It was back in January that I last played the organ at Farm Street Church in Mayfair before taking a sabbatical. The world I returned to was very different. Have a read of the article I wrote for the church.
Corona Virus has undoubtedly touched all our lives. Every interaction is tinged with a new caution, all plans are made with a new uncertainty. Some people have managed to survive in a relatively unaltered way, others have lost businesses, relationships, homes. I was supposed to be a scuba professional in Mexico, then a church organist in London. When neither of those options were available I went looking for usefulness and adventure - and I found so much more than I could ever have imagined. With all the lows that I have written about, there have been many, many highs too. Here's how it happened.
I nearly didn't go. In April, the restrictions were incredibly tight and despite the piles of paperwork, I heard that it was no longer possible to travel directly to France to volunteer in Calais. I spoke to the organisation, they whispered about another possibility via Belgium, their enthusiasm for my arrival spurred me on. A beautiful sunset, an overnight ferry and a bit of a drive. I could've made another decision. That film Sliding Doors, where you watch both realities play out - the one where she catches the train, and the one where she misses it, the doors slide closed in front of her - it could so easily have been a different reality. I was only going to stay three weeks.
The people I met in France are entirely responsible for what happened next! "There's a guy in Serbia, on his own, why don't you do there?". I can remember the conversation that Stef and I had which resulted in our commitment to join No Name Kitchen. 3 days driving later and my piano and my little British car crosses the 8th country border of the trip, out of the European Union and into the tiny town of Šid in Serbia. I learnt so much in Serbia. I learnt to make huge pots of food, to communicate in different ways in order optimise the reach of our organisation. I learnt some Pashto, some Serbo-croatian, a wariness of the police and where to find the best accidentally vegan pastries. I learnt about the brutality of the Croatian border guard, the hoops that need jumping through to get medical treatment if you're a person on the move, and the hopes and dreams of my new friends. Always hopes, despite everything.
"Serbia is bad, but Bosnia is worse. The police, the camps, the whole situation." Stef and I had decided to have the same time frame. This meant we wanted to go somewhere else after Serbia. Bosnia presented itself when No Name Kitchen wanted to set up something new in Bihać. Sounds mad doesn't it? I'm a church organist but seem to be being trusted to start operations in a new place for an organisation we've been with for 2 months. Me, Stef, the piano and the little British car toured Serbia and Kosovo before arriving in the mountain city. Sliding doors had placed us there with a familiar colleague and rather a lot of freedom to find out the need and work towards filling it. I am still amazed at the trust NNK put in us to do this, and amazed that we were able to use the skills we'd learnt to connect with other organisations and people on the move in a way that seemed very much lacking in the city.
I didn't know it was possible to be so stressed and still be able to function. There were a couple of days in Bihać when circumstances were mindblowingly stressful. There is always more to do, always someone we had to say "I'm sorry, we can't help you today." There are always reports to write, articles to pitch, friends to chat with, plans to make, lists and lists of things to do. There was one day in particular where I had a few minutes. I lay on my bed and wept, then dried my face and went back out there. We had already extended our stay for a few more days to try to fit more in.
On our last day, we went to visit the other No Name Kitchen in Velika Kladuša. It was only going to be to drop off some keys. A lovely lunch later and we couldn't resist going on one more distribution. We were greeted with surprise by guys we'd met in Bihac but were now in VK. "Hello! How are you? Bihać!" We had some nice chats while the distribution happened around us, then said our goodbyes to people on the move and volunteer friends. Being able to drive across the Croatian border with our shiny passports is sickening. Our friends stay months and years at the gate of the European Union, living rough, being beaten, not having enough to eat or a safe place to sleep. But it is still better than the alternative of a war-torn country or persecution for what you think or believe.
I am forever changed by the people I've met. As I write this, with a week's distance in the safety of Germany, I wouldn't change a thing about my pandemic experience and I am excited for my new future, which I can see beginning to spread out in front of me. Always do more.
Donate to the work of No Name Kitchen in Bosnia and all the other bases via this link.
"Place your hand in mine,
Run into the sunset,
Chase the future,
Always be kind."
I wrote the following article for the Guardian who are doing a series entitled Blood, Sweat and Tears - about experiences of healthcare during pandemic times. They didn't want it, so here it is! Comments and questions welcomed as always.
Kneeling in the dust with my patient’s foot propped on my lap was my first experience of First Aiding in Calais. I was cleaning and dressing the wound of a refugee who had been injured falling off a truck.
I got my first aid qualification during my professional scuba diving training which I recently completed in Mexico. I was living the diver’s dream in the Caribbean before COVID-19 sent me home. With no work as a diver or my other job as a church organist in London, I returned to France where I’ve volunteered several times before.
The simple medical kit that comes with us when we visit the temporary camp areas in Calais and Dunkirk contains a basic selection of plasters, bandages, antiseptic and sanitizing creams. I’m volunteering with Care4Calais - an aid charity that operates in northern France. It was the only charity operating here for a while, as other organisations stopped work when Covid19 hit France. Mainly we distribute food, clothing, tents and sleeping bags, and in normal times we’re usually joined by another organisation - First Aid Support Team. However, these qualified medics are not here at present: my fellow first-aider, who is a furloughed land mine-clearer, and I are the best we’ve got for the moment.
As we were setting up the portable handwash station and a generator for phone charging, a man approached me with his hood up and his hand on his face. He’d just seen me giving a plaster to a little boy who had a cut on his foot. “Doctor?” he asked. I showed him the sign we have in Kurdish which says: I’m not a doctor, just a first aider. He took the hand away from his face and I could see how swollen his cheek was: he had an awful tooth infection. “Ouch! That’s very bad.” All I could do was give him printed directions to the hospital clinic which wouldn’t be open until the next day, and a mask to wear while he was there. I can’t imagine how long that night felt as he tried to sleep through the pain.
Later the same week, my friend talked to a guy with sore feet. He took his shoes off and showed her quite a bad case of athlete’s foot. It’s not surprising that he had this fungal infection, as it’s difficult to keep clean when you’re living in a tent which is subject to clearance by the police at a moment’s notice. He was wearing his shoes without socks. My friend spent a long time with him, cleaning his feet and chatting. The Google translate app meant that they could communicate, and she could wish him a happy Eid. The personal level of care she could provide to him was a special moment of service - she could give him her full attention and tend to him in what is by necessity a tactile way, which is so rare at the moment. This was important for her too, as she is unable to perform her usual job but this way could still feel a commitment to a humanitarian cause during this time.
It was a difficult decision for both of us to travel to France. The risk to ourselves of contracting the virus whilst away from home, as well as being away from family that may need help, and the personal financial cost to volunteer, preyed on our minds beforehand.
Working here in France has many challenges. So far, Covid19 has not been obvious in the informal camps, but if it arrives, the inability to keep social distancing rules or wash frequently could lead to a rapid spread.Communicating whilst wearing extensive PPE is difficult enough with fellow volunteers, and even more challenging when there’s a language barrier too. But the small amount of comfort we are able to provide by sitting with someone, giving them our full attention, listening to their problem and trying to find a solution, provides a connection that many people during this time are unable to have.
Being able to share this work with other volunteers of different ages and backgrounds is a reward too. I am so grateful to all the health professionals who are working hard in such extreme situations in hospitals and elsewhere, and I’m humbled to be able to use my training in this small way.
Hannah the traveller
is a travel and lifestyle blog with focus on running, vegan eating and of course global travel.