OK so here’s how it came about. Some friends in North London got together to figure out what we could do to help refugees: this was what became Highgate Has Heart. You see the reports on the news, night after night, and you think this is awful, unbearable…and you feel rather helpless. OK so you give a little money to charity now and then. And it feels like a bottomless pit. The aim here was to do something bigger, more sustained and coordinated.
So I went away and thought, well, I’m a kids’ writer. I know a great number of other kids’ writers…maybe we should have a great big fundraising event? But then I thought HANG ON: my pals Keris Stainton, Candy Gourlay and Keren David did a wonderful thing in 2013, Authors for the Philippines. They raised £54,000 for the Red Cross Typhoon Haiyan Appeal. COULD WE DO SOMETHING LIKE THAT AGAIN?
The answer is: yes. At least I hope so. That’s where you come in. Tweet it, bid for stuff, spread the word. If you’re an author, editor or agent, you can still join in.
This humanitarian crisis is so vast, I think that for many it’s overwhelming. I know a lot of amazing people who have given their lives over completely to working to help refugees, in Calais and other camps…others who have set aside prolific careers in order to give months of their time. Having spent just one week volunteering at the Khora Refugee Centre in Athens, I understand why. You do not walk away from this. You experience it, and it changes you forever.
As I write, the Khora Refugee Centre has yet to open. But I watched a play performed by Syrian refugees. Afterwards, I told one of the actors I was moved almost to tears, even though I didn’t understand a word. ‘If you did understand, you really would cry,’ he told me.
I spoke to refugees in a city-centre camp in Athens. Eight hundred people crammed into a derelict school, with no hot water, managing as best they can with whatever donations come their way. I spoke to Firas, who showed me pictures on his phone of his hometown, Aleppo, from five years ago. ‘I love my country,’ he said. ‘I want to go back – we would all return if we could.’ He tried to start a new life in Turkey, but was not allowed to set up a business there. He can’t join his brothers in Germany either; apparently he is too old to apply for asylum there. Now he wants to get an interview at the British Embassy. I hate to think how slim his chances are there. He shows me a picture of his two beautiful young children; he has had to leave them behind in Aleppo. Nothing I can say is adequate: nothing at all.
I just want to give these people some hope. And make their lives bearable, for the time being.