribution. Because they are all in the same situation here: in rain, ice and snow, living in our old festival tents, they experience police violence while they wait for the next opportunity to cross the Channel to England. They are looking for freedom and are trapped in dependence. Depending on the benevolence of the state, depending on the support of NGOs, depending on coincidences and luck in misfortune. It is a place of extremes, a place of contrasts.

“He tells me he goes swimming almost every day.

To shower.

In the sea.


Salt water must make him crusty.

Then he tells me that his skin is cleaner than anyone else’s here.

Hygiene is important to him.”

They all got stuck in Calais or Dunkerque. In a small northern French town with around 75,000 inhabitants, a town with its own challenges and a lot of poverty. Calais has been a city characterized by migration for centuries due to its proximity to England. An important harbor. People have become jaded. Too much misery on their doorstep. Only a few locals still actively supporting people on the move. As is so typical, a young bubble of humanitarian activists lives in the city, at first glance recognizable as non-native, with an academically privileged habitus, together in the same bar in the evenings. People who often only spend a short time in this place with the hope to bring a little dignity to the refugees. I was one of them.

This connection with people on the move, which arises simply from the fact that you are stuck in the same place (intentionally or unintentionally) which is not your home, is an interesting emotion. People on the move often ask me why I am in Calais and Dunkerque when I come from the most beautiful country in the world. I find it difficult to answer. Because I don’t want to talk about white guilt, privilege, and global responsibility. I often blame the dysfunctional system and that I therefore want to change something and tackle this concretely through work like this one in Calais and Dunkerque. A Sudanese man defines my purpose in Calais as “helping” , against all my convictions, I end up agreeing with him. But who is really being helped?

We continue to talk about its purpose. How important it is to have a goal in life. Here in Calais he only has one purpose: to get across the Channel. He devotes all his strength, energy and thoughts to this goal. A dangerous goal. People attempt the 7-hour journey to England mostly on rubber dinghies. Boats filled with a disproportionate number of people, engines that stall, high waves, wind, police violence, tear gas and much more In the month I was in Calais, there were five evening mourning ceremonies for people who lost their lives because of the brutal border policies.[1] In doing so, we try to show people the respect they deserve, at least in death, and to create a shared momentum of remembrance.

“I actually wanted to take the morning off to write,

but right now, I feel nothing but emptiness,



The situation and this place are so incredibly difficult, cold and windy,

I have no words.

I don’t know what to do with this situation,

what exactly is my role here?

It seems too complex,

too sunk in and stuck

in a misery from which no one knows a way out.

Naming solutions is good,

but how can we implement this in the reality check?

Do solutions lead to more problems?

I’m at a loss.


On the other hand, many people also successfully made the crossing to England. In my last week alone around 1,000 people. Because it is and remains a reality: people in search of freedom cannot be stopped. Their routes can be made more dangerous, they can be exposed to violence, deaths can be accepted as collateral damage. But migration has been part of humanity since the beginning of society. And in view of the many wars and injustices around the world, 3,000 people in Calais and Dunkerque seem like a very small number.

People take the risks of fleeing because they cannot imagine a future in their respective home countries. And yes, there are all sorts of different realities in the lives of these people on the move, including the exception of the boy who just bought white sneakers for his waiting time in Dunkerque. But in the end, he too is exposed to the same dangers and can suddenly find himself completely evicted by the police.

I had many conversations in search of an understanding of the situation. People told me how they built rockets in Afghanistan as children, were tortured for years in the Iranian prison, walked through the desert for days without water, or had to flee through a Libya armed to the teeth. I give these examples to put the situation in Calais and Dunkerque into context, because many of the people here have already experienced a lot. Here, their lives seem fragile and yet they are more resilient than I could ever imagine. Their deaths are accepted by governments, their lives are worth less in comparison. They experience what European humanity prefers to keep quiet.

Sometimes we must actively go to these places ourselves to see these realities. Making people out of numbers. And I think that is exactly where we as privileged people are asked: to be present, to actively listen and to carry these stories into our privileged worlds. Because we are faced with a challenge where distributing food, sleeping bags, tents, and jackets alone is no longer enough. The slogan “Solidarity not Charity” comes to my mind again and again, and with it the question of how I can change systems and not just engage in petty politics. How can we collectively give these people the dignity and respect they deserve? And how can such a society based on solidarity achieve a majority of support?

[1] As I write this text, I learn of another mourning ceremony following a tragic boat accident on the Channel.

Embracing the (Extra)ordinary: Weaving Belief and Connection Amidst Uncertainty by Swarna Jain

Embracing the (Extra)ordinary: Weaving Belief and Connection Amidst Uncertainty by Swarna Jain

Picture source: Museum of Fine Arts Boston, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Artist: Hasui Kawase

About the author: Swarna Jain is a 2023 IHEID graduate with a Master’s in International Affairs. Her thesis focused on ‘Refugees in the Peace-Migration Nexus’. She has diverse experience in migration, human rights, gender equality, innovation, peacebuilding, conflict resolution, aid delivery, livelihoods, and human security. Swarna has successfully overseen projects addressing the interplay between humanitarian assistance, sustainable development, and peacebuilding in South Asia and East Africa, collaborating with International Organizations, NGOs, refugee-led initiatives, advocacy campaigns, media platforms, and civil society initiatives. Reach out to Swarna at swarna.jain@graduateinstitute.ch.

Embracing the (Extra)ordinary: Weaving Belief and Connection Amidst Uncertainty

Today, I’m flipping the script and starting with a please see note in the beginning. So, P.S: There is no happy ending, no grand event, no life-altering instance, nor a swift remedy in this story; it’s about the mundane routines and seemingly insignificant moments carrying the same fears, doubts, and uncertainties that ripple through each of our lives. This is what the little piece is all about — the simplicity, like of a shared meal. While our life circumstances vary in degrees and forms, we can all learn from the shared experience of navigating fears and worries.

The Machine

In the midst of uncertainty, how do we uncover joy? This question has been consuming my thoughts, fuelled by my own remarkable journey. After completing my master’s degree, I embarked on a daring path in pursuit of job opportunities within the UN system in Geneva. Believe me, it’s no walk in the park. I faced countless complications – permits, fleeting contract durations, competing against candidates with EU passports, the daunting task of finding housing, ensuring financial stability amidst Geneva’s soaring costs of living, building an independent life in a foreign land, a thousand other hurdles that any student in Geneva could testify to, and lastly, hoping to create a remarkable story along the way. Like many, I dreamed of being part of a mission greater than myself, transcending the boundaries of my limited identity. However, the path to realizing this dream proved far from simple. It demanded endless hours of applications, networking, interviews, and searches, with no guarantee of success.

Just a Cog in the Machine

During my two transformative years as a student in Geneva, I immersed myself in enlightening conversations with individuals from diverse backgrounds – disparate geographies, communities, ideologies, religions, and politics. Amidst these apparent differences, I realized we all have something in common that we try to hide – our fears. We share a collective fear of inadequacy, disappointing our loved ones, falling short in comparison, abandoning our dreams, guilt of being lesser, facing judgment, and succumbing to self-criticism. These fears sow seeds of doubt, causing us to question the choices we’ve made and whether the risks we’ve taken were too great.

Stepping outside the Machine

Amidst this tumultuous and uncertain journey, a flicker of hope emerged, fuelled by my unwavering self-belief and the extraordinary kindness of the community surrounding me. Despite enduring countless rejections that could have shattered my confidence, I made a conscious decision not to allow them to define my capabilities or potential. Moments of self-doubt still permeate my journey, yet, every morning I make a courageous choice, accompanied by a comforting ritual (which involves reading this book and particularly this passage over and over) that has profoundly impacted me:

“You know, in biology there is a phenomenon called the sport, which is a sudden and spontaneous deviation from the type. If you have a garden and have cultivated a particular species of flower, one morning you may find that something totally new has come out of that species. That new thing is called the sport. Being new it stands out, and the gardener takes a special interest in it. And life is like that. The moment you venture out, something takes place in you and about you. Life comes to your aid in various ways. You may not like the form in which it comes to you – it may be misery, struggle – but when you invite life, things begin to happen. But you see, we don’t want to invite life, we want to play a safe game; and those who play a safe game die very safely. Is that not so?”

—Jiddu Krishnamurti, “Think on these Things”

Above the daily anxieties of worth, success, achievements, and accolades, I place my mission of contributing to a better, more peaceful world. This overarching purpose guides my actions, eclipsing momentary worries. Moreover, it is the people who surround us that illuminate our shared humanity, validating our vulnerabilities. I consider myself profoundly fortunate and blessed to have a support network of family, friends, and mentors who offer solace in times of distress; and acquaintances and even strangers who have shared their own stories and vulnerabilities. These encounters have taught me the importance of an ecosystem, composed of compassionate human beings. If ever you find yourself feeling alone on your journey or lacking reminders that nothing can impede your destiny, albeit on a different timeline, I want to impart this message: nurture within yourself a belief that blooms with a newfound strength, growing not by leaps and bounds, but by a mere 1% each day. It’s enough. You have a purpose here, a reason for being, no matter how elusive or arduous it may seem. Embrace that belief, act upon it, and uncover the (extra)ordinary path that awaits you.

If one stands, we must all stand together: Uniting our voices for women in Iran by Shirin Golkar

If one stands, we must all stand together: Uniting our voices for women in Iran by Shirin Golkar

Image credit: Women’s Entrepreneurship Program

Shirin Golkar is the Iranian founder of the Women’s Entrepreneurship Program (WEP). She is a passionate defender of gender parity and equality, fighting for a better world for women through peacebuilding, knowledge spreading, and practical assistance for women entrepreneurs in Iran and around the globe.

Connect with Shirin via: https://www.linkedin.com/in/shirin-golkar/ Facebook@Shirin Golkar / Instagram@ Shiringolkar

My country is a beautiful land filled with rich culture, warm family traditions, and an underlying strength that makes every Iranian stand tall in their shared identity. Despite its beauty, Iran has been less than perfect for its women. Recently, the women there have reached a breaking point under ever-worsening conditions, with riots and protests all over Iran now. Unsurprisingly, it is the women and school girls who are leading these protests. I have always known my compatriots are fighters, and have been saying for many years how resilient they are, how they are leading a social movement. For me, it feels like generational trauma is now boiling over, from my mother’s generation to mine, and even to Generation Z!

Though words cannot fully express the extent of emotion this situation arises within me, suffice it to say that I am exceedingly proud of these women fighting for their dignity and their existential rights.

The role Iranian women are playing right now seems unprecedented. It may be the first time in Iran’s history that women have been the spark and engine for an attempted counter-revolution in this manner. Women are the heart and soul of a nation. I believe the unrest now seen in Iran is a reflection of that heart, bleeding and broken, yet ready to stand up and change the way the world and our country views their value. Iran knows the sentimental value of its women–grandmothers are cherished, mothers loved, daughters treasured. But there is more to a woman than her place in the matriarchy, and Iranian women are calling their nation and the world to see what too long has been hidden from sight.

We need to help the women in Iran and the men and children who support them in this cry for life and freedom. As an Iranian woman myself, there is no doubt that these women are my sisters, but as a member of the global community and a humble partaker of many lovely nations, I now see we are all sisters in this, the human family. We in the global and academic community cannot leave our sisters alone. If one is assaulted, all are assaulted. If one stands, we all must stand together. These women are fighting for their basic rights. They have counted the cost and considered their cause worthy of risking their safety, even their lives.

Anything we outside the streets of Iran can do to amplify their voices can help. Having more people outside Iran take a leading role to talk about this does exactly that. If you would like to act in solidarity with women of Iran:

  • Share the news on social media as a symbolic gesture: utilize your platform to share information on the efforts taken by women and girls; by doing so, you are multiplying their impact.
  • Contact any organizations you are connected with to speak on behalf of Iranian women’s rights.
  • Academic awareness is a must: post analyses on LinkedIn, discuss the news in classrooms, assign research articles for students or publish one yourself if you can.
  • For those of you who pray: prayers too can create change in the world around us.

These actions have a ripple effect. We can all stand with the women of Iran. We stay hopeful and we stay positive that these women will prevail in their plight for a greater life for Iranian women now and for future generations.

The women-led protests occurring are not acts of mindless violence by a people against its country; they are the cry of courageous Iranians who wish to see their country and the citizens living in it flourish in equality, freedom, life, and liberty. For women, and for all.

Why and how we can think about the situation of young Yemeni by Michèle Ndedi Batchandji

Why and how we can think about the situation of young Yemeni by Michèle Ndedi Batchandji

Photo Credit: Jakob Rubner

Michèle Ndedi Batchandji is a 2019 graduate from IHEID in Geneva with a Master in Development Studies; her thesis was on ‘Access to Education for orphans in Yemen’. Michèle has worked at NORRAG in the SDC backstopping Team and is now a consultant in project implementation in the Office for Africa at the International Trade Center (ITC). You can continue the converSation with Michèle via michele.ndedi@graduateinstitute.ch and via LinkedIn https://www.linkedin.com/in/michelendedi/ 


Today, in all the major armed conflicts, civilians represent the highest number of casualties. According to Action on Armed Violence, the countries with the highest death toll of civilians are Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Iraq. These wars have all intermittently received high media coverage in the United States and in Europe, with the exception of Yemen. The Yemeni conflict only had its moment in the spotlight for a couple of months when images of starving children were widely circulated. Now with the Covid-19 pandemic—and despite the UN Security Council Resolution 2532 calling for cessation of hostilities in all conflict zones—even less attention is being paid to the situation of Yemen, while attacks and retaliations continue and the story goes on…

OK, but what is actually going on in that country? The war in Yemen is considered one of the deadliest wars of the past year, so let’s just look at some facts quickly: In Yemen, out of 30.5 million inhabitants, 24.1 million (80%) are said to be in need of humanitarian assistance, of which  12 million are children. Nearly every child in Yemen needs assistance. Schools and hospitals are often under attack. In 2018, some international organizations were calling it the world’s worst humanitarian crisis; now, with the compound effects of Covid-19, the situation can only deteriorate

So it seems tragic but what can we do, right? I cannot pretend to have an answer, but I think we can start by caring. OK, and how? The first step might be to start by being aware of what is happening there. At the basis, Yemen is a country like any other, whose citizens have rights to food, water, shelter, sleep as well as to health, employment and social stability. Thus, our immediate role can be to research, read, write, and to not remain indifferent.

One thing is certain though, that it will remain difficult to talk about actions with long-term impacts until a ceasefire is reached between the parties. Democratic institutions across the world have tried to end military support to belligerents with no real success for now. That means that citizens have to redouble its efforts and pressure on their governments. WE can help. We can all contribute by signing petitions, which will help in keeping the plight of Yemini people on government priority lists. Multilateral organizations have a major role to play by upholding the pressure on both  parties to stop the fighting, and to  establish more inclusive peace processes with advisory groups which will include more youth and women, who do not only represent the vast majority of the population but also are the first victims of this conflict.

So, let’s try to act, each at our level. The only fact that almost all children in Yemen need assistance can be a good motivation, don’t you think?