Cornwall and Calais: small actions, huge issues

This comes with a seriousness warning, along with a heart-warming-story warning. If you read on, you have no one to blame but yourself.

A couple of weeks ago, the refugee crisis activated J., who couldn’t sit back and wring her hands any longer, she had to do something, so set her network in motion and we helped her plan a village coffee morning. (She is one hell of an organizer—I wish I had half her skill.)

The coffee morning’s a tradition here. The Methodist Church has one regularly—something I know only because I see a sign out outside the chapel, not because I go. And the Macmillan cancer charity has a yearly one, which they call the world’s largest coffee morning since it’s on the same day everywhere in the country. And, and, and. Lots of similar examples that won’t make you any wiser if I take more of your time while I list them.

It’s not something I ever heard of in the U.S., but maybe I traveled in the wrong circles.

Soothing and irrelevant photo

Soothing and irrelevant photo. The cliffs on a hazy day in spring.

So J. got us all in motion, and it was already too late to get a notice in the village newsletter. The crisis was building and still is. We didn’t want to put it off for a month. So we put posters up and we got a notice on the village Facebook site, and the grapevine got to work.

In addition to collecting money, we were also collecting clothes, bedding, toiletries, and a few other things, because out of nowhere a Cornwall to Calais drive had appeared, gathering things for the refugees in Calais, who are stranded by the entrance to the Channel Tunnel, looking for a way into Britain. None of them have visas, and they’re desperate enough not to care. One told a reporter he’d rather die there than be sent home. If I remember right, he was Eritrean—a state I’ve seen described as being very much like North Korea. They’ve chosen Britain for the most part either because they have family here or because they speak the language. (As I write this, police have cleared the camp, forcing them out. Whether it will reform remains to be seen.)

I can’t help remembering that before World War II, a shipload of German-Jewish refugees were turned away by one country after another, because the fear of being swamped by Jewish refugees was as powerful then as the fear of being swamped by non-European, and especially Muslim, refugees is today. And when all their possibilities had been exhausted, the ship took them back to Germany, where they died in the concentration camps.

The Calais refugees, by their simple existence, have stirred up a lot of hostility, of the sorry-but-the-country’s-already-full-and-besides-it’s-ours variety. So we expected some hostility in the village to the coffee morning. With a very few exceptions, we didn’t find it. The photo of the Syrian toddler who drowned crossing the Mediterranean with his family had shocked people. The refugees are, suddenly, fully human in many, possibly most, people’s eyes.

Maybe I’m not being fair in putting it that way. Maybe most people have, in a quiet way, always seen them as human (and not, as the Prime Minister put it, “a swarm”). What I do know is that the photo changed the conversation. People have publicly pledged space in their homes to refugees. Calais, rumors have it, now has as much in the way of clothing etc. as it can handle and what’s still being collected will end up going further—to Hungary, maybe, or to Germany or Austria or Italy or Greece or wherever it’s needed. The situation changes daily. It’s chaotic. We collected without yet knowing where it’s headed, and the people sorting it when we dropped it off weren’t sure either. What we know is that it’s needed, and it will be sent.

So we set up tables for donations at the coffee morning, and before long they overflowed—shoes, warm clothes, pots and pans, candles, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, belts, blankets, towels, tents, backpacks, rucksacks. We bagged it up to make room and more appeared. It was very moving—and all the more so because this wasn’t coming from just the usual suspects, the people we already knew were with us on this. The people donating crossed the political spectrum.

And the people who baked things to sell and who helped out on the morning also crossed the political spectrum.

F. contributed a cake to the coffee morning, and I didn’t try it, which I’ve been regretting because I’ve been hearing how good it was ever since. We’ve never talked politics, so I haven’t a clue where she stands. She grew up in Mauritius, and she told me about a flood they had there. She was helping sort clothes for the Red Cross, because people had lost everything, and they came across two completely impractical things: a wedding dress and a little girl’s princess dress.

The princess dress ended up making a small child very happy. And the wedding dress? A young woman who came in had made her own wedding dress and lost it in the flood. Everyone got together and remade the donated one—which F. said was very glamorous—so it fit her. She got married in it, and I have a hunch she carried herself like a queen and that the story’s still being passed down in her family.

I hope, in this time when people are desperate enough to walk across a continent, cross the Mediterranean in a rubber dingy, and trust themselves to traffickers because not to do so is even more dangerous; when those who can’t take those risks are being warehoused in camps with no schools and not enough to eat and expected to wait there until no one knows when; when countries are saying they’ll take some absurdly small number of refugees because if one more person comes in someone who’s already here will fall off; in times like these, I hope the small gestures of people in a small village will let a few people know they’re not forgotten, not invisible. And I hope it will add to a thousand other small gestures and shame our governments into doing something.

If anyone wants to make a donation, here are a couple of organizations that can make use of it: The United Nations camps were, last I heard, running out of money and needed donations desperately. And the British Red Cross has a Syria Appeal.

There are others, and I don’t know which is most important, which is making best use of the money, or which is placed where the pinch is felt most sharply. All I know is that people are suffering.

32 thoughts on “Cornwall and Calais: small actions, huge issues

  1. Good job!
    We have all been refuges. But, we get all snug in our little nests, and a generation or two or ten later, we forget what our predecessors lived through. I speak especially to anyone who lives in the Americas. Almost all of our ancestors arrived under the most miserable of circumstances.

    … I finally googled up Cornwall. It looks like an intriguing area.

    Liked by 2 people

    • And in the U.K. as well people have forgotten how many people are the descendants of migrants–some recently, some long ago. The world’s population has been in motion for as long as humans have been around.

      And Cornwall? Yes. It’s amazing.


  2. Firstly, I’m humbled by your post and for your continued ability to capture the hearts of your readers. I shall reblog. I’m reminded of stories told by my Mother and Grandmother; they were occupied by the Germans whilst living in Jersey. Stealing vegetables from fields while bombers flew overhead makes my weekly supermarket trip, a walk in the park. Bless you.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. This warmed the cockles of my soul. One of the best things about living in a small community was the way that community would come together and rally around a cause whether local, national or international, transforming compassion into action. I have not seen any of that here in my suburban area but it could just be because I am not yet part of any sort of social network here in America yet. Certainly there are no charity events being promoted but people could be doing things behind the scenes. We made a donation to the UN but somehow clicking some buttons to donate funds doesn’t seem enough in the face of this humanitarian crisis.

    Liked by 1 person

    • That’s true about clicking buttons–and it also doesn’t have the public effect of shaming governments. Oops, that’s supposed to be pressuring them, isn’t it?

      My sense of suburbs is that many of them don’t cohere as communities, but since I haven’t lived in a suburb since I was, oh, let’s see, eighteen (and I spent all seven of those years longing to be back in Manhattan), I’m not sure you can trust me on that.

      Liked by 1 person

      • No, I think you are right about suburbs. Because they tend to be commuter belts, the focus is probably too much on the city where people work rather than the area in which they actually live. My sense of urban environments (though I’ve not lived in a city since my 20s) is that cities are almost a collection of small villages so then there is some community there. Last time I lived in the suburbs was in the orbit of London and our town was pretty much a dormitory. There was no life to it at all as it was just a place people slept between journeys to the city. The suburban town I live in now at least has some vitality to it but there’s definitely no focal point that could bring it together as a community. Anyway that was a long answer to a tangential point.

        Liked by 1 person

          • Deadness describes exactly the suburb we lived in in Essex. As a teacher, I was in town over the summer and daytime it was like being in a Romero zombie movie. Where I am now, there’s much more vitality to the place but there’s not that clear hub to the community that would bring people together. It’s one of the things I miss about Argyll, that sense of community togetherness and even having a designated Community Centre.

            Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for posting this. I’ve been dealing with my wife having heart surgery in Nashville, which is 200 miles from Memphis (where we live), so hadn’t actually heard much about this latest global crisis. You’ve presented this in a way that makes it personal and a moral imperative that we do all we can to help. Kudos to you and to J.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I think one of the things that amused me in this horrible crisis, is that people were using the daily mail (who lets face it are one hair breath from just coming out to being racist) got to Calais for £1 and taking clothes, food and other things.

    I do despair of the human race when they insist countries don’t have room. We have in the UK 66,000 empty homes. Malta is the most densly populated country in Europe and they are still taking in refugees, we need to stop thinking that they are trying to get over here for our benefits. No one in their right mind would get into a dingy with no life vest and try and cross a see and to try and make that leap if they are doing it with children is stupid. I just hope something is going to happen.

    Sorry I went off on one there, I am slightly passionate about it

    Liked by 1 person

    • Passion appreciated. You’re right about the crowding argument, I think. The earth in general is getting crowded, but we don’t seem to be concerned about that. The country can accommodate more people if we decide that we want it to. Build houses; make second homes that sit empty most of the year harder to buy and maintain; recognize that the U.K. is an aging country and should appreciate an influx of younger people.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Fabulous. Well done you, and everyone around you – this warms my heart. I have seen so many ugly remarks posted online, that it’s great to read not only of this generosity of spirit but also the ‘crossing boundaries’ moves that stem from basic, humanitarian instincts. :) Thanks so much.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. A wonderful post, and so very true. And I love the idea of your coffee morning :-) It’s great to hear you had so many participating and so many donations. My sister-in-law recently moved to Berlin and spent part of her first few weeks there volunteering in the refugee camps – she counts hairstyling as one of her many skills and so was trying to give as many people who wanted them haircuts. It’s the small things that count, I think – the reminders that you are still human after such a horrific journey. A little human kindness goes a long way. And you’re right, it wasn’t so long ago that another wave of refugees were coming across Europe. My own mother-in-law was born in a German refugee camp after the war.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Pingback: Of dukes and baronesses and scamsters | Notes from the U.K.

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