I recently went on my third trip with Gent4Humanity, the non-profit refugee support organization I volunteer with. On this trip we provided first aid and other support to refugees living in Saint-Denis, a northern suburb of Paris.
Next to doing the actual volunteering, I think that sharing my experiences with whatever audience I have in order to raise awareness is an important part of supporting the refugees. I shared a series of Instagram posts that summarized the trip. Rather than recreate the same message in a different format to share here, I thought I would just share the actual Instagram posts:
Post 1 of 3 from May 19, 2018 on the Canal de Saint-Denis. An estimated 1,500 refugees are living here in the northernmost part of Paris. Their colorful tents line the canal, packed neatly under the bridges, blending in with the equally colorful street art. I spent the day with fellow @vzwgent4humanityrefugeesupport @gent4humanity volunteers delivering first aid and mental health support to refugees living here. Given the magnitude of the global refugee crisis, it sometimes feels like the small bit of volunteer work I am able to do is as useful as putting a band-aid on an amputation. Still, I need to be able to say I tried to do something, to help somehow. Perhaps the next best thing I can do is to share my experience and make sure that others are aware of the crisis. Awareness and empathy are powerful drivers, and band-aids can be better than nothing. #refugees #refugeecrisis #gent4humanity #refugeesupport
Post 2 of 3 from May 19, 2018 Saint-Denis, Paris trip with @vzwgent4humanityrefugeesupport @gent4humanity For awhile after we arrived, the only faces we saw were those of the street art. Many of the refugees were quiet in their tents, presumably sleeping. It was Ramadan, so maybe the Muslim refugees were sleeping during their fasting period. We also know from other camps in Northern France that many refugees sleep during the day because they feel the need to be awake at night, either to make attempts at border crossings, or to stay alert and safe. At night they face dangers related to smugglers, traffickers, sexual predators, drug dealers, tensions between opposing ethnic groups, and aggressive and confrontational police action. As the day went on, refugees emerged from their tents and we spent hours talking with them and delivering basic first aid. We saw, in no particular order: a mother carrying her two-month old baby in a dirty blanket, she never put it down; a young woman addicted to crack (we were told a local dealer has targeted the refugee population); teenage boys goofing with each other and teasing each other about their terrible football skills; older men playing handmade board games with stones, chalk, and concrete; many refugees passing time with conversation or attempts at cleansing self-care at the one small water source present. In first aid, we addressed: myriad of skin issues due to exposure; lice; scabies; respiratory issues; sore throats; coughs; broken fingers; injured knees, ankles, feet, and toes from long journeys on foot; sleep deprivation; eye irritation; drug seeking; depression and other mental health concerns. We spoke with many refugees who had just arrived three days prior. They were full of hope and in good spirits. Others had been in Saint-Denis for many months. Their spirits were not as high. One of our volunteers translated newly-received French documents for a refugee that informed him that his request for asylum was denied and he was scheduled to report to authorities. We were the only support agency present in the camp that day. #gent4humanity #refugeecrisis #refugeecamp
Post 3 of 3 from May 19, 2018 Saint-Denis Paris trip with @vzwgent4humanityrefugeesupport @gent4humanity As one of our leaders from #gent4humanity said, “it was a day of contrasts.” The weather was gorgeous, blue skies and perfect temperatures. Nearby architecture was full of bright colors, as were the tents and street art that surround the less-than-adequate makeshift #refugeecamp. During our break for lunch, the lavish royal wedding of Harry and Meghan played on the giant-screen TV in the restaurant. As we stood and crouched for hours along the Canal de Saint-Denis with our orange vests and purple gloves, a soft breeze and the green water made peaceful sounds and carried countless, non-stop ferry boats past us. The ferries carried shoppers to different malls and shopping centers along the canal. From inside the boats, tourists and shoppers watched us work and took pictures. Let us hope that they will share what they saw and inform others that this is what the #globalrefugeecrisis looks like in Paris. The very long day of travel and work feels to me like it occurred in another dimension, separate from the “real world”, from my “real world”, and from the tourist destination of Paris just south of us. It was a day filled with bright colors, laughs, joy, and hope, but also sadness, dark shadows, and depressing reality. #gent4humanity #refugeesupport #refugeecamp
Not to detract from the main message of this post, but I also want to say that sometimes it is hard for me to decide which is the best medium to tell the story I want to tell. I tend to view my blog and my Instagram account as related, but I don’t overlap content too frequently.
I’d love to hear from other writers who use both blogging (or other online and/or print publishing platforms) and Instagram about how they determine which medium to use, if not both, for their variety of content. I spent years working in direct marketing, so I understand the concepts behind multi-channel marketing and storytelling, but I don’t think there is one right answer for every story and every storyteller on multi-channel use, and that is what makes it a fun and creative art form.
I’ve been inspired lately by some National Geographic photographers I follow on Instagram who are telling some really powerful stories there while working on assignments for the magazine. I like this method of telling an ongoing story as the research and investigation is taking place, while working toward a final published piece. Additionally, the combination of photography and written story – I guess we call that photojournalism 😉 – really works for me. Maybe for that reason, while the field experience of this trip was still fresh to me, Instagram felt like the right way to tell this particular story.