Jaz O’hara is the founder of The Worldwide Tribe, a grass roots humanitarian movement in which thousands of volunteers have been sparked into action to help those affected by the refugee crisis.
Words by Rhona Ezuma
After the stories Jaz shared from her first visit to the Calais “Jungle” went viral, Jaz and her family received so many donations that she quit her job, and alongside her brother, moved into the camp. Since then, The Worldwide Tribe has grown from the small team of Jaz and her brother, into a huge ‘hands on’ platform which raises awareness for refugees’ needs – wherever and whatever that may be. In places like Calais, Lesbos and Jordan, the group continue to give power to the unheard refugee voices, bringing light and hope to their situations and reminding us all of the collective human spirit through their creative projects.
The Worldwide Tribe has become a major platform for galvanising awareness for refugees. On Instagram and Facebook you guys have nearly 60,000 followers and you’ve raised over £155,000 for CalAid. The Calais “Jungle” is where your work first began, what first prompted you to go there?
Jaz: “Me and my younger brother started working in this space and it’s grown as a grass roots movement of volunteers very organically. I was actually working in fashion till last summer, my other brother worked in advertising and my other brother who had just finished school is a film maker. I decided to go to the camp back when I was reading a lot in the newspapers which was very negative. It was back in July when there weren’t many volunteers in the camp, and the news was quite dehumanising – things like ‘Swarms of Migrants’ and ‘Marauding Migrants’ were in the paper. People were very negative towards the people in Calais and there was a lot talk of them being violent, trying to get into the back of lorries, “operation stack” and etc. It left me with a lot of questions about who these people were, why they were there and all these human questions which I didn’t think the news were presenting at all.”
What was your first experience of the Camp like and how did it compare to what you had seen on the news?
I thought it would be quite useful to go to the camp, so my brother and I packed up our car with quite useful things like tents, sleeping bags, warm clothes and food. What we met when we arrived there was absolutely incredible. What happened on that day will stay with me forever. I was totally overwhelmed by the hospitality and kindness of the people when we got there. People wanted to share their food, their tea – they had nothing, it was really a humanitarian crisis at the time, people were hungry, people were freezing cold. There is a huge African population in Calais so lots of people were coming from Sudan and Eritrea. It’s a different demographic to when we worked in Lesbos and Greece, where most people are Middle Eastern, Syrian or Kurdish, so people were really struggling with the climate in Northern France. So we were met with this humanitarian crisis but we were also met with such hospitality, love and kindness that I’d never known before.”
Social media has had a huge influence in connecting people to the personal stories you have discovered while you’ve been meeting people in refugee camps. Your first Facebook post about your experience in the camp garnered a large amount of positive action for the Jungle In Calais. Can you tell us exactly what happened?
I came back the next night from that trip to Calais and I was pretty emotional that we’d just left these people there. We’d been able to do the journey that they’re trying to do every night from the comfort of our car just because we had a passport which enabled us to do it, and they were risking their lives. It just didn’t sit with me very well. So I wrote about it on my personal Facebook page, sharing some of the stories that I had heard that day and I put up some pictures and didn’t think any more of it. I went to sleep and woke up the next day to go to work and that post had been shared sixty five thousand times overnight.
So as you can imagine I was a little bit overwhelmed. I’d never really had more than twenty likes on a status so it was a little bit weird. What happened next was a crazy whirlwind. I’d actually put my address in the post and said I’d be going to the camp again if anyone wants to bring any stuff to my house they can – thinking it was just to my friends and family. I quickly took my address offline but it was too late and we were inundated with thousands and thousands and thousands of people bringing things like brand new sleeping bags, tents, clothes, everything that you could possibly think of – bedding. Literally, it was unreal, we had Amazon delivery after Amazon delivery. We had the postman coming in a van and the entire van was for us. It was incredible and we really really quickly had to get warehouses. We filled eight warehouses across London. We started having to go to the camp as often as we could to distribute it and there were no other volunteers at the time. We were trying to manage this wave of people wanting to do something and it was really difficult at the time. So me and my brother both quit our jobs, and we moved into the camp. We lived in the Sudanese area of the camp and we started to really understand the need, as best as we could, on the ground.”
You come from a fashion background, one of your brothers is a film maker and the other makes music. Have your creative talents come into the work you have been doing?
As the months have gone one we have kind of worked more to our strengths. We did get this distribution network in place and made sure the aid we collected was getting to where it needed to be, and it was being distributed fairly among the people who needed it the most. And that enabled us to work on other projects which were more creative. So, my brother who is a musician (the one that worked in advertising), he ran lots of music projects in the camp; my other brother who is the film maker, he started documenting everything we were doing and making video content, sharing the stories of the people we were meeting, the friends we were making and the relationships we were building. We made two film about the destruction of the camp: one called The Lotus Flower, which was highlighting everything that would be lost if they did that huge mass bulldozing. Then they did go ahead with it, so then we made another very short film called The Aftermath, which shows what is left now.
So we started to do that more and more, and were able to raise more awareness through social media and these platforms for social change, and to galvanise this movement of thousands of volunteers who have now volunteered in the camp. This outpouring of support and generosity has been a really incredible thing to see.”
The destruction of the ‘The Jungle’ seemed to happen quite quickly, and in the news to some extent it was presented as the eradication of a problem that was not being solved. As someone whose actually been to the camp, who watched the camp in Calais grow, what are your opinions on what happened with the destruction of ‘The Jungle’?
I feel very strongly about this because I watched the camp grow from absolute nothing. People were literally living in the mud, in the freezing cold, in tents that were filling with water. And they had nothing, no sleeping bags, no shoes. It was really the most desperate situation and I watched as the distributions got more and more, volunteers arrived in their masses and between volunteers, refugees, crowd funded money and grassroots organisations there was made this beautiful community, this bustling, vibrant community. And it was just getting to the point where people had some dignity. People had a choice about what they were going to do with their days, the women could have a second outfit – just little things that meant that people could have a little dignity again were starting to happen. That was a really beautiful thing. For that to be taken away so cruelly, was really devastating for me to watch.
The camp had become a real community with an incredible community spirit. People did everything for each other, they worked together, lived in peace they were fleeing war and all the wanted was peace and that showed in the camp you know. There were schools, there was restaurants, there was mosques, churches a library, a woman and children’s centre a youth centre. So much. People had really made the best of a bad situation and so much beauty had grown from the mud and the demolition of that was devastating. Watching the bulldozing of people’s homes and there was nothing they could do about it – that took away a lot of hope, people’s dreams, dignity for a lot of people and it was really heart breaking for me to see.”
“The problem was there was no alternative solution for people provided, so there was nowhere for people to go. Yes, the French authorities opened the container camp – but at the time of the bulldozing there was only about 400 spaces left. They made thousands of people homeless. The authorities misjudged the amount of people they were making homeless by thousands. And the alternative accommodations they were providing for people were only available for the winter seasons, and they were putting people in the middle of nowhere with no electricity. Also, they wear forcing a lot of people to seek asylum in France. Now for a lot of the Sudanese people that I know, lots of their friends were being rejected and they had more chance to get asylum if they made it to the UK. There are various of reasons for why the alternative options were not adequate and people were forced to disperse and live in separate new camps that cropped up around Calais. But without the support people were able to provide in the jungle, without the lifelines, water points and food distributions, people had to start all over again and that was really, really devastating.”
Your work with the refugees has in some ways changed life. You now run The Worldwide Tribe with a small team. Can you tell us a bit about the work you continue to do in refugee camps?
“Today we are working in Lesbos, we are working in Calais and I am going to Jordan tomorrow because our work is kind of naturally gravitating closer to the source. Things are changing politically. In Calais a large section of the camp has been bulldozed, and in Lesvos the whole island is being evacuated of refugees so we’ve got our team in Lesvos moving across to Ismis and Turkey. Me and my brother are going to Jordan and we ‘be been given the opportunity to go out there and run an art project. But also we’ll be identifying what the situation is and what needs arise and how to best address them there. So it’s been a massive whirlwind and there’s now four of us who basically quit our jobs and have just started doing this 100%, full time. And I feel I couldn’t have done this any other way because I was faced with this crisis. I had to kind of step up and act in the best way I knew how really.”
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