“I quit my career in fashion to volunteer full-time in the Calais refugee camp”

Jaz O'Hara

Jaz O'Hara is a fashion designer and the founder of charity Instagram account, The Worldwide Tribe, which aims to raise help and awareness for refugees in Calais. Here, she tells the story of how she left her lucrative job in fashion to help the crisis, and reveals what it's like to spend a day working at the camp known as The Jungle - and the fallout after authorities moved in to dismantle parts of the camp last month.

This journey started for me last summer when I was reading a lot about the refugee crisis in the news.

I was working in the fashion industry at the time, but the dehumanising words I saw in the headlines, things like ‘swarms of migrants,’ and ‘marauding migrants,’ left me with lots of questions about this humanitarian crisis right on my doorstep.

I was curious about the people behind these headlines and felt my questions about why they left their countries and what life was really like in the camp, were not being answered. So I decided to go to Calais, to visit the refugee camp known as ‘The Jungle’.

I packed up my car with things I thought would be useful (tents, sleeping bags, warm clothing, food), and I made the short journey from my home in Kent, to Calais with three of my friends.

What happened to me that day will stay with me forever.

The hospitality and kindness with which we were met was hugely different from the chaotic portrayal of the camp I had read about in the media.

When I returned, I wrote a status about the experience on my personal Facebook page for my friends and family to read, then fell into bed, exhausted. When I woke up the next morning, I found that the status had been shared 65,000 times overnight.

What happened next was a complete whirlwind.

My brother, two friends and I all ended up quitting our jobs to work full-time in the camp, doing what we could to support the humanitarian crisis unfolding before our eyes, while documenting it on Facebook and Instagram, via the fundraising site we set up - The Worldwide Tribe.

So what is life really like in the Calais 'jungle'?

A typical day working at the Calais camp

I get up early and sort out any packages I have received.

Foolishly, I put my home address on that initial Facebook post, mentioning to my friends and family that I would be going to the camp again and if they would like to donate anything, they could drop it there. 

As a result of the post being shared so widely, we've since been inundated with incredible donations; brand new tents and sleeping bags, Amazon delivery after Amazon delivery. I promptly removed my address, but word had got out and I still receive the odd package today.

I sort any donations between those that are really needed and those that aren’t.

We have received the most beautiful and thoughtful care packages, hand-written messages of support and compassion, and outpourings of generosity. But we also get our fair share of not-so-useful donations, too.

High heels in a refugee camp, for example? Not the most appropriate. We’ve had bikinis, a broken bell, strings of pearls, dinner jackets - all sorts.

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We arrive in the camp and walk through the once bustling southern section. Only a few weeks ago we would have stopped for a hot chai, some spicy eggs, and freshly baked naan bread, here in our friend’s makeshift restaurant, Kabul Café.

My brother might have even stopped for a three-euro beard trim at the barbers, and we would certainly have popped in to Jungle Books (the library) to see who was in there and what they’re reading.

Unfortunately, all this is no longer possible. The little that the inhabitants of this part of the camp had managed to create for themselves - the bare bones of a ‘normal’ life, the inspirational, resilient attempts at entrepreneurship and some form of future - were recently cruelly bulldozed in front of their eyes.

This area of the camp is home to hundreds of unaccompanied children, many of whom are now completely unaccounted for. The actions of the last few weeks have solved nothing but displacing people further, cutting them off from essential life lines like water points and the food distribution centres we have worked tirelessly to create.

As a result, we now walk through the smoking remains of the once-bustling community.

Thankfully, a Sudanese friend cycles past and gives me a lift to the Northern part of the Jungle which still stands strong, fuller and more chaotic than ever.

Though there's a dejected, sombre mood in the air, it doesn’t take much to lift the spirits of our lovely group of friends here, as we sit and chat whilst we chop onions for lunch.

Food here is always incredible.

The camp is naturally divided by nationality; there is an Afghan section, an Eritrean part, a Sudanese area and many more. I have many friends across the entire camp and so get to sample world cuisine in a tiny corner of Calais - I love that.

With minimal resources, money or ingredients, the inhabitants of the camp still manage to cook incredible food with flavours I have never experienced before.

After lunch we hand out a few blankets and shoes we have promised to some friends, then go to visit some other people we have got to know over the months.

As we walk through the camp we see many familiar faces and building this rapport, forming these relationships, has been a huge, rewarding part of this whole experience.

I am proud to call some of the most inspirational, heroic people I have ever met, my friends.

As the evening sets in, we enjoy a little music, singing and dancing with our Sudanese pals; always a great way to provide a little escape from the current situation. My brother is a musician, so he always brings instruments along.

Music is a language we all understand, and one which knows no borders, so this brings us all much enjoyment.

We chat until late in the evening and fall asleep, wrapped in many layers, inside the shelter belonging to a Sudanese friend who insists on sharing his friend’s ‘bed’ so that we can share his. Many times we have tried to refuse, to pitch our own tent - there's no hope.

The next day we wake and have a relaxed, sleepy morning while the Sudanese guys try to teach me a little Arabic, as we drink hot tea out in the cold wind. It always seems to be freezing in this camp, even during the summer.

Then, we say our goodbyes and head home.

This is the part I always find so difficult, making the journey back with ease and in comfort, just because of the little burgundy book I happen to own (my passport). Men, women and children risk their lives on a daily basis to make the very same journey.

Once back in the UK, I head to the school that I’m presenting in this afternoon.

The way I sustain the work we do is through raising awareness of the refugee crisis in schools, colleges and universities through an interactive and dynamic session. The comments and questions from the students leave me buzzing. They listen and give beautiful insight from clear-headed perspective.

Then it’s catching up with emails (after a day or two away), making sure I post images on Instagram to shine a light on life in the camp, until I repeat the whole process all over again.

The main message I take from the camp is one of solidarity and community.

Underneath race, religion, nationality and language, we are all the same; all human beings, living on this world alongside each other, and it makes it so clear that we should be sharing it accordingly.

It’s only down to circumstance that some of us are born into a country where we don’t need to fight for survival, and others are not so lucky.

We all have a responsibility to stand up for one another in the face of injustice and inequality.

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