Gill McArthur co-founded Re-Act, a charity in Edinburgh that provides practical support for refugees and other vulnerable groups. Founded in 2015, the organisation has already distributed approximately 500 tonnes of donations and raised over £70,000 for good causes. Other branches have been established in Aberdeen, East Lothian, Falkirk, Linlithgow, Badenoch and Lochaber.
I found it really inspiring and fascinating to reading about others amazing achievements and resilience at times. On a personal level, my Grandfather inspired me but now after reading Breaking The Mould many of the women from Edinburgh do too – such amazing achievements.
Re-Act started after a friend of a friend planned to send a van of donations to Calais last year. She made a Facebook event asking people to bring donations, but when they over-spilled her flat, I offered the nightclub I run – Studio 24 – as a storage space and stuff just started turning up. It got to the point that the venue was so full of donations that we wouldn’t have been open up on the Friday night! I had to quickly call everyone I knew with a garage, warehouse, shop, basement and van to get everything moved. We had about six van loads in one week. The person who had sent the call out for donations didn’t really expect to get such a big response, and there was no plan for storing and distributing the donations but fortunately myself, my parents and friends had vans so we organised for them to go to Calais as soon as possible. Donations, however, were jumbled up and I heard that some things arriving in Calais weren’t needed so I thought this stuff needs sorted, organised more volunteers to help and that’s how we got started.
When we established ourselves we called our organisation Re-Act because I am passionate about a lot of issues in Edinburgh, like fracking and the lack of arts provision in schools. I thought if I was going to get involved in something helping the refugee crisis, I also wanted to be able to involve myself in other things throughout Edinburgh, to help at home too. I didn’t want to just help people in Calais and Greece when there are homeless people here that are cold at night. We are reacting to things that are unfair, that’s what we want to do and the refugee crisis is definitely the most unfair thing that has happened in my lifetime. Then, hopefully, things will improve and we can carry on and do good work for other people.
At this point, we’ve probably sent about five hundred tonnes of aid, all hand sorted and laundered at my folks’ house. Also, over £70,000 has been raised from friends doing cake stalls, people donating cash, comedy nights and gigs, just through many, many people with different skills organising different events. Thank goodness they did, it’s made such a massive difference – it has literally fed starving people and made their lives better. A lot of money has been sent out, we’ve set up wee initiatives in Greece, Calais and in Edinburgh and been able to support them financially, with advice and with volunteers.
When the refugees arrive at the boat with the smugglers one of them is shown how to operate the boat and then they have to guide it across the sea. So they have no idea where they will end up and if the boat will make it. It really depends on the wind and conditions at sea on which island they will arrive at. As samos is mainly cliffs a team of life guards and divers are on patrol to help when its needed. Sometimes they are too late.
On our first trip to Samos in Greece we discovered chaos. There were five of us volunteers and about four to six thousand refugees all sleeping outside with no aid, no food, no bottles for their babies. People say ‘they’ve got money, they’ve got iPhones’ but refugees have just been thrown on a boat; they’ve got whatever they can fit in their pockets. We also found out that many of them had been told that the money for their boat ride would also get them clothes, food and help when they arrived. This isn’t the case. They get dropped off somewhere at night – at a beach or a cliff – and there is no-one there to help them.
Being able to help the people here is lovely, as well as doing what you can abroad, but it’s like sticking a little plaster on a massive gaping wound and one of the most difficult things is having to choose where to help. How do you know you’re making the right decisions and helping the right people? We knew we couldn’t help everyone, everywhere so, in Greece for instance, we picked one island. I’m used to running events, switching off from the world around me and just organising things, which helped when I went to Greece but sometimes I let what’s happening in. When blankets have run out and there’s none for a cold, shivering baby, you give them your coat and sit with their mum who’s breaking down, it’s really, really tough. I channelled that into pleading for more donations, because I’m always one to solve a problem and never think I can’t. Instead of letting it get to me, we react to do what we can to help.
We also run a jumble sale/free shop with unsuitable items. We raise money with this but more importantly we give cards to all refugees and homeless shelters which entitles people with the card to have any items for free.
Re-Act has also just appointed a health advocate for refugees in Edinburgh. Several stories made us realise the need for this; for instance, one of our lovely volunteers has a little baby girl who wasn’t well. The baby had had blood tests done but her parents had no idea what was wrong with her or what the results of the tests were. There’s a massive problem with health services for refugees here and my mum – who used to work in paediatrics – is going to recommend that staff give refugees – be they parents or patients – a printed copy of diagnoses or notes from their doctor. If they have an explanation on paper, families can take it away and get it translated. It’s a really simple change in process that will save people from being scared and not understanding health issues affecting their families.
Re-Act is not my organisation, it is every single person’s that has come down and sorted out clothes, driven donations around and shared Facebook posts. If people didn’t do all that, Re-Act wouldn’t be here. Everybody’s had their turn of exhausting weeks, packing bags, lifting sacks, breaking their backs and driving vans so, I see it as all the volunteers’ project. I’ve facilitated the operation with a group of people that have helped from the very start.
Facebook has been phenomenal for connecting people with this whole thing. At the moment we’re trying to encourage more people to volunteer because the crisis is dropping out of the public eye and people aren’t as aware that the situation is still going on and is as bad as it has always been. However, I don’t want to flood Facebook with negativity and I’m trying not to make Re-Act a page about the awfulness of the situation, but more about the positive effects that we’re having because I know my feed is constantly full of war and destruction which is hard, day in, day out and isn’t good for you.
My biggest inspiration is my grandad; he was never one to take no for an answer. He was a lawyer and after his training he worked at a tea plantation in India changing the lives of people there, putting in schools and healthcare, giving workers their rights. You weren’t allowed to say ‘I’m bored’ or ‘can’t’ in front of him. I’ve got a daughter and since she was a little girl I have said you can do whatever you want to do, because that’s what my grandad taught me.
Re-Act definitely took over my life completely for six months. My partner, who had just taken paternity leave to look after our wee boy and was about to go back to work, ended up working forty hours a week, driving to Croatia and helping with donations. I’ve got so many ideas but I wasn’t able to do them which was really frustrating, and families were still arriving in Edinburgh without basic living essentials, so I realised we needed to have a better balance and help on a better level. That’s why we changed the donation days to once a month, allowing us to focus on lots of small projects as well.
There are lots of projects that I want to start in Edinburgh, as well as continuing to send aid to wherever it’s needed. I would definitely like to go back to Greece soon and help out there by also my partner is a gardener and ‘grow your own’ is his obsession so we want to work with the council to put allotments in council property gardens. We’ll be continuing to hold after school workshops with kids here, that have been really successful, and women’s conversation classes. Also, we’re really keen to set up a sort of men’s club as well, to help them integrate and learn about our culture. As always though, it can’t just be for refugees, migrants and Syrian people; it’s got to be for everybody.