By Robert Wheatley
“What’s my name?”
I turned away from my colleague to the sound of a recently familiar voice next to me. He was the very same young gentleman that had encouraged me to join a football game as if he had noticed my social apprehension when I had arrived at the refugee camp in Calais.
Elias stood out from many of the other exiled young men in the confines of the dusty encampment: a smile always grew on his features whenever he was spoken to, and his hopeful energy was quite distinct as he bounced about in the late-June sun, and encouraged those around him to join a makeshift kick-about.
At this point, the atmosphere of the accommodation seemed pleasant: people were talking among each other, playing sports, and sharing food and stories about their lives whether their experiences differed greatly or not.
“Elias!” I had replied, my vision quickly filled with the bubbly presence of the name-bearer who quickly beamed with my recognition.
While I would like to say this interaction was pleasant, I quickly found myself facing the reality of the situation.
It was like it meant the world to Elias that someone actually knew who he was, or that he existed. But, further distressing was the realisation that these encounters were, for many displaced individuals, scarce or non-existent.
Despite the support from charities like UH Students & Staff Supporting Refugees; despite the sport and the socialisation, along with the laughter and the jokes that occurred while we were there, the Calais’ refugee camp was not a place of comfort for people like Elias. The campsite has never been a place of comfort for anyone.
If it isn’t the constant patrols from local police purposefully intimidating asylum seekers, it is the hot sun relentlessly bearing down; the dirty, depressing surroundings the refugees are forced to endure, and the minimal food and water shared between a profusion of people on their journey to peace.
Refugees like Elias live in temporary tents on hard, gravel-covered ground surrounded by dust as old warehouses hide them from the view of locals. Some have bicycles, if they can find them, and venture into town now and then, but they often face judgement for doing so.
It’s not just the environment that causes distress: it’s the fact that these individuals have been either exiled from their homes as a result of ongoing wars, oppressive governments or terrorism. The journey of refugees, be it across land or sea is often be deadly, with the IOM reporting over 3,000 migrants have died trying to cross the Mediterranean sea in 2015; and over 1,600 dying this year while attempting to reach Europe.
Recently, the journey has become much harder as Libya’s coastguards have begun to intercept smugglers carrying migrants, significantly increasing the likeliness of death. But, organisations like UH Students & Staff Supporting Refugees don’t exist to give up at the first sign of difficulties, or setbacks.
We know of the strenuous, punishing expeditions displaced persons take to find a place to once again call home, and it’s for this reason that our charities exist to support their journey.
Since the inception of the University of Hertfordshire’s own refugee support programme, the UH Students & Staff for Refugees group, we have since organised a refugee scholarship, sponsored by the university; have sent students, including myself, on trips to Calais to aid migrants; and have continued to collect donations like toys, books and clothes and raise funds to support refugees across the pond and in the UK.
The UH Refugee Group doesn’t do this alone and is often joined by other humanitarian organisations like the St Albans for Refugees (StAR) who, back in June, joined me and three carloads of students, staff and donations on an eye-opening trip to Calais.
On a typical excursion, students and staff associated with StAR or the UH Refugee Group will meet at the Care4Calais warehouse to either branch off to organise clothing donated to the warehouse, or head straight to the refugee camp to mingle with those living there – something StAR has been doing for over three years, according to Trustee, Liz Needham.
“I have counted up this year: there were 10 trips to Calais and Dunkirk in 2017, with an average of three cars each time,” Liz detailed.
While these trips to Calais and beyond provide necessary food, apparel and supplies displaced individuals need to survive, Sharon Maxwell Magnus, the Programme Leader for Humanities, notes that these excursions are about far more than material charity.
“The point of those visits is not just to bring much-needed goods, but to lift the spirits of the refugees and remind them they are not forgotten,” explained Sharon, whose ancestors were once refugees; inspiring her to join the UH Refugee Committee, along with her awareness of the continued plight of Syrians.
Still, much more could be done to help refugees, and that’s where students at the University of Hertfordshire, and the UH Refugees Group, come in.
“A lot [has been] achieved, but we could do so much more if we had even more input from students,” Sharon notes.
Indeed, the UH Students & Staff for Refugees group is looking for any students at the University of Hertfordshire to consider joining the University Refugee Support group, in order to establish a society to better organise our trips and donations.
More members in the refugee group would not just help raise awareness of the organisation and raise money for trips but would provide students with a chance to bring their brilliant, creative expertise and ideas to the table.
University students are part of the future of our society, and with their intuition and insight, we can really make a difference to the lives of displaced persons. Together, we can help people like Elias, and let them know that their struggle to survive is not futile.
Like StAR, the UH Students & Staff for Refugees group exists to organise and support exiled individuals and families on their journey to peace, and a new life – you can be a part of that.