It's funny how drastically life can change in such a short time. Just ask Jaz O'Hara. Five years ago, her parents decided to take in an Eritrean refugee living in the Calais Jungle. Little did she then know that her new brother, Mez, would inspire her to launch a pioneering human rights charity, The Worldwide Tribe - a platform for refugee voices that too often go unheard and a fundraising organisation that's bettered the lives of countless refugees across the world.
The Worldwide Tribe's origin story is thoroughly 21st century. Inspired by her brother's stories of life in the Calais Jungle, Jaz visited herself in 2015. Outraged by the inhumane conditions of the camp, she hastily scrambled together a heart-felt Facebook post and a well-meaning Go Fund Me page. Needless to say, her post tugged at heart-strings and raised thousands of pounds in the process. What started as a Facebook post is now a fully-fledged human rights charity dedicated to highlighting the humanity behind the headlines.
Aside from the obvious (providing clothes, food and shelter), The Worldwide Tribe has helped to install Wi-Fi in refugee camps in France and Greece, run art projects in Jordan's Zaatari camp and helped to launch a search-and-rescue scheme in the Mediterranean. We caught up with Jaz, fresh off a flight from Beirut, to talk about motivation, inspiration and how we, as travellers, can help fight the good fight.
Uplifting refugee voices and celebrating human differences with Jaz O'Hara
What are you working on at the moment?
Well, I've just returned from Beirut where I was connecting with some victims of the explosion earlier last year. We released a podcast the week after the explosion looking at its impact but now, three months later, I'm looking at how we can tell the stories of the people living there today. Getting out there was tricky. I spent about a month fundraising, getting some logistics in place, and then had to navigate Covid tests and pricey insurance policies before I could actually step aboard the plane.
Who is the most inspirational person you've met on your travels?
For me, the person I always come back to when I need inspiration or encouragement is my little brother, Mez. My parents have taken in three more refugees since then, all four of whom are hugely inspiring to me and have suffered through realities we could never even imagine prior to coming here, but Mez was the first to join our family.
We give talks together on a daily basis. He's very keen to share his story and to bring some awareness around the situation in Eritrea. He crossed the Sahara desert, he crossed the Mediterranean Sea and he lived in the Calais Jungle, all by the age of 13. I think hearing the story from his perspective is life-changing. It's simply not the same when I try to tell it.
What is the most rewarding part of your work with The Worldwide Tribe?
I love giving talks in schools. Some of the terminology that we use is complicated - even some adults don't really understand the difference between refugee, asylum seeker and illegal immigrant - but none of that really matters. With kids, it's all about bringing it back to basic feelings of empathy and kindness. They floor me with their questions sometimes. "Why can I go to France but they can't come here?" they'll ask, or "why can't anyone just live anywhere?" They've got a point.
Which elements of the global refugee crisis are most underplayed by the media?
I think that we're missing many portrayals of resilience and overcoming adversity, and of people adding to our economy. This narrative that "people are coming over here to take jobs and benefits" is a very inaccurate representation, and when I put that to people I meet in refugee camps they're shocked that people would ever think in that way. I remember being in Calais one time and somebody had found a newspaper, read one of these headlines and questioned me: "Is this what people think in the UK?" This idea that people are coming for economic reasons is very quickly unpicked when you arrive in Calais or Lesvos and you realise there are no economic conditions that could be worse than those in the camps.
How can SUITCASE readers easily help refugees, beyond circulating content on social media?
At The Worldwide Tribe, there are a few tiers of involvement. You can donate, you can volunteer on the ground, you can listen to our podcast or you can share a post depending on whether you have the time, money or resources to give.
Beyond the bigger human rights issues, I believe that each of us has a set of unique skills we can share with the world. Perhaps you're a graphic designer? In that case, you can help draft a CV or flesh out a website. Maybe you bake? Why not whip up a cake for your neighbour who needs cheering up. The concept of The Worldwide Tribe is recognising ourselves in others, building a global community and celebrating our differences.
Where would you recommend SUITCASE readers visit, once travel restrictions are lifted?
Travel restrictions pending, everyone should visit Beirut. It's terrible for people who are living there and trying to survive right now. They're in an economic crisis and need external money. As a city it has an indescribable wealth of culture - delicious food, great music, an exciting art scene - and right now there's a feeling of incredible resilience with people coming together in the wake of some difficult times and rebuilding the city. Beyond the city, there are beautiful mountains and the Mediterranean sea, of course. It's the dream. I could go on.
How and where do you find joy when things hang a little heavy?
I find headspace through regular yoga and meditation practice. Sorry if this is a little cheesy, but I get a lot of joy from hanging out with my brothers. They have this really funny dynamic going on as none of them speak the same language. They're all from different cultures, different religions, completely different backgrounds, but somehow it just all works.
They're in Kent and I'm in south-east London which means I can see them fairly easily. My youngest brother's 13 and only joined our family this year, but he's doing amazingly all things considered. He started school, joined a local football team and he's just been scouted by Crystal Palace F.C. which is really exciting.
Your favourite Instagram accounts?
One of my favourite accounts is @bluebaglife which tells the stories of those struggling with addiction and poor mental health. It's very insightful. Also, @dosomethingfornothing which is actually run by my partner, Josh. He's a hairdresser who cuts hair for people living on the streets. It's all about sharing diverse life stories and encouraging followers to help those in need.
What podcasts are you listening to at the moment?
Ear Hustle is brilliant. It's a podcast produced by a former prisoner of San Quentin State Prison, California. Each episode is a one-on-one interview with a different prisoner in which they discuss how they ended up there and what life is like for them. You'd expect it all to be done over the phone but each episode is recorded in an audio booth inside the prison.
What are you reading right now?
Well, I've just finished reading Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl. He was interred in Nazi concentration camps including Auschwitz during the Second World War, and afterwards wrote this incredible meditation on people and suffering. In brief, he writes that having a purpose in life will help you to endure almost anything life throws at you. Even if you have no material wealth or poor health, a sense of purpose is intrinsic - it can't be taken away from you.
What's next for The Worldwide Tribe?
Season four of the podcast is coming out at some point between now and Christmas; expect some really interesting interviews and themes there. I can't wait to share some of the stories I've been rooting out over the past few months. I'm heading back to Calais too. We've been fundraising for Mobile Refugee Support and the plan is to deliver 200 tents to the camp, but it will also be good to just check in on how things are going over there.
A lot of people may think the refugee crisis is over because it isn't receiving so much press coverage and the camp doesn't exist as it once was. It's important to keep reminding people - through powerful and inspirational storytelling - that the problem is far from over and there's still plenty of work to do. That's the goal.