Nikki McArthur reports on France and Beyond’s success sending shipping containers full of donations to Syria.
When I joined the France and Beyond FB group back in September last year I would never have believed just four months later we’d be organising a 40-foot container of aid to leave from my house to Syria. But that’s what we have done – and we are now in the process of organising a second.
France and Beyond îs a network of individuals brought together through a Facebook group. We are not a charity, we are not paid – most of us had little experience (if any) doing any kind of humanitarian work before we joined. However we all felt a need to do something to help with the deepening refugee crises – and this group offered us an outlet.
I volunteered to be a collection hub for donations. However, it’s all very well offering to sort and store donations, but then what? Where do they go from here?
This was becoming a problem in all our hubs across France. Calais was becoming well supported and there has been so far much less need for women’s and children’s clothes in Calais than in other parts of Europe.
I started searching the various refugee aid Facebook groups I belonged to for any opportunity to take our donations.
I found a container leaving Barcelona for Lesbos in November. Barcelona is only five hours from us, so Gary took a van full of donations there.
A week later, I drove up to Paris with another van full for a shipment going to a camp in Iraq.
In December I drove a van full up to the centre of France to fellow France and Beyond member Anthony Jones, who was delivering to Calais. I then drove back via Roni at Hub 16 in the Charente to pick up more donations and then onto Bordeaux to deliver to and visit the refugees there.
After a few weeks’ break over Christmas with my family and the kids safely deposited back at school, I turned my attention once again to finding another container in need of our donations.
At this point I had approximately 8m3 of donations ready to go. I found a post on the Facebook group People to People Solidarity Southern Europe & Middle East from Rebecca Smith who was excited to announce they had funding from charities for 20 containers to Syria from the UK.
Excellent, I thought, how can I get our donations to them?
So I wrote to Rebecca explaining I was an admin on the group France and Beyond and we had hubs with donations sorted and ready to go – how could we get them to these containers in the UK?
Later that day she added me to a Facebook conversation with the charity One Nation UK who said that if we had enough to fill a 40-foot container, then they would arrange and fund the delivery of the container to my house in France and then arrange for it to be sent to Syria.
All I had to do was fill it.
I couldn’t quite believe it. At last a way of moving all the wonderful donations we had received directly to where they really need to go. I paused to think, but only for a moment: can we do this?
Yes, of course we can!
And there it was: I’d committed myself to filling a huge container of 76 m3 – and, at that time, I had maybe a tenth of what I needed.
Aid is so desperately needed, so the deadline I had been given was January 15. I had to get all the donations to my house, sorted and ready to go in just 10 days.
I know many thought I was mad and there were more than a few moments in the first few days when I thought they were right. But, I put a call out on my Facebook page for Hub31 and on the main France and Beyond page and the response was absolutely phenomenal.
The offers of help came pouring in and every day I had cars, trailers and vans full of deliveries coming from Beziers, Bordeaux, the Charente and the Dordogne.
We also had a massive 30m3 of food and clothes from Blagnac/Toulouse thanks to Stephanie Ponset-Meunier from VCA and her links with the Muslim community (this resulted from a chance email exchange between us earlier in January).
I had over 20 people come to help on our first sorting day and many of them came every day for the whole week. We had teams in our shop area sorting medical and baby items, in the conservatory sorting men’s clothes, in the entrance sorting food, in the other end of the building sorting women’s and children’s, and a team outside sorting shoes and boots.
The atmosphere was brilliant, with everyone pulling together for a common cause.
Those who lived too far away to help were organising collections ordering baby milk, nappies, medical supplies for direct delivery to me by post. (My postman was turning up with 5 or 6 parcels a day for me).
One evening after a particularly busy day, a van arrived full to bursting with 17,400 nappies from a fundraising appeal organised by Debbie Andrews, our Socks for Refugees lady.
I was overwhelmed by people’s generosity and keenness to get involved.
The day of the container arrival arrived and we were ready. We were more than ready. Here’as a link to a video clip showing all the donations we had ready and waiting: France and Beyond Hub 31 Container of Aid to Syria
We all awaited anxiously for its arrival. We had to turn down lots of offers of help on the day (or there would have been over 50 of us), but we still had around 20 people there ready to help.
Despite concerns whether the lorry would fit down our little lane, all went smoothly. We had 3 hours to hand fill the container, which seemed a daunting task, but many hands made light work and the container was bursting just over two hours later.
In fact our donation drive had worked so well, I still had 30-40m3 of boxes we couldn’t fit on.
It was a wonderful feeling when that container was sealed and pack on its way to Syria. I can’t put into words just how I felt: it was a great.
So great in fact that we are doing it all again. A second container is due to leave my house February 15 – details can be found here on our HUB31 Facebook page.
And finally, a video clip of the container leaving for Syria.