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Interview with Francisco Dunfernando, a volunteer in the refugee camps (inc. video)

Many people volunteered in the recent refugee crisis which started by people fleeing the Syrian war. Europe’s southern borders are still at the forefront of the crisis, often receiving thousands of refugees each week and volunteers have offered their services in the camps in many ways: from entertaining children with theatre performances to distributing food and giving valuable medical advice. Bristol-based Francisco “Chez” Dunfernando has volunteered at the Calais camp otherwise known as “The Jungle” through the ‘Performers Without Borders’ charity. This charity works towards giving vulnerable children the opportunity to build confidence, explore their potential through teaching performance skills and it also gives them much-needed respite from the everyday hardships in the camp. A few weeks ago we were lucky enough to interview and film, Chez, to find out about her experiences…

Please tell us a little a bit about yourself and also the Performers Without Borders organisation?

My heart is rooted in creating, sharing and bringing play to the groups I work with. We provide the participants with space to explore themselves whilst facilitating individual learning by responding to the dynamic and engagement of the group with a trusted activity or exercise – and sometimes we improvise our way through the session, trusting the process.

I’ve been collaborating with Performers Without Borders for five years now, first as a volunteer, then as a tour co-ordinator, then as part of the tour management team. We work with our partner organisations year on year as a way to build sustainable connections and support a deeper learning programme for our participants.

I am fascinated by how, through playful interaction, we can become present and connect with our reality, holding a space for processing and/or simply being. This aligns with my work in massage therapy and yoga teaching. I have created a series of workshops based on yoga for singing and find that these tools are more ways into creating connection and playful presence.

How and where did the Performers Without Borders start?

Ten and a half years ago, a group of performing artists decided to create a project that used their skills to make a difference to underprivileged and deprived young people. It was created as a response to the social and economic problems in India. Afterwards, a project was created in Nicaragua and in more recent years in Kenya, and now in Calais.

What inspired you to first join?

The idea that I could spread joy and happiness to children, young people and their families who have experienced difficult situations.

Where have you travelled to with Performers Without Borders?

India, Kenya and Calais/Dunkirk.

How would you describe life in the Calais/Dunkirk refugee camps?

Bleak and desperate. Hopeful and hopeless. A land of in-between-ness. A cruel uncertain land of vulnerability and exploitation. A humanitarian crisis.

Adding to this plight is the prevalence of organised crime in migrant camps. We really need to talk long-term solutions in this situation, but the reality is that this is real hand-to-mouth existence whereby people are hungry and need to have the rights to access cleaning, sleeping and eating facilities and feel safe to do so.

How do the children react when you first arrive?

Children are children; they are present and alive in their eyes. We walked through the doors into the emergency sports hall accommodation and the children ran up to us as we created a part improvised, part choreographed interactive workshop show for all the family. They responded beautifully to our offers of music and circus, clown and dance, and were eager to share their ideas with us. The work we do is simple really, it’s about listening to what the group needs and responding with something from our toolkit of games and performance, songs and smiles.

What kind of issues can volunteers encounter within the refugee camps?

Sadly where there are vulnerable people, there are also people wanting to take advantage of this. One of the biggest issues in the camps is organised immigration crime. It is important for volunteers to be well informed and well supported so they are best placed to keep themselves safe and can help reduce the risk of refugees becoming victims of organised criminal groups.

Can you offer advice on how to volunteer safely in a refugee camp?

Remember that refugees are often in desperate situations and this makes them susceptible to exploitation or rash actions. To some refugees, people smuggling gangs may appear to be their only option but in reality these gangs exploit refugees and almost always leave them in a worse position than they were and can even endanger their lives. As volunteers, we are influential on refugees and therefore need to ensure that when a refugee asks for advice, we lead them away from rash action and point them towards legally qualified people who can offer specialist immigration advice.

Do you feel your experience as a volunteer has had an impact upon your life?

Yes – absolutely, I have had the great privilege to meet and work with some incredible people with incredible stories from their homelands and journeys. Music and dancing unites us all. Also it’s a reminder of how privileged and safe I am – that as a woman I can walk around my neighbourhood and not feel threatened.

Are there any particular skills or professional development that arose from your volunteering experiences?

How to manage and lead volunteer groups. Facilitating young people with processing emotional situations as well as dealing with, and not ignoring, secondary trauma. That self-care as a volunteer is crucial – if we are looking after ourselves we can be so much more useful to others. With this in mind, I would definitely advise volunteering through an organisation which provides access to a support network of practical advice and emotional support, so you have vital support for yourself.

What do Performers Without Borders have coming up soon?

This year sees the first co-creation of a rural bicycle theatre tour in the Forest of Dean between ChezTheatre and Wyldwood Arts; we have recently begun our research and development phase, digging, discovering and creating stories from the land and people of the area with local school and care homes. We will create an original musical, physical theatre performance based on the stories and songs we gather that will tour through the forest later in the year.

And finally, why would you encourage others to volunteer? 

Yes! If you have the necessary skills and experience do it. We are but mere drops in the ocean alone, and many drops make waves. To quote Fra Fra Assongtaaba “we should help each other!” It is our collective responsibility as humans to look after each other so if you have skill, time, experience and energy then please share it but do make sure to find the right volunteering opportunity for you. There are so many different areas you can volunteer in. Volunteering in refugee camps requires emotional resilience and endurance, and the ability to adapt to harsh environments among people who have or are suffering trauma so do think about your suitability for this environment.

The video…

NCVO is working in partnership with the Government offering guidance on how to volunteer safely. As independent travellers, we are statistically very likely to also volunteer, especially overseas, so we’ve created a video featuring people who have first-hand experience of volunteering in the European refugee camps…

Thinking of volunteering in the refugee camps? If so there are important things to consider, NCVO have created six factsheets, working with the government and with experienced organisations and volunteers who have worked in camps throughout Europe, to help volunteers and organisations prepare for these challenges. Download these factsheets now.


Born in England, with a few family roots from Bavaria, and a heart in Scandinavia I've always been a bit of a restless soul. My first true adventure began as a six month voyage around South East Asia as a fresh faced backpacker and ever since I've lived a semi nomadic existence, clocking up over 40 countries on trips and living in Dublin, South East Asia and Australia. I'm a lover of US Road Trips, deserted beaches bathed in warm glow of a sunset, Cuban mojitos, easy-on-the-eye travel destinations far away from the tourist crowds and all things Scandinavian - from cloudberry liquors to Scandi Noirs. When not wandering the world, you'll find me walking my rescue dog in leafy South West London, strolling around the Brighton Laines on random day trips, hunting for photogenic landscapes or daydreaming about returning to my all time favourite places in the world; Havana, Copenhagen, Italy, Thailand and the frozen landscapes of a wintry Iceland. Follow Becky on Twitter and Google+.

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