Written by Sarah, Easton Cowboys supporter
A strange thing happens when you return from volunteering in the refugee camps in France, obviously I can’t speak for everyone who has gone to help, there are hundreds perhaps thousands, but from the few dozen or so I’ve spoken to it seems the response is pretty universal.
You’re overwhelmed, to the point of inertia.
After I returned from helping at the Dunkirk refugee camp as part of one of the waste and sanitation teams, something changed in me. I went from passionately and energetically helping to clear rat infested rubbish piles and human excrement, with an amazing team of equally driven volunteers, to just lying in bed for two days, staring at the ceiling.
From trying to suppress screams as we uncovered half a dozen rats immediately next to a small tent where four very young children were sleeping, and watching a little girl, perhaps 2 years old, drop her well-loved doll into the water that floods the camp, the same water which has flooded the spaces used as “public conveniences”.
To lying overwhelmed in my warm, dry, bed staring at the ceiling, feeling guilty about lying in my warm, dry, bed staring at my ceiling. But there’s something else, not despair, that’s too proactive a word, but powerlessness. I felt utterly unable to grasp what could be done to make a difference.
My visit to Dunkirk wasn’t the first time I’ve seen scenes of utter horror, I was part of one of the first film crews allowed back into hospitals in Liberia during a short break in the Ebola epidemic last year. There I witnessed a young mother needlessly die for want of a drug which costs only pounds to buy which just isn’t readily available in Liberia. As part of my work I’ve seen neighbourhoods in Namibia where HIV prevalence has reached 1 in 5 people, slums in India where disabled children hold young babies while they beg for small change and food. Each trip makes it mark, leaves a scar, but this one? This one affected me deeply.
I’ve sat with this desolation over the last few weeks and come to a dark realisation as to why the horror of what I saw has disturbed me so greatly. I realised that it’s the public, political and corporate response to the situation. Apart from the few charities and amazing grass-roots activists on the ground in the camps, no one seems to care. In each other country I’ve visited, whilst the response there has undoubtedly been too slow, not sufficient, there has been a general consensus that the situation is wrong, unacceptable. Aid agencies, businesses and political systems have mobilised and, in countries where so many have so little, people have joined together and given what they can.
But the refugee crisis in Calais and Dunkirk, the rest of Europe and further afield? You only have to read the comments below articles posted online or the articles themselves to see the horrific vitriol aimed towards these people. People, not cockroaches. People, not ISIS. Where are the businesses who would rally to give their infrastructure support in any other emergency situation? Where is the public outcry that people are being forced to live in absolute hell, having fled wars and persecution. People are living in indescribable conditions just 30 miles from the UK, a country where we have so much, but are willing to give so little. I’ve swung from anger to despondency in the last couple of weeks, mourning the lack of humanity that the European community, its politicians and businesses have shown.
Then last night (Friday 5 February) something changed. Last night I witnessed 5,000 people moved and motivated by Massive Attack’s powerful visual response to the refugee crisis. A huge visual backdrop created by Del Naja and London’s United Visual Artists group, featuring photographs from Syria and Lesvos by photographer Giles Duley, interspersed with the real facts behind one of the most devastating humanitarian crisis of our generation.
I watched one of the best gigs of my life with tears pouring down my face. Not just because the LED displays showed such tragic images, but also with relief. Here is a band who were using their stage to send a powerful apolitical message, and the audience? The audience seemed as gripped, inspired and motivated as I felt too.
The final screens featured a rousing call to action, met with huge cheers from the audience, reminding us that if we all come together we can make a difference, no one has to go hungry or live in such appalling conditions.
We can do something. I’m in. Are you?