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!

 

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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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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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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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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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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.

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

Past Post: Volunteering abroad (published on Guardian Online, 2007)

Another Monday morning in the office and you’re distractedly staring out of the window, thinking that there must be more to life and wondering how you can feasibly escape the daily grind, if only for a while. And then it comes to you: why not spend a few months volunteering abroad? A great idea, you think, as you sneakily open up an internet browser window and begin to do some research. Within minutes, however, you are staring dumbfounded at the website of a well-known ‘ethical travel organisation’ and thinking your only chance of affording to do a placement would be to take out a second mortgage on your flat – and possibly sell your car to boot.

It would be naïve to assume that living and working in a developing world community for any length of time would be without its costs, but in my own experience the vast majority of companies that come up on a basic ‘volunteering abroad’ Google search charge extortionate prices for what amounts to several weeks or months of living in the most basic conditions imaginable, and furthermore give you very little idea as to exactly where your money is going.

Before my own African adventure I obtained quotes from several of the largest and best-known volunteer placement agencies and was stunned to find, at the top end of the spectrum, programme fees in excess of £1,000 for a two-week placement! Admittedly the more expensive options are touted as ‘all-inclusive’ packages offering such extras as in-country support, transport to and from your place of work and possibly language training, criminal bureau checks and medical insurance for the duration of your trip, but the question is: are these things you could arrange yourself for a little more effort and at a fraction of the cost?

Don’t be fooled by the phrasing when it comes to money – whether you are asked for a programme fee outright or a ‘donation’ towards the cause, it amounts to the same thing. You have to pay for your placement. End of. And if you feel the company you have chosen is worthy and honourable, go for it. I did with Volunteer Africa and I don’t regret my decision. Of my £1,950 programme fee (for a twelve week placement) I was assured that nearly half would go directly to the project itself – in this case two orphanages in Mwanza, northern Tanzania – with the remainder covering my accommodation, language training week in Dar es Salaam and the company’s own costs to keep the programme running. During my stay VA sent a health advisor to talk to us about avoiding malaria as well as two trustees to purchase essential items for the volunteer compound, so I felt my money was in responsible hands. And, importantly, as a lone female traveller with worried parents sitting at home biting their nails down to the stubs over my safety, it certainly seemed wise to go with a reputable company who could provide such a service.

But after spending a few months in Africa I have come to realise you don’t have to pay the earth for your placement. If money is no issue and you are happy to use a reputable company that charges a fortune but promises a first-rate service then that is, of course, up to you. But if money is a real sticking point and you are prepared to put in a little more effort and take a chance, waiting until you are in your country of choice before searching for a placement may well mean you spend significantly less and find something just as rewarding.

On my travels through both Tanzania and Kenya I have heard, through word-of-mouth, of many small institutions – both schools and orphanages – that are desperate for volunteers but lack the means to advertise for them. Often, they are more than happy to offer free accommodation in exchange for whatever service can be offered, meaning volunteers don’t need to spend a penny other than to cover their own living costs. Admittedly they cannot provide the ‘support’ that is offered by the larger agencies (though if you have fully comprehensive travel and health insurance you shouldn’t really need it) but you do get to hang on to your money and spend it when you see an urgent need, at the source and on your own terms.

Beware those companies who charge a fee to find you a placement but don’t actually give any of your money to the projects in question. Rarely do they throw up anything that you couldn’t have found yourself through more extensive research, so whilst for cash-rich, time poor people they can offer a viable solution, they can also make those less financially blessed souls feel frustrated and, to some extent, conned out of their money. When I reached the Imani Agape orphanage in Kisii, western Kenya – a placement found for me by 2Way Development which charges a fee of £850 – I was sad to realise just how much difference my £850 would have made to the project itself, but after paying the fee to the organisation I had comparitively little to spare. Had I contacted the orphanage directly, I later found out, I would have been offered accommodation entirely free of charge.

The bottom line is this. Everyone is different, with different requirements and expectations of volunteering abroad. But before you commit yourself to a volunteer placement make sure you do two things. Firstly, read the small print to see exactly where your money is going, and secondly, set your budget and stick to it. Don’t be shoe-horned into paying more than you can afford as you will only regret it later. The important thing to remember is that whether your budget is big or small, there is an option out there to suit you.

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This photo was taken on my first volunteering placement in Mwanza, Tanzania, in 2007. I have such happy memories of these children and their happy, smiling faces. I often wonder where they are now, and hope that they’re happy.