Late last evening, I received an urgent email from my local authority.
“As you know from the news,” it said, “there is a massive effort for donation (sic) for the Afghanistan Refugees as many of them are coming to the country with nothing. Greenwich has had a mass of donations but the problem is….. urgent help is needed sorting everything”. The email ended on a plaintive note: “This is a massive task and any help you could give would be very greatly appreciated.”
As a doughty volunteer for the past 18 months, I signed on.
What I found when I arrived at the specified venue was remarkable. The grand hotel near the tube station is now the temporary home of 600 Afghan families, who are quarantining and no doubt traumatised at what has happened to their country and to them. They had just arrived in Britain and, as officials told me, most had “nothing but the clothes they came over in”.
On one of the floors of the hotel, I found a massive throbbing operation. Under the supervision of officials, volunteers were readying bags for individual families, choosing from stacks of donations of clothes, shoes, toiletries, headscarves, copies of the Quran, toys and books. Each bag was bespoke in the sense that it tried to provide the checklist of specific requests (“large men’s vest”, “Babygro for 3-month-old”, “2 women’s T-shirts”, etc) filed by each family. If we managed to find all the requested items, the checklist was marked “done” and put in a separate file. If there were outstanding requests (men’s trousers were particularly hard to source as well as men’s shoes and headscarves), the checklist was placed in a different file marked “partly done”. The “done” stack was about a third as high as the “partly done”, a sign of the enormity of the task at hand. How do you take care of hundreds of people who have almost nothing?
There is no clear answer other than what we’re doing. The uplifting bit about all of this is that we’re trying — and we’re all doing it together, mostly volunteers, doing our best to help, to bring some order to lives upturned by events beyond anyone’s control.