Bad stuff happens all the time but sometimes there’s something that grabs my attention, gives me a kick up the arse and makes me take action. And for me, that bad thing was baby Aylan being washed up on a beach in Turkey – another tragic victim of the refugee crisis that’s affecting Europe right now. I’d been keeping an eye on what was happening for a few weeks, since I read a couple of articles in the Guardian: one about a young man – a boy actually, younger than my own son – who had fled Eritrea and was now in the Jungle refugee camp at Calais, and another about what life is like for women at the camp in Calais. Poor things, I’d thought. How awful to have to leave your home, flee your country of birth and travel thousands of miles to start all over again – only to end up in a camp where you’re lucky if you get one meal a day, where resources are limits, where danger is at every turn. So it was there on the edges of my conscience but I wasn’t doing anything about it – after all, what could I do really? I don’t have money to spare, and I couldn’t see any other way I could make a difference.
Then the story of Aylan and his family broke and it really hit me hard. here was a child whose life had been snuffed out, a child who hadn’t even begun his life properly, a child who could have done amazing things in this world, or who could have just lived a happy life …. if only he’d had the chance. Whatever the circumstances of his family’s departure from Syria and later Turkey, I just knew they must have been pretty desperate to do what they did. What parent takes risks with their children unless they absolutely feel there is no alternative?
But once again I found myself wondering what I could do. Nothing, I thought. Until I came across an article giving suggestions on how to help, and I joined the Calais Migrant Solidarity Group, and discovered there was a group local to me. I made contact, went along to a meeting, and soon found myself collecting warm clothing and toiletries, and becoming a collection point in my town. On Wednesday I joined the group to make up hundreds of individual toiletry bags – toothpaste, toothbrush, soap, shampoo, razor, that kind of thing. The packs are destined for Calais, where we are travelling on Sunday.
I’ve also found myself embroiled in arguments with people on social media. Some of the arguments have been ridiculous – people saying all refugees are scroungers or terrorists, that homing just 2 people will change the character of a town, that our British culture is at risk if we let people come here. The argument I’ve heard most often is “Why help refugees when we have so many people in need here? We should be looking after our own!”
And yes, we should look after “our own” – whoever they are, for we are all humankind, we are all “our own”, surely? But there’s nothing to stop us from looking after anyone who needs help, wherever they are in the world, whatever their circumstances.
And in fact, the campaign to help the refugees is helping those in need in Britain too. Not all the donations are suitable and lots of stuff is being given to UK charities, refuges, hostels so it can benefit people in need here. And with so much stuff having been donated, even the most useful things can find a home here, if they’re needed. On Wednesday I heard about a guy who sleeps rough in a park in Swindon. He’s homeless, but doesn’t want to live in a house; he gets his meals from the local soup kitchen and breakfast club. What he needed was a new tent, some warm clothes and something to keep clean with – so a tent, a sleeping bag, a huge holdall of winter clothing and a bag of toiletries was put aside for him. We’re helping refugees – but we’re also helping our own. They are not mutually exclusive.
Anyway, I shall be heading off to Calais on Sunday, with my son and twenty other people from the Swindon to Calais Solidarity Group. We’ll be delivering sleeping bags, tents and foods to one of the distribution depots being run by charities, and then we’ll meet some of the refugees, hear their stories, give them our support and pass on the hygiene packs, so they can maintain their dignity and health while they are at the camp. We’re also taking a few other bits and pieces too, like sweets, fruit, scarves and hats – little gestures, but things that I hope will be appreciated by those we meet. I’ll let you know how it goes.