Josie Naughton, co-founder and CEO of Help Refugees, works tirelessly with her global team to protect the forgotten people of the pandemic - the refugees left exposed and vulnerable
When stories about COVID-19 started emerging in January, I admit I tried not to pay too much attention. Given that much of my day to day is spent working to improve emergency situations for refugees living in some of the world’s most notorious camps, it was hard to worry about a potential disaster that seemed like it might never happen, when there was already a very real and present one at play.
In the last few months or so, that has all changed. Choose Love/Help Refugees supports organisations on the ground who are providing food, shelter, medical care and so much more to vulnerable people in 14 countries across Europe, the Middle East and on the US-Mexico border. As COVID-19 has swept across the world, badly hitting us here in the UK, almost every single project we support has had to adapt, us included.
Normally I would be in and out of the country regularly, travelling to fundraise or to visit projects. As I’m stuck at home, these meetings are now all done online. Climate change is a huge factor in forced migration and we’ve been trying to reduce our carbon footprint, this experience has shown that it’s possible. Rather than going into the office, now every morning I catch up with my incredible team on Zoom where we share updates and news from the teams on the ground. At the moment the focus is on protecting refugees from COVID-19: face masks have been delivered to camps on the Greek mainland; hand sanitiser distributed to homeless refugees in the Balkans; field hospitals are being constructed by our medical partner in Tijuana, Mexico.
COVID-19 is beginning to break out in camps, but thankfully not on a large scale. Yet. Nowhere near enough is being done enough by governments to protect these vulnerable populations, that’s why we’re stepping up.
We’ve been doing this work for nearly five years, but hearing updates from the ground never ceases to amaze and humble me. This network of support is powered for the most part by incredibly dedicated volunteers – I see them all as heroes. Five years in and it’s also still utterly heart-breaking to hear about families, who are just like mine, going through unimaginable experiences. I am so lucky to have a home and to be safe, it’s this feeling that drives me on.
Yesterday I was told about Rama, a young mum living in Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Every morning Rama leaves the tent that she shares with her family and walks to the outskirts of the camp where the most beautiful wild flowers grow. She brings back armfuls of blossoms, decorating the inside of her tent so her young children can be surrounded by joyful colour.
Moria camp houses 18,294 people. It is one of the most densely-populated places on earth and widely considered one of the worst refugee camps in existence. Despite the unimaginable living conditions, despite the worries about her children, despite the all-consuming fear about an outbreak of COVID-19 in camp, Rama still finds time to celebrate beauty.
In my job I am faced with statistics every day, but I never forget that behind those figures are individual people: bakers, painters and flower-enthusiasts like Rama.
It doesn’t matter if you live in a refugee camp in Greece, or in a flat in London, we all have the same hopes and fears. COVID-19 has shown like never before that we’re all the same and that we’re all connected. But whilst COVID-19 doesn’t discriminate, people sadly do. This virus runs the terrible risk of further amplifying existing inequalities and injustices.
That’s why we have launched an emergency fundraiser– now we must all work harder than ever to ensure that everyone has equal access to clean water, hygiene supplies and healthcare. COVID-19 knows no borders, but luckily neither does love.