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Saturday, 20 August 2016

ONE YEAR ON By Tess Berry-Hart of CALAIS ACTION: 20th August 2016

So exactly one year ago today I was so upset by the endless stream of desperate pictures on my Facebook and Twitter feed that I typed "how to help refugees" into Google and it came up with THIS article followingLiberace Gwendoline and her trip to Calais. 

I couldn't believe it - so this is how I could actually help! Along with Kate Coggins Clare Struthers Laura Campbell and many others I got in touch with Libby and before I knew it I was hosting the Calais Action North London collection in my front room.

I went away for the Bank Holiday and turned my phone off for the weekend. When I came back to 213 new messages in 48 hours I knew something big must have happened - the pictures of Aylan Kurdi had hit the news.

I know that many of us were caught up in the huge wave of empathy and need for action - I just remember that all of a sudden everybody from all walks of life appeared on my doorstep every day for a month - the youngest donor was two, bringing bags of sweets, and the oldest was ninety-six, who had cleared out the provisions of her own little pantry to help feed refugees in Calais. Overwhelmed by sacks of donations, I sent out an alarm call for volunteers and was deluged with help - from a whole spectrum of society including neighbours, former child refugees, economic migrants, taxi drivers, businesswomen, grandmothers, singers, actors, lawyers ... big ups Charlotte Randle Lily Bevan Anne Dorst Rowan Williams Seble Alemu Bates Kate Brittain Gubs Kemlo!
If ever there was an antidote to the horror of the refugee crisis then the sheer wealth of humanity and the response of so many good people was definitely the tonic.

I'd thought I'd collect a van of stuff for my first trip to Calais in September, but the collection in my front room had grown to such epic proportions that I had to relocate it into a nearby priest's house and garden (thanks Allison Holt Ambrogi!) and when the priest wanted his house back I found many Calais Action collections were having the same problem! 

So...we opened the warehouse in Crystal Palace, where over the next months teams of dedicated people such as Mags Proud Caroline Wyard Alice Faye CarelessGeorgia Mancio and Lynley Oram would sort, box, chuck, recycle, and load aid for Calais, Greece. Unsuitable but good stuff was sent to projects all around the UK. For months my feet did not touch the ground!

It wasn't all rosy, of course. As for most of us, it was learning on the job - what was/ wasn't needed for Calais, how to pack a pallet, how many pallets into a container, how to fill out a shipping manifest, is this Greek island big enough to handle this volume of stuff?!?!  Few people I met were trained aid workers and the high pressure and sheer volume of stuff meant I was knackered and irritable a lot of the time. The constant dramas in Calais and Greece meant that needs were often changing, but when you see what was achieved in making so many camps all over Europe habitable with functioning food and distribution systems over the following months, it seems like one of the huge achievements of humanity.

Like many people, I would have been amazed if, back then, you'd have told me that I'd be still working on the refugee aid effort a year later. If I thought anything, it was that we needed to plug the gap for a few weeks or months until the powers-that-be stepped in to sort the situation out. That obviously didn't happen, and it seems amazingly naive now to think that it would, but back then it seemed inconceivable that our governments would so lack the will to help those fleeing their own countries that it would be willing to let people die on its shores or freeze in its fields.

What I do know is that I wouldn't have changed this past year for anything. I've met the best people in the world, been involved in campaigning and speaking on refugee issues, and worked with so many different people from peers to pop stars. Despite all the frustrations and the fatigue, it's simply been one of the best times of my life. Big power up to the Calais Action team who are the dearest people in the world to me, and all of you in the people-to-people movement that I've met and worked next to and shared a beer or a cry with. You're what being human is all about!

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