Lately it’s come to my attention how the courageous acts of several members in Lewes are inspiring me to write something about them and share their experiences to a wider audience. I know them all personally, and through my new role as a Susila Dharma trustee, I find myself in the right place at the right time.
Last year in Lewes several members felt strongly enough to act on their empathy about the growing refugee crisis over the Channel in Calais. They started going over and getting involved in various ways. Pollard Blakeley blazed a trail, aided by Pam, Subud group chair, taking over second-hand goods to contribute to the refugees. In September 2015 Lili Simonsson, Peter Murray and Matthew d’Haemer took another load of donated goods and brought back reports of the situation there, inspiring others to go and visit for themselves. Raphaella Sapir and her husband David Stevenson and son Toma, have been four times now over the last three months, building shelters for refugees over several weekends. Lili has been over four or five times since, most recently filming for Citizens UK, and one weekend she took Annabella Ashby over there, visiting the women and children’s area in what is known as “The Jungle”. There are about six thousand people from Iran, Iraq, Syria, Sudan, Afghanistan taking refuge there, in an area in Calais that has been evolving as more refugees have been arriving. David says that this has been supported almost entirely by individual volunteers, not the large charities such as Unicef or Red Cross, who would need a government mandate to have a presence there. Yet it is a massive operation. Last weekend 100 shelters were built in a burst of energy due to the risk of the camp being moved or dismantled by the French authorities. In fact the refugees there are continually under threat from this. Also those who try to help have been targeted. David and Raphaella witnessed their van being set on fire last visit, probably by right-wing supporters who are against the refugees gathering. Tensions within the camp are palpable. Different races have set up small enclaves and the desperate plight of not having shelter or food, clothing or a future home or job prospect can cause animosity and fear. Worse still are the number of young and unaccompanied children or teenagers who have come to the camp, now numbering over 500. Through Lili’s determination and growing connection with Liz Clegg, a volunteer working within the Womens and Childrens Refuge, Susila Dharma has been supporting the unaccompanied children there. Lili has recently been involved in photographing and registering the young refugees in the camp to provide a record for the asylum operators such as Citizens UK, who might potentially help them. She continues to bring medicines and other valued donations to the refugees and has established strong links with many people in the camp.
I’ve spoken to these brave individuals and asked them about their life-changing experiences. For Raphaella it has been a practical step for her to take, using her interest in wooden shelter building that she started at a workshop in Lewes, which led her to join a group in Calais and get involved with a local family building them there. “I feel it’s something I can do myself. I’m not a politician, nor a political activist. Even though I was brought up in Israel, I never visited the Gaza refugee camps. The atmosphere is extremely charged there. But here I feel I can do this.” David has been struck by the humanity and warmth of the people there, the curious mixture of desperation and human survival. Although his background in social care has put him in the face of human challenge on a daily basis, coming back from Calais has taken some integration of emotions beyond his normal experience. Both are aware of having to protect themselves when they are over there, drawing boundaries whilst being giving of themselves. Both are aware that having visited and now been involved directly, they cannot “un-see” what they have seen, it cannot be ignored, but in doing what they can physically do, that is what has mattered. Lili has been humbled by the courage of the young people she has been working with. “I am in awe and wonder of how they manage to keep on carrying their warm smiles in their hearts. They are teaching us so much about perseverance and what it means to be human.”
How have these efforts been funded? Raphaella, David and Lili, have raised money themselves through crowd funding, where people pledge donations online. And then there is the home front. A stalwart band of soup-makers, led by the indomitable Annabella, have been raising an impressive £3,000 just from September to December. That’s an average of £250 made once a week at The Hearth, a café in the heart of Lewes, sympathetic to their cause. These soup days have turned into events of their own, accompanied by music and poetry, and they are the product of a group of a dozen or more individuals, both from the Subud group and Lewes community. A big thank you to all of the people involved, which includes Adrienne Thomas, Pam, Rita Oakford etc. Pelham House has also kindly donated some funds to the project.
I think for me there are several things that have struck me about this. Not just the courage of people to act on their kindness and compassion, but that people have acted with little to start with, building something out of simple raw materials such as wood, insulation, or fresh food; using their talents and skills, provoked by goodwill and acting together to make something collectively that has carried them further than they possibly realised in the beginning. It’s gathered momentum and an energy and enthusiasm of its own.
Annabella Ashby, chair of Susila Dharma Britain, is very keen to support Subud members and their expression of humanitarian efforts. This is a slightly different thrust to what has been the way of SD in the past, which has been to support those projects [mostly overseas] of members trying to help people in the poorest places to make a better life. Here we have people in a desperate situation on our doorstep, and one we recognise as necessary to act on. Whilst we might argue that dealing with refugees in Calais and other places like it is not reaching the root of the problem, but trying to deal with the effects of a global crisis in the Middle East and in Africa, it is not something that we can easily turn away from. It is new to some of us, but has actually been building for a decade, and is likely to persist for some time yet in this unpredictable and turbulent time.
So far Susila Dharma (and Soup Aid) has been supporting members with their travel and subsistence expenses, as well as directly supporting the building of shelters and the unaccompanied children under Liz Clegg’s care. It costs £145 to provide the materials to build a shelter that will house up to 4 people. Several members have mentioned that there is a growing feeling that what the refugees also need is cultural support, ie. in arts and music, to keep their spirits up and help give them a focus away from their plight.
If anyone is moved to support the refugees through Susila Dharma Britain, you can contribute though your bank account, earmarking your donation to the refugee crisis, or by getting involved and contacting Annabella. Volunteers are always welcome at Soup Aid on Fridays. Or you could start you own project in your area, and get in touch. We will support you in your efforts, just as we hope you will continue to support us in ours.