Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Alone and at Risk: A Volunteer's Plans to Support Young Refugees at Calais

 Some of my Facebook friends and Twitter followers will have seen my posts about my brother Rob's plan to visit Calais to offer support to young people in the refugee camps there. I know how passionate he is about this and how given the opportunity will be able to offer valuable help to these vulnerable youngsters so I've invited him to answer a few questions about his plans, what he hopes to achieve and how he'd reply to certain points brought up in response to the refugee crisis.

Firstly, obviously I know you as my little brother, the boy who wore a green bobble hat for weeks and insisted on being called Mike (from the Monkees) but for the benefit of anybody who doesn't know you, can you tell me a bit about yourself, particularly what you do for a living?

Having moved on from the greatest rock and roll band in the world... I trained as a youth worker and have worked face to face with children and young people for over 20 years, whilst working with young people I was drawn to youth homelessness and have also co-led large groups of volunteers to run cold weather shelters for homeless adults in London. I then went on to manage several homes in London that offer accommodation and high quality support for homeless young people and those who are leaving care. I now work in development and spend most of my time talking with local authorities across the UK and how the charity that I work for can help. I have a keen interest in working with young refugees in this country and am currently working on a project to offer them homes and support.

I've seen lots of posts on Facebook about volunteers taking donations to refugee camps in Calais and beyond but you have different plans don't you?

Yes, while I think it's hugely important that the right kind of donations are still being offered (please check with your local group before donating goods, there is no refuse collection in the camps), my plan is slightly different, I aim to spend some time trying to identify children and young people who are in the camps alone, without their parents. I want to help them move to safer, smaller and more appropriate camps where their needs can be met.

Why single out young people when people of all ages are suffering?

The reality is that there is little infrastructure and a lot of chaos in the camps, with new arrivals daily and the threat of traffickers and exploitation the heightened risk to this specific group is worthy of attention. I have little understanding of the scale of the problem and part of my visit will be to plan for a more sustainable project later on. I have been inspired by a guy called John who I linked with some other friends who are in Calais. John used to run a logistics company and is using his skills to add a level of much needed organisation. This is a great example of using transferable skills for crisis management and I feel I can do the same. John went for a week and is staying for three months! He is also responsible for setting up the idea for volunteer houses which I intend to support.

You've already raised more than your target of £400 but the fundraising continues, what do you plan to do with all the extra money raised?

I've been blown away by the support I have been given, my fundraising is currently at £1120, however I am committed to raising more money to help even more volunteers come and offer support. As I said before, the extra money will go towards John's efforts to rent houses for volunteers.

You've planned the one trip but with so many people still fleeing their homes what do you want to achieve in the longer term?

In my head I would like to see a rolling group of professional volunteers continuing the work. When I have a better idea of the realities involved I plan on pulling together people from the child support world who are willing to help me set up something more sustainable.

Since the refugee crisis hit the headlines there have been several comments from people saying we should support our own homeless people first, particularly ex-service personnel. Are they right?

I am dubious to the real meaning of this suggestion, Firstly I don't recognise a difference between one person who needs help and another, we are all from Earth, and secondly, most of the people I have heard use this argument have done very little to offer help to those that they think have priority. I have spent years volunteering with Crisis, working with London's street homeless people, many ex service personnel, I would be more than happy to offer advice to those that see this as an option for their own volunteering efforts.

What about people who are concerned that by offering help we are just encouraging more people to make the perilous journey to Europe and that more parents will be putting their youngsters in danger?

If the only option you have is to risk your family's life at sea then it gives some indication of the scale of danger they are fleeing. There is good cause to offer safer assistance to those that are displaced and in transit and I believe the humane thing to do would be to spend public money and military time on evacuating these folk safely.

If people are unable to donate financially are there other ways they can help?

The biggest free thing to do is to talk to people, educate them on the reality, we can't rely on our media to tell an impartial story so let's tell our own.

Crowd fund! I've never done this before and am blown away by the amount of support I have received. People want to help, but sometimes don't know how. Why not help raise money for existing projects?

And finally do you have a message for anybody who has already donated or is planning to?

Firstly, those that have given, spent time, donated goods or have been sharing their stories, thank you, it's great to be a part of something better than what our world leaders are offering and your help will make a difference.

Those that are thinking of helping, do it! You may have noticed a lack of the big charities in Calais, the feeling is that they are holding off for political reasons. What we have left are many well meaning crowdfunder projects, it's really a case of putting your trust into something you are not sure about. I hope I have been able to reassure you that every penny that I raise is to maintain volunteer support in the refugee camps, and one person at a time we can all make this crisis a little brighter.

If you would like to make a donation you can find Rob's crowdfunding page here.

Please consider offering help in any way you can, writing and sharing posts, not just this blog (although thank you if you do!) may not feel much but every Facebook post, every Tweet that recognises the humanity of refugees is adding to the noise that Governments will have to respond to. We can't let the overriding narrative be taken over by the negative, by those who choose to see our fellow humans as them and us.

Thursday, 3 September 2015

Refugees welcome

Alan Kurdi aged three, Galip Kurdi aged five. Remember those names, not as the names of migrants, nor asylum seekers. Remember they were children, little boys who just needed somewhere safe.
Maggie spotted the photo of Alan on Facebook and asked about it. I explained that people were trying to escape war zones or persecution but had drowned in the attempt. She assumed the little boy had fallen overboard and was an isolated case so when I told her that these drownings keep happening, that boats keep sinking and thousands of people have drowned she was horrified. At first she said she was glad she lived here where we're safe then worried that was selfish. I reassured her that being grateful for our lives doesn't make her selfish but some people think we shouldn't allow these people here too and that we don't have room for them. Her reaction was instant,
"That's just wrong! We have lots of empty houses here. We could go and buy a spare bed to let somebody live with us. It's not fair to let poor people die like that."
She is seven years old and in one sentence showed more compassion than many adults, including our Prime Minister.
In September 1940, the SS City of Benares was torpedoed, 90 children were on board, evacuees bound for Canada. When the boat sank 77 of these children died. These were children who had been put on a boat to seek refuge in a safer country. At the time there was an outpouring of sympathy and support for those who had lost children. These parents weren't criticised for making the decision to try and send their children somewhere safer even though it proved to ultimately be the wrong decision. Likewise the father of Alan and Galip deserves compassion not condemnation for putting his sons in what turned out to be a fatal situation. This is a man who has lost both his sons and his wife and they risked their lives not for a benefits package but because they hoped they would be able to start a new life where they could be safe.
I don't pretend to have the answers to the refugee crisis but I don't believe we can forsake our compassion, our humanity. It shouldn't matter whether a person is a brain surgeon or a street cleaner, is illiterate or has a university degree, we shouldn't only be moved to offer help because we may ultimately benefit from it, we should try to help because it's the right thing to do. These people are our fellow human beings and it should be our natural instinct to want to help. Of course that help should be ideally shared among countries, but we shouldn't refuse just because we perceive other countries aren't doing their bit. If we turn our backs and lose that instinct then I fear for what we have become and what we are capable of.
Thankfully there are still many people who haven't lost their sense of empathy and compassion, humanity isn't yet done for. This article in the Independent details ways in which people can help. The author, Patrick Ness pledged to match donations to Save the Children up to £10k, that total was reached in a few hours, John Green, Derek Landy and Jojo Moyes have since offered to match subsequent £10K increments. You can donate here. Dawn O'Porter is gathering supplies and raising money for the refugees at Calais. We may not have all the answers, we may often feel impotent but as long as we still feel, as long as we don't turn our backs then perhaps there is still some hope left?

Since I wrote this blog yesterday afternoon Patrick Ness' fundraising has gone from strength to strength and as well as raising a huge amount of money for the refuge crisis has sent out an important message, that many, many people do care about the desperate plight their fellow humans are in and want to help.
Patrick's £10k donation has been matched by John Green, Derek Landy, Jojo Moyes, Hank Green and a group of American YA authors have also clubbed together to donate more. Just as important though are the donations from the public, from £1 to £10,000, they all send a message of hope and solidarity.
As things stand, the amount raised is currently over £155,000 (not including at least £20k pledged and Gift Aid) and when it reaches £195,000 author Louisa Young has pledged to raise it to £200,000. Virgin Money Giving don't make a profit from the site but ordinarily charge a 2% fee to cover their costs - they have said they will waive all fees if the total reaches £250k.
Last night Maggie came into the kitchen and said she wished she could do something to help. I told her I've donated some money and we've decided we're going to give some supplies to one of the organisations collecting for the Calais migrants, she's going to help me.
Alan and Galip - remember those names but now let the spur be those who are still alive and need our help.

Maggie's donation

Update 2!
Since my earlier update donations continue to pour in and several other authors and publishers have offered to donate £10k as the amount raised reaches subsequent targets. Money isn't the only answer but the generosity of all these people, from the smallest to largest donation is making me feel a bit weepy (in a good way!) this afternoon. Follow Patrick, @Patrick_Ness on Twitter for further updates.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Back garden camping - just as well there's no pitch fee!

Maggie could have gone to Beavers Camp this weekend but when they were booking she was adamant she didn't want to go. A few days beforehand she changed her mind, "I didn't know there would be pudding" but it was too late. To cheer her up I agreed to sleep in the tent with her in the back garden over the weekend.
We pitched the tent on Friday after school and after a lot of talking and a bedtime story she had finally fallen asleep but I was still awake and reading when something - or someone - hit the side of the tent. Then did it again. I immediately assumed it was my husband trying to spook us so waited for him to up the ante before it dawned on me that it was unlikely he'd bother getting out of his nice warm bed at 1am. So then I guessed it was the cat. I checked outside the tent and eventually spotted him - he was chasing a mouse that had taken refuge under the tent. After chasing him round, through and finally grabbing him as he attempted to scramble under the tent, I managed to hold onto him squirming while I unlocked the door and put him safely inside. At last I managed to get some sleep although it was broken much sooner than I'd have liked by the family of magpies who reside in our ash tree, they're noisy and frankly inconsiderate neighbours.
So on Saturday night I was more prepared and made sure the cat was indoors - until Maggie opened the door and he ran out... He jumped over the fence so I reluctantly left him to it, read Maggie a story and tried to settle down to sleep. I'd just started to nod off when I heard miaowing outside the tent. I left my warm sleeping bag and chased him around the garden again before managing to persuade him that there was food and a comfortable armchair waiting inside. Finally I could sleep! Or at least I could sleep until 4am when I was woken up by Maggie stood by my head pleading, "Help me, help me, oh help me!" Confused and groggy, I asked her what was wrong. She asked me again to help her. "Do you feel sick?" She nodded. "Quick! Get out of the tent!" I fumbled around for my glasses as I couldn't see a thing, looked around to see her trying to put her shoes on, "Forget your shoes if you're about to be sick, just get into the garden!" She looked confused so I felt her brow, it didn't have that imminent about to throw up clammy feeling so I asked her again if she felt sick. She was non-committal so, reassured I sat her down, put her shoes on and took her into the house asking if she needed a wee. She vaguely nodded then tried to go into the kitchen before I steered her into the bathroom then back into the tent. She immediately fell back to sleep while I lay there listening to the early dawn chorus - the small birds go first before the magpies and pigeons take over later.
At least the coffee making facilities were close by!

Monday, 15 June 2015

Matt Haig, male suicide and feminism

The writer, Matt Haig has been on the receiving end of some harsh and unkind tweets recently for mentioning that he's thinking of writing a book on toxic masculinity. He's been accused of mansplaining, of ignoring his male privilege and of usurping the aims of feminism to make it about men.
Having followed Matt for some time on Twitter now I know that he is a feminist, or if you prefer ( I don't), an ally to feminists and despite accusations to the contrary he is the antithesis to a men's rights activist.
Feminism is a broad church and as with any such movements there are bound to be people who are fighting for different goals. However, all are under the umbrella of feminism and in-fighting among what should be allies surely helps nobody but those who wish to at least maintain the status quo, if not turn the clock back to when things were even worse.
I'm a feminist, I can't remember deciding to become one, I just am. My version of feminism is about fairness and inclusiveness and that means recognising a patriarchal society can be damaging for men as well as women. It's about believing that if women can be strong then men can be vulnerable and should be able to express this without fear of being mocked. It's not about men co-opting the movement but it recognises the wider societal benefits.
It's a personal issue for me too as my brother killed himself in 2012. He was in many ways a textbook stereotype of a male suicide, working class, drug addict, severe debt... Yet I knew the person beyond this - the little boy who was teased for being small at school until he learned that he could stop them by being tough. The teenager who hated his skinny body and was painfully awkward in social situations. The young man who lost his mother to breast cancer when he was only 19 and could never really talk about his grief, instead bottling up his emotions for years. The addict desperately fighting his demons, winning some battles despite the shame he felt until he ultimately lost his war. The body, cold and alone on a hospital mortuary bed.
If you've never had to identify a body following suicide, never organised a funeral, never read the cold, hard facts in a coroner's letter, never watched your father break down in tears as he blamed himself then perhaps you're free to ignore what is happening to some of our men. I can't do that. I believe a society in which women have equal rights and equal respect will also benefit men who currently fear that not being the strong and silent type is a weakness, that mental health issues should be dealt with by "manning up" instead of by asking for help. Gender constraints harm us all, let's open up the conversation, feminism shouldn't be a closed shop.

Monday, 30 March 2015

Pink is not the enemy

My eldest daughter when she was about 4 and loving all things pink

It's been a few months now since Maggie's photo protesting Tesco's marketing of a superhero alarm clock as a gift for boys went viral and life has settled back down after a crazy few weeks.
I've had time since to reflect on some of the comments I received during that time. Not just the negative, I addressed most of those at the time in this blog, although just to clarify I never asked for, expected nor received any compensation from Tesco nor any remuneration from the various media outlets that covered the story. And similarly Maggie never asked for nor expected the alarm clock, this wasn't a spoilt child demanding a toy - she was annoyed at the principle because she knows children are teased or bullied for not conforming to accepted gender norms. She is aware how lucky she is and was in tears recently watching Comic Relief. She does now have the clock, it was bought for her as a Christmas present but it was a complete surprise received with genuine gratitude.
So with that off my chest I'm going to address some of the positive comments we received. It was touching to hear from people who had been on the end of mean and cruel statements, from the mother whose daughter was upset at Halloween because she was criticised for wearing a Batman costume to the young man teased for his Barbie collection. That is what Maggie and I were were making a stand against so it really meant something to hear our small protest might make some difference for people like this.
We were also both immensely grateful to receive so many compliments, I am very proud to have a daughter who is prepared to stand up for her principles and to think of others. However, while undoubtedly well meant she was also praised for not conforming to gender norms and this is where I politely disagree that she deserves plaudits any more than the little girl who wants to spend all day dressed as a princess surrounded by glitter. Being girly should never be seen as a negative character trait, our daughters should know that being feminine isn't a weakness. Pink is not the enemy, marketing pink as the only choice for girls is. Girls should no more be criticised for choosing a tiara than they are for wearing a Spiderman costume. Likewise while it's great when boys choose dolls or kitchens, that choice is not inherently better than the boy who wants a car or tool set. Parents shouldn't be apologetic when their daughter picks the soft toy or their son wants the digger.
Our children should be able to walk into any toy store and feel they can have the freedom to choose from any aisle, they should feel comfortable and confident in whatever clothes they wear. Our job is to let them know they have that choice, to accept them as they are and to teach them to accept others for who they are.

Tuesday, 25 November 2014

Maggie v. Tesco, our story.

Some of you may have seen this picture of my youngest daughter, Maggie recently. Much to our surprise it seems to have gone viral. I haven't actually tweeted much about it and only answered a few questions from Buzzfeed so have decided to write this blog to explain how the picture came about and to answer a few points raised.
On Saturday I was with Maggie in the Tower Park Tesco store, it's a branch I'm not that familiar with and so we were wandering up and down the aisles trying to find things. She was talking to me about The Flash and said it would be really cool if he was in the shop. I agreed and suggested I could give him my shopping list and he could get the stuff far more quickly than we were managing, "Don't be silly Mummy, The Flash is too fast for shopping!"
Soon after that she spotted the sign. I was distracted looking for something and wouldn't have noticed it if she hadn't pointed it out. Last year she started coming home from school saying some of her friends were suggesting some toys were for girls and some for boys. I explained that they were wrong, if the toy looks fun to play with then anybody should be able to play with it. She could play with knights and dragons (her thing at the time) and boys could play with dolls and kitchens if they wanted to. We agreed that "everybody can like what they want to like." So when she noticed the sign in Tesco I was pleased she'd remembered our conversation and impressed by her indignation (and a little amused by her cross face). I suggested taking a photo mostly because I thought she looked cute and I thought I'd show some friends on Facebook who share my feelings on toys. Shortly after that she went back to the car with her dad while I finished the shopping and we didn't think much more about it. Later that day I posted it on Facebook and a friend suggested I share it with Tesco and Let Toys Be Toys. I tweeted it not really expecting much of a reaction, it was a Saturday evening, I supposed social media staff were signed off for the night. I hoped it would be retweeted a few times so that Tesco noticed it and would perhaps respond. If they removed the sign then we'd feel we'd done something positive, if they didn't we would point and roll our eyes at the silliness whenever we spotted it.
Then it went viral. Tesco responded quite quickly with an apology and a promise to remove the sign in the store. They've since confirmed it will be removed from all stores. Buzzfeed asked if they could run a story and I agreed because I wanted to show Maggie that it's worth standing up for what you believe in. It's now Tuesday and her picture is still being retweeted with most people agreeing with her. Some people have disagreed though, as is their right. I am not going to get into arguments over it on Twitter but thought I'd respond to a few points here.

"There are worse things happening in the world." Absolutely right, I never suggested otherwise. It was only a small moment in our day. I'm well aware far more shocking things are happening across the world right now. It's not a huge thing in my life either, my other blog about my brother's suicide should demonstrate I've dealt with far more than an annoying sign.
However, just because there are terrible things happening doesn't mean we can't point out the smaller things. I think part of the reason this has gone viral is because people often feel helpless and yet in a very small way seeing a little girl change something has made people realise now and again you can make a bit of difference.

"You're turning her into a man-hating feminist." Rubbish! My own heroes are my grandfather who passed away in 2012 and my brother who does vital work supporting homeless and vulnerable young people. Why would I want her to hate men? However, I do want her to grow up believing people are equal, regardless of their sex, skin colour, race or sexuality, and I want her to feel empowered to stand up for her beliefs.

"It's just a sign, not an instruction. Buy the toy if you want to." Yes, I'm aware of that but I'm an adult. Small children on the other hand often believe what they're told and if they're constantly seeing signs telling them something is "for boys" or "for girls" they may start to believe it, particularly when their peers are also seeing these labels and parroting them at school. Remember the eleven year old boy who attempted suicide earlier this year because he was bullied for liking My Little Pony?  That's why these signs and labels are damaging, not because my daughter was annoyed but because children are being teased and bullied for not conforming to the perceived gender norms. I know most boys like superheroes and most girls like princesses, some though don't - or like both. This is for them.

Yesterday I received a tweet from somebody who said "Your little girl, makes it easier for my little girl to be herself. Thanks."

That's what makes all this worth it.

Friday, 10 October 2014

World Mental Health Day 2014 - Schizophrenia Awareness

It's World Mental Health Day today and after the loss of my brother to suicide, a day I'm always keen to support. This year the focus is on raising awareness of schizophrenia. It is a condition I know little about, as far as I know I don't know anybody with it (although of course the stigma surrounding the illness may mean I do know people affected but they haven't disclosed it). So it's not a condition that directly affects me nor am I a carer, family member or friend of somebody living with schizophrenia. So why am I writing about it today?
My brother's death was a thunderbolt for me, not just in losing him but also the sudden and stark reminder that mental illness can affect us all, either directly or through the suffering of those close to us. We need to accept that mental illness is just that, illness and we are all susceptible. Therefore just because I don't currently know anybody with schizophrenia it shouldn't mean I don't educate myself about the condition and days like World Mental Health Day mean I can learn more and add my voice to those asking for better understanding, more money to be spent on treatment and support, improving access to care and  ensuring people in need receive the benefits they are entitled to without stigma and discrimination. I believe we have a moral duty as fellow human beings to offer solidarity and advocacy, being a part of society means recognising our obligation to help even if we are not directly affected because ultimately being in that society means we are all affected.
Schizophrenia affects approximately 26 million people globally, people with the condition live 15 - 20 years less than the general population, they are 6 - 7 times more likely to be unemployed, are more often homeless and in contact with the criminal justice system and 5 - 10% more likely to take their own life. Yet treatment and recovery is possible. Around 25% of people diagnosed with schizophrenia recover fully and a further 25 - 35% show considerable improvement and lead relatively independent lives. It is therefore a major health inequality that so many people with schizophrenia die at a younger age than average. People with schizophrenia are often in poor physical health due to side-effects from anti-psychotic medication, the Mental Health Foundation wants that addressed by requiring that GP's carry out regular health checks for all people with severe mental health problems. It also wants NICE guidelines for the treatment and management of schizophrenia and psychosis to be correctly adhered to, to ensure that people diagnosed with the condition have full access to a range of treatment and support, with the best care possible to help them manage their condition and recover. People also need high quality, safe and rapid access to help when they are having a mental health crisis, that means hospitals should provide comprehensive liaison psychiatry services 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

A typical misleading and scaremongering headline
We need as a society to demand these rights for people living with mental illness, in the same way we demand the best treatment possible for people suffering physical illnesses. Many people believe mental health and physical health shouldn't be considered separately, the brain after all is a part of the body and people with mental health issues often have physical symptoms too. Indeed the World Health Organisation definition of health is as follows, " Health is a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity." Recognising mental illness as a physical health issue could go some way to reducing stigma. We need therefore to learn to look beyond the scaremongering headlines, schizophrenia isn't a Care in the Community failure with hordes of dangerous psychotics roaming the streets, 99.7% of people suffering with schizophrenia will not be convicted of a violent crime in a given year, in fact sufferers are 14 times more likely to be a victim of violence. We need to revise old prejudices and realise that one way or another we are all living with schizophrenia and we all have an obligation to educate ourselves, to stop discriminating and to work with sufferers and advocates to ensure those diagnosed receive the full help and support that should be their right.
Statistics and facts taken from the Mental Health Foundation website, please click the link for more information on what schizophrenia is, living with the condition and what needs to be done to help.