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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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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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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Reflections on 2015

Another year has passed, and for me it’s been a year of firsts: the first year of living abroad, the first working for a PR agency, and also the first as an engaged lady. As I sit here reflecting on the last twelve months I feel an overwhelming sense of gratitude. Many people do not have the wonderful things I have: loving and unswervingly supportive family, fiance and friends, a good job, a great apartment in a city that I have come to love, and the means (well, almost – thanks to the expense of our 2016 wedding this point is a work in progress) to pursue the lifetime of adventure that I crave.

Many of this year’s events have highlighted the shocking disparity between those of us who have, essentially, ‘lucked out’ in life’s lottery, and those who have never even had the opportunity to buy a ticket. I have been particularly affected by the refugee crisis, which, as residents of Brussels, has been literally on our doorstep – both in Brussels and in the ‘jungle’ of Calais that we pass by so regularly on our Eurostar trips home to visit friends and family. How easily we Europeans take for granted our freedom of movement, when our brothers and sisters from Syria and Sudan have nothing but doors slammed in their faces when they try to pass through borders and seek escape from persecution and a better life for themselves and for their families. Their plight is heartbreaking, and the ability of so many to turn the other cheek nothing less than horrifying.

But it’s not all doom and gloom. Sometimes, just as I am about to despair of humanity altogether, something will come along to restore my faith. And the many ordinary people who have been galvanized by the refugee crisis into coming together to help have done just that. I have been following in particular the activities of The Worldwide Tribe, a fantastic group of young people from the UK who have been documenting the experiences of those in the Calais jungle, and in the process raising money to help improve their situation. Such dedication and commitment to this important cause is awe-inspiring, and goes to show that anyone can make a positive difference in the world, if only they have the drive and determination to do so.

I hope that those for whom 2015 was challenging will find fresh perspective, hope and happiness in 2016. And for everyone else, keep doing what you’re doing! May your year be filled with peace and love.

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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.

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