This week my thoughts, many of my conversations, and – most contentiously – my Facebook timeline, have been consumed by the unfolding refugee crisis. Simply the fact that I choose to use the term “refugee” there rather than ‘migrant’ will be enough to see some of you read no further, so discordant has the issue become. I don’t think British culture has been so divided on a matter of national identity since an American friend asked whether or not milk should be added first or last when making a proper cup of tea. (The answer was last, obviously.)
I’m not going to use this post to preach about to whom I feel we should provide shelter, or how. I have neither an exhaustive enough political education nor enough Neurofen to spend this evening trawling through the facts and figures to support my perspective, or refute those to which it is vehemently opposed.
The thing about which I do, passionately, feel we should remain united is helping people who are in desperate need. In recent years this has come in the form of the Rucksack Project, distributing kit to homeless people across the country to help them get through the winter, and before that it was Live Aid, Comic Relief, and every sponsored silence or Great South Run that we as a nation have thrown the full force of our support behind. So I was heartened when a group of local people, (the fabulous ‘Don’t Hate, Donate’) began collecting aid to distribute to those who have left behind their lives and belongings, and was keen to help out in the best way I knew how. Unfortunately, I swiftly realised that I’m not actually very useful. Until the day comes when a freshwater pearl demi parure is all that stands between life and death, I don’t really have the transferable skills required to pitch in and make a difference. (But if, in the inevitable zombie apocalypse, they discover that tiger’s eye really can soothe neurological ailments and lapis lazuli wards off the apocalyptic virus; I’m your girl.)
We made a few lists of things which would be useful for anyone who finds themselves displaced and without much assistance, and gratefully raided the various pound stores and charity shops for which our local High Street is so oft derided. Nineteen pairs of socks and thirty-three toothbrushes later, I could either help several refugees feel a bit more comfortable or keep just over a third of a monstrous, many-fanged centipede cosy-toed and minty-fresh. I was proud of how many boxes we’d filled with the basic necessities, but still didn’t feel as though I was really giving much of myself to the project. It didn’t feel personal, and it should.
Remembering back to the Boxing Day some years ago when I volunteered at a Christmas lunch for the homeless, elderly, and vulnerable, I recalled the difference it made to some of the guests when they were given one of the Christmas cards I’d spent the previous few days writing. For some of them, it was the only card they would get, and it seemed to matter to them to know that someone cared. That someone had thought of them, and taken a moment to show it. I decided to apply the same principle to those seeking shelter, asylum, and lives free from the chaos of conflict. So I reverted to doing the thing with which I am often most at ease, and started to write.
I wrote a handful of messages of support inside blank greetings cards. Nothing lengthy or exceptional, just a few lines of comfort to those for whom hope was proving hard to find. I asked my friends and family to contribute messages too, and slowly the pile began to grow. "Dear Friends, you have not been forgotten. Please keep going…"
Most were supportive, but a few were cynical. One asked why I was “writing to terrorists,” and how I felt about these missives being received by “our enemies”. As I began to answer that of course I didn’t want them to be read by murderous lunatics, I realised that – perhaps – I do. Whilst IS are unlikely to be thwarted by a postcard of a kitten and a sharpie-scrawled quote from Winnie the Pooh, they’re not the people who make up the majority of the refugees. (Whatever the Daily Mail may tell you.) Many of the people who are in those camps, however, are young men. Young men who are lost, and angry, and frightened, and being stripped of their dignity and humanity by successive nations who don’t want to help. If one, just one, of those vulnerable young people feels valued and supported for just a moment, then maybe that’s all it will take to help keep them on the right path as they complete their unimaginable journey in search of a better life. We’re all often just a heartbeat away from having our lives altered irrevocably, and sometimes it’s the smallest thing that tips the balance the right way.
Were it not for some happy accident of birth, I too could have been born into another culture in a less privileged land, and the chances are that if that were the case I wouldn’t still be here. My health, or lack thereof, has nearly bested me on several occasions during a lifetime that has only managed to continue this long because of the support systems which life in this country provide. On the 11th of September 2014 – one year ago today, on a date already significant for so many – I had the most recent in a series of operations that have saved my life. Had they not operated when they did, the extensive infection which had spread through to my bones would almost certainly have overwhelmed a system compromised by years of illness and immunosuppressants. I was lucky, and I’ve been just as lucky before. I’m aware, perhaps more than many my age, at how many points our fragile lives rest on a knife-edge, ready to fall one way or another. Many of the scientists I admire believe that those moments translate to infinite parallel universes within which all the alternative options are explored. Perhaps there is one where a version of me, someone a little Kate-like – but not much – is healthy. And perhaps there are others where I wasn’t as fortunate as I have been; where I didn’t receive the necessary help on time, or where I was raised in a place that just didn’t have the resources to try. Considering the nature of my life’s complexities, I have to accept that – if there are multiple worlds co-existing alongside this one – then in most of them I’m probably dead.
So, you see, it’s more important than ever to make this life count. To help others if and when I possibly can, and to recognise that even the smallest gesture can make a big difference if it happens to come at the right time. If that means writing a letter to a potential terrorist, then so be it. Maybe if we can all send out a little more love, and hope, and courage into the world there will be fewer people who feel that the only way to make an impact upon it is to spread hatred and violence. After all, Bin Laden wouldn’t have looked half as threatening in those videos if he’d accompanied the long beard and flowing robes with a bit more tie-dye and a bit less TNT...