Update from Gare du Nord

Last week I didn’t go to the Gare du Nord for what has become my weekly visit. I had a cough and wasn’t feeling myself, and as it’s so vital to bring positivity to that situation I decided to stay away. Tonight I knew for sure that was the right decision, as I felt recharged and was looking forward to going back. I had the last five sleeping bags from my fundraising effort to take down there, along with a bag of brownies, oranges and fruit that I picked up on the way to work this morning. As soon as I arrived the food was hoovered up in seconds! On Tuesdays the charity provides hot drinks but not hot food, so people were hungry. As it took some time for the drinks and donations to be handed out, I stood to one side with the sleeping bags. I got chatting to a man called Abdamune Sidiq [sic] from Sudan. He told me how last week the police took away his blankets, and since then he has got sick. This made me really angry, and even more glad that we created this petition last week to try and stop the police taking away people’s sleeping bags, even though I don’t know if it really made an impact.

Tonight, in addition to the normal donations there were 100 goodie bags for St. Nicholas (here in Belgium they celebrate Sinterklaas coming on 6 December – our office is full of chocolates!) from the students of ISB Service Learning/CAS. They were full of sweets, and it was so lovely seeing people patiently queuing up and then sharing the contents of their bags with others – I was given sweets by three people, they must have thought I needed fattening up! There was a happy atmosphere despite the cold, and some new faces too, although I didn’t see my friend Bakare, which has worried me a little. I hope he’s okay.

So all in all another positive experience, although it’s true that people are getting sick now that the temperatures have dropped, and even though we try to bring as many sleeping bags and warm clothes as we can, there is always a need for more. I’m worried for these men as winter progresses, what will they do and where will they go when it starts to snow? Surely they can’t sleep in the park then? All we can do is try to keep their spirits up, their tummies full and their bodies as warm as possible, and hope this is enough to get them through. I’m so happy that from January they will have more support from Unless, the wonderful new non-profit organisation which has raised money to rent a nearby building, where people will be able to have hot showers and get their clothes laundered. Hot food will also be available five times a week instead of the current twice a week arrangement, which is just fantastic. They are seeking donations to raise the monthly running fee of 5,000 Euros, so if anyone is feeling generous as Christmas approaches, I can personally guarantee this would be a brilliant and worthwhile cause.

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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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Today

Today, I will celebrate life instead of being afraid of its fragility.

I will take time out to breathe deeply, to feel the blood flowing through my veins.

I will give thanks for all my blessings, which are many.

I will pray for those who are suffering, and mourning loved ones.

I will not take things too seriously, or let them overwhelm me.

I will realise that, in the end, the only thing that matters, will ever matter and has ever mattered is love.

And while there is breath in my body I will honour the commitment that I make today: to be a good person, keep an open heart and enquiring mind, and help others whenever and wherever I can.

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The Ivory Tower Conundrum

I’ll admit the tragic aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in the Philippines has got to me – badly – and that in part this is because I am due to go there in a matter of weeks on holiday, and I am concerned not only about what we might find there in terms of broken communities, but also whether the infrastructural damage will be so great that we may not be able to go there at all.

Selfish reasons aside, the devastation wreaked by natural disasters such as this is on such a massive scale it’s almost beyond comprehension. The only thing we westerners in our comfortable homes and offices can do to help is make a donation to one of the aid agencies that are working in the affected areas. In the case of the Philippines these include World Vision, Oxfam, the Red Cross, Unicef and the United Nations World Food Programme, all of whom have teams on the ground who are working tirelessly to deliver much needed food and supplies to those who have lost everything.

Yesterday, after making a donation to World Vision I suggested on social media that others might like to do the same. I was disappointed to see five people immediately un-follow me on Twitter, and unsure in what way I had caused offence by pointing out they could do something to help their fellow humans in dire need. Maybe they don’t believe in charity because they doubt its efficacy, or maybe they already give to different charitable causes and weren’t interested in this particular one. Whatever their reasons, it got me thinking what a luxury it is for those of us in the first world to pick and chooses which causes (if any) we support, and how easily we can choose to change the channel and ‘switch off’ from things that are happening on the other side of the world, right now, to people just like us, who just happen to have been born in a different place, into a different level of privilege and wealth to ourselves.

To my mind (and I apologise in advance for sounding sanctimonious as I stand here on my soap box), anyone who is able to support themselves with something to spare for entertainment purposes (drinks after work, theatre tickets, the occasional holiday) can afford to donate a few pounds to help people whose lives are in danger, whose livelihoods and families have been ripped apart in front of their very eyes. We may complain about having no money, but it would do us well to consider what having ‘no money’ really means, and to spend some time thinking about how lucky we are as we sit in our ivory towers, turning the other cheek as we pour ourselves another glass of wine.

Typhoon Haiyan: residents of Tacloban city

Honour the dead – and help the living

Today is Remembrance Sunday, a day that evokes strong emotions in many for myriad reasons. For some it brings back the horrors of war that they’ve experienced themselves and a deep sadness for their fallen comrades, for others it triggers feelings of anger that are more political in nature. But whatever your view on the existence of – and motives for – war, the undeniable truth is that over the years many thousands have sacrificed themselves for what they believed – rightly or wrongly – to be for the good of their country. And so, putting the politics to one side is it not right that we take one paltry day each year to honour them?

On another note, the news from the Philippines is looking bleaker by the hour. From initial reports citing hundreds of casualties as a result of Typhoon Haiyan, there are now reports of 10,000 dead in one city alone, with widespread food and water shortages, looting and little or no contact with countless villages. Bodies are piling up by the roadside and being buried in mass graves, as over 600,000 displaced people try to make sense of the massive tragedy that has robbed them of their homes, their livelihoods and, in many cases, their families.

Right now it’s impossible to say if we will be able to go ahead with our trip as planned. Both Malapascua and Leyte, which were amongst the worst affected places, were on our itinerary. We have a flight to Tacloban, Leyte’s capital, booked for 6th January, yet Tacloban is the city referred to above where 10,000 people have been killed, and all buildings for a kilometre inland from the sea completely razed to the ground. I naively thought we might be able to do some volunteering to help the relief effort when we arrived, but something tells me two tourists from England are going to be little use in the face of such horrific devastation.  I just feel so horribly sad. What did these people do to deserve this?

To assuage my western privilege guilt I’ve made a donation to World Vision’s typhoon relief fund, and I would urge anyone else who can spare a few pounds to do the same. They may be out of sight and out of mind, but those people are just like you and me. They have families, they have feelings and, right now, they desperately need our help. On Remembrance Sunday we can only honour the dead – but it’s still within our reach to ease the suffering of the living.