This week, for the first time in years, I started volunteering with a charity. It’s still early days, but I went along with members of West London Welcome to greet 200 Afghan refugees who have recently fled Afghanistan. Among them were 70 children, so I took my own children along to help.
My 14-year-old son was not feeling the best. He has new, quite intense braces which are painful, affect his speech and prevent him from stuffing food in his face at the rate a sporty boy of his age needs to. He helped make up the goody bags for the arriving children.
Their coach was very late and for two hours my son slumped into a chair repeating, “Can we go now? Can we go now? Can we go now? Can we go now?’’ If you accept that teenagers moan and let them get on with it, after a while it just sounds like the sea.
I felt for my boy this time, and – after we heard the coach was delayed still longer – we said our goodbyes to our incredible new friends at West London Welcome and went home. My son, feeling a little guilty about moaning us out of there, said on the way home, “Sorry I made you leave. You wasted your time.”
I didn’t, though. Yes, OK, so volunteering to welcome refugees and not actually sticking around to welcome any of them may seem like an odd way to spend your Saturday, but helping people isn’t the sole point of volunteering.
Meeting the proper volunteers and the dedicated staff of this grassroots charity who spend hours and hours of their time looking after vulnerable, traumatised and bewildered new members of our community is never time wasted.
I bounced out of there remembering why I got in touch with West London Welcome in the first place; the maddening sense of helplessness seeing Afghanistan fall back into the hands of the Taliban, seeing all those people cling to planes, hearing about critics of the Taliban being murdered while I can happily go on Twitter and slag off any member of the cabinet I wish without risking execution.
I speak Farsi and so can be understood by the Dari speakers of Afghanistan. Making signs in Farsi saying “Welcome”; getting my daughter to decorate them and putting them out in the hotel lobby housing the newcomers – well, that was just the tiniest way I could feel a little less helpless; a tiny way to stifle the silent scream which rises up when watching fellow humans in despair.
So, our time was far from wasted. Besides, to be frank, the plight of refugees isn’t ending any time soon. The appointment of former refugee Nadhim Zahawi as education secretary I fear will be used as an excuse for this government to show minimum compassion, care and duty towards refugees of the current crisis.
I worry they’ll say, “Look at him! See! Nads is one of them and he agrees with us!” So there’d be plenty of times, I assured my son, when his brace wasn’t digging into his gums, that we could go back.
I hadn’t volunteered for a charity since my twenties, when I worked in an Oxfam shop and then in a community theatre company.
Back then, I had moved back to London from university with degree in community drama and access television, which had been hugely enjoyable, very political and utterly useless when it came to finding a job. My friends all scattered back to their home towns and I found myself bereft.
At the risk of sounded like a council-sponsored advert, volunteering gave me confidence and a sense of belonging and purpose which helped me get on the path in life I wanted to be on.
Volunteering is a gift where you see the most wonderful sides to humans. The charity needed to gather clothes for the new arrivals. “New clothes or almost new clothes” was the spec. Not tatty, worn clothes. You’d be amazed how many ballgowns and wedding dresses are donated to refugee charities. “Well, the least you can do if you’ve lost everything, been displaced, is to do it dressed as Elsa from Frozen.”
So, I put a post up on my street WhatsApp. By the evening I had several big bags of brand new, or almost brand new, clean, ironed clothing and shoes from my neighbours who were also trying to find a way to feel less helpless.
They’ve donated toys and toiletries and totally understood they were donating gifts – not jumble. Treating vulnerable people with respect is a mark of how much dignity we have for ourselves.
The Independent has launched a petition urging the UK government to be more ambitious in its plans to take in Afghan refugees following the Taliban seizing power. Here’s a chance to have your voice heard by adding your signature. We thank you for your support. To sign the petition click here
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