Unsung Heroes: "Positive action echoes and inspires. I think we need a paradigm shift towards compassion."
To reiterate our intention: we hope to inspire action and cultivate a more collectively conscientious society by shining a spotlight on the good works of individuals and small groups, who use their skills to make a difference for someone in need. We are lucky enough to continue our Unsung Heroes series with Oliver Haenlein and Refugee Community Kitchen.
BMusing: Thank you so much for taking this time to speak with us. Can you begin by giving us a bit of insight into your background? What were you doing before you chose to change your course?
OH: I had been working as a chef and then a journalist for a number of years. I did some volunteering with a kids cooking charity on the weekends, focusing on reducing child obesity in London’s more deprived areas, and meanwhile had landed a job at a magazine called ‘Salt’, which focused on world solutions for positive environmental and social change. I think being exposed to volunteering and professional work like this not only made me realise how much more rewarding it was to it is to do purposeful work, but helped me to see how easily we can have an impact on people’s lives to some degree. I was also pretty appalled to see what was going on in Calais and the wider refugee crisis, so when I was made redundant, it seemed a good time to go and volunteer in 'The Jungle’ before I decided to make my next move. My girlfriend and I initially went for one week to help in the kitchens, but I quickly decided I wanted to return to do more.
BMusing: You have done some incredible work with refugees. At what point did you decide you wanted to be a part of the relief process? When was the moment you thought, ‘I need to do something?’
OH: I think the initial decision to go to Calais for a week was simply down to wanting to actually do something, no matter how small, as opposed to just sharing Facebook posts. I think a lot of us were there in solidarity with the refugees; solidarity was a way of protesting against the apathy and cruelty of the relevant governments. After my initial one week stint, I decided to return because I was not only disgusted by the realities of how people were living and being treated there, but also because I was so inspired by the volunteer-led grassroots positive action going on. Large NGOs largely were avoiding getting involved, so it was mainly left to groups of innovative and passionate volunteers to create systems and put the work in to ensure refugees were fed, clothed, sheltered and given information.
BMusing: Can you tell us about your experience in Calais?
OH: I worked for and helped run the kitchen at Refugee Community Kitchen, an amazing organisation which fed around 2,000-3,000 camp residents every day for over a year. We worked out of a warehouse shared by a number of small organisations like our own - people were working with wood for fire and shelter, sorting clothes distributions, cooking hot food, running conversation classes, providing legal aid, first aid and internet, watching over young and vulnerable people; some were even setting up fitness classes. Thousands of people came through that warehouse, some for a weekend, some for a year; all of them came simply because they wanted to help. Against a backdrop of negative press and growing far-right politics, it was awe-inspiring to be a part of, and restored my faith in humanity. Simultaneously, I also met many refugees and heard their heartbreaking stories. Personal contact with people you usually only read about completely changes your perspective; it’s hard not to feel their pain and you realise that no one leaves their homes unless they absolutely have to. I witnessed commonplace police brutality that I would never have imagined, and generally was shocked by the way Britain and France had decided it was acceptable to treat people who were simply trying to find a safe place to set up a life. It’s hard to describe the 6 months I was there due to the range of experiences and emotions, climaxing in the final eviction of 'The Jungle’, where we watched the camp burn, and saw over 1000 unprotected and unaccompanied children abandoned for days in what remained of the hellhole, while the authorities decided what to do with them. Needless to say, the UK government betrayed almost all of them. While the camp was a terrible place in many ways, it was also somewhere where I have a lot of fond memories. Eritreans, Afghans, Sudanese and many more showed us incredible hospitality with what little they had. We spent hours sharing cups of tea and games with new friends, and I was completely humbled by the majority of the people I met.
BMusing: What have you come away with from this? How will this shape what you do moving forward?
OH: It was a completely life-changing experience. I saw the worst and the best of humanity. The people I worked side by side with helped me to realise how determined, creative and compassionate people can be. The lack of action from our governments, and the actions of the some of the French riot police, the local fascists were shocking. I also really understood how influenced we are by lies and propaganda. It’s not hard to see why someone who reads unsubstantiated, scaremongering tabloids, who boast themselves as news, would consider everyone in the ‘Jungle’ a rapist or terrorist, because that’s what they are being manipulated to believe. When you go to the places and meet the people themselves, all the media, all the politics, all the chat just disappears; you are left with reality and human interactions; a human meeting another human who just wants to live, and who was likely forced from home by terrosrists him or herself. I take away not only a desire to help people because of the injustices I witnessed, but a desire to help because it is empowering. When you powerfully believe what you are doing in life is right and important, your level of engagement and motivation is next level. In the future, going back purely to profit-driven work that ignores the social and environmental realities around us is no longer an option for me. At some point I would like to set up my own movement or social enterprise; my girlfriend already has - the wonderful Solidarithe which provides hot drinks and information to refugees on the streets in Paris. I saw numerous grassroots projects spring up in Calais - people had an idea and followed it through. Once it was set up, people got behind it in their droves because a platform had been created which made it easy for people to help, and do something that aligns with their beliefs. This is another takeaway; if you want to do something positive, just do it, and people will support you.
BMusing: How can people make a difference? Are there specific charities you recommend or actions people can take to help the refugee crisis?
OH: Volunteer, donate, support in any way you can. Most of the long-term volunteers in Calais had only initially come for a few days or a week, but all had discovered something powerful, something different that they wanted to be a part of. Give it a go and it could change your life, as well as the lives of many others. There are loads of ways you can help - there is still lots of work going in Calais and Dunkirk, and many problems to deal with in Greece, Serbia and beyond. Great refugee-related charities you can help include Refugee Community Kitchen, Help Refugees, Solidarithe, Lighthouse Relief, Refugee Support Greece, Phone Credit for Refugees etc.
BMusing Was there some one you met on your journey who inspired you? Where are they now?
OH: Too many to mention!
BMusing: Any parting message for people interested in taking this kind of action? Any words of wisdom?
OH: I strongly believe that if we all do something positive, we can create real change. And that doesn’t have to be anything big or anything to do with refugees, it could be helping out a local community centre or cleaning up a park. Positive action echoes and inspires. I think we need a paradigm shift towards compassion. While the power of corporations and governments dictates a lot of what we see around us, if we’re apathetic nothing changes. I believe people have the power to change things. I also think we have a responsibility… at the risk of throwing cheesy quotes around, something Desmond Tutu said outlines it quite well: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.” Helping others or doing something good also makes you feel good, and I don’t think it’s selfish to acknowledge that. If others benefit while you feel good, then everyone’s a winner, what’s wrong with that?