“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. Indeed it is the only thing that ever has.” – Margaret Mead
Healers come in many shapes and forms. I’ve met those who heal with their hands, with their words, and with their eyes. All hold the loving intention of helping another progress healthily and happily on their journey in life. It is unusual though for me to meet a healer who works in situations of crisis; situations in which healing is offered not in the form of other-worldly experiences and transcendent states of consciousness, but through providing food, shelter, aid and a glimpse of dignity to people whose lives, and livelihoods, are under siege. The context of this healer’s story is smack-bang-down-to-Earth, raw, and distinctly human.
Micaela Bogen, a 24-year-old humanitarian worker, has spent the past year volunteering within the Refugee Crisis in Europe. Working mainly in Calais, Micaela witnessed firsthand The Front Line (or one of them) of the devastating war that is being waged in this world by people in power. As politicians debated in Parliament and the media stirred up a frenzy which drove fear and separation deeper into the national psyches of all countries involved, thousands of ‘refugees’ – or as Micaela calls them, ‘people’ – waited in No-Mans-Land, a.k.a. ‘The Jungle’, an ex-landfill site at the French border, for their fates to be determined.
I met Micaela in a very different jungle setting – a peaceful natural oasis in Rishikesh, India called Over the Rainbow. Despite our beautiful surroundings it was clear Micaela’s mind and heart never strayed far from Calais. She spoke of it often. Though she focused mostly on the positive aspects of her time there (‘love’, ‘strength’ and ‘courage’ are words she used often) it was heartbreaking to be reminded that thousands of Human Beings on our planet – men, women and children – having been subjected to horrific suffering, pain and loss in their homelands, arrived on safer shores to face the cruel and de-humanising reality of rejection from our global society.
As we go about our daily lives, lost in selfish desires, fears and worries, it is far too easy to forget the plight of our brothers and sisters, even when so close to home. Their voices deserve to be heard; their lives deserve to be lived. And if not for individuals like Micaela their fates would be even worse.
Thank you Micaela for your incredible strength of heart, body and mind to fight this overwhelmingly difficult fight, and for reminding me that Yes! We CAN change the world. Love will always, in the end, concur fear.
OW: What brings you to India Micaela?
MB: The One Love Project, which is a project that two friends, Iola and Sylvie, set up four years ago.
In my second year of University I started a non-profit organisation which held artistic events and raised money for independent projects and organisations in developing countries. I met Sylvie and Iola through that as I wanted to raise money for them.
I’m now here as one of the core team of the One Love Project which provides education, healthcare and a childhood to underprivileged street children in Pushkar.
This time in India has also been a healing time for me to process the last year spent in Calais and take some time for myself.
Tell me about your work with refugees.
(Laughs) Where do I start?!
I headed out to Calais for the same reasons I headed out to India – on behalf of my organisation for a weekend to understand what was going on. What was going on was that there was a makeshift illegal refugee camp with about 4-5,000 people at the time (November 2015) trying to get across to the UK. And more and more people kept on coming.
In around August 2015 the crisis hit the media, although migrants had already been camping in Calais for twenty years. After the media coverage people started to go over to volunteer their time and money, which is where Help Refugees UK was born. They worked alongside L’Auberge des Migrants, a French non-profit organisation who’s worked in the area for seven years.
When I arrived the Volunteer Warehouse was in full swing. We had a build programme, a clothes distribution programme and a food programme. This was all run on donations and people volunteering their time for free.
After my two days there I decided to stay.
What was your role in the camp?
I started working on the build team. We split into groups of four and built a total of twelve shelters between us every day. My daily routine was waking up at 8, having a coffee, loading the van and then heading into camp, until dark.
What was the experience like for you?
That’s so hard to say in one interview… It was … (She fumbles for the words.)
It’s almost an impossible question because every day changed so dramatically. One day there might be violence and you’d feel unsafe. Other days the weight of the crisis would get the better of you: you felt powerless and helpless and like there was no end in sight.
Most days though were filled with love, strength and unity. The people that lived in the camp and the volunteers that worked there were all incredible people. The Jungle was both a devastating tragedy and a remarkably beautiful place.
How many nationalities did you meet in The Jungle?
There were 24 nationalities when I arrived: Iran, Iraq, Kurdistan, Eritrea, Cote d’lviore, Yemen, Chad, Ethiopia, Morocco, Algeria, Albania, Libya, Somalia, Palestine, Tunisia, The Congo, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Kuwait, Egypt, Syria, North Sudan, South Sudan, and the Oromo People, an ethnic group residing in Northern Kenya and Egypt. They all had such different ways of living; so many different cultures yet they somehow came together. It created a lot of tension and also a lot of love.
What kind of tensions did you witness?
There were so many because everyone was in Survival Mode.
The allocation of shelters was tough, for example, because there were so many people. Whilst I was there, two amazing volunteers Liv and Ben worked tirelessly to distribute shelters fairly but as new arrivals filtered in every day, it was near impossible to maintain a fair and equal system. This would then cause fights and disputes if someone more vulnerable got pushed up the list.
There was also discrimination within the camp, both from race and religion. A lot of the people who resided in The Jungle had not before encountered people who were different to them or who had different ways of life. Some had come from countries that were in civil war due to the ‘other’ religion, and naturally this war was brought into the camp.
Everyone there had been through such hardship and experienced such trauma, although violence isn’t justified, in a way it is. These people had likely witnessed their families be slaughtered or watched their children drown in the Mediterranean. It’s not an excuse but you have to have the strength in you to see the other side of it, to understand why many were filled with anger. In this way, the camp had a certain beauty.
In the normal world you judge people easily. You don’t stop to think: ‘Did that person have a bad day?’ In the camp you do. Everyone who lives there has been subjected to trauma and ill treatment. They’re not there because they want to be, they are there because they have to be.
When you live in a once-landfill site, where you have to queue up for your food, ask a volunteer for a blanket to keep warm at night, or sleep in a tent that leaks, walk down mud and piss filled streets day-in-day-out, and live in a place where essentially you have no rights, no freedom and no one gives a shit, of course you’re going to be angry. It’s basic human instinct. Put yourself in that situation.
How did you cope on an emotional level with seeing all this suffering and injustice on a daily basis?
To be honest it affected me in a way that made me stay there. I couldn’t leave. I couldn’t deal with the guilt of going back to a life which I was just given by the luck of me being born in England, knowing that there were over 8,000 people who wanted a home and no one would give it to them.
When you’d see violence in the camp, or someone would be rude to you, or break down in tears to you, it was hard, but because everyone who worked in the camp experienced the same, dealing with it was easy at the time.
When I was in the camp there was no time to think, there was so much to do. A never-ending job. Most people there were unqualified. Voluntary activists were doing the job of two governments. So you didn’t have the time to process and comprehend what you’d witnessed.
You’d come home at night and say to your co-workers: ‘Someone shouted at me today for not having a blanket’ and you’d all laugh and shrug if off – mainly because to actually comprehend that you couldn’t give someone something as simple as a blanket to keep warm was too devastating. We dealt with the situation with humour.
It wasn’t until I got home that all that weight started to release and I realised what I had witnessed, what I’d helped, and reflected on the incredible people I’d met.
It was really hard to deal with the weight I’d carried round for so long, all the injustice I’d seen and the sadness. Mainly it was the guilt though, of having a life better than theirs for no apparent reason.
I realised there is no solution to this problem unless people actually care about humanity, open their hearts and see these people as humans, not ‘refugees’.
What do you think of the media’s portrayal of the crisis compared to the reality you saw with your two eyes?
There were a few that wrote the truth about the camp but many did not. It’s still hard to hear and to deal with some of what is said when you have witnessed so many injustices firsthand.
The one that hit me hardest was about the children. A couple of weeks before the eviction of the entire camp, the Home Office attempted to register children for Dubs and Family Reunification. It was beyond stressful. When the camp was evicted, they left over 1,500 children in a container camp and more than 100 outside with no authority, no food and no running water. The ‘Unofficial Woman’s and Children’s Centre’, Help Refugees UK and our one man legal team / Field Manager, Annie Gavrilescu, fought with the government throughout the entirety of ‘The Jungle’s’ existence to get these children across to the UK. When around 200 were taken through the Dub’s Amendment and were finally picked up by buses (around 750 children from January 2016) the energy rumbled in the camp – everyone was exhausted but so happy! Yes, we had a long, long way to go, but we’d got some across at least!
Then you read in the media that these kids are not deserving because they look older than they are. No one stops to think this is a 12-year-old child from Afghanistan who saw his family slaughtered, his home destroyed, walked for hundreds of miles alone, took a boat across dangerous seas, then lived in a refugee camp for months in dire conditions with no sight of freedom anywhere on the horizon. Of course he doesn’t look 12-years-old anymore.
It’s heartbreaking, and absurd how these people are portrayed because it’s so far from the truth. They were doctors, nurses, lawyers, artists, musicians, mothers, fathers. Just like me and just like you.
When I go on the internet and people are calling them ‘cockroaches’ and demanding to close the borders, you think: if it was on the other foot, if these European countries had a crisis, a war, and the only place to go was the Middle East, I guarantee that any of those men, women and children would open their doors, give you chai, put food on your plate and treat you like their family. I know this because I spent 14 months with these people.
In the camp, you’d walk past their shelters and they’d invite you in, offer you chai and serve you a plate of food before they ate a morsel themselves. They had nothing yet they gave everything.
You mentioned that two non-profits were doing the work of the government. What do you mean exactly?
The French and the English government didn’t want to class The Jungle as an official refugee camp. Because of this, large charities were not ‘invited’ in. It was a political-beaurocratic game. How can a charity based on helping others not be invited to the biggest illegal refugee camp in Europe? That left nothing, apart from independent charities and independent volunteers to do their dirty work.
There were some French charities that pulled their weight at the right times, but not enough. I feel that if the governments had been involved and on the ‘right’ side, they could have stopped the camp months ago, or if not given so much more dignity and humanity to the people living there.
However, the weight was pulled by thousands of regular people who donated items, money, love and time to the people living in Calais. Without that these people (the ‘refugees’) would have had nothing – sleeping rougher than they already were, with no help and no voice at all.
Help Refugees UK and L’Auberge Des Migrants fought with the government in court. They hardly listened. At one point they evicted half the camp (the south side) claiming there were only 800-1000 people there when it was more like 3,350.
The constant battle with both governments was so tiring. Realising they did not care about these people was baffling. They don’t want them there and they don’t want us to help them.
My view of it is, if people continue to help them, they are still human, but by leaving them, stripping them of their dignity and of any rights, they are not humans anymore and we can ignore them.
What do you think is the solution to this?
Open the borders. That’s the only real way these people can gain back their dignity and have a chance for another life.
People need to see that what is branded as ‘refugee’ is in fact just people – your friend, your colleague, your boss. It’s about having love and accepting everyone. Not giving in to the media’s and government’s portrayal of these humans.
If your life was theirs, how would you want to be treated? If you’d lost all your family, your friends have been killed or taken, you had nothing, and you weren’t allowed to get any of those things just because there was a war in your country? If everyone could see it in this way the crisis would be less.
You’re blaming the people?
100%. The power of people is more important than the people in power. The government has created this façade that they control us, that we have no say, no opinion. But if the majority of humanity stood up against the governments that were ripping the rights of these people, they’d have to listen.
What can people do on an individual level to help?
You can sign petitions, write letters to your MP (not one letter; 10 a week), protest peacefully, volunteer your time. Talk to people about it! Spend one hour or one day with a ‘refugee’ and you’ll find the words to tell your friends and family to open their hearts and start caring.
The government is going to shut the borders, tell us they’re ISIS, tell us they’re terrorists. They’re different. They’re Muslim. If we can fight that – stand up and say we don’t care if they’re Muslim or if they’re from a country where the Taliban was created, we just care that they are humans, then eventually the governments will listen. With enough of a fight, with enough voices to stop it, they’re going to have to do something.
There’s no easy solution though. The real solution was stopping our governments from destroying these countries in the first place, but it’s far too late for that now.
Don’t you think people in Europe are too distracted and selfish-minded these days to get in get involved in grassroots action?
No, I think they don’t have the right opportunity and knowhow to give their time to a cause that they feel is worthy. In the last 10-15 years huge charities have been given a bad name (rightly) and therefore there’s mistrust. A lot of people don’t want to give their time to Oxfam, The Red Cross or Comic Relief as they don’t trust them. There’s also a massive lack of information on how to get involved. That’s one reason why I want to create a website about how to help with a list of trustworthy non-profit organizations, templates of a letter to an MP, what’s actually going on in these countries, etc.
I don’t think it’s malicious selfishness that prevents us, it’s not knowing the value of the life that we live: to have food on your plate, a roof over your head, and the freedom to travel. When you stand in front of a man who once had all this and now has nothing, then it really hits you.
We’re not passive people. We have to see it, touch it, smell it, not watch it on the TV. You have to be in the stomach of it to actually care.
Are you going back to The Jungle?
The Jungle was evicted in November 2016. They dispersed people to accommodation centres all across France and the camp in Dunkirk has recently been burnt down. A lot of people are still in the area though, hidden to the public. So yes I am going back to see what I can do to help. But it’s not just Calais, there are refugees all across Europe, and they all need help. In Greece, Lesvos, Bulgaria, Italy, Serbia, etc. There are people helping in these areas but they are desperate for more!
Since The Jungle was destroyed and the media has gone quiet, donations and volunteers have gone down. It’s not on The News anymore. But these people are still fleeing, still suffering. There is still so much to do to help them.
Micaela is writing a book about her experience in The Jungle based around the amazing story of a Sudanese refugee and his journey to Calais. I was privileged to hear a few chapters while in India and cannot wait to read it in full.
Additional Information : GET INVOLVED!
If you want to give your time in Calais, email email@example.com
There’s also an amazing Facebook group called ‘People to People – Solidarity from the UK to Calais’ which has pleas for donations, help and volunteers.
Should you wish to contact Michaela directly : email firstname.lastname@example.org
Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu.
May all Beings be happy and free.