“I think giving back should be a part of everyone’s life! How can you truly appreciate all you have, without taking those who have much less into account. I believe life is nothing if we don’t share it with the people around us.” – Jaz O’Hara
It was just a few weeks ago that I was introduced to Jaz. Thanks to the beauty of the internet, we were able to chat from our respective places on the globe – she in southern England, me in Los Angeles. Our chat was brief, but I felt we could have spoken for hours. Yet, through the whole conversation, I was acutely aware that taking more of her time than needed was selfish. She had places to go. Stories to tell. People to help.
Jaz is energetic, passionate, compassionate, and quite the advocate. She is one of those people we all aspire to be, though I’m not quite sure she realizes that. Her focus is razor sharp – sharing the human stories of those suffering around the globe. Sharing the human stories of those actually living in refugee camps. Teaching us all to realize at the core, we are all the same.
But what sets Jaz apart from most is that she does more than simply share their stories. She tells their stories in a way that moves people to action. I share her story today in the hopes that you, too, are moved to action. Whether it be to support the refugees or feeding the homeless person down the street. Because, in the end, we’re all in this together.
Me: For those who are not aware, can you share a bit about the refugee camps and immigration issues Europe is currently facing?
Jaz: Europe is experiencing mass migration on a scale not seen since World War II. Millions of people are fleeing war and persecution in countries such as Syria, Afghanistan, Eritrea, and Sudan, making the treacherous journeys to Europe in the hope of finding safety. As a result, there are now many refugee camps across Europe, in places such a Greece (a main entry point to the continent) and Calais (where people are stuck, trying to enter the UK).
I have been working in Calais’s refugee camp since July 2015. A viral Facebook post I wrote about the camp resulted in 8 warehouses full of physical donations and £200,000 in financial donations (JustGiving’s biggest crowdfunding campaign ever). We have since extended our work to Hungary, Croatia, and Lesvos (Greece), to support refugees across Europe
Me: What inspired you to start The Worldwide Tribe? Was there a specific incident that moved you to action?
Jaz: The Worldwide Tribe was a travel blog I had been writing for years, from the cotton fields of rural, tribal India, to the Favellas of Brasil. Its aim was to inspire people to understand that deep down, we are all the same. Underneath culture, religion and learnt behavior, we are all humans, sharing this earth together. I wanted to inspire people to get outside of their comfort zone / their own little bubble of comfort and security, pushing boundaries, crossing borders and becoming international citizens.
I was inspired to go to Calais because the news at the time was full of negativity around the refugee crisis right on our doorstep. Dehumanising words such as ‘marauding migrants,’ ‘swarms of migrants’ were all over the newspapers and I was desperate to hear a more human side to the story.
Calais is right on my doorstep as I live in the south of England, so we drove over with the aim of making a documentary to answer some of the questions we felt that mainstream media wasn’t. What we found there will stay with me forever…
Me: What is it about the current refugee crisis that resonates so deeply with you?
Jaz: I guess, as mentioned, the proximity. We become desensitized to all the horrible things we know are happening in the world, but it’s hard to ignore when there is a huge refugee camp an hour from my home, in Europe, in 2015. To me it seems scandalous to turn your back and walk away from that without doing everything in your power to change the situation.
Also, I think the familiarity of this mass movement. We’ve all learnt about the war in history and we all sit there thinking that we would never allow that level of persecution to happen again. But it’s happening now. There is ethnic cleansing happening in Sudan as we speak; people are persecuted for being black. These people have no choice but to leave, and yet they continue to be met with hostility along the way; despite the fact that they are strong, resilient heroes, having overcome extreme adversity.
Me: After spending so much time in the refugee camps, what are some of the lessons you’ve learned about yourself? What about the things you’ve learned about the world and people around you?
Jaz: I’ve learnt the strength of human character and spirit. The hope and positivity in the camp is overwhelming and incredible and I’ve learnt a lot from the people I have become friends with there. The way that people make the best of the situation and continue to be hospitable, kind, giving, and loving has humbled me every step of the way. I have only ever been met with smiles, offers of chairs and tea, and even the small amount of food they have, they want to share.
I’ve learnt that you can take everything from someone, but they will still hold their dignity, their pride. I have also learnt that everybody wants the same things in life, the fundamental basics, shelter, food, water, safety, and everyone has a right to have these human needs covered.
Finally, I have learnt the importance of community. The way people come together, supporting each other through extreme hardship has made me cry many times. I feel we may have lost this to a certain extent in the west, and I have learnt a lot from the people in the camp about sharing, equality and companionship.
Me: Are there things happening in the camps or any specific stories you believe people need to know about that are not being shared through traditional media outlets?
Jaz: There are many. I think the traditional media outlets focus on the statistics of the problem and bypass the incredible human stories behind the headlines. I have met a professional cricket player, doctors, a lawyer, an artist, a poet, an engineer and many more very well educated people. The people of the camp do their upmost to make the best of the situation and are very entrepreneurial in doing so. There are shops, restaurants, a library, a school, a church and several mosques, all built from bits of wood and tarpaulin and minimal resources. These people are hard-working, strong, and have left a lot behind. They are not fleeing poverty, but persecution, and I think this is a common misconception.
Me: Why do you think people have been so responsive and generous with their support in response to The Worldwide Tribe’s mission?
Jaz: I think this was an accumulation of factors. Firstly, I think it was a case of timing. We were among the very first to give people an alternative perspective to what they were reading in the news, and people were very ready for it. We also gave them a chance to take action, to donate, physically or financially, and this made people feel empowered. I also think they related to the fact that we are a normal, young group of people, just trying our best to help. We’re not politicians, charity workers, or campaigners, and we represent many thousands of frustrated people.
Me: What are some of the biggest needs for refugees currently living in the camps?
Jaz: When we first went to the camp,the biggest needs were food, warm clothing, and shoes. Many people had walked from their countries wearing only flip flops or sandals and had now found themselves in on the wet, windy, freezing cold French coast.
Thankfully, over the last few months working in the camp, things have changed and regular distributions and an influx of volunteers and donations have meant we have been able to respond to this need pretty effectively.
Now the need for these people is a solution. Attempting to cross the border into the UK is life-threatening and virtually impossible. It involves crossing multiple razor wire fences, jumping from bridges and onto railway tracks then hiding underneath the highspeed Eurotunnel. Many people break their backs and necks attempting to do so.
The alternative, staying in France, leaves people with little hope. The process for claiming asylum takes up to two years, during which time these people are unable to work or support themselves and are left to wait in the Calais camp, known as the ‘Jungle.’
Me: There are hundreds of thousands of people currently displaced from their homes and seeking refuge. Some are even comparing the volume of people displaced and dying daily similar to a modern day holocaust. What are some of your future plans for The Worldwide Tribe to help raise awareness and support for all these refugees?
Jaz: I really believe this period of time will go down in world history as a shameful period of complete crisis and human suffering. There are now millions of displaced people and sometimes I am overwhelmed by the very scale. The Worldwide Tribe will continue to tell the human side to the story, aiming to mobilise people, inciting compassion, and overturning negative prejudices around immigration. We are also supporting grassroots organisations on the ground, long term volunteers, and other various projects to cover the basic human needs of the refugees.
Me: What has been the most surprising part of your Worldwide Tribe journey? What about the most inspiring part of this experience?
Jaz: The most surprising has been how vastly different the situation in the camp is in reality compared to how it is portrayed in the media. People are often scared of the camp and the situation, fearing violence and unrest, but really, the people I meet are the most gentle, loving, kind, calm people I have ever come across. They live in peace alongside each other, Muslims and Christians; Arabs and Africans, all desperate for harmony and united in their struggle.
The most inspiring thing is the perseverance and strength people have within. And the creativity that comes out of the situation. One of my Sudanese friends writes incredible poetry about his experiences. One of his poems draws a parallel between the moment he saw the bodies of his two friends floating in the Mediterranean sea, and how he images dolphins to move across the waves. He inspires me.
Me: Has giving back always been a part of your life? Or is it something that has developed recently?
Jaz: I think giving back should be a part of everyone’s life! How can you truly appreciate all you have, without taking those who have much less into account. I believe life is nothing if we don’t share it with the people around us; experiences, stories, memories and things. I believe we all have a responsibility for our fellow human beings, our brothers and sisters, especially those of us in a fortunate position not to have to worry about survival on a daily basis.
I would also say that this is not just about giving back for me. I have gained much more from working in the camp than I can ever give, and for that I am very grateful.
Me: If people want to do more than just donate money and items, what are some of their ways they can help that you can recommend?
Jaz: The best thing people can do right now is organize their own fundraisers, from challenges (bike rides / runs / walks ) to bake sales to events, we encourage everyone to take matters into their own hands, feel empowered and DO SOMETHING!
You can create your own event under our charity page here (or donate to it directly): https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/theworldwidetribecorefunding1
You need to:
1. Set up a personal account on MyDonate,
2. Select The WorldWide Tribe as the charity you want to fundraise for.
3. Set up a fundraising page that looks like ours (with the thermometer at the top)… It should be self explanatory 😀