Social Justice Blog: My Experience as a Young Vincentian in Calais 

Image of refugees

By Charlie Bennett, SVP Young Vincentians Officer

It is so often overwhelming, all the things we can do! I have so often dreamt of moving and working abroad. Of sporadically taking holiday to go and see the world. I have so many dreams, and so many options, but also so much responsibility. Another way that I am overwhelmed is when I watch the news or see another post on Instagram on how many ways humankind can be flawed, and how those in power repeatedly neglect those most in need.  

I have always felt it important to use my privilege to make the world a better place…but where to begin? That responsibility of knowing about injustice means that I then have to do something about it, yet there are continually new and bigger causes demanding my attention. What to do? How to do it? When to do it? Particularly in between work and other responsibilities!?  

Yet my life was recently changed. I found myself on a weekend trip to Calais with the Columban Missionaries. No news article, BBC interview, or social media post could have prepared me. It was both heartbreaking and heartwarming seeing the camps, the friendships, and the service provided by Care4Calais.  

On my second day in Calais, I met four boys who had fled slave labour and military conscription in Eritrea. The four of them had journeyed through a number of war zones, hostile borders, and perilous environments to reach the shores of Calais. Yet they excitedly enquired about my life, where I was from, what London was like, what football teams I supported. Sadly, they asked the wrong person…my utter lack of football knowledge was unavoidable. Yet they hurriedly shared their love of football, their struggles with the fasting during Ramadan, as well as their dreams. They spent some time debating amongst themselves about whether Arsenal or Chelsea was better, and their life’s dream to watch Chelsea and Arsenal play at Stamford Bridge. They spoke of how they were going to live in North London, of the people that they hope to meet, and the life they were going to build together. The friendship of these four boys was something that many of us can only imagine.  

Whilst I have dreams of living a fantasy in Paris, and with some ease could turn those dreams into reality, these boys are being prevented from creating something we all deserve. A safe home. Bureaucratic laws in the EU prevent these boys from settling in France, and their fluent English means that England is where they would like to build a new home. Yet the reality is that many of them are forced into seeking treacherous paths to England through traffickers, as there are no safe routes available to the UK for refugees and refugees can only apply for refugee status once they are in the UK.  

So, a few months on from my time in Calais, I often kneel down to pray and I often think of my four Eritrean friends. I like to think that they enjoyed Eid, that they have been huddling around one of their phones to see the Premier League, and that they have been managing better in the slightly warmer weather. I pray that they are alive. I pray that the boat they find to take them across the channel is sturdy and safe enough for them. I pray that all four of them make it across the channel together safely. I pray for a continued spirit of joy and hope for them. I just pray.  

On our journey back from Calais, we stopped on the shores of Dover and we prayed together as a group. We were each given a page. This page had a long list of names, ages, origins, and the causes of death. I initially expected to see a long list of those who had drowned on the crossing. I was wrong. Many were in fact boats that had sunk in the Channel or other bodies of water around Europe. But so many were from suicide, hypothermia, starvation, internal bleeding (due to police brutality). This process for refugees does not end when they arrive to the UK; they will have to go through long and hostile processes until they are even considered. Yet these people have escaped from the most traumatic environments and need hope. 
How can we so easily ignore the suffering of others? How can we - myself included - be so quick to forget, and to focus on life’s daily struggles and pleasures? How can we as Christians and followers of Christ, who himself was a refugee, be complacent in the face of such dehumanisation, of so much pain and suffering? What are we doing? 

When I returned, I wanted to flip the world upside down, like Jesus in the temple with the change tables. I was so livid. Desperate for change. I demand change. 

So, what can you do? Because you can and must do something.  

  1. Write to your MP about safe passages for refugees. We did it for Ukrainians, so we can certainly do it for other refugees from beyond Europe. 
  2. Look for local refugee projects near you. There will always be something for you to do. So many local services will provide English lessons, family spaces, cooking workshops, and so much more. But these charities seek to do something simple, to walk alongside refugees in the journey to creating home. And this is one of the most important ones, so do consider sparing some time for your local project!  
  3. Look for an SVP Conference or centre near you. Many of them work with, and provide frontline support to, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. They do this in a number of ways, including by offering advice, English classes, compassion and kindness. 
  4. Talk to friends and family about refugees. By talking and raising it, we change the negative narrative about refugees. If you want more information and statistics, do go to organisations such as Refugee Action, Amnesty International, and UNHCR who have the best information for you. Also, take a look at the useful information about migrants, refugees and people seeking asylum on our website: Migrants, Refugees and People Seeking Asylum | St Vincent de Paul Society (