My Life in Cities: Jaz O'Hara

The word 'city' doesn't just denote a place: it's a statement of connection. Activist Jaz O'Hara wants to bring it to the people who need it most.

Published 23 Apr 2019, 08:45 BST
"When it comes to going to new places I feel like actually you see a lot ...
"When it comes to going to new places I feel like actually you see a lot of similarities everywhere that you go. Especially in the people you meet."
Photograph by Jaz O'Hara / Worldwide Tribe

Jaz O'Hara was born in Bromley, London in 1990. After graduating in fashion, she rose to public attention following a visit to the Calais 'Jungle' in August 2015, when a Facebook post describing the stories of those living in the notorious refugee camp went viral. Quitting her job to volunteer full-time at the camp and deliver clothing, equipment and communications, she later founded The Worldwide Tribe – a charity dedicated to raising on-the-ground support and awareness of the global refugee crisis.      

I was born in Bromley and I grew up in Kent. Then we moved to Sydney, Australia, then back to Kent. I don’t remember Sydney as a city, really. I remember weekends on the beach. And walking to school with an ice-cream tub on my head so that the magpies wouldn’t sweep down and peck us.

My first memory of London was going to see Stomp on my 10thbirthday. It felt like a really exciting, real journey to go up to London. Even though it was only 20 minutes on the train. 

I remember just buzzing from that kind of overwhelming sense of people and diversity. That complete, intoxicating experience on the senses. I’ve just now come back from Beirut, and it was the same. The smells, the colours, the taste, everything. When you’re a kid I feel like it’s easier to achieve that. You kind of get a bit numb to it as you get older. I guess I look for that in everything that I do now.

(See haunting photos of where refugee children sleep.)

Jaz O'Hara: "At the time the headlines were very negative about the Jungle, and very dehumanising. Wording like ‘swarm of migrants’ was being used. I really wanted to find out more of the human side to the story."
Photograph by Jaz O' Hara / Worldwide Tribe

I did live a very happy, loving, warm, comfortable life and always have. Then things were really changed for me when I first went to Calais in 2015. 

In 2015, there were about 3,000 people living in what was known as the Jungle. It was an area of land where refugees had been told that they would be ‘tolerated’ if they put up temporary shelters. It didn’t belong to anybody and there was asbestos in the ground, and no one was using it for anything. So it became a community, it became a base.

At the time the headlines were very negative about the camp, and very dehumanising. Wording like ‘swarms of migrants’ was being used. I really wanted to find out more of the human side to the story because my parents were going through the long process of fostering a child. And because they lived in Kent it was likely to be an unaccompanied minor arriving from the Calais Jungle. So I wanted to find out more about my new brother or sister, and where he or she might be coming from and what might have happened to them, with the view of potentially making a film or writing about it so that other people who had those same questions could find out more.

What I experienced that first time was very different to what the media portrayed. It sounds crazy now but at the time, I thought ‘refugee crisis’ and I assumed I would be meeting a majority of Syrians. But the Jungle represented the world’s atrocities. It was incredible, there was Eritreans, Afghans, Sudanese. Much more than the war in Syria was leading people to Calais. 

Photograph by Worldwide Tribe

“People worked very quickly in the Jungle: they built a school, and they built a Mosque, and they built a church, and all of the things that they needed. From nothing, from out of the mud, literally.”

Jaz O'Hara

I was working in fashion at the time, so it really was a massive overturn. My life changed forever, very, very quickly. That initial Facebook post that I wrote had such a huge response – I think it was seen by 30 million people. People contacted me in the thousands saying, “how can I help?”, “what can I do?”, and not just that, they sent us stuff. Soon we had warehouses full of donations and very quickly we had to co-ordinate getting tonnes and tonnes and tonnes of stuff to Calais. I think we managed to raise a quarter of a million pounds in a matter of days. That encouraged me to set up a charity which became The Worldwide Tribe. I wanted to channel that enthusiasm of people into something was tangible on the ground at the camp.  

The word ‘city’ to me means people coming together. People from all walks of life to create something that works as a body, as a community. People worked very quickly in the Jungle: they built a school, and they built a Mosque, and they built a church, and all of the things that they needed. From nothing, from out of the mud, literally. That really reshaped my idea of city, seeing one grow.

The Jungle eventually grew into what many people would call a city. It became a home to 10,000 people and it a high street and shops and restaurants and a barber and a night club and a mosque and a church. A really incredible example of, when left to their own devices, people do create communities and spaces in an incredible way. The Jungle showed me that actually you may not have the physical things that we are used to, like our home and our job and our car and our house, but actually, with some very basic means, you can create something that we are all looking for– that sense of community where people built in family structure, they built shelters, all in one close environment. They weren’t divided by nationality. That was something that stood out to me and will always stand out to me. People, in that situation, came together and they worked together. It was incredible what they created with very little.

The word Jungle caused controversy. People thought that maybe it was negative, referring to the people who lived there as animals, or it was wild. It came from the word jungala which is Sanskrit for ‘barren’ or ‘without rule.’ The residents of the Jungle called it that themselves, so I called it what they called it. It suited it. It was a crazy place. We made a film in the camp called Jangala and we set up our first WiFi network. When people log into it you can see the WiFi is called Jangala. That’s gone on to be Worldwide Tribe’s main project: we install WiFi in refugee camps across the world. Our WiFi project, which is now an organisation in its own right, is called Jangala WiFi. So, I’m a fan of the word. It has a story for me. 

Wifi is really relevant to the idea of city, as for me the idea of a city is the idea of a community. WiFi is something initially that we didn’t consider as a basic need, you know? We focused on warm clothing, tents, sleeping bags, shoes, food. People were saying they were cold at night, and hungry during the day so that was our first wave. But very, very quickly we continued to be asked for things like “can I borrow your mobile phone to call my family?” or, “can you look up the asylum process in this country?” They needed access to information, they needed access to communication. Things like that kept coming up and it became really clear and obvious that having that connection to a global community is an essential part of living in society today.

Jaz O'Hara: "The Jungle really reshaped my idea of city, seeing one grow."
Photograph by Jaz O'Hara / Worldwide Tribe

The idea of the Worldwide Tribe is that we are all connected somehow. That we are all living on this world together and we all need to take responsibility for that. We raise awareness about the refugee crisis by telling personal stories, and in turn support tangible projects on the ground that create an impact on the biggest humanitarian crisis of our time. It’s important that we all have an awareness of what is happening at these borders.

I don’t really feel fear in new places. That’s not something that I’ve ever really experienced. I get asked this a lot as an adult now, when I’m working in locations that I guess are considered dangerous. I’ve just come back from Lebanon. I was working on the border of Syria and people ask me, you know, “do you ever worry about…?” When it comes to going to new places I feel like actually you see a lot of similarities everywhere that you go. Especially in the people you meet: there’s something you can hold on to that you recognise, or that is quite relatable. 

Awareness has increased since we started. Do you remember the picture of Alan Kurdî being washed up on the beach? That, I think, made people realise [migrants] were fleeing out of necessity. I think his image and his story really represented that. People could see their own kids or kids that they knew in that picture, in that little boy, and that was hugely transformative. Before that we got a lot more negativity towards our work and what we were doing.

Jaz O'Hara: "The Jungle eventually grew into what many people would call a city. It became a home to 10,000 people and it a high street and shops and restaurants and a barber and a night club and a mosque and a church."
Photograph by Jaz o'Hara

Recently I’ve been in Amsterdam. I was part of an art exhibition in four cities that was highlighting the life of isolated people, including refugees, in four cities: Amsterdam, Berlin, Paris and Manchester. From what I’ve seen, the way Amsterdam integrates people into the system seems to work well. There are things like shipping container housing for people who are maybe experiencing homelessness, or low-income families, or refugee families. Amazing projects that seem to kind of absorb a lot of the people who are living on the street and supports them in a way that still gives them their independence. So, there’s structure but there is still dignity.

London as a city is a buzzing, diverse community. And that’s really important for me, to meet as many people from different upbringings, backgrounds and stories in a small geographical location. That’s what I love about living in London. But sometimes there is a loneliness when people don’t connect. Just with eye contact and smiles and things. I’ve spent a lot of time in Cape Town, for instance, and I think that there are such different worlds existing within one city and they don’t see each other.

I think you can still live within a city and live within your own little bubble. But we would all do well to lift that veil a little bit sometimes and relook at our own surroundings. To see how close we come to people from very different worlds. 

Find out more about the Worldwide Tribe here, or follow them on Instagram.

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This month National Geographic Magazine is celebrating Cities, with a special report on the rising city of refugee camp Bidibidi. Find out more about this special global issue by clicking here.


 

 

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