Doing What We Can

Tonight was my third consecutive week volunteering with Serve the City ‘s Food 4 Friends iniative to help the homeless (refugees and other misplaced people) sleeping rough around Gare du Nord station. I took eighteen sleeping bags, bought with money generously donated* by my lovely friends. At the start it was tense. The temperature has plummeted and tonight it was barely above five degrees. People are cold and worried about the impending winter. And understandably so. As we began to distribute the sleeping bags tensions rose still higher, until at one point a fight broke out. Fortunately it petered out and we resumed the distribution, but even then there was a lot of pushing and jostling as people desperately tried to make a claim for a sleeping bag. It was heart wrenching.

I was so happy to give my Sudanese friend, Bakare, the sleeping bag I promised him. I was also, thanks to the generosity of a friend, able to buy him some new shoes. He said “when I see you, it makes me happy,” which made me feel amazing. It feels so good to be doing something at last, even if it is just being a ferrier of sleeping bags and offering good cheer. What made me less happy was meeting 13 year old Alaudin, who arrived in Brussels two months ago after making the long three month journey from Sudan with his brother. Alaudin is a tall boy, skinny and quiet, with huge doleful brown eyes. He was wearing only a thin jacket and was shivering. I was happy to see he had managed to get one of the sleeping bags I brought, but I was still worried for him. So I took him to the volunteer serving chai and got him a cup, and then went back to another volunteer who was handing out clothing donations (tonight we were very lucky as a church group who had gathered a lot of clothes and sleeping bags made the journey into Brussels to deliver them – without those donations it would have been much harder to manage giving out mine) and managed to grab him a fleece jumper, pair of gloves and scarf. The gloves weren’t warm enough though, he needs some better ones. I promised to bring some next week.

There were more people tonight than the last two weeks. The fight at the beginning aside, I saw only smiles despite the plummeting temperature. It is so clear that people appreciate the volunteers and the work they do. And being able to speak with everyone and find out their stories is so humbling and such a privilege. I feel almost ashamed when people ask me where I’m from and I say “England,” because I know that all they want to do is make it to my country. It feels so unfair that I can hop on a Eurostar or drive through the tunnel without a care in the world, when they can’t even dream of such an easy life.

But we stay strong. And we stay cheerful. And we continue to help our friends all that we can.

*Cash donations will continue to be gratefully received to help provide some comfort during the cold winter.

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Under the Skin

Last night I volunteered for the second consecutive week with Serve the City who go to the Gare du Nord station three times a week as part of their Food 4 Friends initiative (on Mondays/Tuesdays and Thursdays) from 6.30pm to serve hot food (sometimes also hot drinks) to the homeless people and refugees who sleep rough in, and around, the park. There are around 160 people in total but they don’t always all come; the two evenings I have been there were more like 50 people, but all the donations I brought (sleeping bags, fruit, gloves, hats etc.) were still snapped up in minutes. It is important to note they aren’t all political refugees in the technical sense, but a lot of them are, and I have met several people from Sudan and Syria who have tragically had to leave their families behind and are obviously desperately worried about them. Nino, the man who runs the evening programme, is fantastic. He hands out all the donations one by one to avoid a scrum, and is very fair in the way he distributes items (he knows everyone so well that he can tell if someone is chancing something like an extra item). The other volunteers are also lovely. It’s a really well run operation but they always need more items, especially now the weather is becoming really cold.

Last night I took 20 sleeping bags but there is still a desperate need for more. Thanks to the generous donations of many of my friends in response to a Facebook post last week I have another 18 coming next week, but even then we will need more to help provide people with vital warmth as the temperatures plummet. Any money that kindhearted people are able to spare to help this cause will go directly to those who need it. I also now have a personal interest in Bakare, a guy I met last night from Sudan. He is a year younger than me and his wife and two children are still in Sudan. He misses them so much and is understandably worried about the future. He wants desperately to get to England as he says here in Belgium “they do not like the Sudanese,” and it would be easier for his children to settle in England than in France. We talked at length about our families and backgrounds. He has a wide smile and we shared a lot of laughter despite the bleakness of his situation (his sleeping bag was stolen two days previously, along with all his things, so now he has nothing but the – thankfully warm – clothes he stands in. Sadly he didn’t get one of the sleeping bags I brought last night, but I did give him some gloves and promise him one for next week. A friend has also kindly offered to buy him shoes which I will purchase today, and which I know will make him very happy). Next week he has offered to teach me to dance, which I suspect he may live to regret when he sees the extent of my coordination issues, but at least it will keep us both warm!

It’s really hard walking away and knowing all those people will spend yet another night in the freezing cold park, alone and scared and worried for the future, with limited chance of actually finding the means to get out of their situation. I feel so helpless, which is why I can’t just stand by and do nothing. If we can keep them just that bit warmer and let them know they aren’t alone, that their plight isn’t going unheard, at least they might get through the winter with a little hope in their hearts.

My enduring memory of last night was when I pulled the final item from my bag – a football, which I thought the young guys might appreciate. And wow did they appreciate it! Within seconds about fifteen of them were running around kicking the ball like mad things. And they were really good! Another volunteer said to me “it helps them to forget”, and whilst it’s heartbreaking that such vibrant young people need to forget about their situation, I was so thankful to be able to provide something that enabled them to, even if just for the shortest while.

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Helping Friends

Tonight I went down to the Gare du Nord to deliver the seven sleeping bags we managed to raise money to buy last week. At a guess I’d say there were somewhere between fifty and a hundred people, but in recent days I learned there have been more than a hundred and fifty (it seems yesterday many were arrested, for reasons unknown). Last time I went was a few months back, when Brussels had its own version of the Jungle in Calais, as displaced people arrived in waves, fleeing persecution in their countries. Now the camp in the park has been cleared, but many people remain; some no doubt the same people fleeing persecution, others who came here in search of a better life for themselves and their families, only to wind up in this purgatory.

As the nights draw in and temperatures plummet it’s heartbreaking to think of them sleeping outside, exposed to the elements. Many of those I saw tonight were young men; buoyant and proud, bright eyed and joking in spite of their awful situation. One of them was Mahmoud, from Egypt, a tall young man with a charming smile who told me that his family are in England. “If I ever get there I will never leave,” he told me. I felt so sad to think he probably never will.

Another young man I met was called Sadiq. He arrived in Brussels a week ago, having made the long journey from Sudan. He looked young but strong, and was dressed impeccably in smart trousers and a cable knit jumper. Only his shoes, with their peeling soles, let him down. As we discussed his need for shoes another volunteer, on overhearing his shoe size, ran to her car and returned with a pair in his size. He held the shoes in one hand and his plate of pasta in the other and said with a smile “Now I have all that I need.” If only that were true.

Mohamed is a slightly older man who helps the volunteers each time they come to serve food and distribute donations. He was dressed in only a thin fleece but said he was warm enough, and refused to take any of the donations. “I consider him a friend,” another volunteer told me. One story I was told involved a Syrian man who last week became ill. When the volunteer medics said he needed to go to hospital a volunteer accompanied him. Had it not been for the volunteer’s persuasion they would not have admitted him, because he lacked insurance. He has now been in the hospital for over a week.

There were many others too, like the young Egyptian guy who was constantly cracking jokes, asking me questions about the Royal Family in England and quizzing me on the name of Hitler’s father! And the shy man from Marrakesh who just wanted a blanket to keep him warm for the night.

Once the crowd had dispersed some people prepared to sleep outside the station. But the police arrived and moved them on, driving them into the park, where their new blankets would quickly become sodden and useless.

I’ll admit that I came home and cried at the hopelessness of these young men’s situations. Who knows if they will ever find a way to rejoin their relatives, or to forge a legitimate life for themselves here or somewhere else; a life that doesn’t involve being reliant on other people’s charity and always having to look over your shoulder.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. I posted a plea on Facebook for donations for more sleeping bags and in minutes was flooded with responses; so many that I have just placed an order for 20 (!) sleeping bags, and will next week personally deliver three times as many as I took down tonight thanks to the generosity of so many people I am proud to call my friends, and who, tonight, have done a lot to restore my faith in humanity, and to remind me there is good in this world, no matter how bleak and dark it sometimes seems.

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5 Ways to Beat the Winter Blues

Anyone who tells you they don’t feel a bit more crap than usual in January is either lying, or is an alien from the planet Zog (you want to watch them). Trust me. The post-Christmas slump (when your body finally holds you accountable for going entirely off-piste where its wellbeing was concerned for the entire month of December), coupled with plummeting temperatures and a severe lack of sunlight leads to a collective form of exhaustion tinged with malaise – a nagging but non-specific feeling of ‘what now?’ We try to shake it off and kick start the year with enthusiastic resolutions like: “I must eat less!” “I must exercise more!” “I must work harder!” “I must take up that hobby!” Ad Nauseam. But by the end of the month those who started dry January are tearing out their eyeballs and those who didn’t are checking into rehab.

Those of us who live in places that experience prolonged spells of cold and dark each year employ various coping strategies to get through them with our sanity intact. Some choose to avoid it altogether by booking a one way ticket to Australia (and who can blame them?) But for the majority this isn’t a feasible option, so we stock up on Vitamin D tablets and sun lamps (well, those of us that can be arsed do – can’t say I’m one of those people), book holidays to warmer climes to titillate our ailing imaginations (guilty) and let every nanosecond that the sun succeeds in elbowing its way through the thick nimbostratus clouds be reason for unbridled celebration (after all, it is nearly spring, sort of). And for the rest of the time we pull our woolly hats down over our ears, slip our chilly fingers into gloves and leave the house each morning, in the dark, with grim determination etched across our faces.

But there is hope. In the wealth of personal experience I’ve gleaned through the endurance of numerous winters, I am now in a position to share with you a handful of things that really can alleviate the symptoms of this gloomy time of year:

  1. Read a good book – by which I mean a book you enjoy so much it’s like having a love affair; you want to be with it every moment of the day, and can’t stop thinking about it even when you are apart.
  2. Have a lot of baths – soaking in hot water with scented bubbles really does melt your worries away. The deeper the bath and the longer you spend in it the better.
  3. Do guided meditations every day when you wake up – I’ve recently discovered these ones from the Chopra Centre in California, and I find it helps a lot to take a few minutes after waking to focus on breathing in the context of which ever topic you have chosen.
  4. Keep a daily morning journal – as advised by Julia Cameron in The Artist’s Way. I’ve struggled with this a lot over the past couple of years because I often tell myself I’m too exhausted to write as soon as I wake up. But after a hiatus of a few months I have today started again, because I’ve noticed the difference in my stress and creativity levels since it last tailed off.
  5. Live life more mindfully – this is one I struggle with on a daily basis. There are always so many distractions that it’s often hard to create space to observe and appreciate the minutiae of life. Last year I did the #100HappyDays challenge which involved taking pictures each day for 100 days of something that made me happy. And you know what? I found I was being a lot more mindful – always looking around for something beautiful, striking or inspirational. That’s why I’ve decided to start my own #MindfulnessMonth – every day in February I will document, by way of image, blog or both, something that I have taken the time to stop and appreciate.

Those are my ways of coping with the winter blues. Good luck finding yours.

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The Jacket

The jacket sits on the fence, listless and forgotten. Creepers stretch tendrils towards the imposter in their midst, testing its legitimacy, waging a war of attrition that it cannot hope to win. The snow is thick now, almost a foot deep in places. The jacket has its own jacket of snow, white on red like Santa’s suit. How many sunsets has it seen? How many frosts has it endured? So many questions left unanswered by the perpetrator of its demise. From time to time a passer by will stop, their eyes alighting on the arm that hangs limply from the fence post like a rag, or a fallen soldier on the edge of the battlefield. They will look around, frown and move on, it being quite apparent that the jacket’s owner has done the same.

What they don’t know is he hasn’t. He lies there too, beneath the foot of snow, his frozen hands clasped tightly as if in prayer. He was drunk, of course (at this time of year they always are), on his way home from the Christmas party. When they find him several days from now they’ll all be baffled as to why he removed his jacket when it was so very cold. In truth he would be just as baffled had he lived to tell the tale, for there was no logic to his whisky-addled thinking. And now there is no thinking at all.

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‘W’ is for ‘Well’

It’s funny the effect being under the weather can have on the mind and body. I use the term ‘under the weather’ because I’m referring not to a state of full-blown illness, but rather one in which you exist in a perpetual state of feeling just below par, as one feels when afflicted with the common cold. You’re not too ill to work, or do the weekly shop, or even to socialise with friends. But all the while you’re acutely aware of not being the best version of yourself; hardly surprising given that your body’s putting all its effort into fighting off the bug that’s threatening your immune system, leaving little energy for anything else.

It’s often not until you’re fully recovered that you realise quite how below par you’ve been feeling. I found this out today, when I donned my trainers and went for my first post-cold run. This time last week I attempted a run despite having a scratchy throat, and was forced to turn back after ten minutes through sheer exhaustion. Since then I’ve laid off exercise entirely, feeling uncharacteristically unbothered by my lack of exertion. But today, for the first time, I woke up full of energy. And I just knew I was better.

When I set off on my run and settled into a comfortable pace I felt as if I could run for miles – which I did; five of them to be precise. Each one was as glorious as the last, and as I ran from Clapham to Battersea, around the park, along the river and back in bright sunshine with new music playing on my iPod, the world felt as if it had righted itself once more. I returned with a smile on my face and a song in my heart: It’s just so wonderful to be well, and better still to have those occasional moments when you actually appreciate it.

Spring has sprung

It’s been a long old winter this year, one that’s greedily stretched its icy fingers all the way into April. Roads have been closed, leaving cars shrouded in snow looking like strangely shaped, grotesque and faceless snowmen. Homes have been without electricity and thousands of elderly and vulnerable people have been housebound and alone.

And all the while an overwhelming, cloying, crushing malaise has settled on the dwellers of London, this city I call home, as I’m sure it has across the many other towns and cities in our fair (or, let’s face it, not so fair in recent months) land. The kind of malaise that leaves you wondering with alarming regularity why you don’t just move somewhere with guaranteed sunshine and be done with all the greyness and the bitter cold once and for all.

But we Brits are a hardy bunch, and our impressive ability to moan is surpassed only by our ability to bear the weight of such an oppressive spell of poor weather. The lack of Vitamin D has no doubt been a factor in our collective mood this past few weeks, but deep down each and every one of us has been stoic in the face of the Big Freeze, purely because we knew it wouldn’t – couldn’t – last forever. We have been playing the waiting game.

And if today’s weather is anything to go by, that waiting game may soon be at an end. For when I stepped outside this morning for my run something felt different. There was still a slight chill in the air, granted, but as I ran I could feel the warmth of the glorious sunshine on my face and I just knew in my bones that winter was finally losing its war against spring. Clapham Common was full of runners, their gloves and hats stowed away at home for the first time this year, as were mine. Parents pushed prams lazily, without rushing or wincing in the biting wind. The collective malaise had lifted, at least temporarily, and in its wake were cheerful people blinking in the light like newborns, ready for whatever life saw fit to bring. 

Though we dream of jetting away from it all, we Brits are a hardy bunch.