Aaron’s challenge for Help Refugees

Last week Aaron Francis completed his first ever triathlon and generously donated all the money he raised to Help Refugees. The race consisted of a 2.4 mile swim, 112 mile bike ride and a 26.2 mile run, which he completed in the very impressive time of 11 hours, 46 minutes and 24 seconds!

Read on to hear about how it went and to find out how you can do something similar to support some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

Why did you decide to fundraise for Help Refugees?
One of the main reasons I decided to raise money for Help Refugees was because of a documentary that I had watched on Netflix called ‘Cries of Syria’. I was always aware of the struggle people were going through and that they were fleeing from horrible situations. There was a part on the ‘Cries of Syria’ documentary that I remember, where kids were doing an after-school art class. They were putting their drawings up on the wall and showing their mums and dads; everyone was getting involved. During that class a bomb came down and killed the parents and kids… That really hit hard with me and was why I knew I had to choose Help Refugees. That documentary really gave me more of an insight as to what they were going through and how we could help!

When did the idea of doing an Ironman come into the picture?
Well originally, I did want to do an Ironman and was very inspired by other people and I was really starting to get into health and fitness.  I thought to myself, lets raise money for a charity that is close to my heart and smash a triathlon at the same time!

Was there anything that helped to keep you motivated and get up in the mornings when you were training?
Yea sure, a lot of the times especially when I was swimming, even on race day I had this same image in my head. When I would get in the water feeling fatigue and I didn’t want to be there because I just felt so tired from training and work all day.  I would picture those refugees, people fleeing on boats. Some of those people couldn’t even swim. One image that will always stick in my head is of this little kid wearing a life jacket with his head faced in the sand washed up onto shore. This little kid was probably only 5 or 6 years old and an innocent child. So keeping things like that in my head reminded me why I’m doing this. The fact that I’m lucky enough to get up and I can go to training and go to a facility where I can swim and move that way. When there are people out there that are fighting for their lives and basic human needs. My coach often gave me wise words about having gratitude and feeling thankful that we have the opportunities to do these things every day.

How did you go about raising the funds on top of a busy training schedule?
Firstly I started a Facebook fundraising page called Aaron’s Tri for Change. I did this so the ‘TRI’ represented triathlon but also trying to make a difference and change through the efforts that I was putting in. It was shared around by my friends and family and I think within a couple of days people started donating. A friend of mine, Lucy, also made me a spreadsheet with information about what I was doing. I was able to take it into work to get more sponsors. I also contacted my local newspaper and they were able to write a piece about what I was doing.

How much money were you able to raise?
So far it has been about £1,200! I do still have money to collect in so, hopefully fingers crossed, over £1,300 will have been raised for Help Refugees!

Are there any points in the race when you just wanted to give up?
It got hard when I was on the bike. Don’t get me wrong it was a good bike; but after the first loop of the bike course I started to get pain in my left knee. I had to quickly whip an Allen key out and adjust my seat just to try and help with the pain. I was still in pain and it got worse towards the end of the race! I’d also say the hardest part for me was the second from last loop of the Marathon. All day you are moving and your body is living off hydration powder, gels, oats and you just want a bit of proper food. You know that your body needs the nutrients and energy; but your stomach just doesn’t want anything anymore. There were points where it was very hard but there was no way I was going to stop! I promised myself that I wasn’t walking that run and I for sure wasn’t getting off the bike. I was going to keep moving throughout the whole entire thing! My coach Samantha also said the same thing: “it’s not about speeding up. It’s about not slowing down and whatever you do… don’t stop!” So I kept her voice in my head and the cause of why I’m doing this race. I also did this to prove to myself that I can get through anything in life no matter what. Whatever happens you CAN push through it! Those words really helped me at times when I was struggling.

What are your tips for people who would like to do their own fundraising challenge but can’t decide what to do or are too nervous about some aspects of it?
My advice would be to try and find many ways to put it out when fundraising. The internet is a brilliant platform. You’ve got Facebook where you can even have your fundraising page on and they don’t take any percentage of it!
Choose something that you feel would be impossible to do. Don’t stay in your comfort zone! Do something you can look back on and think “that’s crazy, I can’t believe I actually did that!”. I’ve always been athletic but I never thought I’d be able to conquer a full Ironman, especially with it being my first ever triathlon. When I signed up the charity was my drive. I had people counting on me and I wanted to prove to myself I can do this. You have to apply yourself.  If you’re nervous about something, put the work in. Most importantly be patient and be kind to yourself. Just do your best – that’s all you can do. If you raise £10 or £10,000 for a charity it doesn’t matter. £10 can go a long way in a country like Syria. Especially for people that don’t have a place to stay or access to food to eat.
The fact that I raised over £1,000 is going to make a big difference. It’s a great feeling knowing that I have been able to help.

I would just like to say a huge thanks to anyone and everyone that has supported me. Especially those close to me. My girlfriend, Sam and my mum, Karen. They got all the things that people don’t see. People see the pictures and the videos of me training and running over the finish line but these two are the ones that get the bad tempers, the frustration on bad days and the brunt of how I’m feeling because it’s such an intense training regime that you stick to and it really does take it out of you. The first few months I felt like someone had beaten me up! It took over my immune system, I think I was ill 3 times in the space of just a few months! They were there with me from start to finish so thank you! Everyone who helped sponsor me and raise awareness I couldn’t have raised the money without you and I appreciate every penny donated. Thanks to my coach Samantha for guiding me and of course thank you to the charity for everything you do! I’m grateful for you all!

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Meet Mahmoud, the Syrian refugee creating unique gifts that bring people together.

Mahmoud is from Damascus in Syria. Having fled to Greece, he found himself stuck in Softex refugee camp, on the edge of the country’s second city, Thessaloniki.

Based in and around the warehouse of an old Softex toilet roll factory, the camp was notorious for its crime and deprivation. It was here that Mahmoud refused to resign himself to a long, frustrating wait for an unknown future. Instead, he has decided to volunteer with our partner InterVolve, working to improve living conditions for the camp’s residents.

Mahmoud joined InterVolve’s team of volunteer carpenters. He had no previous experience, but was soon producing a wide range of furniture and items for the camp.

Using the skills he’s taught himself, Mahmoud now creates innovative, upcycled furniture and homeware, and custom gifts that tell a story. Mahmoud says that he aims use these creations to “send a message of love to all people”.

Watch the video below to find out more, and order your own unique products from Mahmoud’s website Giftstoria.

Order your own custom gifts from Mahmoud on the Giftstoria website or via Facebook.

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Community-run refugee camp on Lesvos faces forced closure

PIKPA refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos represents a new way to support refugees. But it’s now under threat of closure.

The PIKPA story is one of ordinary people, coming together to do what’s right. During the Greek economic crisis, people came together to support each other. But soon after, a large number of refugees began to arrive on the island. In response, this group began to take action.

The group hosted new arrivals themselves, on the site of PIKPA, an abandoned children’s summer camp. And soon they were hosting hundreds of refugees, in what became the first open, community-run refugee camp in Greece. PIKPA refugee camp was born.

Since then, the camp has given shelter to some of the most vulnerable people on the island. It’s ensured that people have accommodation, food, medical care, informal education and legal support. But more than this, it’s also helped give a sense of belonging, of home.

Since its establishment, PIKPA has hosted a remarkable 30,000 refugees. All without any financial support from the state, the European Union or UNHCR.

But now it’s under threat.

Local authorities have recently ordered the closure of the camp. This is the result of a health inspection which raised hygiene concerns in the site’s shared kitchen, a broken net in their food distribution area and a leaking water tank. For these reasons, it considers PIKPA camp a danger to public health.

You only have to see the often squalid conditions in Moria refugee camp – an ‘official’ camp a few miles from PIKPA – to realise that this judgement is politically motivated.

We’re proud to have partnered with PIKPA on the Greek island of Lesvos for several years. On this frequently troubled island, PIKPA is an oasis for some of the most vulnerable refugees: pregnant women, children, LGBT+ people and the elderly.

We stand in solidarity with PIKPA, and call on the regional governor to reconsider this decision.

Find out more, post your messages of support online using #SAVEPIKPA and join this Facebook group to help with the campaign to save the camp.

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Moria: Europe’s shame

Moria refugee camp on the Greek island of Lesvos. Built to house 2,300 people, the camp currently groans at the seams with over 7,200 residents.

Many people have now been stuck on Lesvos for several years, marooned as a consequence of Turkey’s lucrative deal with the EU. And while Moria’s residents can come and go, its watchtowers and razor wire fences feel more prison than a refugee camp.

Stuck on the island with limited prospects for asylum and the ever-present threat of deportation, many people feel a growing sense of hopelessness. Having survived war and violence, desperate living conditions and no clear route off the island cause further damage to the mental health of the people trapped here. This was starkly illustrated in May, when a 26-year-old Syrian refugee set himself on fire in the camp, his application for asylum having been rejected for a second time.

In the face of enormous challenges, our partners are doing incredible work. Whether it’s fixing taps and showers so people can keep clean, providing water coolers to help people through the baking heat, distributing clothes and hygiene essentials, or providing desperately-needed community spaces.
While political leaders fail to provide a humane and dignified solution, grassroots groups work around the clock to provide for people’s basic needs. We desperately need your help to continue supporting our partners working on Lesvos. Please donate if you can today.

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What’s going on in Italy?

What’s happening in Italy?

There are currently 170,000 displaced people living in Italy, and the country’s recent political shift to the right means life is becoming increasingly difficult for those hoping to claim asylum there. The centre-right Salvini’s League scored its best election result so far in March elections after pledging to deport an estimated half a million unregistered refugees, and in the past month rescue ships carrying people from dangerous seas off the coast of Libya have been denied permission to dock on the grounds of “public security”.

Italy, Greece and Spain feel they are not being given enough assistance from other European governments to help them cope with increasing numbers of people arriving from countries such as Sudan, Syria, Eritrea and Afghanistan. Other, richer European governments like Germany and the Netherlands, though, argue that they have already given enough assistance, and are hesitant to arrange any kind of new, hard-line migration deal with politicians such as Salvini.

Just 40% of asylum requests were granted in Italy in 2017, and this percentage is likely to be lower in 2018. At the same time, funding from the government to NGOs offering refugee and asylum-seeker services has been reduced. This has led to asylum seekers being forced to set up their own makeshift accommodation in abandoned buildings and empty car parks. The number of new arrivals from Libya is expected to rise during the summer months but it is unlikely that the government will be willing to offer them much support.


Why are people heading to Italy?

After the EU-Turkey deal in 2016, which led to a 97% drop in new arrivals to the Greek islands from Turkey, people started looking for new routes in to Europe. Libya, with its Mediterranean coastline and proximity to European waters, has become a hotspot for smugglers and people traffickers. Conditions for refugees and asylum seekers here are unbearable: people are often held in arbitrary detention in appalling, inhumane conditions. Videos of human beings being sold in open slave markets have been shared across the world.

In spite of this, Italy and Malta – two of the closest European countries to Libya across the Mediterranean sea – have largely shut their ports to charity rescue boats. Instead, European governments assist the Libyan coastguard and, according to NGOs working in the Mediterranean, “deliberately condemn vulnerable people to be trapped in Libya, or die at sea”. In recent weeks both Italy and Malta have been denying the Aquarius, a rescue ship run by charities SOS Mediterranée and MSF, permission to dock, placing hundreds of lives in danger.


How are we helping?

There are some wonderful organisations working incredibly hard to support refugees and asylum seekers living in Italy. Two such groups are Baobab Experience in Rome and Donne di Benin City in Palermo, with whom Help Refugees is partnered.

Baobab Experience, an informal camp originally set up by ordinary people in 2015 as a temporary solution to the lack of housing available to refugees and asylum seekers, helps both newly arrived people with no legal papers and no access to accommodation and people who have been in the country for years but have been denied residency and work permits. The organisation’s volunteers provide physical and mental healthcare, legal assistance, entertainment, food, clothing and accommodation (in the form of tents).

At Donne di Benin City survivors of female trafficking who are now safe and settled have set up their own organisation, providing assistance to newcomers to Italy who have also been trafficked or forced in to prostitution on their journey. They grow vegetables to sell in markets and to catering businesses, allowing those involved to develop new skills and the confidence required to become independent. As well as this they’ve set up a drop-in centre for women in the community. It offers a safe space for women to come together and access the network of services they need within a supportive environment.

We are so happy to be working with both of these extraordinary organisations. The situation is not getting any better, and they need our support now more than ever to continue running their vital services. Please click here to donate and help us to help them.

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