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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Food with Friends

On Thursday evening (aptly also Thanksgiving Day) I went down to the Gare du Nord with five more sleeping bags, five winter coats and three boxes of (homemade!!!) chocolate brownies for the community dinner. Funded by the International School of Brussels and fantastic new charity, Unless, it provided a proper sit-down dinner for around 150 people, who, for whatever reason, have found themselves in hard times without a roof over their heads. There was a delicious curry with rice and lentils, salads, fruit, cakes, brownies and tea. The students from the ISB helped the regular volunteers to serve food and spread cheer. Everyone ate together, talked together, laughed together. It was without doubt the most inspiring evenings I have ever had the privilege of being involved with.

I met some more lovely people, a new Eritrean friend called Taha with a cheeky smile, and another man from Afghanistan, who told me that he fled his home three years ago to escape the Taliban, after his brother was killed. He arrived in Brussels on Thursday after being made to leave Sweden, where he had settled, because he had originally been fingerprinted in Belgium (apparently once you’ve been fingerprinted somewhere that’s where you have to stay – can you imagine?). He showed me pictures of his friends in Sweden, told me that he had resigned himself to staying in Belgium now, even though he wanted to go back. He had tried to go to the office to sort his papers on arrival but they had told him to come back the next day. Who knows how long the process will take to be registered here, let alone to have somewhere to sleep that isn’t a park bench or a doorway?

It’s so hard to comprehend how so many people, purely by virtue of the place where they were born, end up in such difficult circumstances. But I am constantly inspired by the hopefulness and cheerfulness of the people I encounter in the face of such difficulties. It makes me realise that so many of my ‘Western’ problems are not really problems at all. I have the freedom to go where I want, when I want. I have a place to call home, documents to prove it, and a support network to help me when I struggle. And for all those things I am truly thankful.

This morning I read this article from the Irish Times about homelessness, and it brought home to me more than ever the importance of helping others wherever we can. You never know how much it means to someone if you just take the time to have a conversation, or to buy them a coffee. Though a small gesture to you, it might just be enough to help them get through the day without turning to drink, drugs, or worse. And as Christmas approaches – surely the hardest time of year for those who have fallen on hard times – it’s more important than ever not to look the other way. Because, to me, the true spirit of Thanksgiving is not just being thankful for what we have, but, in turn, offering whatever help we can to those who aren’t so fortunate.

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A snap from Thursday’s Community Dinner – volunteers and friends alike. Such a great night!

 

Critical Mass

Until this point in my life I’ve never identified with ‘activists’, the very word conjuring up images of bra-burning, flag-waving hippies intent on ‘sticking it to the man’ but with limited success. Now, however, I’m noticing a change. Not only in myself but in those around me, in my social networks, and also in the wider world. The change is this: It’s no longer just the ‘activists’ who feel the need to take to the streets and decry the social order. The rest of us are beginning to wake up to the need to have our say. Because it’s becoming increasingly clear that our governments and world leaders aren’t going to be the change we want to see. And, more than that, we are realising that time is running out.

According to the UN Refugee Agency Global Trends Report,  65.3 million people, or one person in 113, were displaced from their homes by conflict and persecution in 2015. Wars and persecution have driven more people from their homes than at any time since UNHCR records began. According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Filippo Grandi: “At sea, a frightening number of refugees and migrants are dying each year; on land, people fleeing war are finding their way blocked by closed borders. Closing borders does not solve the problem.” Until now, in the ‘West’, we have had the luxury of turning a blind eye to the suffering of so many on the other side of the world. But now it’s getting more difficult. Because those people are on the move. Our governments and leaders have driven them from their homes for their own political gain, and now they are on our doorstep.

The situation is compounded by the critical situation with the environment. Despite the landmark signing of the Paris Climate Change Agreement, a terrifying number of world leaders don’t believe the threat of climate change is real. On the website for the recent documentary Before the Flood we learn that “Earth has been warming steadily now for over 100 years. After decades of carbon pollution and deforestation, we are now regularly witnessing record-breaking hot months and hot years. 2015 was the hottest year on record and 2016 is hotter.” Furthermore, “Most experts believe we have locked in at least 1.5 degrees in temperature from the carbon pollution we have already emitted, and we are fast approaching the dangerous climate threshold of a 2°C rise in temperature rise.”

In many respects the damage is done. The world is already on course to heat to unprecedented temperatures that will have catastrophic effects on humanity (I say humanity, because, as my husband constantly reminds me, the world will be just fine once we humans have killed ourselves off). It is true that it’s already far too late to reverse the changes, but there is still the narrowest of windows to prevent total disaster – if we act NOW.

So back to my original point. There are a growing number of people who, like myself, are starting to wake up to the need to do something – however small – to stop the bad stuff happening, instead of sitting in front of the (warped) news reports with our heads in our hands thinking that it’s all so hopeless. We don’t want to watch from the sidelines as humanity implodes. We want to get out there and (here comes that classic cheesy phrase) make a difference. Because no matter where we are born or the colour of our skin, we are all human beings. And, for the foreseeable future at least, this planet is the only home we’ve got. Why must we abuse it, and one another, when these facts are so inescapably true?

I’ve recently joined a Facebook group of like-minded women, one of whom made the following wonderfully eloquent comment which resonated deeply with me:

“As I say, regularly, to my clients: our job is to do the best we can with the corner we’re in. Chase the causes in our own heart. Show compassion to those we find around us. That’s actually enough. Everyone’s corner is the size that it is. Just because you see someone with global reach doesn’t mean yours, that reaches a few houses down, is any less important. I also wax lyrical about how wonderful it is that every person I meet has different passions! My own efforts have always been for social justice, children in developing countries, and care for families touched by poverty, but I love meeting people whose passion is care for animals, or saving historic buildings, or sponsoring artists whose work makes no sense to me… because I think “thank goodness, it’s all covered!”. We are all unique, and I am grateful for that!”

Sometimes we all feel hopeless. But my own recent experience of raising money to buy sleeping bags (65 so far – yay!) for the homeless refugees in Brussels, and volunteering alongside other motivated individuals with Serve the City and now also the fantastic new NGO Unless – has made me realise how much better it feels to be in it, instead of watching it, or worrying about it but ultimately doing nothing.

So whatever your cause, whatever your passion, don’t be afraid to live it, to get out there and wave your flag – whether metaphorically or physically – and make a positive difference to the world and those around you. Because if enough of us care – and I truly believe enough of us do – then we CAN be the change we want to see. With or without our governments and leaders.

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