“I was like everyone else, hearing all these terrible things like ‘the illegals are coming into the country’ “
There has been a lot in the news recently about the refugee crisis in Calais, yet little about what we can do to help. Elaine Ortis is a local humanitarian who doesn’t just sit in her living room feeling sorry about people in need, but actually went to Calais to help. She ended up creating her own charity called The Hummingbird Project which organises trips to Calais on a regular basis and has raised thousands of pounds to help. Bjournal met with Elaine to learn more about the charity and her experience in Calais.
You have done a lot of charity work in the past, could you tell me more about it?
In the past I have worked in child protection, rape and domestic abuse and now I work in HIV. I work with people who have no recourse to public funds, which is kind of what my passions are really.
What made you decide to do the Hummingbird Project?
It’s been something I’ve wanted do for about a year and I was like everyone else, hearing all these terrible things like ‘the illegals are coming into the country’ and showing pictures of refugees in Calais as benefit scroungers and it angered me. I’ve worked with refugees before and they don’t show what’s happened before, where someone gets so desperate they try and jump into the back of a lorry or walk the channel tunnel and I just thought the situation is really desperate for them to do that in the first place. They’re from countries that suffer from war and oppression and it annoyed me that no one was sticking up for them and telling people the real story. I thought I need to get out there, I need to go out to Calais, and I looked for charities that did that sort of thing and I was shocked to find there weren’t many charities in Calais to help so I decide to set up my own project from there. It was originally an art project based on a South American parable of a Hummingbird who tried to single handedly put out a forest fire and it’s about doing all you can to help. So I based my art project around this parable and I invited people to do something similar to a wish tree but they added a leaf to a banner that said ‘don’t give up hope’ and instead of a wish I wanted people to make a pledge. My pledge was to go to Calais, so that’s how the Hummingbird Project started.
You have raised so much money, were you expecting to make that much?
No not at all, I thought I would make a few thousand from it but then the public interest changed after the picture of Aylan Kurdi, the three-year-old who was washed up on the beach, and the project went to a couple of hundred likes on Facebook to two and a half thousand likes and we raised about thirteen thousand pounds in a couple of days even though the project had been open for three months. We started receiving hundreds of messages a day which was overwhelming because it was only me and one or two people that were involved. Now we’ve ha
d to build a team of people to get through the messages and help with the work.
How many people are on your team?
It depends, people come and go and they help out for a month or two but there are about four of us who are the core team and have been there from the start.
How many times have you been to Calais?
About five times. We started with doing small trips to see what it was like, meet some people out there so we were prepared when we started doing a soup kitchen out there. Then we saw how chaotic it was so we pretty much started going out there every week.
Have you noticed any change in the state of the crisis in Calais? Are there more people helping out from when you began?
It’s constantly changing. There’s lots of people going out there with aid and that’s a good thing but also a bad thing, because there is a lot of bad donations and bad distributions. Some people just donate random things and are unsure as to what they are doing so leave things on the side of the road and you’ll see things like children’s items even though there aren’t actually many children there. Sometimes people just open their boots not knowing what to expect and because the refugees are desperate they run to the car and the things are poorly distributed.
If you could give any advice to someone who would want to help with the refugee crisis what would it be?
I would advise them to be thoughtful and mindful about such a large humanitarian crisis and that everything should be organised and well thought through. If it’s their first trip to Calais they should get in touch with either myself of Children of Calais or any group that have been to Calais so we can talk to them and offer advice about how to go about donating.
The Hummingbird Project are also working towards building a medical clinic in Calais for the refugees and are in need of medical equipment as well as a trying to set up a motor home as a safe examination area. If you need help organising donations or want to find out more about how you can help with the refugee crisis, please contact The Hummingbird Project here