From a career in sustainable fashion to hands on humanitarian work, Jaz O’Hara has committed her day to day life to help spread the real stories of refugees.
She does this under The Worldwide Tribe, an organization that uses creative storytelling to spread awareness about the issues refugees and migrants often go though.
Inspired by the off-putting rhetoric of mainstream media in the UK, O’Hara decided to find out what was really going on and immerse herself in some of the largest refugee slums in the UK. Accompanied by her brother, they documented stories from several people adding a modern cinematic quality that makes the stories come to life in an easily accessible way.
O’Hara’s ability to reach for these stories, and her brother’s ability to have them come to life with his filmmaking skills, successfully delivers. We had the pleasure of talking to O’Hara about what has inspired her, what keeps her going, and her hopes for the future.
Tell us a little bit about your life before The Worldwide Tribe, what did you study, what were your interests and how did this project come to fruition?
My life before The Worldwide Tribe was very different to what it is now. After studying fashion design at university I started working for an ethical underwear brand called Pants To Poverty. I have always been passionate about travelling and sustainability alongside fashion and the job led me to work in India with organic cotton farmers. It was at this time that I started up my blog The World Wide Tribe but mainly as a way of documenting my travels and stories about the people I was meeting for my friends and family back home. It was only in 2015 when my parents were looking to foster a child refugee that my attention was really drawn to the refugee crisis. It came at a time when the situation unfolding in Calais and in Greece was gaining lots of negative media attention and I started to grow more and more curious about the people behind the negative headlines. So I decided to pack my car full of supplies and drive to Calais with my brothers and some friends to experience the situation first hand. The hospitality and kindness we were met with by people in the camp was so far from the dangerous and chaotic Calais Jungle I had read about in the news that upon returning home I felt compelled to counter the negative media coverage and voice my experience. I wrote a post about my trip to the Jungle on Facebook and woke up to discover that the post had been shared 65,000 times overnight. People began sending aid packages to our home and offering to help so we started up a fundraising page and things snowballed from there and it sparked the beginning of The Worldwide Tribe project as it is today.
Some would say risking a career, financial stability, and giving to others fully is a large risk, how do you see this change in your life?
To begin with I was starting up projects and sorting deliveries to the camps alongside holding down my old job. However it was exhausting work and it soon became increasingly clear that I wasn’t able to concentrate on much else other than the extent of the crisis unfolding on our doorstep and how much more there needed to be done. My brother and I both quit our jobs and moved back in with our parents in order to spend more time out in Calais and although it was definitely a leap of faith nothing has ever felt more right than doing this work and it wasn’t something I really needed to question. This work has enabled me to meet so many inspirational people and has really changed my life for the better.
I see that a lot of your family is also involved in The Worldwide Tribe, how did this become a family endeavor?
I guess my parents were the inspiration behind The Worldwide Tribe becoming a family indeavour as they are the ones who initiated our initial engagement with the issue when they decided to foster our adopted brothers. We now have two adopted brothers, one is Eritrean and he has been with us for a year and a half, and our other brother is Afghan and he has been with us for three months. Welcoming our adoptive brothers into our family has made us all incredibly connected to the cause on a deeper level. My oldest brother works on Worldwide Tribe projects full-time and is currently overseeing our wifi project as well as lots of other things, and my younger brother is our film maker and he works freelance.
When thinking about The Worldwide Tribe, you see it as storytelling, correct? Do you also see it as an alternative news source that’s a bit more informative than most media outlets that display migrants negatively?
Absolutely! I am incredibly passionate about the fact that The Worldwide Tribe offers an alternative news channel for people to hear directly from the people that are living and working the camps. Rather than stand back and report from a distance, we work alongside refugees, listening to their experiences and providing them with a platform to share their own story their own way. Since there are so many reporters and camera crews now in the Jungle, ensuring that refugees are still able to make their own voices heard is a really important part of what we do. Recently we expanded the idea through our Citizen Journalism Project, where we provided people in the camps with disposable cameras so they were able to document the camp for themselves. The pictures were beautiful and full of hope, so unlike the images normally seen across the front of newspapers. It is really amazing that we don’t have to rely on mainstream news channels to get our information and we are able to provide a collaborative and open channel of communication that lots of people can share in and is removed from the mainstream.
Reading interviews with you and Facebook posts, I saw that you decided to immerse yourself in Calais, one of the largest and growing slums in Europe, to offer a different perspective than what you read in the media. How did you come to that?
Once I quit my job and had moved back home to Kent I found it really difficult to stay in England with the knowledge that, despite it being 2015, there was a humanitarian crisis unfolding practically on our doorstep and very little was being done about it. Especially since you can get on the Eurostar and cross the channel in under an hour it was something I really couldn’t ignore. The more I went out to the camps and the more people I met I felt the need to show not only the desperate reality of the camps but the amazing spirited community of people that were living there.
On the same subject, the media, are you distrustful of the portrayal of immigrants and refugees that are painted? How did you come to that realization?
It has been difficult for me to be out in the camps meeting people and experiencing their situation first hand only to later see how they are documented in the mainstream media. I feel that the media has a responsibility to provide honest and unbiased news and the sensationalized stories of refugees being disruptive, as well as the constant use of words such as ‘migrants’ have negative connotations that are not fair to the people and families who are fleeing war and have seen the worst of humanity. If you met these people and heard their stories in England they would be revered to as heroes. They are the most resilient, strong resourceful people I have ever met and to see the way they are often portrayed in the news has been really shocking. I do think that we are living through a time where a fear based rhetoric and sensationalized news stories have become the norm. The Worldwide Tribe is all about trying to counter this dividing narrative by coming together as a global community and seeing one another as human beings before anything else.
Social media seems to be a big tool in expanding your message? What are your feelings on the use of Social media with the project of The Worldwide Tribe?
Absolutely, social media has proved to be an extremely powerful tool in getting our message heard. It is incredible to think that we have access to so much information that is being shared online and this means that we can no longer be as ignorant to these kinds of things as we were when we relied on the mainstream news and hearsay. So in terms of spreading awareness I think social media is a hugely beneficial tool since it provides anyone with the potential to have their voice heard. Although the temptation to scroll through endless memes and cat gifs has meant that social media has gained a bad rep as being a tool for procrastination, I think it is really important to highlight how it has the potential to be incredibly powerful. Since as a society we are already so engaged online and subscribe to this social media culture it is really important to capitalise on this powerful tool and the time we are in to bring about positive change.
Do you have any thoughts on the social and political climate of the United States at this time? They seem to be going through a similar anti-immigrant and anti-refugee mentality.
I was actually in America giving a talk in Miami when Trump was elected and it was definitely shocking to see such negative and divisive politics play out in real life. I think because of their physical distance from Europe some people feel more removed from the refugee crisis and there is generally there is less information and awareness about the situation. However I am actually going to America this April to give a series of talks in some schools and universities to raise awareness. I absolutely agree that they are going through a time of real political change and there is a worrying rise of negative anti-foreigner anti immigration rhetoric entering the mainstream. The same is happening here in the UK with Brexit as well as in France, Holland and many other countries. It’s a real problem but it is important not to lose hope and I am going to continue to spread a message of love and togetherness through all our ongoing work at The Worldwide Tribe.
Is there anything you would advise to citizens in countries with similar problems?
I would say not to lose hope and to keep doing what you can to spread the the importance of approaching these issues with compassion and love. I would also say use your power to educate yourselves about the situation that is happening by looking at different news sources out there. Spread awareness about the situation by sharing posts, fundraising, signing online petitions and engaging in conversations about the situation with friends and family. There is so much to be done and even if it feels inconsequential these small things all add up.
What is the primary message you would like to send out to people with the work that you’re doing at The Worldwide Tribe?
I have two messages- number one is that you are powerful as an individual. Lots of people say that we are living in a difficult time, especially for our generation because it is harder to buy a house harder to get a job. Although these things might be true I believe it’s also a really exciting time as with tools such as the internet and social media we have the power to be heard, to travel, to connect with so many people- the world has become smaller and accessible. I think it’s also so important to remember that this power comes a responsibility to take action and support one another. My second message is that underneath race, ethnicity, religion, culture and language we are all human with basic human needs. I see this over and over again when I meet people in the camps- whilst we might come from different places and have had many different experiences there is ultimately there is so much common humanity between us that I can relate to and connects us. It is important to remember that despite everything we are all human and we have a responsibility to care for one another on this basis.