If you could make it and want to donate, you can do so here.
We had a lovely dinner at Otvorena Kuhinja Ck13 yesterday evening. We collected donations of clothes and toiletries and raised some money too! It was great to chat to sympathetic people about our work in Šid and the situation for migrants in Serbia.
If you could make it and want to donate, you can do so here.
This tiny town, surrounded by fields of corn, wheat and sunflowers, feels like a different age. A trip to Serbian capital Belgrade was quite overwhelming after a week in the country. The shopping centre where I parked my little British car was a dissonance with the vegetable market and bakeries we frequent here. Upon my arrival in Šid, our branch of No Name Kitchen had to be restarted almost from nothing as operations had ceased during the coronavirus lockdown. We had to establish connections with people on the move and figure out how best to help them. Now we have a vague schedule which allows us to plan our time and resources, which looks something like this.
Each day we go to the market to buy vegetables to cook with. We try and see what is cheapest in order to stretch our minimal budget as far as possible. We also buy bread from one of the many bakeries in town. 20-30 loaves of bread fit in this massive bag we have, a bit of a challenge to carry home!
Our big kitchen is in the garden. We have a big table for chopping vegetables and some big gas burners for huge cooking pots. We’ll put some water on to heat for lentils, beans, rice or pasta, then peel tonnes of onions and chop thousands of potatoes. We’ve got pretty creative with the spices and flavours. Balsamic cabbage was a hit, and hummus was awesome. It’s a challenge to estimate how much food to make for 60-100 people each day on a tight budget.
Each of us has a specific role within the organisation which requires time. Logistics involves obtaining clothes and supplies for us to use, as well as the management of volunteers arriving and plenty of other details. Finance is a complicated task of maintaining our financial records, applying for an appropriate budget and monitoring our spending. Violence reporting requires conducting interviews with people who have been victims of illegal pushback from another country to Serbia. The often violent crime that is committed by Croatian, Romanian or Hungarian border guards are reported by the Border Violence Monitoring Network. Communication involves creating content for social media as well as a weekly podcast that goes out in Spanish. Health involves first aid as well as directing people towards services that they can access, or facilitating payment for things they can’t afford. This is my role, and so far I have got someone a new frame for his glasses, and facilitated medications for people where the camp doctor doesn’t cover it. All these tasks have to fit into the day. This means meeting with people, writing reports, filling in forms and liaising with other organisations.
In the afternoon we pack up the food, as well as powerbanks that we have charged overnight, and laundry that we have collected and washed the previous day. We also include hygiene items like toothbrushes, tissues and any medical supplies that have been requested. We load it all into our adventure van or my little British car and drive to the meeting point. We have to find meeting places away from where the police might see us, as the guys could get taken back to the camps if they are discovered. Being taken to the camp means they can’t try to cross the border and the camp conditions range from ‘not too bad’ to ‘utterly awful’. One place that we meet is teeming with mosquitoes, so we’re trying to provide bug spray and bite treatment to as many people as we can.
By the end of the day there are usually some left-over tasks. Washing up, meetings or discussions can take up some time, we have to plan regular trips to Belgrade in order to restock on cheap food and meet with other organisations. Otherwise we can go for a walk in the sunflower fields with Una the Bosnian street dog and then wander to the centre of town. There’s a place for vegan ice cream as well as some friendly bars to relax in. Every day is busy and full and there are tough times. The stories of the violent pushbacks are the hardest to hear, and managing a tiny budget when trying to help so many people is difficult. It’s hard having to say no to so many requests for essential items, but we know we’re helping even if the lists seem endless at times.
To help us with our work here you can donate to No Name Kitchen here.
I'm always happy to answer questions about the work here and the migrant crisis in general. Let me know in the comments or contact form if you want to know more about it here.
Two weeks ago I drove with my adventure buddy Stef from Calais to Serbia on a three day expedition, through 7 countries (France, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Croatia) to arrive in the small border town of Šid (pronounced Shid) in Serbia. I started learning about the situation in the Balkans from fellow volunteers in Calais, as well as from refugees that had come that route. Stef and I were put in touch with No Name Kitchen, an organisation with several operations in the Balkans and Greece, and who were very short on volunteers in Serbia. It has been a steep learning curve, both about Serbia as a country to live in, and about how the migrant crisis is being handled here. Here’s something of what I’ve learnt so far.
Two sorts of camps
The Serbian government runs two sorts of camps for refugees and migrants, reception centres and residential camps for those wishing to make an asylum claim. There are also separate camps for families and for unaccompanied minors. In the town of Sid there’s a family camp reception centre which I have visited.
Outside of the camps
Right now the camps are locked down. The excuse being used is coronavirus, but there was an election at the weekend and it’s likely the camps were used as a political move too. There are some people outside of the camps who don’t want to be in them, or chose to leave in order to try and cross the border into Croatia or Romania. These are the people we have trying to help the most.
One of the tasks of No Name Kitchen is to collect violence and push back reports. A push back is when someone is forced back from Croatia or Romania into Serbia. It’s illegal. Once someone has got to the new country, they have the right to make an asylum application. Many of the push backs are violent, with border guards and police beating and robbing people before sending them back to Serbia.
The political situation and the coronavirus situation have both become more intense since being here. Democracy is not in evidence and the borders have just been closed again as the number of covid cases rise. For us, that means we can’t access the donations of clothes and equipment from abroad. However, from a day to day life point of view, Šid is a pretty nice place to live. The small town has lots of bakeries and green spaces, and is surrounded by fields, with lots of walking and running routes. People are friendly, if a bit confused by us foreigners. We cook massive pots of food every day to take to various groups, the coordination of that is quite delicate, and we all have administrative work to do for the organisation and for our ‘real’ jobs. Our days are long and busy, it’s extremely difficult to plan for the changing situation, but it’s a privilege to be able to help people in need.
The more I learn about politics and conflict, the more I realise how much Western Europe has to answer for. Not only are many people fleeing war and oppressive regimes caused or supported by the west, but people on the move (asylum seekers, refugees, migrants) are used as a political bargaining chip for Serbia to gain membership of the EU. Croatia, Hungary and Romania receive millions of Euros to keep people out using whatever methods are necessary. And this all happens with the knowledge and support of the west.
I will be staying in Šid until the end of July and will happily answer any questions anyone has. Comment below or send me a message, and stand by for more content. Follow Hannah the Traveller on facebook for more updates.
Coronavirus has managed to make all our worlds smaller. For a long time we were only aware of the situation in our own countries and localities and it remains quite difficult to find information about the situation in other countries. I was living in France for a couple of months, and watched as the restrictions were gradually lifted. Cafes reopened for takeaway, bars and restaurants started taking customers again - and there was a glimpse of normal life returning. Each country has had a different experience. I’m in Serbia now and visited Belgrade as part of my work with an aid organisation. Belgrade seems 100% back to normal. It’s such an interesting city to visit and I felt very fortunate to have the city experience without tourists! And even more so when I happened to call up Belgrade Adventures when I realised that myself and fellow volunteer Stef were going to have some free time…!
Belgrade sits on the confluence of two rivers - the Sava and Danube. Rivers mean water so naturally I looked up the water sport opportunities in the city. Belgrade Adventures could accommodate us right away, with a bespoke tour to fit into our schedule. Vlada the guide met us and asked a few questions about what we wanted to see and if we had any experience before we were set afloat in our double kayak. I’ve paddled quite a few different crafts in my time but this was my first time with a rudder operated by foot pedals. So my feet were doing the steering. As an organist, you’d think I’d be competent at multitasking with different body parts, but it certainly took some getting used to (sorry for Stef)!
We zig-zagged our way upstream to begin with, and saw an army base where the warship formerly called SMS Bodrog is tethered. This ship was instrumental to the beginning of WWI. Vlada gave us plenty of local history and an amazing amount of information about the nature that inhabits the river islands. He’s seen a white-tailed eagle on more than one occasion. No eagles for us today but plenty of ducks and herons, all within moments of the bustling city. Belgrade’s two million inhabitants have nature on their doorstep. We continued towards the confluence of the two rivers and floated on the mighty Danube. It is a vast river! I’ve paddled on the Thames in London and felt like a small dot but the Danube dwarfs Old Father Thames. The views of the city on the hill above were spectacular. Just as the sun came out we headed for a secluded channel where we left any noise of human habitation behind, and meandered through the reeds watching out for catfish and turtles that call this place home.
On our way back, Vlada talked about the other adventures that are on offer. Caving and mountain biking in Serbia sounds cool. I am very tempted by their Novi Sad to Belgrade kayaking journey. Two days, 70 km and a night camping on a river island - that’s my kind of adventure.
Coronavirus is going to have a huge impact on tourism for a very long time. Here in the Balkans, movement between nearby countries is going to be acceptable before long so hopefully tourism will start to grow in the coming months. I feel incredibly privileged to have experienced Belgrade as very few people do, and I am really grateful to Vlada and Ivan at Belgrade Adventures for showing us the unique, watery perspective of their beautiful city. See you soon guys!
I wrote the following article for the Guardian who are doing a series entitled Blood, Sweat and Tears - about experiences of healthcare during pandemic times. They didn't want it, so here it is! Comments and questions welcomed as always.
Kneeling in the dust with my patient’s foot propped on my lap was my first experience of First Aiding in Calais. I was cleaning and dressing the wound of a refugee who had been injured falling off a truck.
I got my first aid qualification during my professional scuba diving training which I recently completed in Mexico. I was living the diver’s dream in the Caribbean before COVID-19 sent me home. With no work as a diver or my other job as a church organist in London, I returned to France where I’ve volunteered several times before.
The simple medical kit that comes with us when we visit the temporary camp areas in Calais and Dunkirk contains a basic selection of plasters, bandages, antiseptic and sanitizing creams. I’m volunteering with Care4Calais - an aid charity that operates in northern France. It was the only charity operating here for a while, as other organisations stopped work when Covid19 hit France. Mainly we distribute food, clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and in normal times we’re usually joined by another organisation - First Aid Support Team. However, these qualified medics are not here at present: my fellow first-aider, who is a furloughed land mine-clearer, and I are the best we’ve got for the moment.
As we were setting up the portable handwash station and a generator for phone charging, a man approached me with his hood up and his hand on his face. He’d just seen me giving a plaster to a little boy who had a cut on his foot. “Doctor?” he asked. I showed him the sign we have in Kurdish which says: I’m not a doctor, just a first aider. He took the hand away from his face and I could see how swollen his cheek was: he had an awful tooth infection. “Ouch! That’s very bad.” All I could do was give him printed directions to the hospital clinic which wouldn’t be open until the next day, and a mask to wear while he was there. I can’t imagine how long that night felt as he tried to sleep through the pain.
Later the same week, my friend talked to a guy with sore feet. He took his shoes off and showed her quite a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s not surprising that he had this fungal infection, as it’s difficult to keep clean when you’re living in a tent which is subject to clearance by the police at a moment’s notice. He was wearing his shoes without socks. My friend spent a long time with him, cleaning his feet and chatting. The Google translate app meant that they could communicate, and she could wish him a happy Eid. The personal level of care she could provide to him was a special moment of service - she could give him her full attention and tend to him in what is by necessity a tactile way, which is so rare at the moment. This was important for her too, as she is unable to perform her usual job but this way could still feel a commitment to a humanitarian cause during this time.
It was a difficult decision for both of us to travel to France. The risk to ourselves of contracting the virus whilst away from home, as well as being away from family that may need help, and the personal financial cost to volunteer, preyed on our minds beforehand.
Working here in France has many challenges. So far, Covid19 has not been obvious in the informal camps, but if it arrives, the inability to keep social distancing rules or wash frequently could lead to a rapid spread.Communicating whilst wearing extensive PPE is difficult enough with fellow volunteers, and even more challenging when there’s a language barrier too. But the small amount of comfort we are able to provide by sitting with someone, giving them our full attention, listening to their problem and trying to find a solution, provides a connection that many people during this time are unable to have.
Being able to share this work with other volunteers of different ages and backgrounds is a reward too. I am so grateful to all the health professionals who are working hard in such extreme situations in hospitals and elsewhere, and I’m humbled to be able to use my training in this small way.
We like our routines at Care4Calais - every week we visit the same sites, and every day we have a debriefing meeting when we get back to talk through how the day has been. In our debrief the other day charity founder Clare was talking about how it would be really useful to get some more photos for social media, it's a great tool for gaining donations and awareness.
"It's really hard to get photos at the Eritrean site - everyone there is terrified of everything. I can't imagine what their country must be like to make you that scared."
This comment, from someone who knows the details of the migrant crisis better than anyone, acted to wake me up. I have slipped into the routines after three weeks here, I've stopped questioning and I've started accepting the situation as it is. Why are so many people leaving Eritrea? What are their chances of successful asylum claims? And berbere spice?!
I had to look up where Eritrea is when I first worked in Calais. It borders Sudan and Ethiopia and has a Red Sea Coast, and it's got a pretty devastating history. Colonialism, both Italian and British, left Christianity behind. The only step towards independence involved a federation with Ethiopia which later led to a 30 year war. The hard-won independence was followed by single-party dictatorship - there have been no elections since the rigged one in 1993. Wikipedia has some shocking figures about the compulsory military service. On paper, this is a compulsory service for 18 months, however the truth is:
"everyone under the age of 50 is enlisted in national service for an indefinite period until released, which may depend on the arbitrary decision of a commander. In a study of 200 escaped conscripts, the average service was 6.5 years, and some had served more than 12 years." 1
No wonder people are leaving. The Human rights record is among the worst in the world, with a study in June 2016 revealing that extrajudicial executions and torture along with sexual harassment, rape and sexual servitude by state officials are widespread. Why don't we hear about it? There's no freedom of press.
Despite appalling experiences, the guys I spoke to the other day were cheerful and joking. An intense football game continued while I chatted. Abraham told me about learning English at school and reading the Bible in his language which is Tigrinya. We laughed that he'd have no need for the shampoo in the pack we'd just distributed as he's gone bald, and he told me about missing the food from home. It took the help of several people to describe the spice mix he was telling me about. Berbere spice is a blend including chili, garlic, ginger and plenty more, which is common in Eritrea as well as neighbouring Ethiopia.
I can't imagine what Abraham's life was like, or the journey he made across Sudan, Libya, the ocean and Europe. I can't imagine being so far from home with such little hope to hang on to. So my homework over the next few days will be reading a lengthy Home Office document on asylum claims for Eritreans, as well as tracking down some berere spice in locked-down France. Wish me luck...
Care4Calais are always grateful to received volunteers and donations of things and money. Comment or message me with any questions or visit Care4Calais.org
I've been in France for nearly a week now volunteering with Care4Calais. Volunteers are always needed so I thought I'd give you an idea of what my days are like, and what yours would be like if you came to help out. Plus, I had the added bonus of an exciting ferry journey. Read on for the ferry report as well as a day in the life...
When I decided to come back to Calais during the coronavirus lockdown, volunteers had been travelling back and forth as usual via the Dover to Calais ferry, or via the Eurotunnel from Folkstone. However, as my departure day drew closer, the admin team at the charity got in touch to tell me about problems on those routes. Despite having documentation proving the essential nature of Care4Calais's work from both French and Belgian authorities and having all the correct paperwork to allow travel, people were denied entry to France. I spoke to various different people about other travel options and the likelihood of problems on those routes and, after a delay of a few days, I headed off. Me and my enormous pile of paperwork, which included a letter from the Mayor's office in Calais and the city authority of Brussels, first headed for Cambridge. A church there was a collection point for donations for the charity and it wasn't too far out of my way. Fr Simon and his Labrador sent me on my way with a car full of clothing and shoes along with a diet coke - carefully placed on the roof of my car using BBQ tongs to avoid risk of virus transmission - and next stop was Hull.
I arrived in Hull too early - there had been no traffic. I enjoyed my diet coke while nervously awaiting check-in and immigration. I was questioned by the ferry staff but didn't need to disturb most of my pile of documents. After a quick car search (it was clear I wasn't just going for the weekend, what with the piano in my car), there was more waiting around but no further checks. There were 5 or 6 other cars boarding the ferry to Zeebrugge in Belgium along with a lot of lorries. I picked up my sanitized cabin key from the staff member in mask and gloves and breathed half a sigh of relief in my little cabin. I was on the ferry but I still had to face Belgian immigration and then the French border.
I do love a good ferry. I was reminded of the slightly dodgy ferry I'd taken from Jordan to Egypt last year, as I watched the sunset from the deck. I explored the ship, smiling at the truckers from at least 2 metres away. Falling asleep in my little cabin being rocked by the sea was actually very calming. Disembarking 13 hours later, I was ready with my pile of documents again. But, to my relief, the Belgian authorities were only interested in my passport. It's only an hour and half to Calais from Zeebrugge - driving to another country is still really strange to an islander. I stopped to figure out which documents I needed for the French border, but to my amazement, I wasn't stopped! Arriving to the charity's warehouse in Calais was a relief and it was comforting to be in a familiar place again.
A Day in the Life of a Volunteer
I've volunteered three times now over more than 2 years, the situation in northern France changes all the time, especially now, but the structure of Care4Calais's working day remains roughly the same. Here's what I did yesterday as an example of how the charity functions.
Yesterday I arrived at the warehouse at about 9:20am. I washed my hands at the handwash station outside the warehouse, signed in and put on a volunteer vest. My first task of the day was creating food packs. Since the beginning of the French lockdown, the other organisations providing hot food have had to pull out. Care4Calais is supplying refugees with packs of things to cook with for a few days in a small groups. I counted out 70 cans of tomatoes, 105 tins of fish and 35 bags of teabags. Also in the packs were rice, lentils, oil, onions, carrots, garlic, milk, sugar, salt, chickpeas and oranges. Once the bags were made up and loaded in to the vans, I helped sorting trousers. When donations arrive at the warehouse they get sorted several times depending on what we need now and what we need to store for later.
After lunch, prepared by Isy and Stef - fellow volunteers - we had a briefing for the afternoon. We were going to Dunkirk with the food packs. The refugees have tents in some abandoned warehouses, as well as hidden in some woods on the other side of the motorway. We were each given a role, told where we would park, who would drive and any other considerations for this site. Then we prepared out PPE. We've got scrubs to wear over our clothes (they're actually British Airways pjs), hats, two sorts of mask, and gloves. We headed off for the 30 minutes drive to Dunkirk. My role was to go with a couple of others into the warehouses to give out tickets for the food packs. This was to make sure every group got a pack. People with tickets then lined up. There are spots painted on the floor to make sure everyone is two metres apart. Once the line was ready then my job was to hand out the packs from the back of the van. Again, for social distancing this was done over a table so we didn't have any direct contact. Once the big packs for groups were finished, we had some snack packs for anyone that had missed out. During this distribution we'd also set up the generator and charging boards for everyone to charge their phones and hand washing station. We had time to chat and to carry out surveys. We're trying to find out how coronavirus is affecting displaced people to ensure we're meeting their needs as best we can. I had a good chat with one guy who told me that he would be more concerned of catching the virus in a government centre as there would be more mixing of people - locals running the place, plus refugees from different areas - so he felt safer staying where he was.
After packing up and driving back, it was time to wash everything! We are very conscious of spreading the virus between groups that are quite isolated so we take hygiene to extreme levels. Car interiors, clipboards, water container, generator, everything is washed or wiped with disinfectant wipes and we safely disposed of our PPE. While the stuff was drying, we had a debrief. People shared how they felt the distribution went, if any changes should be made, any stories they heard or problems to report. We were then given a taster of what would happen the next day and did a final tidy up.
The differences in volunteering at the moment are the extra work created by PPE and washing things and the extra paperwork (every time you are moving around you require a form). Otherwise we continue to respond to the needs of the displaced people as best we can with the resources that we have. It is an intense situation, but once you accept the hardship and injustice as a given, then it's fun socialising with the other volunteers and with refugees, it's good to feel useful and productive and the lunch is always good! If you are considering joining us to volunteer then feel free to get in touch with any questions. I can help direct you to where you'll find the newest information about travel as well as any queries about the practicalities of life here. Just comment below, or email me directly using the Contact Form.
There are plenty of options available for those scuba addicts among us that want to join the ranks of scuba professionals. Training to become a Divemaster is a challenging and rewarding experience. The length of time that you take to complete all the elements isn't fixed, so you can do it over a year with your local dive shop - perhaps combining e-learning with weekend pool or open water sessions. Or you can technically complete all the tasks in a couple of weeks of intense study and activity. How to decide? I did a lot of research before deciding what to do. Read on for my research criteria as well as my experience as a DiveMasterTrainee!
When I was picking where to do my training I had the following criteria:
All these things, and a desire to visit Mexico as a backpacker, led me to XTC dive center which is located in the village of Xcalak on the Yucatan Peninsular. Their website had lots of helpful information. The diving in that part of Mexico is world famous and they are based in a little village with no other dive centres. Their programme allowed me to pick how long to do the course (1, 2, or 3 months) for the same cost meaning, I’d get plenty of diving and plenty of experience for my money. The location in a remote village wouldn’t have suited everyone - a few tiny stores and a visiting veggie truck were the only shopping opportunities, but I was too busy diving, running through the mangrove forests and sleeping to do much else.
The divemaster training is demanding. Within hours of arriving I was learning to fill tanks and prepare kit, with in-between moments spent studying the divemaster textbook. Before I arrived, I was nervous about the five swim tests. I was soon distracted from worrying by the incredible marine life I saw on my first few dives, turtles and manatees were my favourite, without even mentioning the bright corals and sponges teaming with colour fish that we saw on every single dive. And fish whose names I was starting to learn through my studying. Within a week I was assisting instructors with clients, precisely the experience I had come to get. The swim tests, when they came, were demanding. I did cry at one point. But with patient instructors I managed to get through all the requirements before being forced home by some pandemic or other.
The remote location of Xcalak, amidst the mangroves of the Mexico-Belize border, isn’t the only thing that makes XTC so special. An added bonus for me was the number of divemaster trainees. I wasn’t aware there would be others training at the same time (I didn’t think to ask!), but it was great to share experiences with my fellow students. It meant we could help each other, pair-up for skills practice and pretend to be unresponsive divers for each other. Not to mention the social aspect of hanging out together when the work was done. I’ve made forever friends in Xcalak.
If you’re thinking about becoming a divemaster then I would suggest researching all the different options. Do you have 6 months to spare? Then you can find full internships where you work until you've paid off your training. If you are doing it alongside your regular work, then your local dive shop will be able to organise online theory sessions with open water training sessions as and when they can happen. For me, I wouldn't have picked anywhere else. XTC has great facilities, fantastic diving and excellent instructors and course director. I loved living in a remote village and immersing myself in the world of being a dive professional. Now, when can I go diving next....
Have you decided to take on divemaster training? Did you complete your training somewhere special? Do you want advice on how to pick somewhere? Comment below.
What does any sane runner do when all the running events are cancelled? Create their own of course!
I've decided to enter into the lockdown spirit by running a half marathon in the confines of my Mum's back garden. It will take a mere 528 laps to complete the 13.1 miles required. There won't be any cheering crowds, no stylish medal or bragging t-shirt. The scenery is going to be pretty samey and my Mum's already said she's not going to watch for too long as she'll get bored. So why would I put myself through such an ordeal? Why would I risk injury for an event I haven't trained for? For sponsorship of course! I'm raising money for Care4Calais.
I was last in Calais in January where the situation was largely the same as two years ago. Displaced people are living in smaller and smaller areas, crowded together, with regular police clearances. Now, some of the other charities have had to scale back or shut down due to various reasons connected to Coronavirus. Care4Calais have had to take on the responsibility of providing food for people to cook with, as this is the most hygienic way for everyone involved. This is costing the charity substantially more than their usual costs, and it means their usual services have been suspended.
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Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.