No Man is an Island

The news has always been a divisive thing. On the one hand we all want to feel connected, to know what is going on ‘out there’ in the world. On the other we do sort of suspect that the version of life we are spoonfed by the media is skewed and distorted like a picture taken through a fish eye lens.

Is it getting worse? That’s hard to say. But my own experience as a Brussels resident who has been reading news reports from the UK media on the recent bombs at Zaventem airport and the metro would suggest it is – or at least that the media is as sensationalist as ever.

Both to loved ones and idiots on social media I have defended this city I love, which, if you believed every BBC news report you read you would think was besieged by jihadists on every street corner. Contrary to public media opinion, who take great delight in filming some dickhead reporter roaming the streets of ‘jihadi capital of Europe’, Molenbeek (incidentally also the suburb in which I work), or the use of water cannons against a small group of self-declared fascists downtown, it is still possible to walk down the street here without the need for police protection and an armoured vehicle.

The thing I love most about Belgium, and Brussels in particular, is people’s resilience; their ability to stay clear-headed and articulate in a crisis. And also, as the police cat food Twitter episode so clearly demonstrated, their sense of humour.

Though I will always love it, increasingly I feel glad I left the UK, and am experiencing life on the ‘outside.’ Because when you are inside the Kingdom we ironically still call ‘United’ it is frighteningly easy to adopt the media’s attitude to issues such as terrorism; to become closed-minded and biased without even realising it, due to the diet of twisted information you are fed by power-hungry media outlets and politicians.

If you listen to the likes of Boris we are far better off out of Europe, away from all these nasty jihadis. Raise the drawbridge! Keep Britain safe! What good can Europe do us? Look at the mess France and Belgium are in! Though I have neither the political knowledge nor inclination to address these tenuous arguments here, I will highlight one thing, a poem by John Donne, entitled ‘No Man is an Island’:

Entire of itself, 
Every man is a piece of the continent, 
A part of the main. 
If a clod be washed away by the sea, 
Europe is the less. 
As well as if a promontory were. 
As well as if a manor of thy friend’s 
Or of thine own were: 
Any man’s death diminishes me, 
Because I am involved in mankind, 
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; 
It tolls for thee.

Whether we are part of Europe or not (and I personally believe we should be), none of us is an island. We must stand together in the face of terrorism and not let it divide us, by faith or for political gain. The media and politicians have ulterior motives. It is for us, the ‘normal people’, to look past those, to look past religion, past race and past hatred;  to look into our own hearts. Because it is only there we can find the good, the pure and the true; and understand that love is the only answer there is.

image

Ordinary People, Extraordinary Things

Join me, if you will, in a little celebration amidst humanity’s ever increasing swathes of doom and gloom. Because, despite the myriad ways in which our species seems intent on ruining not only itself but also its habitat, there is, like tiny saplings poking their heads through the dry earth or sunbeams breaking through the clouds, still hope. That hope lies in the people who refuse to sit back and watch as we chart an untenable course into oblivion. Not world leaders, nor social commentators, but ordinary people like you and me. What qualities do they possess that many of their fellow humankind do not, or choose not to cultivate? Belief it doesn’t have to be this way. Compassion for their fellow men and women. The desire to act, to help, to make a tangible difference, no matter how small.

Here are some examples of ordinary people who are currently achieving extraordinary things:

  1. The Worldwide Tribe – Words can’t describe my admiration for Jasmin O’Hara and her small team of friends and family who have been working tirelessly in recent weeks to raise funds and gather supplies for the refugees in Calais. Their Facebook page details their regular trips and interactions with the refugees, and donations to the cause can be made here.
  2. Serve the City / Gare du Nord – Food for Friends – I recently found out about Serve the City, A movement of volunteers serving cities in practical ways & inspiring people to be givers in this world, who believe that many people doing small things together can make a big difference in our world.The Brussels website details lots of different volunteering opportunities that I am keen to check out, including the Gare du Nord – Food for Friends project, which meets weekly to distribute food and supplies, and provide a listening ear, to homeless people, including those caught up in the current migrant crisis.
  3. Solidare-IT – A crowdfunded project I have recently come across in Brussels, which aims to connect people who need some help with people who can and want to help…[facilitating] the exchange of solidarity. The project is scheduled to be up and running by the end of this year, and I’m so impressed with it I have offered my communication services for free – a small personal contribution to a fantastic cause.
  4. Mark Bustos – I’ve mentioned him on this blog before, but he is more than deserving of another mention. A New York-based celebrity hair stylist who gives up his weekends to provide free hair cuts (and care packages courtesy of his girlfriend, who goes with him) to the homeless. Follow him on Instagram – markbustos – his updates make me smile every time.

It is people and projects like these that inspire me to do better, to be better. It’s all too easy to pass the buck and say the issues that society is currently facing are too big for ordinary people to solve. But if not us, the ordinary people, then who? The politicians? Excuse me while I choke on my latte. No. The only way to save our species is by looking outside ourselves and starting to save others. If that’s not the true essence of humanity I don’t know what is. And if the rest of us ordinary people don’t get with the programme soon it will be too late to find out.

905952_1612543062364788_4626843883704174045_o

Jasmin O’Hara from the Worldwide Tribe on one of their trips to the Calais migrant camp. 

Too Little, Too Late? (how our indifference could have sealed our fate)

I’m feeling deeply troubled by the current situation in West Africa. Up to now I’ve done my best to avoid the conjecture and hysteria surrounding the outbreak of Ebola, but as the crisis deepens each day it is becoming harder for the eyes of the western world to ignore. The politicians in charge of the international aid purse strings have been accused of cutting aid budgets to Liberia at exactly the time they needed to be ramped up. Whether or not this is true, it does seem undeniable that the international response to the Ebola epidemic has been too slow off the mark. Experts have warned that for every 10 people currently infected a further 17 will contract the virus. And it’s only now in the face of indisputable evidence that the situation is worsening daily that a summit on how to tackle the spread of the virus was held in London today.

But it’s not just the UK who have been too slow to respond. Today it’s also been revealed an American citizen who returned from Liberia and who had come into direct contact with an infected pregnant woman – carrying her in his arms to a treatment centre where she ultimately died, no less – was turned away from hospital on his home soil when he initially presented symptoms. As a result the authorities are frantically trying to contact 100 people with whom he subsequently came into contact with, and his closest family members are in quarantine lest they too develop symptoms.

This is a humanitarian crisis, and one that could affect us all. Experts believe there is a 90 day window to halt the spread of Ebola, after which the number of infected people could rise from the current rough (and probably vastly underreported) 6,500 to 1.5 million by January. And if the authorities and aid agencies can’t cope now, what hope will they have then?

I can’t pretend I don’t have selfish concerns about the spread of Ebola across the world, but what upsets me even more than the thought of contracting the virus myself (and, God forbid, my loved ones also contracting it), is that up to now the western world has turned the other cheek. It’s disgusting that the lives of our fellow human beings across the world are held in such little regard until the moment that the scales of fortune upturn and the threat looks to be ours as well as theirs. Will Pooley, the British doctor who survived Ebola, has described the cases of a four year old boy and his two year old sister, who died from the virus within 24 hours of each other in ‘squalid’ conditions, lying naked in pools of their own blood and diarrhea. In Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone, at this very moment, cases such as these are commonplace. Whole families, entire communities are being wiped out in agonising pain and it is simply not acceptable that the western world has for so long been looking on and twiddling its thumbs.

If the doomsayers are right and this virus does spiral out of control, the saddest thing is this: It will be the very politicians who got us into this situation that will have spaces in the quarantine bunkers whilst the rest of us are wiped out. And you can bet they’ll put one hell of a spin on the ‘truth’ they tell their future generations after they emerge, blinking, into the post-apocalyptic light.

th (2)

Generation Y: We’re not apathetic, we’re just overwhelmed

Last night, after watching the news, an overwhelming surge of sadness washed over me. There are so many dreadful things happening in the world – bombings in Gaza, terrorism in Syria, war and famine in Sudan, Ebola disease in West Africa, irreversible climate change…the list goes on and on – that sometimes it’s hard to feel positive about the future of the human race. On top of these issues, in the UK we also have untrustworthy politicians who are currently (on top of many other questionable decisions) rushing Big Brother style privacy laws through parliament. The result? We, ‘the People,’ feel powerless and trapped. And none, perhaps, more so than my generation.

Today at work a colleague, herself a generation older than me, was talking about last night’s Newsnight programme, which had a feature on ‘Generation Y,’ as today’s 18-30s are collectively known. The feature discussed the differences between my generation (Y) and hers (Generation X), one being the fact we don’t fight for causes by campaigning in the streets in the same way that many of those who grew up in the ‘welfare state era’ did. One Generation X spokesperson said she didn’t believe this was because Generation Y are apathetic about causes and only interested in being a ‘selfie generation,’ as many older people might posit, but rather that the political and economic issues being faced today seem so big they are impossible to solve. Generation Y have seen uprising fail time and again (Iraq War anyone?), and we’ve lost all faith in the political system to do what’s right. Even if we do stand up to be counted, we don’t believe our voices will be heard, so the collective feeling is ‘why bother?’

We are the first generation to be brought up with the internet, the consequences of which have been far reaching, and both positive and negative. As a Generation Y spokesperson said on Newsnight, we have a thirst for individualism that derives from constant online comparisons, and a drive to be self-reliant rather than state-reliant. We are flooded with information in a way that previous generations were not, and whilst this is liberating it is also, sometimes, quite debilitating. The internet has both connected and isolated us, and whilst social media has led to a level of inter-connectedness never previously imagined, many people feel lonelier than ever.

The rise of face to face gatherings like ‘swishing’ (clothes-swapping) parties (to name but one) shows that, despite embracing the digital age, Generation Y are trying to stay connected with their peers and local communities. Perhaps it’s through these types of initiatives, rather than by waving placards in the street, that we will make some small difference in the wider world we feel so powerless to change.

A final thought (and my own attempt at micro-activism) on Sudan. I have a personal connection, having visited Juba in South Sudan some years ago, and have been deeply saddened to read of the war and impending famine in the region. At the time of my visit in 2006 it was a fairly barren place. I stayed in one of the aid camps and saw little of the locals’ lives outside of the compound. But I do remember an overriding feeling of hope – that things would, and could, get better. Which is why it is so tragic to hear just how much worse they have got since my brief time there. Recent news reports have said there is a serious danger of extreme famine in the coming weeks, but there is no money to run a big advertising campaign to ask for funds. And so I close by asking anyone with a few pounds to spare to consider donating to this cause via World Vision.

image