When we think of the word empathy, we often think of knowing how it feels to walk in the shoes of others.
Last weekend I went on a volunteering trip with Oxford Refugee Solidarity to Northern France to help deliver aid to people who have fled war and persecution in their own countries in the hope of a better life. The conditions were cold, stark and shocking.
“From the moment we got off the train in Calais, I felt as if I was in a dystopia”
From the moment we got off the train in Calais, I felt as if I was in a dystopia. Everything was grey and clinical. When we arrived, fences topped with razor wire had been erected to stop people from accessing as many areas as the authorities could possibly control.
I could not help but think would it not be better to spend the money for these barriers on helping people who are at their most vulnerable?
On Saturday we went to an area of Calais to deliver 200 pairs of shoes and socks to refugees. Doing so made me realise that I take my own shoes and socks for granted. I never stop and think about how valuable they are to me.
While on the distribution it was freezing cold. My own feet were icy, but I was lucky enough to be able to go back to our hostel and change my shoes and socks and feel warm. For those hours outside I felt a small fraction of how it feels to be a refugee, but unlike them, I was able to return to warmth and safety.
“What particularly struck a chord with me was meeting a nurse from Iraq”
While striking up conversations, people told me where they were from, and talked about their families and their interests. Having a short amount of time with people made me try to ensure my words were meaningful and made a difference. I will never forget hearing their precious words, tales of their lives and their hopes and dreams. I feel very privileged.
On the second day we went to a car park on the outskirts of Dunkirk where hundreds of refugees congregate and sleep. The area is right by a main road, with thousands of people driving past every single day.
We went to provide ’services’, which included a warm cup of tea, hair cutting, phone charging and games. I was overwhelmed with how resilient and focused these wonderful people were.
It was an upbeat, friendly and supportive community, and their strength to overcome what is a huge challenge was heartening. We often complain and moan about the small things in life, but the refugees’ spirit while facing some horrific hardship was more than inspiring.
I talked to many people and heard how some of them are stuck there while their family are in the UK. It is morally wrong how ours and other governments treat refugees – ministers should be ashamed.
If it were not for the fantastic work of voluntary organisations such as Oxford Refugee Solidarity, Mobile Refugee Services, Refugee Community Kitchen and Care for Calais, they would not have access to water, food or any hot meals, toiletries, basic healthcare and other fundamentals humans need to survive.
“When you are a nurse it is like having one big extended family”
What particularly struck a chord with me was meeting a nurse from Iraq. When he found I too was a nurse, we both screamed and threw our arms up in the air and hugged. This was a powerful moment. When you are a nurse it is like having one big extended family and we clicked straight away. This nurse told me about his past job experiences. We also discussed the principle of the NHS and I outlined to him how we currently have a huge nursing workforce crisis.
This left me feeling incredibly sad and angered with our government. At a time when we have 42,000 nursing vacancies, when our services are under extreme pressure with staff shortages, we have a nurse – who could bring such value, expertise, knowledge and skill to our country – sleeping on a path into a car park with no shelter.
Tents are destroyed by the French police – usually slashed when it is raining. This nurse is only 30 minutes away from the UK – he is so close yet feels so far. We are talking about someone who would contribute to our country with such fantastic qualities shut out by cruel government policies.
We never know when we could find ourselves in such a situation; it could easily happen to you or I. No amount of fences or barriers will ever change the fact that we are all human.
We should welcome refugees, recognising our shared humanity, potential and contributions. We should not simply close the door in fear and prejudice.
Danielle Tiplady is a London staff nurse and campaigner
Danielle Tiplady with Oxford Refugee Solidarity
More information about Oxford Refugee Solidarity can be found on the Just Giving website