It's been impossible not to be affected by the news stories of people desperately seeking refuge in Europe. We profile one woman's moving account of working on the front line in Calais.
What were you doing a month ago today? For most of us it was nothing memorable.
But Jasmin O'Hara, founder of The Worldwide Tribe, a travel blog that's turned into a grassroots social activist group that documents the life of refugees in Calais, remembers it well.
The 25-year-old spent the day asking herself: “What has happened to these refugees? Why did they leave their countries? Why do they want to come to England? Do they actually all want to come to England? How did they get to Calais? What is life like in the camp?’”
Two days later, she travelled to the heart of the Jungle - the nickname given to the Calais refugee camp.
What she was greeted by resembled nothing like the 'benefit-scrounging' and 'society-draining' groups she'd read about in some British newspapers those days prior. “The environment in the Jungle is far from what you would expect,” she tells Stylist.co.uk. “We have encountered only kindness and hospitality from the people that are living there. We are constantly offered tea and shown incredible generosity from people who have very little. It’s amazing how only the people who have nothing really know how to share.”
Moved by what she saw, O-Hara penned an honest and emotional post about her time in the Jungle on Facebook. It's since been shared over 65,000 times, triggered clothing, shelter and food donations across the UK, and raised over £144,000 on her Just Giving page.
“I gave no thought to who would read it,” she says, “but over the next few days offers of help and support came flooding in, and I have been overwhelmed by the kindness and compassion of the British public ever since.”
In her post, O'Hara described the campsite as a representation for the world's war zones: “We walked through ‘Afghanistan’, ‘Syria,’ ‘Eritrea’ and ‘Sudan,’ all living peacefully alongside each other. It was immediately clear that these people, fleeing war and persecution, want anything but conflict. The ‘mosque’ (a wooden frame), next to the church (some wood and tarpaulin, crowned with a wooden cross), right next to each other, representing that we are all the same, regardless of religion or race.”
She tells us, “The environment of the camp is peaceful. It is clear that they are trying to create as normal a life as possible whilst living in a makeshift structure.”
But their circumstances are so far from what we would deem 'normal'. O'Hara says she feels, “constantly emotionally drained from the heroic, tragic yet inspirational life stories” she hears and hopes to give as many refugees a voice as she can.
One story that struck her the most was of a 23-year-old man from Dafur, Sudan, who was imprisoned for two years after his village was burnt to the ground and his father was shot for being black by the Janjaweed militia group. When he was released, he searched nearby towns and cities in hope of finding his sister, brothers and mother but they weren't there. He was arrested once again, this time for travelling through the country because it is not permitted. Unable to face any more time in prison, he spent all his money on being smuggled to Libya where he started his journey on foot and alone to England.
“Each time he spoke the word family, his voice broke and he put his head in his hands,” O'Hara reports on Facebook. “Crying, he told me that every time he closes his eyes, he sees his mother, telling him he is a good boy, and that he is doing the right thing. ‘Why then, am I living like an animal?’ he asked me.”
Boosting morale is an important part of The Worldwide Tribe's work in the jungle:
When O'Hara's father Mike played his guitar on Saturday, others joined in by drumming on nearby surfaces and dancing despite not knowing the songs.
A large donation of bikes from Holland has given inhabitants more independence and freedom, where they would otherwise have to walk miles to the nearby town and train terminal.
A man who lost his phone in the severe flooding in Calais in recent weeks was “buzzing” when he received a donated replacement.
“From spending time in the camp, I have learnt that we are all the same, deep down. We all want for the same things, food, shelter, safety and love. We all live in the world together and she should share it accordingly. If I have two sleeping bags and my neighbour has none, how can I not reach out and share?
“I aim to represent their hopes, dreams and needs for the people of the UK to understand their situation and realise that we are all the same. It is just a matter of circumstance as to why they are living in this camp and we, in the UK are not.”
O'Hara and her team visit the Jungle every couple of days and have made leaps and bounds in understanding the needs of and providing for the residents of the Jungle. However, their challenges are still great.
“It has been tricky to manage the outpouring of generosity and make sure we are delivering only useful, needed items into the camp,” says O'Hara.
“Distribution of aid within the jungle also has its challenges. Distributing donations sustainably, fairly and in a manner so as not to cause crowds and chaos can be very difficult. How do you differenciate between those who have genuinely just arrived and really needs a sleeping bag or blanket from those just trying their luck at being a little warmer at night and wanting a second?”
O'Hara is now working with a team to build an infrastructure that effectively collects, transports and distributes the financial and physical donations pouring in from all over the UK.
“The refugee crisis has made me feel lots of different emotions. Frustrated at times, that this is happening, in 2015, and so close to home. People living on our doorstep with no shelter, no shoes and very little food.
“We must pull together as one, work together and unite our efforts to ensure every human being is living with dignity.”
Images: Marc Sethi