Calaid 4The British media buzz around the ‘European’ refugee crisis has recently taken a dark turn. Following the tragic events in Paris a couple of weeks ago, the commentary in our press has been full of cynicism collating the refugee crisis and extremism.

  • You can find out more about Calaid here
  • Photographs by CalAid director, James Fisher

But let us cast our minds away from the fearmongering to a period of solidarity amongst the British public. Iit is time we took a step back and examined ourselves, lest we forget, Syrians are running away from Daesh (ISIS) too.

Let’s take a closer look at the outpouring of grassroots humanity. Over the past months, groups in the UK and abroad have witnessed an explosive growth of volunteers throwing themselves into the fray.

For a fledgling movement in an otherwise politically abandoned wasteland, you have to admit it’s not bad. Hundreds of individuals – all with partners, kids, jobs, busy lives and little previous experience of charity work – have committed spare hours to mucking in and doing what they can. Whether sorting and labelling strangers’ sneakers, dragging overladen sacks of toiletries through warehouses, or lending a penny to keep the logistical wheels greased, many a Brit has made their mark.

Have we been imbued with a sense of solidarity by Syrians? Are we moved by the tales we hear of those living in the ‘Jungle’ banding together to restore normality to their meagre existence through church services, art groups and building makeshift classrooms and hospitals? Having taken the time to talk to volunteers at a CalAid collection drop in Slough, here’s a sample of their thoughts.

It’s important to acknowledge that these voices belong to an altruistic bunch, yet this piece I hope goes some way to a more complete understanding of British sentiment to the refugee crisis.

Lesson #1: Fighting hostility with hospitality

Calaid 1Why this crisis? The world has witnessed its share of humanitarian catastrophes: the Indonesian Tsunami of 2004, the earthquake in Haiti 2010, and again in Nepal earlier this year. Each time the public has jumped into action. Yet, what we are witnessing now is marred by the posturing of politicians on both sides of the channel with their fingers clenched firmly around the purse strings.

‘A lot of the crisis we can’t even touch with our help. There are a lot of walls, a lot of barriers and a lot of slow, bureaucratic pacing: this is the next best thing.’
Donna, activist & volunteer

This pig-headed preference for fear over benevolent leadership has not stopped people like Donna challenging their ‘leaders’ through positive action. Another bag-slinging volunteer, Mike De Roeck, described how the government have been ‘shown up by the electorate, regardless of their politics’.

Could it be that divisive rhetoric at a state level has served to unify Brits irrespective of their politics? Has it spurred on those who see through Theresa May’s ‘economic migrant’ vs. ‘refugee’ zenophobia to feel compelled to give more generously than before.

Humanitarian action is a much-needed but temporary solution to a broader global crisis of displaced persons. Brendan Waterman, a long-standing CalAid supporter took a break from sifting through toothpaste and soap to describe the success of the movement’s collections as a ‘double-edged sword’. The ultimate goal for those uprooted is to return home. But until that becomes possible, Brendan argues, we should our best to help because: ‘We were lucky enough to be born on this land here.’

Lesson #2: Remembering how to connect

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One common theme was ‘connection’. Connecting the powerful resources of volunteer networks to a central hub; connecting refugees to the amenities they need; and connecting with strangers through a space created by a shared desire to support other complete strangers in need.

It is noticeable that most volunteers have next to no previous experience of humanitarian work. But as Henrietta Nettlefold of youth and elderly support charity, Age Unlimited, told me:

‘England has always had a tradition of charity. You grew up thinking that you had to give something back, instinctively.’

Rebecca Austin, a mother and community collection coordinator, explained from the back of a loaded van that this experience would spur her on to do more in the future. Lee Match, also a parent, described how he had been struck with an epiphany about the importance of removing one’s own vanity from the situation. Taking a break, Lee said:

‘I’m happy to be a small cog in this big machine that’s dedicated to doing the right thing. It’s not about getting what I can out of it, it’s about putting what I can into it.’

Calaid 6One CalAid recruit told me the story of an elderly couple that had turned up that day to donate who were surprised and thrilled to be invited into the heart of the operation.

‘Once you reveal how well coordinated and networked the process is, and how friendly people are, they (new volunteers) are very enchanted by it. They connect with people and then they want to keep connecting.’

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Finally, let’s not overlook the power of reopening lines of communication with the dehumanised ‘swarms of migrants’ on the move across global borders, not only from Syria. This goes to the heart of what we are about, as we collectively strive to awaken Europe to our responsibility to others who are like us but burdened by war and violence.

As demonstrated by every jumper donated, box heaved, and link shared, we won’t deny our responsibility. We are responsible for our failure to provide adequate safe channels to internally displaced persons in dire need of an exit strategy, and for ignoring the reality of a destitute nation on the move.

Forging these bonds is an attempt to recover from a so far disastrous response to a staggering crisis. Telling their stories through the online presence of grassroot projects like ours is an effective way of portraying the individual behind the fleeting news bulletins. We need to keep fighting the misconceptions.

The values of our social fabric have been challenged and found lacking by this crisis. But as Brendan Waterman, one of our volunteers put it: ‘Hopefully, if we put enough noise out there…people will start to relate to it.’

You can read a longer version of this article here.

humanity 101


Profile photo of Hannah Leach About Hannah Leach
Hannah is a communications specialist with a commitment to women’s rights, human trafficking, modern slavery and immigration. She works for the Refuge Domestic Violence Helpline and the Languages for Good Network. Prior to this she worked as an analyst for Mobile for Development projects in emerging markets at the GSMA

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  • Toneye November 27, 2015 3:41 pm

    I Whish we would introduce CALL UP again and see how many of those people would sign up they Run from there country when they should fe joining up to Fight for what the believe in not use the excuse of war I do not mean The Woman and Children if the stop having Children that the cant afford why do we have to pay

    • Pam DeLargy November 29, 2015 9:27 am

      Toneye, your comment indicates that you seem to be missing some basic information about who the refugees are, about where they come from and why, and about who is paying. And your concern for family planning seems misplaced – these are people fleeing from war; without that war, they had no problem taking care of their families.

      I invite you to visit the camp in Calais and meet some people. And I am very willing to assist with your trip. There are volunteers and refugees there who are really fantastic, strong, committed, caring people. You might like them.

  • Ben November 30, 2015 3:21 pm

    Wow, what an incredible and nuanced view of the Syrian civil war you present Toneye. I’m sure no one had ever thought of it like that before, especially the hundreds of thousands of souls who have risked their own lives and the lives of their families to flee the seemingly endless violence of their home country. Of course! Why didn’t they stay and fight? What cowards for refusing to stay and partake in a multi-faceted civil war stained at every turn by the money and weapons of external actors seeking geopolitical influence.

    While we’ve got you here, with your incredible depth of knowledge on Middle Eastern security, Toneye, who would you suggest these refugees – who we’ll pretend aren’t mostly young professionals with skills befitting a modern economy and are instead battle-hardened warriors capable and willing of joining a military unit at a moment’s notice – who would you suggest they fight for? Are you proposing they join the Syrian national army and fight for Assad, who has spent the last three years barrel bombing civilians and murdering tens of thousands of his own people? Perhaps they should join Daesh, Jabhat al-Nusra, Ahrar al-Sham or any of the other Islamist militias who are so keen to create a Syria where women will become second class citizens and human rights will be relegated below religious dogma in a horrendous excuse for a legal system? Maybe the fractured and increasingly volatile FSA in their defence of Aleppo that many see as unsustainable. Who, Toneye, who should they be staying to fight with? You’re the man with the answers, tell us.

    Or maybe you’re not. Maybe you didn’t think it through, maybe you’ve never thought anything through in your pathetic life. Maybe your intellectual dishonesty is dwarfed only by your inability to construct a comprehensible sentence and maybe your clear ignorance of this situation is symptomatic of your inability to engage in a world you’re almost definitely too stupid to understand.

    The only consolation is that your straight-from-the-tabloid-pages brand of ill informed prejudice shines like a beacon through every needlessly capitalised word you attempt to type, so clear and obvious that all rational people spot it a mile off and will mostly ignore the illogical rantings of an idiot without wasting too much of their time worrying about it. Except me, clearly, but I am a grumpy fecker and I haven’t had a cup of tea yet today so it seemed like a perfect opportunity to tell you what a deliriously poor excuse for a human being you actually are.

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