2017: The Year of Cautious Optimism

Despite the many terrible world events that happened in it (Brussels, Paris, Nice, Orlando, Syria, Turkey, Brexit, Trump, Berlin to name but a few), 2016 was a great year for me personally. I married the love of my life after five years together, had the most joy-and-love-filled celebration with friends and family followed by a two week trip around my favourite places in northern Italy. I also had not one, not two, but THREE fantastic hen celebrations in London and Las Vegas (!), a relaxing break with friends in the beautiful Belgian Ardennes and an amazing holiday to Vietnam (thanks to Tom and Lily for having their wedding there!), plus numerous other special moments shared with special people. And for all of this I feel incredibly thankful.

The instability in the world has proved our future is far from certain, and that every day is a blessing and not a guarantee. I am therefore approaching 2017 with an attitude of cautious optimism. From a personal perspective there is much to look forward to, and potentially big changes afoot, not least my MSc in Applied Positive Psychology and Coaching Psychology starting in February.

From a wider world perspective, I do believe that we can, to some extent at least, be the change we want to see in the world. Even if it’s only on a micro rather than a macro level, when individuals come together to realise a common goal – whether it be helping other humans, animals and/or the environment – something magical happens. If we never look outside of ourselves and our own immediate concerns we not only lose perspective but we also fail to make a positive impact on the world around us. Whenever my time comes to shuffle off this mortal coil I hope it can at least be said I made some progress on that front.

So here we stand on the threshold of a new year. The future may be uncertain, but it is also what we make it. I don’t know about you, but I plan to make 2017 the best year yet. Happy New Year.

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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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Thoughts from Brussels

Exactly one week ago we woke to the news that 129 people had been murdered in cold blood by terrorists in Paris. These were ordinary people like you or I, who were letting their hair down after a busy week, enjoying a few drinks, dinner or a concert on Friday night. But the terrorists had other ideas.

It has since transpired that one of the masterminds behind the Paris attack came from the Molenbeek district in Brussels, one of the most deprived areas in Belgium, which is purported to be an easy target for Islamic State (ISIS) militants trying to recruit young Muslims. It is also, incidentally, where my office is located.

Belgium is coming under fire for its lax security measures where tracking terrorists is concerned. For a small country a disproportionate number of people have been recruited to ISIS and left to fight for them abroad – indeed some reports claim Belgium has supplied the highest per capita number of fighters to Syria of any European nation –between 350 and 550, out of a total population of 11 million that includes fewer than half a million Muslims.

These are worrying times, made more worrying still for those of us residing in Brussels by the news this morning, exactly one week on from the news from Paris, that the threat level in Brussels has been raised to very serious, with metro services suspended all weekend, concerts cancelled and a warning not to go to public places.

I feel conflicted by this latest threat. A part of me is defiant and wants to continue exactly as I always would, because to do otherwise, to change our way of life, is to show them they are affecting us, to let them win. But obviously there is also a part of me that is concerned for my welfare, for my partner’s and friends’ welfare. A portion of my daily commute involves taking the metro. Should I now avoid it, in case of an attack? Or carry on taking it and trust in the security forces (and statistics that would probably say my likelihood of being caught up in an attack is small) to protect me from harm?

At any rate, I can’t help but feel the terrorists would be stupid to do anything now the threat has been raised. Far better to wait until it has subsided, until people are less scared and come out of their shells to resume normal life, and do it then. We must remain vigilant. But, beyond that, what can we do?

The bigger issue does of course tug at my heartstrings every day. The ignorance, bigotry and racism shown by so many in the face of the refugee crisis is not only dividing communities but playing directly into the hands of the terrorists. I am not so naive to believe this situation can be resolved purely with love. Sadly now we have let it develop this far the only way it can be addressed is with more violence and bloodshed. But I do believe it is essential that people are tolerant, and that they seek to be informed about the situation instead of believing the hateful bile reported in the tabloids.

In the West, until now, we have been largely protected from the terrible things that have been happening across the world for decades – many of which were, ironically, brought about by the actions of our own governments. Our hands are not clean, and it’s time we stopped pretending that they are, that what is happening now in Europe is nothing to do with us. We funded terrorism for our own economic gain, and it backfired. Now those terrorists have become strong, and they are striking at the heart of the freedom we hold dear. They are also, let’s not forget, driving terrified people from their countries, terrified people who now reside at refugee camps across Europe. These people are like you or me. They are not, as the idiotic Republican hatemongers in the US would have us believe, ‘rabid dogs’ seeking to kill us all.

We started this, it is our responsibility to finish it. And beyond the guns and rhetoric, it is all of our responsibility to bring about a society that is centred around tolerance, hope and love. If we can succeed in this the world, and humanity as a whole, may yet be saved.

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Small Kindnesses in a Hate-Filled World

Few could fail to have been moved by the recent news (and news reporting – but that’s an inflammatory issue for another post) of American journalist James Foley’s death at the hands of Islamist militants in Iraq, or haunted by the images below of two of the many Yazidi girls who have been caught up in a war that’s not of their own making – one who looks little older than a child but is forced to carry a rifle to protect her family. Such stories and images are heart breaking, but, for westerners, it is still somehow so hard to grasp that atrocities like these are taking place on such a large scale when the comparatively ‘civilised’ society in which we live is at the opposite end of the spectrum of humanity.

So many terrible, evil things are happening all around the world, and though we fortunate folk may feel sickened, we also feel powerless to help. And, granted, when it comes to the poor souls being persecuted in Iraq, Syria, Gaza and all the other places where oppression, violence, corruption and hatred are as widespread as the oceans between us, we ARE powerless. But there is one thing we can do: Reach out to the people in our immediate vicinity, undertaking acts of kindness that will bolster the collective morale and prove not only the strength and beauty of the human spirit, but also that goodness still exists in the world. Just like this man, hairstylist Mark Bustos in New York, who gives up every Sunday to roam the streets in search of homeless people who need a haircut, whilst his girlfriend takes the trouble to ask them what they want to eat (rather than giving them scraps and leftovers). You might think a haircut is a shallow thing, but he said this of one of his most memorable beneficiaries:

“After offering him a haircut and whatever food he wanted to eat, he didn’t have much to say throughout the whole process, until after I showed him what he looked like when I was done … The first thing he said to me was, ‘Do you know anyone that’s hiring?'”

It’s small acts of kindness just like this that have the power to restore people’s faith – in themselves, in the world around them, and in humanity itself. I’m not saying we should all go out with a pair of scissors every weekend, but I am saying this: We may not have the power to heal the world, but the power to heal those closest to us is absolutely in our hands – if only we choose to acknowledge and act on it.

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Fight hate with love

Like many I was shocked and horrified to hear of the bombs that rocked yesterday’s Boston marathon, killing three – among them an 8 year old boy – and injuring many more. When I expressed my outrage at this latest tragic atrocity, however, I was shocked when someone challenged me to explain why it was any more tragic than the almost daily bombings in Iraq or Syria.

Ever since it was asked of me that question’s been playing on my mind in a loop – in much the same way as the video clip of the Boston marathon bombs going off has been played on every network since it happened. Did I feel more sad hearing about the marathon victims than when I heard news reports of innocent civilians being blown apart in Iraq? If so, what did that say about me? Was it possible some form of racism, classism or snobbery had crept into my consciousness without me even noticing its existence? Did I, in truth, value the lives of those people in Iraq less than the lives of the marathon spectators?

After a thorough period of introspection I’m pleased to say the answer to those questions was a resounding no. Whether they lost their lives in Boston or Iraq, I feel the same deep sense of sadness, the same feeling of shame that there are other human beings capable of such terrible acts of malice and hatred against their fellow men, women and children. The Boston bombings aren’t, therefore, more tragic; not at all. But, for those of us in the western world who are fortunate not to live in war torn countries, it is more shocking. Why? Because, quite simply, it’s far less common for a bomb to go off in the middle of a marathon taking place in an American city than it is on a normal day in an Iraqi city.

And there’s another reason. We see so many international news reports featuring the images of bloodied, limbless children’s corpses and wailing men and women beating their chests with grief that we are systematically desensitised to their effects. We’re used to death in Iraq and Syria. What we’re not used to is death in our own communities – or at least not the kind of death we witnessed yesterday in Boston.

No matter where terrorism strikes it sends shockwaves through not only the community whose beating heart it strikes, but also across the world. But whilst each time they strike the terrorists may think that they are winning the fight, what their hate-filled hearts will never comprehend is that through love for our fellow men it is we who will win the war.

I fell completely head over heels with this, a tiny model scene in the wall of a toilet in a Manhattan restaurant. I think it’s quite appropriate given the end of today’s post.