Monday 31 October 2016
Mayisha Begum graduated from Queen Mary over the summer. While she was still studying here, she launched the Convoy to Calais campaign to take donations to people living in the Calais ‘jungle’.
What did you study at QMUL?
I graduated from psychology last year.
What made you decide to set up the Convoy to Calais campaign?
Convoy to Calais was the product of a build-up of anger and frustration, caused initially by the lack of reporting of the refugee crisis, and then later by the scapegoating and targeting of refugees that I witnessed in the media. After hearing David Cameron refer to refugees as a ‘swarm’, I decided that I had to do something. So I made a Facebook status asking if anyone was interested in holding donation collections around London for the Calais ‘jungle’. I thought if the media were going to normalise this kind of abusive behaviour, we were going to have to counteract it and make love and compassion the norm. We ended up with a mix of friends and family all getting involved and creating Convoy to Calais.
How did you feel when you visited the camp?
I didn’t actually go into the camp during my trip. For me, my only intention was to drop off the donations and provide help where it was most needed. When we arrived, most of the volunteers were needed for sorting through the endless piles of unsorted donations and get them ready for distribution in the camp, so we took part in this.
What are your feelings about the demolition of the camp?
Because they had previously planned to close the camp down I cannot say I'm completely shocked, as we were all waiting for this day. However, the fact that it has happened disgusts me. The closest thing they had to a home, a community, a temporary place of sanctuary before the deadly attempts to reach Britain, has been taken from them. After everything they have been through - from walking through deserts barefoot, risking their lives across the sea, watching their loved ones being murdered in front of them, rape, torture - this is how they are treated. It is truly shameful.
There is a lot more I could say about how ashamed, disgusted and distraught I feel, but I just want to push out the fact that we need to continue our support for refugees around the world, and their right to be treated with the dignity and respect they deserve. We as humanity are better than this.
Could you share with us your most memorable experience while working on the campaign?
Throughout the project, I made sure to thoroughly research the needs of the refugees in the camp. Unfortunately, the only information we could get was from various volunteers on a Facebook page, so you had to go through a lot of comments and remarks to find out what was most important and what wasn’t. Because of this, as well as the unstable situation of the camp, we often had to change plans, for example, adjusting the kind of donations that were needed and changing the way we organised them. This often caused frustration, but at the end of the day, all that mattered was doing what was best for the people we were serving. And so I stayed true to my aims, despite some suggestions to do things in a way that would be ‘easier’ rather than better for the people in Calais.
When we got to the camp, we were unloading our van with some volunteers. One volunteer was given our box and we heard her say “Yes, small men’s trousers!” because they had been running short. The fact that they were so relieved by this donation reminded me of how important it was to remain strong with your morals and intentions, to ensure you provide aid appropriately and accordingly to those you are serving.
Is this the first time you’ve been involved with such a project?
Yes, I really threw myself in the deep-end with this one, didn’t I!? But by doing that, I was able to learn a lot about teamwork, organisation and event-planning, and was also able to provide advice to others who were looking to do a similar thing.
How did you manage to balance your university work while running the campaign?
It was quite difficult, as I was running the Palestine Solidarity Society (PSS) at the same time too, but it was all down to organisation, a lot of help, and my parents! If I wasn’t in the warehouse or organising events for PSS, I was in the library doing my dissertation or writing up notes. And when I wasn’t organising the Convoy, my friends and family were on hand to organise donations, help with advertising, ferry booking, etc.
What advice would you give to somebody who wants to get involved with volunteering at QMUL?
DO IT! My general mantra in life is to use any opportunity you have to change the world, and with a supportive university, rooms, facilities and the Students’ Union, you have the tools to do just that, so make use of it while you’re there.
Aside from your voluntary work, how else do you enjoy spending your time?
I am the co-founder of the blog Oh So Ethical, which encourages people to think consciously about the everyday decisions we make in life, from the food we eat to the clothes we wear, and how these decisions can impact the environment and living things. We want to show people that it is possible to adopt more ethical practices, and still have a life.
I also like to explore my creative side, and try to link it to world issues and living ethically. For example, I’ve started designing and sewing clothes made from second-hand and scrap materials to promote recycling and reducing our excessive consumption of clothing at the expense of people’s lives.
What are your plans now that you’ve graduated?
I would like to continue campaigning for justice for refugees and others around the world. In terms of a career, I’m not 100% sure, but I would like to be involved in helping garment workers in Bangladesh – be it campaigning or research, as well as continue to develop Oh So Ethical to help inspire others to be the change they wish to see in the world.
You can follow Mayisha’s work on Oh So Ethical at:
Twitter and Instagram: @ohsoethical