– a brief history from the perspective of an over worked and harassed mother of two……
Just over three years ago, in the summer of 2015, all over Hastings (well all over the world really, but let’s concentrate on Hastings as it is after all our home town) people were watching the refugee crisis unfold on the news. Beaches featured heavily that summer, we wept at images of Alan Kurdi’s tiny lifeless body washed up on a beach in Greece. We listened in horror as David Cameron described the desperate refugees clustered in a shanty town in the sand dunes of Calais as a ‘swarm of migrants’. This blurring of the definitions of migrant and refugee has been one of the most dangerous parts of the vile rhetoric surrounding the crisis.
For a small group of us the urge to be able to do something, anything to help was overwhelming. What started as an informal thread on a local Facebook forum led to the formation of Hastings Supports Refugees, initially started as a way that a group of about 10 of us, and here it must be noted most of us didn’t know each other very well or in my case at all, could communicate and work out how to get aid out to Calais quickly. The group grew, by the end of Week 1 we had 60 members, by the end of Week 2 we were at 150, and by the time we were a month old we were at 600 members. Now we stand at over 1300.
Initially the main objective was to send aid to Greece and Northern France. And while we still do this, things change; we had to learn very quickly what was and was not good practice when collecting aid. All clothing needs to be sorted very carefully. Only those meeting the exact requirements of the groups distributing on the ground can be sent. To be honest I reject at least 1/3 of all donations given.
In the past we have collected children’s clothing packs for Greece, food aid, clothing and hygiene packs to Calais, winter clothing for Syria and Lebanon. One of our main focuses has always been on fundraising. Ours may not be a wealthy town but it is an extremely generous one. Early on we gave the initial seed money that helped set up what eventually became the Refugee Youth Service, now operating with projects throughout Europe, and we paid for many shelters to be built in the Calais jungle while it still existed. More recently we have been able, due to the success of the Festival by The Lake, to make sizeable donations to groups working in camps in Greece, including the incredible RefugeeBiriyani&Bananas, and following the tragic warehouse fire at the Dunkirk women’s centre in August, to give them money to help them restock with essentials needed by the families living in more or less inhumane conditions in Dunkirk.
The past three years have been a rollercoaster ride full of jumble sales, fundraising dinners, film screenings, clothing collections that took over a whole church, the People’s Boutique, Bird in the Hand project, cake sales, and for the last two summers the Festival by The Lake at Ashburnham Place – an amazing day of music food and swimming.
But nothing sums up for me the way Hastings comes together to support our cause than the food collection organised with Hastings Solidarity outside Debenhams in the town centre, one autumn day in 2016. That day Hastings provided supplies for over 1000 hot meals for the Hastings Food Bank and one tonne of food aid that was sent over to Calais. The day was a huge celebration of what makes our town amazing, with choirs singing and people dancing and literally hundreds of people turning up with a tin of tuna, a carton of UHT milk… Many people in our town and in Calais went to sleep with a full belly because of that day.
The role of HSR is always evolving, especially now with the formation of the Hastings Refugee Buddy Project and our joining the national City of Sanctuary network. Our gaze has turned towards our home town and what can be done here to make it even more inclusive, friendly and generally amazing than it already is.
I am often asked “What can I do to help?”
To which I generally reply “What do you want to do?”
There are so many ways to help, help is needed everywhere.
This crisis is not going away, in fact three years in I can honestly say it is a grinding slog.
Often it feels like putting a sticking plaster on a haemorrhage. The crisis has been going for much longer that the three years since the world woke up, and now the focus is elsewhere it still continues. The fall of Aleppo, and all the horror of human suffering that entailed, was reported widely in the British press. Two years later and the same is happening in Idlib and yet not the same coverage, not the same outrage.
As Europe closes its doors and battens down the hatches, it becomes harder and harder for refugees in camps to survive. Boats still regularly arrive on the beaches of the Greek islands, bodies still wash up on the shores of the Mediterranean, young men are still hounded by French police and unaccompanied children are still sleeping rough, still have nowhere to live and no support and they are still going missing.
So, what can you do to help?
If you want to be practical and hands-on, the warehouses of Care4Calais and Help Refugees in Calais always need volunteers, as does the Refugee Community Kitchen in Calais. There are similar organisations working on the ground in Greece and Paris.
If like me you have a family or obligations at home that mean you can’t go away, then HSR always needs people with initiative and drive to help fundraise and organise collections.
If this isn’t your thing and you are more of a people person or have specific skills you feel can be put to use, then the Hastings Refugee Buddy Project may be for you.
Or maybe you would like to help raising awareness with Hastings Community of Sanctuary.
Although these three organisations seem to be separate entities, we are in fact totally dependent on each other with a symbiotic relationship and have all grown out of that first conversation a group of strangers had on Facebook what feels like a lifetime ago.
Photograph: Ruhi Loren