For the past few months, a small group of mothers in Paris have been driving to northern France and Germany with carloads filled with blankets, clothing and food. They leave behind the comfort of their own homes in search of broken families who need immediate assistance. They find many each time because there are thousands now living in makeshift refugee camps on the outskirts of French and German towns.
Kelly Dailey (American), Reema Shakir Jraidan (Iraqi-American) and Carina Okula (Australian) are three of these women on a two-fold mission for the volunteer association Every Child is a GEM:
- To ensure that every child is given a chance to thrive
- To promote a greater understanding of the plight of children, orphans and widows worldwide who are disadvantaged by poverty, lack of education, civil strife, homelessness, abuse and disease.
The passionate volunteer work they do is pushing them beyond their own borders and limits. INSPIRELLE spoke with Kelly, Reema and Carina just after their latest trip to northern France where about 2,500 refugees, children and adults, are struggling in dire, freezing conditions.
How would you describe the conditions you’ve witnessed on your visits to these refugee and migrant camps in Grande Synthe on the edges of Dunkerque?
CARINA: Honestly, it is hard to put into words the conditions that people are living in. Even images don’t show the depth of how bad it truly is. When we first started going, the mud was everywhere, there was rotting food, garbage, boots – it all mixes into to one large mass with the people. As we sat and talked to one camp resident whom we’ve become very attached to, a rat ran out from under a palette that kept her little space out of the mud, and it scampered up between the tents. To get to the Swiss kitchen (a volunteer setup providing a hot meal) you have to walk through mud, mud, mud and along the way there were dead rats.
There is no electricity, no heating. There is a row of portable toilets beside the garbage bins, and until recently the showers had not been working for three months. There are now a handful of showers working, but they have to serve nearly 3000 people. On each subsequent visit, the conditions have deteriorated from those we saw the previous week. People are now deep in mud up to 20cm deep, and it’s necessary to trek through this to get to the food distribution or the toilet. It’s just impossible.
There are families living with little more than plastic liners (like garbage bags) wrapped around trees with a fire pit in the middle to keep them warm. They have no escape from the mud and cold.
Kelly, you co-founded Every Child is a Gem to help refugees, vulnerable children and widows. What motivated you to start this worldwide volunteer association?
Relationships. It basically all comes down to this and my passion to see people flourish in their gifts in order for their “gems” to shine.
Every Child is a Gem actively started in 2007 through a relationship I developed over eight years with an American woman named Lori, who is the head of Every Child is a Gem, USA.
I personally have a lot of relationships with people across the world whom are passionate about abolishing poverty and are on-site actively empowering those that are poor, abused and disadvantaged to obtain education, freedom and resources to better their lives. I like to call them “Gem Ambassadors”.
Often, I’ve contemplated just leaving everything and moving to Mozambique, Kenya, India, Cambodia, Dominican Republic, etc. and physically joining them.
But I have a family (husband and two children) and a business in France, The Dailey Method Paris, so that wasn’t really an option.
How has your work with your association evolved?
Since 2007, we have gone from working closely with two orphanage complexes in Kenya to helping a friend’s organization raise funds for an educational centre in the Dominican Republic. We have grown organically because Every Child is a GEM was founded on, and evolves through, relationships. We are all 100% volunteers so the work sometimes wanes, sometimes surges, depending on life circumstances. But most of all, it’s about our relationship to each other and supporting each others’ passion.
Some of the events we’ve done in France are to raise funds and awareness: a dance performance at the Casino de Paris, an Art Exhibit at the Paris Country Club, recurrent dance classes at The Dailey Method Paris Studio and Marymount International School, children’s birthday parties, jewelry sales, photography shoots, art auctions and music concerts.
As a result we’ve been able to construct wells, build and expand educational buildings, hire teachers, buy land, repurchase one orphan out of slavery, start widows projects, create a school, support two computer programs, and now bring much needed supplies to refugee camps.
Your volunteers started collecting clothing and other essentials in 2015 and driving from Paris with carloads of supplies to provide them to refugees in Germany. Why start in Germany?
KELLY: Again, this evolved through relationships. Through Carina’s many numerous relationships and my clients, we had such an overwhelming response to our call for help, that my studio and her home were flooded with donations with nowhere to take them.
I have good friends who pastor a church in Duisburg, Germany. I knew that they have the same heart for the poor as I do and were working with the refugees. So, one Monday in November I called Martin and asked him if they could use some clothes for the refugees. He introduced me to Agnes, who was volunteering several times a week at Düsseldorf Airport welcoming the “Train of Hope”. These trains arrive every other night carrying 600 to 1000 people. They definitely needed clothes, so Carina and I went.
How does this current refugee crisis compare to others you have witnessed over the years?
CARINA: For my part, in the past I’ve only been witness to previous incidents via the media. Previous refugee crises never came so close to home. With the refugee crisis that is now upon us, I can only compare it to the history we studied in school of the mass fleeing and murder of people during World War II. I’m ashamed that there are so many in the world, and here in France too, who turn their backs and don’t want to be involved. It feels like we’ve forgotten the lessons of history – those where our grandparents fought hard for France and other countries, and where many did what they could to protect the innocent.
Reema, as an Iraqi-American, you are able to communicate with the Arabic-speaking refugees in their own language. Will you share with us what the people are saying about their tenuous situation?
It’s such a difficult situation. I feel so hopeless and embarrassed to even ask them about how they feel, because nobody can live the way these people are living. They’re so hopeless and stuck, and they don’t know what to do.
I was there last Sunday, and a man approached me to ask, “Where have you been?” And then he said, “I’ve been looking for you.” I met him the first time a month ago when I went to the Grande Synthe camp. He said, “Tell me what should I do? I’ve been here for two months. I was in the Iraqi military, all my friends died – maybe I should’ve stayed there and died too.”
I was so sad and didn’t know what to say. I just told him, “I don’t know. I’m not a politician. I’m just a mom who’s trying to help by cooking and collecting some donations.” I’ve never felt this useless and hopeless.
This year, some of you plan to also travel to Greece and camps in Jordan if possible to offer humanitarian assistance. How do you choose where to focus your efforts when you have limited resources?
REEMA: I’m going to Greece on February 3rd because I know I have a tool that I can use to help with. I’ve never felt so blessed and happy that I speak Arabic as much as I do now. Hopefully I’ll be helpful there. I’m only staying there for a week because I have my kids at home, but I’m definitely planning to go back again. I’m also planning to go to Jordan to take some of the donations and see the situation there and what we can do to help. Our goal is hopefully to also give these people some tools to survive by supporting and guiding them.
Meeting Kelly was a life changer for me. She helped me to be able to reach out and help, and I really hope that we’ll be able to help.
We have compassionate readers out there who want to help. What is most urgently needed, and what is the best way for people to provide assistance right now?
KELLY, CARINA AND REEMA: Since our first call out last September, people have been incredibly generous with donations, especially with items of clothing. Right now, we have no more space for clothing. Immediate needs include: blankets, wind up torches (no batteries), and we’re preparing for a food collection. We’re trying to find a way to ease the burden on the local associations and to fund some meals. For these needs we’ve created a GoFund page, or people can donate via our Facebook page and Paypal.
With our focus on the refugee crisis, our number of volunteers has been exponentially and organically growing. Again, this is happening all through relationships. The need and urgency is so great, new Gems are appearing every day and offering to help. We are so grateful and it is so beautiful!
What do you say to people who are fearful of the large influx of refugees in Europe and the ability to absorb and integrate them properly?
CARINA: I understand that seeing a large number of people arriving to Europe is causing concern for many. It doesn’t help when some media fuels the fear. Whilst there are large numbers of refugees arriving in Europe, the surrounding nations of the countries from which they’ve fled have born the brunt – if Turkey can house 1.8 million, surely we here in France can house 30,000. It doesn’t require cities taking in mass numbers, but the simple act of housing a small number of refugees in each town can make a massive difference.
Germans do not like to use the word “refugees” but instead refer to those who have recently arrived as their “new friends” and “new neighbors”. The more welcome we make them feel, the less isolated they will be. The refugees have been living in their homelands for decades, generations – they fled out of desperation to stay alive. They are people who, just like the rest of us, had normal lives. Their normality has been taken away through no fault of their own. Let’s not make it worse by treating them poorly.
What has been the most rewarding part of volunteering to help?
KELLY, CARINA AND REEMA: The people. In Germany, we sat and talked with a young couple when the husband started unwrapping layers of plastic to reveal paper – it was their graduation certificates from a university in Damascus. The husband had protected it on the boat and then against weather as they trod through Europe. It was only now in Germany as we sat together that he felt it safe enough to rip away the tape.
There are young men we meet who decline things when offered and tell us to give it to the families with children. And Besh, a young man from Kurdish Iraq, who is at the camp looking out for his mother and four brothers, three of whom are under 18.
In Grande Synthe, there are people who invite us into their muddy tents to sit and keep company, children who want cuddles and blow kisses. We are moved by Maman R., a beautiful gem, who spends her day in the mud around a small fire boiling tea and making soup for her fellow refugees. Despite all the hardships they have endured on their travels to arrive where they are now – they have the kindest hearts, the most beautiful smiles and they look out for each other. Life is so much richer having the chance to have these new friends in it.