Last week, I did what I’d pledged I’d never do and booted up the blogging software I write this stuff on and tapped out a piece borne of frustration and anger. I had to write, a compulsion to get my thoughts on the unfolding humanitarian crisis out of my head and into words.
As I finished the piece, I decided to illustrate it with a picture of a drowned child, one that had been haunting me for sometime. I put in the necessary search terms to find the image, and was hit by the worst images I’d ever seen on the internet. Please don’t try it. I felt sick, disgusted with how this was allowed to happen in civilization. Escaping barrel bombs, only to swallow sea-water hundreds of miles from home. Why?
Then, commuting home on Wednesday evening, I saw the images of Aylan Kurdi. A photo that simultaneously kicked millions right in the stomach. There is something absurdly pathetic about it: something in the way his corpse was lying that looked like a doll, the primary colours of his clothes making the whole seem all the more horrific. I looked around the tram, desperate to connect with someone. But how? And what to say? I felt a horrible loneliness, a stripped, cold empty feeling. Frustration. Sheer frustration. David Cameron referred to people like the toddler and his dead sister and mother as part of a ‘swarm’. Language that dehumanises, reduces humans to the level of a parasitical invader, strips them of all value, all humanity, takes away all their complexities and nuances; their dreams and aspirations; their lives and loves; instead they are merely something to repel.
At a unrelated meeting later that evening, I overheard someone say that there would be a collection of practical items at The White Lion the following evening. As The Beestonian Facebook site has around 2,700 members, I decided it would be a decent gesture to publicise the event. A friend of mine, Jet, also decided to run a meeting to set up a group to work out logistics, and how we could best put the collection to use. I expected they’d take in a couple of dozen items: that would be great, helping out those with less. I decided to drop in for half an hour and see the level of the response. I’ve hardly left the pub since.
Their were queues. The car park was jammed. A human chain had been formed to best facilitate the huge amount of donations: tents, tarps, food, toiletries, clothes, footwear and so much more. Many were neatly packed and presented; others hurriedly bundled into bin bags. Some came with notes, all came with love.
All evening they came. Upstairs, Jet corralled a team of volunteers to coordinate the donations, and how they would be distributed. My inbox went crazy with people asking if they could donate. I eventually got away, late to an Oxjam meeting, but with probably the best excuse ever.
We filled the cellar swiftly. Sergio, landlord of the pub probably has a lot on his mind right now: his wife Natalie has just had their fourth child, and he has a business to run. Yet he threw himself into it thoroughly, letting a small army of strangers fill his cellar with a mountain of stuff. ‘We were lucky when we fled Angola,’ he tells me ‘We heard the bombs and bullets, but my mother was Portugese and manged to get us out. I saw my first dead body, full of bullet holes, as a child’. He tells us how on first arriving in the UK, he was unaware of Bonfire Night and was terrified when he heard the explosions outside.
On the Friday, I was back, with the cellar over-spilling into the bar. A few phonecalls, and a larger storage space is arranged in a nearby garage (thank you Janet and Simon). Sergio tells me he has an idea: how about we go to Calais, buy a load of fresh ingredients there, then cook a meal for those stuck in the camps? It sounds initially like a crazy plan. Yet it makes a great deal of sense: how better to show our fellow humans that we are a family, than with food? By all means, the donations are practical, and will help those stuck in the French port limbo, but a simple act of feeding warm food directly is a show of compassion, to people who have been all but starved of it on their often horrific treks across Europe. We set up a funding website, and opened for donations. Within 36 hours, we’d taken over a grand. I didn’t think I could be any more surprised by the sheer generosity of Beestonians. I was wrong. We’ll be heading down in early November. We still need more funds: please consider donating a few pounds here: http://gogetfunding.com/fresh-food-for-calais/
This morning, we got a load of the items over to a central storage point where it will be sorted for transit. Afterwards, I worked with another volunteer to sort what we still had left at the White Lion. It was decided that if we compressed a load of the clothes into vaccuum storage bags, it would free up a load of space in transit. I decided to join the volunteer, as Lynda Lally, Tesco’s Community Champion and Beeston Central Councillor, had mentioned she’d be interested in helping us out. Perhaps we could get a discount.
We got more than that. Lynda had a huge pile of end-of-line stock: rice, dried food, canned food, tinned fish: a whole trolley full. It was ours. Just like that. We’d only came in for a few vaccuum bags. Which we got. Gratis.
A week after being in a depressive slough at the seeming lack of humanity in the world, I now feel tremendously joyous at the sheer force of
spirit, the deep goodness of people. While the politicians dragged their feet, and tussled over numbers, we, the people, we did something. As the crisis deepens and our own MP puts out erroneous statements about the family of the drowned toddler merely trying to attain the wealthy middle class lives we enjoy – rather than fleeing from the lives after ISIS had nearly killed the father, torturing him and smashing his teeth out, rather different than her painting him as someone wanting to upgrade to a better Waitrose- we did, we are doing stuff. The cheering crowds on the platform at Munich station. The clergy eschewing any sense of religious divide and instead seeing the human. The hoodied guy, all swagger and trainers, who aproached me and handed over a sleeping bag: ‘Don’t need it no more’. These are the people that see others as their brothers, the sisters, their neighbours and their friends.
Of course, there are questions people have been asking as a war rages over social media about how to view the refugees. Let’s sort some of the myths out
- There are more men than women and children: surely they are just chancers trying to milk the system, posing as refugees? Sometimes, especially in Calais, young men are more dominant. There are many factors here. One is it is simply bloody hard to get there. With limited resources, many men will leave their family in a temporary shelter and head off alone, so as not to risk their family. Once they find refuge, they can help their family. Also, being a young man in Syria and Iraq is particularly deadly. If Assad doesn’t bomb you, ISIS will demand you join them on their bloodthirsty caliphate-creation: you’re not going to get far if you refuse.
- We should look after our own first, before helping other countries. Usually said by people who’d tell a person rattling a tin for Shelter to fuck off, this logic means that compassion is limited to strict geographic limitations. Yes, we should look after our own impoverished, and we should fight against injustice here. Yet it’s not a choice. we are a rich country, and have the resources to do both. If we stop tax-avoiders milking the system, if we maybe got the very rich to cough up a little more of their useless idle capital, then maybe we’d be getting somewhere. For me though, and evidently many others, before describing myself as British, English, whatever, I consider myself human.
- They could have stayed in Turkey or another safe haven. Indeed, and the majority do. Yet under Erdogan Turkey is not as sympathetic to the refugees plight as it might have been a decade ago: here is a president that despises the Kurds. Refugees are denied many rights there: no access to work or anything but the most basic sustenance. ISIS are on the southern borders of the country: when you’ve seen what they’re capable of…well, you want to get as far away as possible.
- They are a drain on the system: One of the great lies of modern times, and almost impossible to challenge with facts while politicians use it as a scare-tactic, rather than do the responsible thing and admit the truth. Immigration, if driven by economic reasons or humanitarian, benefits the country economically. From the Huguenots to the Nazi-fleeing Jews; from the Ugandan Asians to the Vietnamese boat people, an influx of refugees bring their education, their knowledge, their tremendous urge to work. You don’t risk your life gripped to the underside of a van after travelling thousands of miles with no possessions to just claim dole. It’s one of the shameful lies of our time.
- We should stop the problem at the root, not the branch: Yes, of course we should. Peace in the Middle East would be great! I wonder if anyone has tried that yet? Maybe not selling masses of arms to dubious countries, and maybe not bombing the shit out of them whenever we fancy might be a step in the right direction?
Sometimes it feels like the world has lost it’s humanity, that we are drifting aimlessly in dark waters. Then people, just people, prove that wrong. A certain chunk of the population, as well as the majority of the tabloid press, would label these people as ‘Do-gooders’. They’d be right. They ‘do’ ‘good’. And if you’re the type of person who uses that to imply the derogatory, then I can only deeply pity you.
HOW YOU CAN STILL HELP:
- Donate Stuff:The White Lion is once again full, it seems, but don’t worry, we will be shifting more donations out tomorrow, so still get them over.
- Donate Cash: The White Lion are running their own campaign, you can donate directly here: http://gogetfunding.com/fresh-food-for-calais/ or by cash in the pub. Oxfam, and many other charities are running appeals, and will gratefully accept donations.
- Donate Time: There is a real need for people to help with lots of the logisitical aspects: sorting donations, arranging transit etc. If you feel you can help, simply apply to join the Facebook group https://www.facebook.com/groups/1679337492296689/?fref=ts
- Donate a van! Do you have, or do you work for a company that has, a suitable van we could borrow for a few nights? If so, email email@example.com
Huge thanks to the many, many people who are doing tremendous things…as well as restoring my faith in humanity.