Lily Cole On How Storytelling Is The Best Way To Help Refugees

'In a political landscape that feels increasingly fearful and isolationist, it is important to acknowledge and remember the uncomplicated humanity of people like those I met in Samos.'

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A boy lying face-down in the sand. A father holding dust-covered twins in his arms. These are the images that touch us across oceans, and move us to help.

When we are bombarded with information - statistics, debates and political rhetoric - what often holds the most gravitas is that of a single story. A singular life, glimpsed through one arresting image, to slice through the noise.

This is something activist (though, she cringes at the word, 'it's as though I signed up one day and got a badge!'), model, mother, entrepreneur and model Lily Cole is keenly aware of.

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New @impossible tee. We all were once right!??

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She spoke to ELLE about her compulsion to seek out singular narratives, as part of her quest to make the world a better place.

Storytelling is such a central part of the human experience and it allows us to bridge the distance between our own experience and other peoples.

Helping Refugees, One Poor Forgotten Soul At A Time

At the end of 2016, when news of the refugee crisis became deafening in the UK, Lily couldn't help but travel to a small Greek island called Samos, which was bearing the brunt of some of the struggle, to see what was going on for herself.

As she explains to ELLE:

It's affecting the people on the ground, and the refugees first and foremost. But I feel like it's also affecting just ordinary people in London, not literally affected by it, but it's affecting our politics and our policy and our media. Our understanding of international relations - and so it felt like an important issue to try and understand better. It didn't feel like I was getting a clear picture from the media of what's happening. So I went to to try and better understand and came across several people with amazing stories, and I wanted to help them tell them.

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Though her trip was a voyage of exploration, she ended up turning it into a bigger project, by making a documentary called Light in Dark Places, about the human stories on the little landmass.

Her first visit to Samos was one she cannot forget: 'Samos was freezing when I visited; the island has since been hit by storms, flooding, and a harsh winter. While walking through the camp I saw five or six people in each tent, with no electricity, no lighting and no heating. Kids ran around, close to the road and to the sewage. Some areas smelled so bad I had to hold my breath.'

Though the general scene of the overcrowded and inhumane camp was horrible, it was a specific interaction that haunted her after she left, 'As we got to the top of the camp a few men came up to us. One looked me in the eyes and begged me to help him. He was a banker from Syria and was suffering some kind of medical condition with sores on his hands and feet.

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'He said all his family had died and that he couldn't live like this… could I help him? All I could give him was a weak ashamed smile, and a wish of luck. We left the camp as the sun set. The sun tore pink lines in the sky like feathered wings. The view over Samos, into the bay was beautiful: what an ironic setting for hell.'

As well as talking with the refugees, Cole had insightful conversations with the residents of Samos, one man, Alexandros Malagaris, a local hotelier and builder broke down in tears as he explains his all-too regular trips to save children and adults from their flimsy boats in the sea.

'Alexandros set up a recreational diving school on the island which he operated for a few years before he got a call that changed the trajectory of the school and his life. A boat had been shipwrecked at sea and they were the only divers on the island: would they help recover the bodies from the boat?'

The view over Samos, into the bay was beautiful: what an ironic setting for hell.

Since 2010 Alexandros and his team have have conducted 68 missions, rescued 900 people and recovered 45 dead. They are called the Samos Divers and they volunteer to work and be on call at all hours of the day to offer a little humanity to the refugees who are looking for a new life.

'Alexandros described how the divers recover the bodies with respect, either cradling them as they rise to the surface or encasing them under the water.'

As Cole spoke with Alexandros she recalls, 'We looked out across the sea towards Turkey which appears so close you might think you could swim it. Apparently a few refugees have tried.'

It didn't feel like I was getting a clear picture from the media of what's happening. So I went to to try and better understand and came across several people with amazing stories, and I wanted to help them tell them.

She specifically recalls a Greek woman's story of how she came to help the strangers washing up of her local shores, 'A few miles up the coast, Katina Arvaniti, a Greek lady, lives in a little house on the edge of the cliffs. Beautiful flower gardens, terraces and orange trees line the entrance.

'One night she heard noises outside, and opened her door to 42 people. They were refugees from Iraq and their boat had crashed into the beach below her house. She washed their clothes, offered them food and a place to rest.

'Since then, Katina has continued to do this for hundreds of refugees and migrants as they reach the shore in the bay. She has set up a little shed, covered in lifejackets like wallpaper, to get people's attention from the sea. So far 2015 has been the busiest year for her, when just in one night 13 people died and only 11 survived in a sinking boat.

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'That night a man passed her a baby who was blue with cold. She took the baby to her shower and ran warm water over him. She watched him come back to life and it was, she says, a miracle.'

The importance of these singular stories is evident to Lily, 'The [refugee crisis] can sometimes feel less than human in the media.

'I think because we are not actually looking at these people as human individuals, because there are so many millions [that the media has to cover],' she continues.

But, 'by looking at the ordinary people who have been touched by the crisis in Greece, others can empathise with and access the situation,' she finished.

That night a man passed her a baby who was blue with cold. She took the baby to her shower and ran warm water over him. She watched him come back to life and it was, she says, a miracle.

Telling New Stories Of The Human Experience

Most recently the 29-year-old has lent her book-smarts - you are most certainly already aware of her twice-deferred place at Cambridge - to judge The Kindle Storyteller Award, which rewards authors who have self-published their work directly to the Kindle platform.

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The idea of a platform enabling authors to have a public stage to tell their stories seems to genuinely enthuse Lily as we speak, 'Storytelling is such a central part of the human experience,' she explains, 'And it allows us to bridge the distance between our own experience and other peoples.'

Because with a personal story the space between us doesn't seem so big, in fact, it can enable us to walk in another's shoes, to experience empathy.

On this year's International Women's Day, Lily helped set up an art installation on the Southbank in London, where women could leave a message, or a little story, for other women.

"When women support women, amazing things happen." @colbertcharlotte

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Though this isn't a new revelation, you may also remember her company impossible.com which draws on the idea of using empathy as a connecting tool. Impossible, relies on the power of empathy to create an emotional investment strong enough to encourage the 'haves' to help the 'have nots.'

In other words, her website connects people who need something with people who are in a position to give it to them, out of kindness, compassion or otherwise.

Lily Cole protests with Love In Action Have a Heart
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An important difference between Cole and other celebrity philanthropists, is that she is there to learn and listen first and foremost. Her ego is left firmly at the door when discussing these matters, absorbing information primarily and using what she has learnt in a measured and muted way.

This is a method she adopts in her work in film and theatre. In her short but impressive career she has worked with some of the best actors in the world like Heath Ledger.

For me that's been one of the most rewarding parts of the job is the people I've gotten to meet and work with. I love working with very intelligent, creative, talented people, an that job means I often get to work with people I admire and can learn from basically. So that for me is – not the only – but one of the most interesting parts of it.

Lily is currently treading the boards with Matt Berry, Simon Bird, Charlotte Ritchie and Tom Rosenthal in The Philanthropist which follows out-of-touch academics burying their head in the proverbial sand of university life as the world around them is in turmoil.

Something, we imagine, Lily has had to use the power of imagination to embody, since it's so at odds with her own view on life.

Matt Berry, Simon Bird, Lily Cole, Charlotte Ritchie,Tom Rosenthal star in Oscar® winner Christopher Hampton’s The Philanthropist.

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Far from basking in the glow of her own privilege and fame, Lily can't help but return to the tragic stories of those less fortunate than herself, ' In a political landscape that feels increasingly fearful and isolationist, it is important to acknowledge and remember the uncomplicated humanity of people like those I met in Samos.'

Lily is on the judging panel of the Kindle Storyteller Award 2017, a £20,000 literary prize recognising new work submitted using Kindle Direct Publishing. Entries close on 19th May. For more information visit www.amazon.co.uk/storyteller

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