Image: Encounter: Calais


Shirley Gillan took part in the first group of volunteers to Encounter: Calais and very soon after arriving home she put her thoughts down on paper for this week's blog.

I have worked with refugees for 25 years, in Scotland and overseas, so my reactions since returning from volunteering in Calais have surprised me.

Is it because my taxes contribute towards a British-bolstered French security system that slashes and confiscates tents, the only shelter many have against an icy winter?

Because of the anti-refugee rhetoric spewing from our papers and politicians that directly leads to women, children and men sleeping in parks or beside railway tracks in the snow, because they are not welcome in our country?

Because Calais is on our doorstep, and maybe, despite the evidence to the contrary, I expected better?

I went to France with Justice and Peace Scotland to spend a few days volunteering with Care4Calais. My motivation? I work with migrants and refugees affected by detention in Scotland, many of whom have also been detained in France or Belgium. I’ve met a  Dungavel detainee who slept rough in France for seven months, finally making it to the UK only to be put in a detention centre. And the deliberately hostile environment our government has created means unaccompanied children are sleeping under trees just across the Channel.

I doubted how useful I could be on such a short trip, but Care4Calais have a welcoming, supportive, streamlined and extremely organised approach, so new volunteers are quickly brought up to speed and put to useful work.

The day starts at 9.30am with a hot drink.  The team meeting sets out the agenda for the day, outlines tasks needing done, and the morning is spent in the warehouse, preparing for the afternoon’s distribution.  You can choose your task – sorting coats into different sizes; mending ripped sleeping bags; putting together the hot drink supplies for the afternoon; checking the pop-up barbershop has all it needs, or cooking the volunteers’ lunch.

After lunch, the van and minibus are loaded with generators, power boards, a wifi supplier, and the day’s items for distribution – coats, blankets, joggers, gloves and hats.  In this harsh winter, it’s all about providing whatever warmth we can. A wee red car is the pop-up tea shop, with hot urn and stacked cups already loaded with tea, coffee or hot chocolate.

Some areas have 25 people sleeping rough. Others up to 400.

At each venue - a small encampment beside a railway track in Calais, a car park in Dunkirk, a city park in Brussels -items are distributed, hair is cut, the charger board bristles with phones and cables and people clasp hot drinks in freezing hands.

Meanwhile, we talk and share – hopes, dreams, tears and triumphs.  The courage and resilience, solidarity and support amongst the refugees seem miraculous. But it’s just basic humanity.

I am still processing it all. Wondering what my continued response should be.
I know we all can do something: giving time in France; collecting supplies and getting them to Calais; raising awareness of the situation and lobbying for change; praying or welcoming and working alongside refugees here in Scotland, where there are also homeless or destitute people.

There is no need to do nothing.

Shirley Gillan, Feb 19

Image: The Service of Politics


Councillor Douglas McAllister reflects on his role in politics in light of Bishop Nolan's call for peopole to put their faith into action and get involved in politics.  


Bishop William Nolan, Bishop President of Justice and Peace Scotland, called on us in his New Year letter to become more politically active and start influencing the creation of policy within our political parties in Scotland, playing an active role in choosing the candidates who represent the political parties.
As a councillor in West Dunbartonshire since 2003, I agree entirely.  Pope Francis has said ‘Catholics must get involved’ in politics, even if it may be dirty, frustrating and fraught with failure.  He said ‘Do I as a Catholic watch from my balcony – no, you can’t watch from the balcony.  Get right in there’ he said.  And I hope that is what I am doing at the moment.
I was brought up in a working class Catholic family. Both of my parents were members of the Labour party, giving us two major influences in our lives, the Church and the Labour party. Both have helped shape my belief in social justice.
As a young man I wrestled with the thought of entering the priesthood but instead I studied Law at Glasgow University.  I’m a solicitor, but it’s being involved in local government that I find hugely rewarding.
Local government can shape a fairer society. North Lanarkshire Council is the first local authority in the UK to tackle holiday hunger.  It is shocking that thousands of children in Scotland go hungry during school holidays.  We could all campaign to persuade the Scottish Government to introduce some form of holiday hunger payment to the poorest families in our society, or alternatively provide sufficient funding to provide school meals during holidays.
When I was Provost of West Dunbartonshire Council from 2012 and 2017, I was able to champion the Christian groups within my community, such as the Churches Together Movement, who are the driving force behind the West Dunbartonshire Foodshare Trust, and the Clydebank Citadel of the Salvation Army who do so much for the most vulnerable within our society. 
Why keep silent about our own faith? I believe we should all answer Bishop Nolan’s call, raise our Christian voice, and become active in politics.  That voice could be used, for example, to push back against those who attack the sanctity of life, or question the validity of our faith schools.
At the end of Mass on Christmas morning at St Margaret of Scotland Hospice in Clydebank, Sister Rita Dawson told us that she has a daily battle with those who would have her remove any reference to our religious beliefs from the work of the hospice.  She called on those politicians present to stop apologising or being embarrassed for their religious beliefs and instead to use our office to fight for the dignity of every human life. 
She suggested that perhaps all politicians in Scotland should spend a day with her at St Margaret of Scotland Hospice. I have since reflected on the words of Pope Francis, who said ‘The best medicine to cure the disease of indifference is touching the wounds of the Lord in the poor of our time’.

Image: Holocaust Memorial Day


In an ever more fractured world it is even more important today that we mark Holocaust Memorial Day on Sunday 27th January and, in this week's blog, Margaret McGowan reflects on, among other things, teaching her students about the practice of 'measureing heads' to establish a super race.  

The 20th century dictator Adolf Hitler wanted to create a German super race.  His Nazi Party defined that as proving one's ancestry for three generations past was free of any mixing with "non-Aryans", such as Jews, Asians, Africans. They believed that one effective check was to measure the circumference of the head and teachers were instructed to measure their students’ heads. Those with smaller heads were considered inferior.
Today, of course, scientists are virtually unanimous in declaring that no single race is superior to any other.
The school where I taught in Hamilton held activities to commemorate Holocaust Memorial Day each year. I taught mathematics and asked third and fourth year pupils to participate in this bizarre ‘head measuring’ exercise.
In pairs, they measured the circumference of each other’s heads and from the results we worked out three types of averages. Maths achieved, I asked those who would be regarded as inferior using the Nazis’ criteria to stand up. How did they feel? I asked them to write a paragraph on their reactions  and not surprisingly, they were shocked that people had actually been subjected to this ‘test’.
I then told them about my visit to Auschwitz in 2000 with my 15-year-old son.
Historians estimate 1.1 million people died at the hands of Poland's German occupiers at Auschwitz-Birkenau between 1940 and 1945, either from asphyxiation with Zyklon B gas in the notorious gas chambers or from starvation, disease or exhaustion. They included Jews, Roma, Sinti, gays, disabled and black people.
What struck me was the sheer scale of the Holocaust and how industrialised and mechanised the process of killing people became at Auschwitz. It was not hot-blooded brutality. It happened in a planned way, with some people designing the process of death and others carrying it out. We were not prepared for the impact that it had on us.

Each of the six million people ruthlessly exterminated in this way in the course of the Second World War were individuals, with personal hopes, dreams, and stories. They had belongings such as the assortment we saw at Auschwitz - suitcases confiscated by the Nazis, with names, dates of birth, and addresses. There were piles of real human hair, plaits with ribbons, ponytails cut from fathers and sons, mothers and daughters, grandparents - families no different from ours. My son remarked how many suitcases belonged to people younger than him. 

We saw the empty containers of chemicals. We saw where people were piled together to await extermination. I barely fitted inside the isolation cell. The experience was very emotional. My son said he realised that hearing about history is not like witnessing it in person.

My classes agreed that we must never give up trying to improve our society and that every single person has to open his or her mind and stand up against discrimination. They stressed the importance of remembering the Holocaust today. It isn’t just a historical fact to be learned, but a lesson that prejudice, hate and intolerance can turn into the destruction of individual lives.
As the poet George Santayana wrote, “Those who do not remember history are doomed to repeat it.”

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