In 2015, Jaz O’Hara went on a journey that changed her life. Founder of The Worldwide Tribe, Jaz O’Hara’s met her refugee foster brother Mez, in 2015 and was inspired to go to the so-called Calais Jungle to see for herself what was really going on with the refugee crisis. She was astonished by what she saw and took to Facebook to post about it. That post went viral and donations and aid started pouring in. Four years on, Jaz is helping to bring support to those in need, and raising awareness of the ongoing refugee crisis by sharing their stories through The Worldwide Tribe.
CAN YOU TELL US THE STORY BEHIND THE WORLDWIDE TRIBE AND THE ROLE THAT SOCIAL MEDIA PLAYED IN IT ALL?
It was just over 4 years ago now, the summer of 2015 that all this started for me. I had a personal interest in the refugee crisis because my mum and dad wanted to have another child at home since all of us were growing up and they were scared of having everyone gone, so this empty nest syndrome had led them to explore fostering. It wasn’t with the intention of fostering a refugee, but it looked more and more likely that it would be, because my mum and dad were quite open to having an older child, one that couldn’t speak English, and a boy – lots of people prefer younger children and girls in the adoption or fostering process. It looked likely that my new little sibling would be coming via the Calais Jungle, which is this camp on the other side of the water from where my mum and dad live in Kent. It’s so close, you could be in Calais within an hour or two.
The crisis was kind of in my face at the time because the news was talking a lot about it, but at the time, the approach to documenting it was dehumanising. It’s hard to think about it now because the landscape has changed a lot and the situation has changed a lot too, so people’s understanding and passion has improved in these past few years. But at the time, a lot of people were quite fearful of this group of people who were trying to cross the channel and that was reflected in the media. So, I went to the camp to try to find out a little bit more about the reality of it, and that was the trip that changed my life forever.
I’d seen conditions like that before because in places I’d travelled to, but it was the fact that people were so misrepresented that shocked me. They weren’t to be feared, they were victims and they were living in this situation despite having fled war. It just seemed mad to me.
I came back from that first trip and wrote about it on Facebook, and then that Facebook post went viral! It got an amazing response and that really sparked the beginning of The Worldwide Tribe. We raised a lot of money very quickly with a little Go Fund Me page that we had attached to the Facebook post, and we were absolutely inundated with physical donations as well. We started distributing everything in Calais and organising it, and then we started telling stories and making films, raising awareness, and that’s really where my focus is now – on the storytelling side of things. If you can educate through storytelling and convey a sense of understanding and compassion, then that’s how change really happens.
So, four years on, we’ve worked in lots of camps and most recently I’ve been working on The Worldwide Tribe Podcast, which I really enjoy as a way to tell these stories in a bit more of a long form.
WHAT ARE THE MAIN PURSUITS AT THE WORLDWIDE TRIBE AT THE MOMENT?
I would say The Worldwide Tribe Podcast is something that I’m really focused on, and little campaigns come up regularly – we’ve just pushed out a campaign for Lesbos, which is to put a box together of urgent supplies, and Juice Plus has sponsored packaging labels so that you can send your box for free directly to Lesbos, and that’s going to help people get through the winter. There’s also a couple of films that I really want to make in the next few months, one about my little brother Mez who is the reason as to why this all started. Mez came to my family in 2015 and he’s 18 now. Together we’re doing lots of talks, for example we’ve got some talks at his old school coming up, which is really special because it’s with over one thousand kids and we’re talking to them all across four days, after which they’ll be incorporating Mez’s story and the refugee crisis into their curriculum.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THE MOST POIGNANT PEOPLE AND EXPERIENCES THAT YOU’VE ENCOUNTERED THROUGHOUT THIS JOURNEY?
I think that Mez arriving into my family was a really poignant experience and continues to be, and that’s something that keeps me going whenever I feel like I can’t do this, or I come across a challenge. I just think that if he can do what he’s done, then I can do this.
But there are some other pivotal people that I think have really resonated for me.
A girl called Noor who I met in Turkey; she has an incredible story. She was at university in Damascus studying Law, when a bomb hit her university and she saw two of her friends killed. She wasn’t physically harmed, but her nervous system went into shock, leaving her paralyzed, in a wheelchair and unable to walk. She needs specific treatment and she couldn’t get that in Syria, so she crossed the border into Turkey where I met her, and she was trying to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. When I met her, she was in a real difficult position and she really stood out to me because I related a lot to her. We are the same age, similar in personality and we connected. We worked together to relocate her to Canada and helped raise the funds for her to be able to that, and now she’s there getting the treatment she needs.
WHAT IS THE AVAILABILITY OF MENTAL HEALTHCARE LIKE FOR REFUGEES?
There’s a lack in that respect. When we think of urgent needs we think of shoes and blankets, but actually mental health is really important, especially as refugees are spending longer in these camps now. People who I met in 2015 are still there, children are being born there, people die there. The whole circle of life happens in these camps, so I think mental health is a really important topic, often overlooked. It’s particularly important for men in the camps, because they often come from quite traditional style families where their role has been very much that of a provider, and through their displacement they’ve kind of lost their sense of purpose.
ARE THERE ANY OTHER MAJOR ISSUES THAT YOU FEEL ARE REALLY IMPACTING THE REFUGEE CRISIS AT THE MOMENT?
The lack of mental healthcare and psychosocial support is certainly big challenge, and the length of time that people are spending in camps. It’s such a waste of potential and opportunity because there are so many incredible people in the camps just stuck there, not able to build a life. That’s a really sad thing to see. I also think general wellness is often overlooked; things like diet, nutrition and basic needs that aren’t met. Those factors can’t always be improved, so I’d like to start looking at the more internal elements of improving the quality of life in the camps.
WHAT CAN INDIVIDUALS DO?
I think there’s a lot that we can do as an individual and I hope that what happened to me represents that. It’s never been easier to get your message across and we have the tools right there to do it through social media, and in the same way it’s never been easier to access information. You can use Google to find out in seconds where your nearest Asylum Seeker Centre is and they’re everywhere!
As an individual it’s about bringing this into your every day and turning it more into a lifestyle, rather than filling in a form to volunteer for a charity once, it’s about looking for the people within your vicinity that you can help – people on the street or elderly neighbours, or whoever it is that you feel compassionate towards. Take little steps towards finding out more. And when you say, “what can I do”, instead I would ask yourself “what am I good at?” Think about your skills. You might be a graphic designer and be able to help a local homeless person with their CV, or like my boyfriend is a hairdresser and he cuts hair for people on the street. You know? Whatever it is that you have to offer, match that up to something that you feel compassionate about and there will be something for you to do.
WHO HAVE BEEN YOUR MENTORS IN THIS PROCESS?
Mez – my little brother. He’s my inspiration, he’s so wise beyond his years that he has an incredible way of looking at life. In fact, all three of my foster brothers inspire me.
Generally, it’s the people that I meet along the way, like Noor, and I’ve met amazing volunteers and unsung heroes who are there on the ground doing this every day.
My friend Brendon who works in search and rescue – I did a Podcast with him where he tells an amazing story about how he rescued a baby off the coast of Lesbos and it’s just overwhelming.
We’re in this age of “the Influencer” and I wonder who I’m influenced by. When I think about it, it isn’t necessarily the people who have a big influence on social media who have an impact on me, it’s the ordinary people who are quietly extraordinary, and that’s what the Podcast is about for me – raising and amplifying the voices of people that don’t have these big platforms and I feel should!
ON A LARGER SCALE THROUGH YOUR WORK YOU EMPOWER OTHERS, BUT WHAT DO YOU DO TO FEEL EMPOWERED IN YOURSELF?
I eat delicious food – the things I eat really effect how I’m feeling. Focusing on self-care, something I’ve gotten better at over the years. Things like having a daily routine, doing meditation practice, yoga, exercise; things like that work for me.
IS THERE ANYTHING ELSE GOING ON THROUGH THE WORLDWIDE TRIBE THAT YOU WOULD LIKE TO ADD?
The other thing that might be worth mentioning is that my brother who was really instrumental in the beginning of The Worldwide Tribe, he been driving a project called Jangala Wifi, where we set up a wifi network in the Calais Jungle – the first one. We founded that together and its gone on to be a tech startup in its own right, which produces wifi boxes for refugee camps.
QUICK FIRE QUESTIONS
YOUR FAVOURITE PLACE IN THE WORLD?
Bali. Or Goa. They’re like my two dream holiday locations with everything I need from culture to good food, to beautiful waters and beaches… and everything!
A PLACE IN WHICH YOU’VE SEEN THE MOST POSITIVE CHANGE IN THE REFUGEE CRISIS?
Not that many places… to be honest, over the years in a lot of places the situation has gotten worse. For example, in Calais the jungle was demolished, which left people without the infrastructure of the camp, but they’re still there. I guess in the UK I’ve seen a positive change in people’s mindsets, like people are becoming more aware, more compassionate and more understanding I believe, but then things like Brexit happen and that sets you back.
FAVOURITE SOCIAL PLATFORM?
GREATEST PERSONAL ACHIEVEMENT?
Speaking at the UN in New York. That was a “pinch-me” moment.
Have you ever read a little book called Who Moved My Cheese? It’s a little fable about how you deal with change. I just read the follow up called Out Of The Maze, which is again a really easy little read, but the message is really important about looking beyond your own beliefs, because a belief is just a thought that you trust to be true. I read Greta Thunberg’s book No One Is Too Small To Make A Difference, which was a good one. Revolution by Russel Brand, that’s a good one on my bookshelf.
Wow, it’s hard to choose one.
AN INSPIRING MESSAGE THAT YOU’D LIKE TO LEAVE WITH THE READERS
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