See: Creating Sanctuary
Jane - Wrexham, NE Wales - 'United to assist Refugees UK'
In what way have you volunteered?
My husband and I decided to send a box of aid to Greece in August 2015. We, and local people started collecting. People in Chester, Liverpool and Wirral set up hubs and it was all ferried to Wrexham. We took a lot of it to a volunteer in Oxford and we all fundraised towards transport costs, we drove it, all done late one night and he set off for Hungary with it. Then onto Macedonia where the van was held by customs. So three weeks later I said to my husband one morning I am compelled to go and help. He agreed, we made some plans and I took a train to London and then to Stansted, then flew to Macedonia. One minute I was sat at Stansted surrounded by lots of duty free shops and food outlets, contemplating how frightened I was at what I was going to do or see, then a few hours later I landed on a dark and misty night in Skopje. There I met someone I had only met once before and we drove through thick fog to a small station near the border of Serbia and Kosovo and within minutes I was preparing bread for soup for a train of around 1000 people arriving. A bell rang, the train arrived, and it was chaos. Changing nappies of wet and crying children, everyone coughing and searching for shoes or socks. Having to change the clothes of soaking wet kids with their parents. Being taken to dark UN tents (some hadn't had their floors put in at this point) full of people in need who I had to try and help. We worked until around 5am that night and drove back to Skopje to sleep. The second night I crossed the border to Serbia (which I shouldn't have done) to see the walk the people were making and it was horrific - disabled people being pushed in wheelbarrows, no light and no idea where they were going. We helped carry stuff and calm the kids down.
We travelled a few days later to Serbia: A Pakistani muslim, Macedonian Jevoah's witness and a Church of England from Merseyside (me), where a few weeks previous the hotels and hostels had been full, before the camp opened near there for people. We checked the parks to see if anyone needed help. There was no one. We drove the next morning to Slovenia where we arrived just before midnight. We bought a lot of food, fruit and water and snacks to help there, but at no mans land it was hard to help. Then we headed to stay in a refugee centre in Nuremberg, then headed back to the UK in the transit van.
So that is how it started. We have moved spaces/units several times and we run an aid unit now just outside of Wrexham, having become a charity on October 18th 2016. We have done many events, and have had many done for ‘United to Assist Refugees UK’ (UAREUK) to raise funds and awareness. The community response has been incredible and very inventive in the ways to raise money.
I have done talks and presentations to talk about the refugee crisis, what I saw in the Balkans whilst the borders were still open on the border of Serbia (and close to Kosovo) in an area itself that has seen war with Serbia. UAREUK have sent boxes, pallets and containers of aid to several countries. The talks also offer a chance for open discussion about the global refugee crisis with the UN estimating that 65.3m people were either refugees, asylum seekers or internally displaced at the end of 2015, an increase of 5m in a year. This represents one in every 113 people on the planet, the UN agency says. (Source: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-36573082). We have also held music events and had them held for us where a series of speakers talk about their experiences in their homeland before they fled, helping to connect us all to the fact that we are all the same and mostly we all want the same things. There are so many tags, terms and pigeon holes used to divide us it can create fear and only by learning and sharing can we break these down.
Many churches, local groups and individuals have collected aid, foreign currency, held fashion shows, carol services, spring/autumn/winter fairs, raffles, chocolate truffle making evenings and many more besides to raise money.
We have just created a teaching pack that we will be offering for download that is a very interactive session to allow children, and adults, to learn and reflect about how it would feel to be a refugee. It uses realia to get them to choose what 5 things they would take from everything that is dear to them. We have just bought a projector so we can show more videos and clips and use interactive software for discussion, talks and other events.
A very effective idea last year was live Skype links to Greece and Lebanon for the communities here to ask questions to NGO and grassroots people over on the ground, at the coalface of the situation as it where, and it helps to build that sense of commonality, connection and also solidarity on a global scale, that we are more than just local or national we are part of a global movement that want to work together to stand shoulder to shoulder with those in need.
Helping locally in Wrexham we get requests lists for needs for newly arrived families and individuals we try to provide the basics for them and other items as we get asked for them. From welcome food packs, clothing, shoes, underwear and socks, coats, pyjamas, duvets etc and other requests which could be clothing and food for a lone refugee or clothes and toys for a little baby whose mum doesn’t have anything. One of our members is also a volunteer settlement coordinator for the Syrian resettlement in Liverpool now too. We also give food we cannot use (there are set lists for most camps and NGOs and the Hope Cafe in Athens which we fund the rent for) to the food bank, we have given oversupply of seasonal items to local groups and we drop stuff to the homeless centre and to local support groups as requested.
We are just about to set up, if we can find a low/ no cost space to do it a candle and soap trading arm of the charity with the aim of employing people locally, or giving new skills, and all profits will go back to the charity. Things are changing all the time and we have learnt an awful lot, it would be nice now to have a base in Wrexham that is close enough to enable the local refugee community to have some autonomy in running it or for holding events because from all I have seen that is the biggest thing that we can give someone back is the freedom to choose.
What was it that brought you to volunteering with refugees?
I have always read a lot about World War 2 and visited many sites in Poland, connected with it and the holocaust, wrote all my French A level work on the camps and resistance in Paris. I have read many books on Rwanda, Cambodia, Bosnia, Kosovo and other conflicts and the human cost. And visited the Croatian land mines and ruins from war. I have never felt close enough logistically or wasn’t old enough to help at some of the eras they happened.
I ran a marathon for survivors and widows of the Srebenica massacre in 2011. This time I was old enough, I wasn’t working as I’d left my career working in Investment - Banking as an analyst, project manager, to follow my heart and look after my son, I could do it with the support of my husband. These people were on the shores of Europe and we had a way to reach them and help them. It wasn’t an option not to help in my view. I think also 1989 was pivotal to me, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the uprising in Romania which ended Nicolae Ceaușescu’s hold on the country and also Tiannemen Square. We had a Romanian girl come to stay with us not long after as part of a school program, and all the children had suffered so much, her sister was missing presumed dead at the time and some kids had scars from bullet wounds. Understanding their lives and seeing how much we had in our country had a really profound effect on me. I read all my Dad’s Sunday Times magazines from the age of 11 or so and so learnt so much from them including about Tiananmen Square and the man who stood up to the tanks, that feeling of one person can make a difference and make a stand. We had also been on a two day and night coach trip from Birkenhead to Yugoslavia to stay near Porec. I loved the people we met there and when the war began I always wondered what happened to them. Also we stayed in a campsite in Paris a few months after the Berlin Wall fell and I remember asking my mum and dad what the strange looking car was. It was a car from east Germany, like maybe a Trabant. And that these guys had never been able to travel before over here, or be free to move, and that now we were all in a row of tents in Paris it really made me value liberty and freedom to be who, and where, you wanted to be. That understanding that not everyone had that really upset me as a thirteen year old.
What reward do you get from volunteering?
Helping my fellow human beings. Also I have learnt so so very much about both humans and also the more practical things of running a unit, all the things in the background. I’ve also been spurred on by the amount of effort some of the volunteers go to and what they give up even at tough times. I think setting up the online facebook group helped both me and others find like minded people who wanted to find a way to do something and I think because it had reached Europe it was, logistically something within our reach that was actually somewhere we could help. Seeing that there are ways to get aid to other countries such as Syria blew my mind, that all us small individuals could find a way to help. I loved watching my son play with one of the families kids, nothing matters to kids they just play and language differences etc, it just doesn’t matter, we could learn a lot from them.
What have been your struggles?
Finding a permanent base that doesn’t cost us money, as at the moment we have to pay for a unit which we use gift aid for and specific donations that are given for rent. That is stressful! Sometimes there is so much need and so much being requested I feel like my head might blow off, but I have learnt to deal with that and accept, well, just what our motto says "We cannot change the world for everybody but everyone can change the world for someone”. Also the apathy I sense from parts of society, it makes me feel like we just say ‘oh never again’ and then sit back and let these things go on, where we could help and are in reach to help and yet don’t. There are many who disagree with helping too, I have open conversations about this with people, and at talks. My view for me is that whilst there are women and children in need we should be mobilising everything to help them.
When I first started I had awful eye strain and headaches and was on it all day every day. I think it did affect our family life. But I have learnt how to balance it all and again it comes back to that motto. Also sometimes I think people might forget that most of these grassroots people aren’t paid a penny, we don’t use donations for anything other than helping people in need, so I think expectations can often be quite high of others on us, when we are trying to run families and jobs at the same time too.
What would you say to your wider community to encourage others to be welcoming, or to work with refugees?
We don’t stop divides or break down walls by distancing ourselves or turning away because it’s too painful to see. A solution has to be found to so many of the issues causing so many people to move. Do I believe we can take in the world? No. Do I believe we, globally, should take responsibility for some of the issues causing people to move? Yes. Do I believe we should help refugees at times of need? Yes. Most people would give anything to go home from the refugees I have met and seen. I would encourage people to watch ‘Requiem for Aleppo’ by David Cazalet, listen to the voices and the testimonies. Read the book ‘Refuge’ and also for kids to get the book ‘Refugees and Migrants’ by Ceri Roberts and ‘Who Are Refugees and Migrants? What Makes People Leave Their Homes?: And Other Big Questions’ by M Rosen et al.
It can seem so overwhelming at times with Sudan, Somalia, Yemen, Nigeria, Syria, Iraq and many more besides in crisis situations but it can’t be a reason for us to not do anything.
Most parents just want a safe place for their kids and hope that they will have a brighter future. We can all learn a lot from each other. It could be any one of us – nobody chooses to be a refugee.
I have met our local Syrians and I watched my son and the Syrian kids all playing and I just saw how happy they were and all got on. We as adults, have a duty, all of us, to learn from these little people.
I think I would say to people to sit and talk with a refugee and then decide how they feel.
Helping refugees and helping locally are not mutually exclusive. I have found that many people who are helping us are already involved or have been involved in many ways in many local charity/ support activities.
What does volunteering to refugees bring to your community?
Well we have done some joint fundraisers that help both local causes and our refugee projects. It has brought a lot of like minded people together who know each other well now and feel connected to the cause collectively. For some of the children that have volunteered I think it could influence them in the future and connects them (in a world of so many material and consumption) to other kids in situations much less fortunate. It broadens their scope of thinking about the world and our part in it and how we are all connected.
We spend a lot of money in our local shops too buying things for various aid consignments from donors we have all over the country, so it does bring money to our local shops. We buy wool and fabric from the charity shops which in turn supports them. We give many donations that are unsuitable to our local charity shops and we give food we cannot send that isn’t on the needs list, we give to our local food bank. We collect for the homeless too, both food and clothing/ gloves etc. I think it helps us to find that ‘tribe’ of people who feel the same as us and want to do something, and hopefully help others who want to help, but don’t know how to connect.
What difference has your volunteering made?
It provided a focal point for us all to come together and help refugees. It shows people they are not forgotten. I think the hospital generator and equipment will have saved lives in Syria. For others it’s a warm set of clothes, a meal or something for their kids and babies. I think hopefully locally people know we will help when asked if we can, and we usually can, unless it’s double prams they can be super hard to find..so if you’re reading this and have any please get them to us!
website: United to assist Refugees UK
Facebook: United to Assist Refugees UK
website: Wales Refugee Council
UK wide organisation: City Of Sanctuary