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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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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The “Not on our Doorstep” Delusion

This week I’ve been feeling particularly depressed about the migrant situation in Calais (and, as an aside, also furious with David Cameron for referring to human beings in crisis as ‘swarms’ and expressing his condolences not to the families of the displaced people who have died trying to enter Britain, but rather to British holidaymakers for the inconvenience to their travel plans – disgusting).

The migrant situation is bleak indeed, and with the current political climate and rise of groups like IS it’s hard to see how things will get any better – more likely they will get worse. It makes my blood boil when people say those attempting to enter the UK should just ‘go back to where they came from’. In many cases they would see that as a fate worse than death, and in many cases it would be.

It is also infuriating to hear the argument that migrants should go elsewhere in Europe – what this ignorant ‘not on our doorstep’ stance fails to recognise is that other European countries accept far more displaced people than attempt to enter Britain each year: according to this article in the Huffington Post, Germany, for example, takes over 100,000 asylum seekers compared to Britain’s paltry 20,000, and Turkey is hosting the largest number of refugees in the world – at least 1.59 million people according to the UNHCR. Why shouldn’t Britain help?

I’m no expert on humanitarian crises, but as I see it the only way the current situation can be resolved is to tackle the problem at the source – through a coordinated and sustained attack against the groups that are oppressing and killing those same innocent civilians who are being forced in their thousands to flee, so that one day their homeland may be a place they can safely return to.

I’m also no advocate of war, but let’s not forget the UK government is in no small part to blame for the rise of groups like Al Qaeda and IS – instead of building fences to keep their many victims out of the UK, therefore, would it not be more responsible to take action and stamp them out?

The fundamental truth that many are conveniently choosing to gloss over is this: Most of the migrants entering Europe are doing so not to ‘seek a better life’, but to escape from one that was a living hell. These people are not cockroaches, scattering amongst our ‘civilised’ society to wreak havoc and threaten all that we hold dear. These people are PEOPLE. And, no matter how much you want to make out otherwise, they have the same right to a fear and oppression-free life as you or me.

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Friends Like These

Last Friday, UK-based social media news feeds were awash with post-election bitterness. Profanities, accusations and rudeness abounded between those who were – according to their profile descriptions if not evidenced elsewhere that day – ‘friends’ with one another. Characterised by a desire to shove opinions down each other’s throats whilst savagely and wantonly disregarding the pesky facts of emotional sensitivity and human decency, this was a war of attrition using words as weapons. And by God was it unpleasant.

To quote a friend who has herself been subject to recent politically-charged vitriol:

“Friendship does not spout vile names. It involves two parties making equal effort. It involves honesty delivered with tact and kindness. It involves laughing, a lot. It involves knowing when to step in and when to step back. It involves communication, balanced and regular. Anything that feels one-sided and wrong, probably is.”

Friendship isn’t always easy. As individuals (the clue is in the name), we will rarely find people with whom we always agree. But that’s okay, because being challenged in our views is the best way we can grow – so long as those who are challenging us do so in a way that is considered, measured and, above all else, respectful. Without mutual respect, friendship cannot exist. In its place is a barren wasteland of forced opinions, deaf ears and closed hearts. This world is full enough of hatred as it is. If we turn on those closest to us, what hope is there for a better future?

Another feature of friendship that is paramount to its survival is honesty. So many people let the behaviour of so-called ‘friends’ go unchecked, despite it impacting negatively upon them, because it’s easier to put up and shut up than it is to rock the boat by being honest. But if you can’t be honest with the person in question, can you truly call your relationship a friendship?

Finally, and most importantly of all, friendship cannot flourish without kindness. When we are going through our own struggles, it is easy to forget that others have theirs too. We cannot change the way others behave towards us during challenging times, but we can try to understand and forgive negative words and behaviour, and stop ourselves from getting drawn into a vortex of negativity.

We are, all of us, only human, and our time on earth is short. Friendship is one of the greatest gifts we have, so instead of squandering it we would do well to work on nurturing it.

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Why We MUST Remember

On Saturday I went to see the incredible First and Second World War exhibitions at the Armed Forces and Military Museum of Brussels. Being the day before Remembrance Sunday in the year that marks one hundred years since the outbreak of World War One, the visit was both timely and especially poignant. I’ve always felt passionately about ensuring we remember the monstrously large number of people killed in service ‘for their country’ in the two world wars, and as each year passes and more veterans of those wars die I feel even more strongly that my generation has a duty to each and every one of those fallen soldiers, without whom we might now be living in a very different society.

It is beyond me that anyone could fail to be moved by their sacrifice, though I am painfully aware we do live in a world where people all too often turn the other cheek, caring only about themselves and their own selfish endeavours. Such people doubtless fail to comprehend the bravery and suffering of those soldiers – many of them little more than children – who went to war all those years ago, knowing in their hearts they might never see their loved ones again, that they would likely die in the dirt, riddled with bullets and alone, their lives snuffed out like the candles they huddled around for warmth on those countless and interminably long nights in their bunkers.

It saddens me that wars are still going on around the world, that children are still being used on the front line and that, in some respects, we seem to have learned nothing from the atrocities that happened in the two world wars. But this is a personal and not a political post, the point of which is not to refute the age old arguments for war but rather to remember those who have fallen in it – not just in the first and second world wars but in every war that has, and is, taking place around the world. Because in forgetting those people, in allowing war and its ghastly and tragic slew of victims to become an acceptable loss in the pursuit of a ‘peace’ that never seems to come, we are, fundamentally, denying our own humanity. And without humanity there is no hope at all – and all those sacrifices will, ultimately, be for nothing.

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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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Making Peace

Yesterday, after two days of proofreading a document created by a colleague, I sent my comments back in an email. I was tired and feeling overworked, and didn’t stop to think how the email would make that person feel – I was just glad to have ticked another task off my long to do list. Today when they responded saying my comments had upset them my initial (tired and overworked) response was to roll my eyes and feel anger bubbling up inside me. But then I stopped, went for a walk outside, took several deep breaths and thought hard about the situation. My email wasn’t rude, per se, but with hindsight it was tactless. The document I’d been critiquing was this person’s baby, so inevitably my seemingly brusque comments were misconstrued as me thinking the entire document was rubbish, which is far from the case.

The incident made me appreciate just how easy it is for small issues in the workplace to turn into much larger ones, simply by virtue of people’s lack of empathy towards one another due to their own personal issues. And, on a much bigger scale than that, how it’s exactly this lack of empathy towards others that leads to hatred – and wars. This issue is particularly pertinent today as the US launches air strikes against IS militants in Iraq, who are currently attempting to murder the Yazidis and Christian minorities whom they have displaced from their homes, in what seems to be verging ever more closely on an act of genocide. What makes these militants – and, for that matter, the Israeli and Hamas fighters in Gaza – think they are better than those they seek to wipe out? Don’t they realise at our core we are all the same: Human beings who are trying to make our way in a conflict-ridden world?

I will never forget the stories I read as a child about the soldiers in the front line during the First World War, who downed their weapons on Christmas Day and came out of the trenches to play games with the opposition; English and German soldiers united in one moment of peace, when just twenty four hours later they would be tearing one another apart.

It makes me sad to think of all the hate in the world, and days like today remind me that I’m not immune to creating animosity myself, even when I don’t mean to. Our moods are not always easy to control, but if we all put a bit more effort into thinking how they affect other people, and appreciating that those people are working through issues of their own, I really think there would be more peace in the world.

Happy Friday everyone – be nice to each other.

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