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. 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.