Our latest guest blog written by the incredible Rachel Mantell, who has the biggest heart and really does Get Stuff Done. If you’re looking for a way to really give this Christmas, then this is a great place to start.
When Christina asked me to write a blog for her I snorted – say what, really, about my very ordinary family? Chris and I juggle our boys, our jobs, and renovations on a scruffy semi in south London. We wish for more time, or more sleep – or both. We argue over map-reading, money (mostly what I spend it on), and whether I am too protective of the boys. He’s good-looking, football-fixated and a bit geeky; I’m sarcastic, sweary and the one who Gets Stuff Done.
The two boys are J – 3, energetic, funny, affectionate, obsessed with his bike and permanently covered in bruises, scrapes and grazes; and H – 28, charismatic, brave, a fantastic photographer and storyteller. H has injuries too – visible and invisible – from his time imprisoned under Assad’s regime and from his gruelling journey to safety, but his injuries are harder to heal than J’s. A Peppa Pig plaster doesn’t really cut it. But both boys share beautiful smiles, a love of people (and attention!), the ability to generate huge amounts of washing and a complete adoration of each other.
Oh, and there is a cat. Everyone adores the cat.
We are not H’s parents, of course (nor the cat’s, just to be clear). He has a wonderful, warm family still in the Middle East, who WhatsApp him daily and who he misses like crazy. We love him and we do what we can for this new family member that chance has thrown our way, but we are a poor substitute for his real family. He hasn’t seen them in years, and because of visa rules doesn’t know when he will see them next. So we are standing in for now. He lives with us, we try to explain the oddities of England and the English, and he cooks us amazing Syrian food under Skype instruction from his mum. H’s mother and I don’t share a language, but we communicate regularly too – we look at each other on Skype, and smile, and then she cries. I hope she knows I’m doing my best and I’d send him back to her if I could.
H is of course just one Syrian among millions displaced by their vicious, ongoing war. And Syria is just one among many conflicts unfolding across the world. But very few refugees want to come to the UK, still fewer make it – we aren’t swamped or swarmed or anything else. And when these few people get here they are often treated incredibly badly.
I could fill an entire blog with stories of filthy, bug-infested accommodation miles away from anywhere, with inadequate food and none of the support needed to recover from the horrors refugees have experienced. I could tell you about the Byzantine legal process, barely intelligible to an educated, native English speaker, let alone to someone confused and traumatised; a process with an illogical cycle of appeals, arrests, incompetence and spite. Or the ’28 day trap’ when a refugees is granted asylum, evicted from their accommodation and all support is cut off before they have any alternative in place – or, usually, even the documentation required to make house and job hunting legal.
But instead, I’ll tell you some of the ways you can help!
– Refugees at Home is a small charity who match people with spare rooms with refugees who need somewhere to sleep. That ranges from one night’s emergency accommodation to months and their becoming a de facto family member… as H has with us. What they do is amazing, but I am a bit biased as I have just signed up to help run it. They (we!) aren’t looking for money… they want your spare rooms and big hearts. If you want to help, or to know more, message firstname.lastname@example.org or fill in the form on the website.
– The next group I want to highlight *do* want your money. Phone credit for refugees and displaced people (@connect_refugee on twitter) do exactly what it says on the tin. £20 buys a refugee somewhere in Europe (referred and verified by a trusted network of volunteers) a month of phone credit and internet access. That sounds so little, but means the ability to talk to family, check the news from home and research legal options. In the case of one little boy from the Calais camp it meant he could alert volunteers to a group of refugees suffocating in the back of a truck; and the youth service volunteer teams use phones and text to track and support bewildered kids shunted round Europe by the authorities. I can’t imagine not knowing where my son was or even if he was alive, and see firsthand every day how much the ability to talk to your family means to someone forced to live a long way from home. Joining, donating, sharing fundraisers could give another mother that reassurance that her child is safe.
– And the final one I’ll call out is HelpRefugees. Set up by a group of friends a little over a year ago, they planned to fill a van with aid to take to Calais and within a week had £56grand and were setting up a new charity. Their hub (a big, freezing cold warehouse behind a wine superstore in Calais) operates 7 days a week delivering food, winter clothes, fuel and shelter to Dunkirk, Paris, slums and squats across northern France, and to projects in Syria, Lebanon and Greece. I was lucky enough to meet the HelpRefugees team in the early days and have watched them grow to one of the largest distributors of aid to refugees across Europe. In situations where most of the NGOs are nowhere to be found, people like them are doing what our governments and major charities are not – and they focus on people’s dignity and autonomy as well as immediate need for food or shelter. Donate and find out more at www.HelpRefugees.org and please consider going to volunteer in the Calais warehouse.
I could go on and on and on… Are you Syrious, Calais Action, the Common Good Collective, Donate4Refugees, MOAS and so, so many more. There are lots of groups out there who deserve your support. Most are less than 2 years old, run by volunteers and have a story which is a variation on ‘I was horrified by what I saw and the fact that no one was doing anything, so I decided *I* would do something’. If you want to know more, join the Facebook group ‘Calais People to People Solidarity – Action from the UK‘ and ‘UK Refugee Welcome – Action in the UK‘.
I’m always a bit reticent talking about how H came to be with us because it sounds too much like ‘us doing good’ but in fact it’s the most natural thing in the world to help another mother’s child if you can. In a crisis as huge, overwhelming and endless as the refugee crisis in Europe, all I think we can do is to be the person we hope our own children would meet if they were in need. Chris and I are not special people, we’ve not given anything up, or changed our lives to help others, we like thousands of ordinary people across Europe just saw something unbearable and are trying to do what little we can to make it better. And in the process we have been lucky to meet, and love, a lot of very special people, including H.