This Christmas, we ran a campaign for Social Bite asking the public to donate £5 to buy a homeless person dinner or provide an aid pack for refugees in Europe.
We released a series of short videos showing people such as George Clooney, Chris Evans, Sir Chris Hoy and Nicola Sturgeon donating a fiver to this great cause and encouraging others to do likewise.
The response was amazing. In just a couple of weeks, 73,000 people donated meaning Social Bite could open all five of its shops to the homeless over Christmas and feed them for nothing. More than that, it will now be able to do so all year round. More than 25,000 of those donations were earmarked to provide food packs for refugee camps in Calais, Serbia and Lesbos, with Scottish outdoor clothing specialist, Trespass, generously matching each donation with warm winter clothing, tents and sleeping bags. What a result!
With such a successful and worthy project behind me, I got set for a long lazy festive break drinking tequila and watching darts, feeling good that our work had helped make a real difference. That was until Josh Littlejohn, the infectious and difficult to resist co-founder of Social Bite, enquired as to my availability to help deliver said aid.
The practical job of applying charity to people is a job that I normally assume somebody else undertakes. People like me pay their money, tell the story to others and encourage them to do the same, and feel good about it. But Josh thought it might do me good to see the more hands-on side. He can be quite persuasive that way.
So with a concerned wife and a confused three year old waving us off from Social Bite’s HQ on Boxing Day, we set off in a convoy of vans on a journey I am unlikely to forget.
Over the next ten days, the convoy would cover 5,000 miles traveling across 12 countries, spending a fair bit of time at the Serbian border control where apparently passports, the correct paperwork and vans full of vital aid don’t hold as much weight as a selfie with George Clooney.
I get that the refugee crisis is a politicised issue, but while Governments debate what to do, something needs done. Walking into the so-called ‘Jungle Camp’ in Calais only reinforced this view.
The conditions at this former landfill site are squalid; it’s cold, it’s undignified, and the suffering of those living there is immense. I’d struggle to handle one night there, never mind live there for an indefinite period of time.
If you want to visualise this place, for us middle class festival-goers, it’s like T in the Park campsite after three days of hard rain and reveling, but with more litter, fewer portaloos and no enjoyment whatsoever.
What I noticed most was the sad eyes. The people there are tired and desperate, and there’s a palpable lack of hope. That’s what got to me even more than the physical conditions; the sense that these people do not even have hope — something of a fashionable word for western politicians perhaps a little more concerned with rhetoric than action.
I’d heard about these ‘economic migrants’ with their mobile phones and other luxuries from the ‘charity begins at home brigade’. I didn’t see many of them there. I just saw ordinary people from another place, trying to find a better life away from poverty, war and terror.
While our politicians struggle to make a dent in the problem, thankfully ordinary people are taking action and making a difference. A warehouse staffed mainly by young British volunteers has been set up to take in, organise and distribute the aid drops coming from people throughout Europe.
Around each of the refugee camps we visited, similar facilities exist — I just hope they continue and the aid keeps coming.
Before we left Scotland, my wife handed me a few bags of our son Sebastian’s winter clothes, books and cuddly toys. Hardly essentials, I thought, when we had vans to fill with vital supplies such as sleeping bags, tents, rice and the likes.
I was wrong. The need for warm, practical stuff is of course a priority, but children should be able to take warm clothes for granted 20 miles from Dover in 2016. What happens to those children growing up in these harsh conditions without as much as a book to stimulate them or a soft toy to comfort them and maybe for the odd moment, distract them from the reality of their bleak surroundings? Shoes, sleeping bags and jackets will help keep them alive, but for God’s sake let’s also give them a small reason to smile now and again and to hope that there’s something better than the one they have at the moment.
I take my hat off to the kind people who donated to the campaign and helped fill those vans we drove, to the volunteers who continue to devote their lives to helping on the ground, and to a mother whose empathy means there will at least be a few kids smiling while our Governments decide what to do with them.
I hope while we continue to debate the politics of the refugee crisis that we don’t lose sight that there are real people suffering, right now, every day. I also hope that these children can find in their imaginations enough distractions to get them through the reality and to find the hope that our political leaders talk so much about.
Managing Partner, Frame PR