From Working In Fashion To Living In A Refugee Camp

by the World Wide Tribe's Jaz O'Hara

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8 months ago, my life changed forever.

It was a Saturday morning and I browsing through the newspaper with my parents and little brother. It was full of words like ‘swarms of migrants,’ ‘marauding migrants’ and other dehumanising terms to describe the the situation in Calais, where 3,000 refugees were living in a camp known as ‘The Jungle.’

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I knew very little about it at the time and as I read, questions kept popping into my head:

“Who are these people?

What happened to them?

What’s life like in the camp?”

I live in Kent, less than an hour from the Eurotunnel and we were all baffled by the idea that this situation was right on our doorstep.

My two younger brothers and I spontaneously decided to go to the camp to find out more about the humans behind the headlines.

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What happened to us that day will stay with me forever.

Arriving in ‘The Jungle’, we were welcomed with open arms. We spent the day talking, drinking tea and sharing stories with people from all over the world - Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan and Eritrea. Everyone we met shared a hospitality, openness and kindness I had never experienced before.

It amazed me how people with so little were so ready to share. I was totally humbled.

Despite the shocking lack of infrastructure and facilities, the fact that people were cold at night and hungry during the day, the refugees were positive and inspiring, the sense of human spirit and community stronger than I could ever have imagined.

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I struggled that day, to leave behind the most resilient people with the most heart-breaking life stories, sleeping in the mud with no other option.

That night, emotional and confused, I wrote a heartfelt post on Facebook to share my experience with my friends and family, then fell asleep, exhausted.

The next morning I woke up, sleepily checking my phone, to see my post had been shared 65,000 times overnight….

...65,000 TIMES!

As you can imagine I was pretty shocked, but this was just the beginning of a whirlwind that keeps blowing.

I’d done something pretty stupid in that post. I’d mentioned that I’d be going to the camp again soon and that people needed warm clothes, shoes, tents and sleeping bags, and I’d followed that with my home address. What followed was complete chaos.

We  immediately removed our address off line but it was too late. We were INUNDATED. I had to keep my phone permanently on charge and the doorbell didn’t stop ringing for weeks. Our garden, garage and driveway soon filled up with people’s generosity. We got Amazon delivery after Amazon delivery of brand new tents, expensive sleeping bags and endless personal visits from people with cars full of stuff to give. People wanted to help. It was beautiful.

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It soon outgrew us and we quickly hired warehouses in London and began making more and more journeys to Calais. Before long it became clear that I could focus on nothing else, and my brother and I quit our jobs in Fashion and Advertising to spend as much time as possible in the camp with our new friends, sleeping there, eating there, trying to truly understand the needs of the friends we were making there.

I felt constantly overwhelmed and physically and emotionally unprepared for the situation I had found myself in. There was press coverage and media attention, my phone didn’t stop and our social media following grew and grew as we shared intimate insights of life in the camp. In fact I talked about the amazing power of storytelling on social media at the ELLE x Instagram event earlier this year.

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‘The Jungle’ became the only place where I could find peace, where I could put my phone away and be truly in the moment, giving my full attention to the humanitarian crisis I was in the midst of and the beautiful people caught up in it.

Before my life took this crazy turn, I had been working in fashion, and what struck me on a daily basis was how the way people looked impacted how they felt, and how personal style feeds heavily into dignity.

The girls struggled the most with the inability to effectively wash, the lack of showers and squalid conditions leaving them powerless to meet basic standards of hygiene. Some hadn’t looked in a mirror for months. It seemed so unfair, these girls had already suffered so much, and I watched their pride slowly seeping away into the mud in which they lived.

The creativity in the camp extended further than just fashion and I soon realised the importance of expression through art, music, sport and what people wore. These things broke down any barriers between us as I realised, underneath religion, race and nationality, we’re all the same, all human and we all have passions, interests, hobbies and dreams.

Experiencing life in the camp has changed me forever and I sometimes wish I could un-know the things I know and un-see the things I’ve seen.

However, looking back over the last 8 months, what stands out above anything is the power of the human spirit in even the most desperate situations. I’ve realised it’s only a matter of circumstance that allows some of us the freedom to live as we please, and some of us to die trying. Those of us that can have the responsibility to stand up for those of us who are not so lucky.

To follow our journey and find out more about life inside a refugee camp and the people who live there:

www.theworldwidetribe.com

www.facebook.com/theworldwidetribe

Instagram: @theworldwidetribe

Twitter: @worldwide_tribe

To Donate:

https://mydonate.bt.com/fundraisers/theworldwidetribecorefunding1

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