Hearing how two Somalian brothers died –one under the wheels of a shuttle and another took his own life, distraught at his sibling’s fate, is not what you expect to hear on Mitzvah Day.
But it is essential we know the plight of ‘the Jungle’ refugees in Calais first-hand and members of Mosaic Reform Synagogue were grateful to Karen Pollak and her daughter, Mia, for sharing their experiences after they had spent weeks volunteering at the Refugee Community Kitchen there.
At the same time a clothes collection for refugees – there are still many left, in spite of its official closure – was run through the day and children created gift packs of art and crafts for the children of ‘the Jungle’. The Neasden Temple has also added 30 sacks to the collection.
Karen spoke about the ordeal of the refugees, many arriving with nothing, the vast quantities of food – “I don’t think I’ve peeled as much garlic in my life” she made, chopping wood – “I walked around like John Wayne all evening” to be used to heat water or to cook and since its closure 60 unaccompanied children have gone missing. She said: “It’s quite chilling“.
Karen also spoke about the lack of organisation, how many refugees had no idea where to go or how to get there: some are in another government run camp in Dunkirk, others are returning or living in the forest or sleeping rough. She said: “The problem has not gone away; it’s just been spread around the country”.
Mia said: “They were given maps of France but didn’t understand what was happening. They didn’t know where to go. The numbers of people who are sleeping rough has shot up.”
Volunteers were mixed and international, said Karen, with some surprises like the vicar and his atheist wife.
Karen appealed for appropriate clothes – many are inappropriate with holes and even a pair of shoes covered in blood. She said: “If it’s not good enough to give to a friend, don’t give it to a refugee.” She spoke of making up hygiene packs for men and having to leave out shaving foam because she didn’t have enough for all the packs and that would cause an argument.
Karen said morale amongst the volunteers was low when the camp closed: “They let the world’s press in but wouldn’t let in the long-term volunteers to say goodbye. They had forged deep relationships with some of the people.” A collection was held at the end of the talk.
Other Mitzvah Day activities included helping Harrow Nature Conservation Forum at Stanmore Common, HaMakom children planting bulbs which will be given to visitors at the Friendship Club and taking part in the Spit to Save a Life for the Delete Blood Cancer campaign.