CALAIS, FRANCE — It’s early on a Monday morning, and Marisa Rickard is trying to remember to drive on the right side of the road. Rickard, 43, an LDS mother of three from Dover, England, is used to driving on the left, and though she’s only 22 miles from home here in Calais, France, some things make it feel much farther — especially the world of the refugee camp where she’s headed.
It’s a hot day in July, and Rickard’s sandy blond hair is slung in a braid over one shoulder. She’s dressed in overalls and an olive green cap, ready to get dirty. In the backseat of Rickard's black minivan are two other volunteers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, sisters Naomi and Phoebe Pettman, and in the front seat is Dan Shillabeer, who, like Rickard, is a humanitarian welfare specialist from the LDS Church's Canterbury England Stake.
They’re leading a caravan of three vehicles and eight volunteers to the Calais refugee camp, also known as the Jungle, a sprawling tangle of tents and shipping containers housing more than 7,000 migrants hoping to make their way across the English Channel to the United Kingdom. The unofficial camp has existed since 1999, and today most of its residents are from war-torn countries such as Iraq, Sudan and Eritrea.
What started as an outreach project by the Canterbury Stake Relief Society in 2015 has transformed into a volunteer group of more than 600 people, LDS and non-LDS alike. Organized through a Facebook page called Care4Humanity, small groups of volunteers cross the English Channel once or twice a month to deliver food and supplies or to help build shelters. Donations come from all over the UK and even some other countries.
Rickard set up the Facebook page as the stake Relief Society president, and now she facilitates the effort as a welfare specialist. The volunteers had made several trips when the Church’s April 2016 General Conference thrust the migrant crisis into the spotlight with a number of talks and a newly announced effort through the Relief Society, and they said the emphasis was energizing.
“It’s great to feel like we’re actually living the gospel rather than just talking about it,” Shillabeer says. “By doing this we feel like, you know, I can sleep at night. I feel that as a Christian I’m doing my bit. It’s a living religion. ‘Feed my sheep’ — we are literally feeding the sheep.”
A quiet place
The Jungle is built on an old munitions dump next to a chemical plant. Used tear gas canisters, left over from a forced evacuation of part of the camp five months ago, litter the ground near the entrance and trucks lumber past on a highway overpass.
The Care4Humanity volunteers make their way along a gravel road to a ramshackle Christian church constructed of gray tarps, electrical tape and two-by-fours and topped with two wooden crosses. The church stands alone, surrounded by yellow weeds in a section of the camp that was burned down by French authorities during the evacuation, spared out of respect for France’s Christian heritage.
Twenty percent of the migrants in the camp are Christian, mostly Ethiopian Orthodox, and inside the church paper icons are duct-taped to tarp walls and the chalky-sweet smell of incense hangs in the air. The volunteers remove their shoes and step from the muddy entrance onto a patchwork of carpets. It’s still and quiet, an oasis from the chaos of the camp. “There’s a spirit here, isn’t there?” Shillabeer says.
The volunteers have brought about 20 fence posts to bolster the rickety fence around the church, but French authorities won’t allow them to bring anything into the camp today, so they’re trying to figure out how to get them to the migrants who operate the church. The pastor is absent, so the volunteers sit on the carpet inside the church to wait. It’s one of the realities of humanitarian work: between the picture-perfect moments and exhilarating accomplishments are long stretches of waiting and navigating logistical setbacks — especially in disorganized places like the Jungle.
But things have a way of working out, Shillabeer says. Their van of supplies was once stuck in the Chunnel for four hours, but they still managed to finish the construction project. Another time they built a double shelter in less time than it took four professional builders to construct a single shelter.
“We’ve gotten to this phase now where we just don’t believe that we can’t do things. It’s faith — we just believe we can do it, and that makes a lot of things happen,” he says.
A single dad, Shillabeer, 55, also acknowledges the support from friends and family that make these trips possible. “We're the tip of the iceberg. We couldn't be doing anything we are without all the quiet people who help us.”
Rickard tracks down an assistant pastor from Ethiopia named Solomon, and they arrange to leave the fence posts at the warehouse nearby and have other volunteers bring them the next day.
Solomon thanks her over and over.
“The church is the one place in the camp we can worship God,” he says.
Where is the love?
When Rickard started the Care4Humanity Facebook page a year ago to coordinate the community outreach activities of the Relief Society, she had no idea it would grow to 600 members. Volunteers from local university students to other church groups have joined, rallying together to carry out projects, many of which are funded through proposals to the LDS Church’s humanitarian arm in Frankfurt, Germany.
The LDS chapel in Canterbury is now a regional drop-off point for donations from all over the UK, and Rickard coordinates regularly with other ad hoc organizations that have sprung up in the past year, such as Help Refugees, an English group, and L’auberge, a French group, that together manage a Calais warehouse of donations and coordinate aid in the informal camp. French church members and missionaries are also active in the cause, especially in the nearby Dunkirk camp.
For some Care4Humanity volunteers, the work has become all-consuming. Rickard is always thinking about refugees, she said, and she signed up for a Twitter account just so she could tweet at musician Will.i.am of the Black-eyed Peas to ask him to rerelease the song “Where is the Love?” to raise awareness of refugees.
She tweeted him for six months and was stunned when a video remake of the song hit the internet earlier this month beginning with an image of a refugee boy.
“I don't know if he did it because of my tweets, but I just cried when I saw it,” she said. “He did it!”
Not all church members are on the same page when it comes to helping refugees, but some who previously had reservations have visited the camps and had a change of heart, Rickard said.
“Every time we take more people out there, we have more ‘converts.’ When they actually meet and talk one-on-one with a refugee, it completely changes them. For me, it’s like being a missionary again and inviting them to the gospel — it’s softening people’s hearts and allowing them to see people in a different light.”
Shillabeer says it has changed him, too. “You’re never the same once you’ve been out here. You can’t be. This just feels irresistible. I can’t tell you the feeling — it just consumes you. So when you’re tired at night and you’ve got a bit more building design to do, you find the energy.”
‘Don’t forget me’
Driving back to England, the volunteers are already thinking about their next trip to Calais in two weeks. Shillabeer will be heading up construction of a boxing gym in the Jungle, funded by a church member who is traveling from Arizona for the build. Another volunteer in this caravan, seamstress J’net Stapleton, will be heading up a sewing project that’s become a centerpiece of Care4Humanity’s work.
People all over the world have been knitting 8-inch squares and sending them to Care4Humanity, and the Kurdish women in the Dunkirk camp bind them into blankets as winter approaches. Each square has a small tag with a message from the knitter for the refugee who receives it. They’ve named the project Hearts Knit as One, based on a Book of Mormon verse. It’s ongoing, and instructions for participating are on the Care4Humanity Facebook page.
The Care4Humanity volunteers have grown close on their road trips, but they could soon become less frequent. The French government recently vowed to clear and bulldoze the Jungle by October 31 and relocate residents to official camps elsewhere in the country. The Dunkirk camp will remain for now, but the plan is to close it, too.
If the Jungle is closed, Care4Humanity will have to rethink how to concentrate its efforts, Rickard said. They already send some donations to Greece and teach classes for refugees in the Canterbury chapel.
She’s also stumbled across several migrants in England who need help. On a recent rainy day, Rickard was driving her kids home from school when they noticed a family by the side of the road. They stopped to help and learned they were from Iraq and had just arrived in England.
“The mother was holding a toddler. She couldn’t have been more than a year and a half old, and she had a gash on her head,” she says. “She had no shoes on and her feet were absolutely freezing.”
No one answered the phone at the police station, so Rickard put the family in her car and started driving. Suddenly, there were sirens and flashing lights and her way was blocked with cars.
“An undercover policeman had started trailing me because he thought I was a human trafficker. It was quite a scene,” she says.
The local county, Kent, receives most of the migrants who make it to England, including a significant number of unaccompanied minors in need of special support. Rickard says Care4Humanity would like to begin offering more help to them.
She can’t shake a recent conversation with a 17-year-old boy named Tito, a strong personality whose charisma and kindness has made him a leader in the Jungle. She asked him what he needed that they could bring him.
“He said, ‘I don’t need anything. Just please don’t forget me.’
“It struck me to the very core,” Rickard says. “The most valuable thing they possess is their identity. That was everything and the thing he requested from me: ‘Know that I’m a human and I have an identity, just don’t forget me.’”
Growing up being taught that she had divine worth, Rickard says, makes her want to help others feel the same way.
“I was sitting in sacrament meeting one day and the congregation was singing How Firm a Foundation. These lyrics jumped out of the hymn book: ‘I am thy God and will still give thee aid’ ... ‘who unto the Saviour for refuge have fled.’
“We are all in need of refuge and aid. This is where we find common ground.”
Email: [email protected]