We all live in a bubble, an alternative reality very different from other people’s lives. For three months last year I lived in the alternative reality that is the Strictly Come Dancing bubble, but once I finished dancing I knew I was going to experience a very different environment – that of a refugee camp.
Currently there are more than 21 million refugees worldwide, not including the tens of millions of people who have been displaced from their homes. I’d been watching the footage on the news like everyone else, of people being treated like animals at various borders, and was sickened by some of the rhetoric used to describe fellow humans in their most extreme hour of need. So when the chance came to visit a refugee camp in Jordan, I didn’t hesitate.
Zaatari camp is on the border with Syria and is home to 80,000 refugees. It’s far from the ramshackle chaos of makeshift tents. Four years since it first opened it’s turned into a “normal” town, with a high street complete with bakers, bike repair shops, cosmetics shops, clothes stores, falafel stalls and even wedding dress shops. The residents have nicknamed it the Champs-Élysées, a nod to Syria’s old colonial masters, the French.
There are daily bread rations and food vouchers distributed to each person, to be used at a remarkably well-stocked supermarket.
The people living here are from Daraa, a middle-income region of Syria. They are educated and used to a certain standard of living; they are doctors, teachers, builders, midwives with homes and lives, just like us. What makes them different is that war has forced them to leave their homes, and sometimes their families.
Jordan isn’t a wealthy country and yet it has taken in 650,000 refugees – officially at least. Unofficially, the number of refugees is thought to be closer to a million. Meanwhile, the UK has pledged to take just 20,000 Syrian refugees by 2020.
At Zaatari I was prepared to see anger and hatred, sadness and despondency, but I encountered some of the kindest, most generous and most resilient people I’ve met anywhere. Yes, there was a sadness beneath the surface, but they were making the most of what life has dealt them.
Hardly anyone I met talked of coming to Europe – they all spoke of wanting to return to their beloved Syria. A few were applying to get residency in Canada, and some asked about life in Britain. But what could I say to that? Yes, life in Britain is great. I’m lucky, and I am acutely aware of that. The colour of my skin makes my family’s story – my paternal grandfather moved to England from India in the 50s to work; he was invited to come, as he was from a Commonwealth country – a little more obvious than others.
Perhaps that is why I don’t find it difficult to understand that desire to want to better your life and provide the best opportunities for your children, even if it means leaving your homeland, people and culture behind.
The difference is refugees don’t have a choice. When we portray refugees as “other”, we distance ourselves from them. I’m deeply concerned that we are increasingly unable to see beyond someone’s colour or accent. The West is in danger of turning away from tolerance, from the progressive, forward-thinking countries that we pride ourselves on being. Instead we are becoming close-minded and extreme, all within living memory of the Second World War.
It seems to me what we should be doing now is showing humanity and kindness. The “great” in Great Britain would have meaning if we were magnanimous and humble, if we did the right thing. For a society to work and succeed, surely there needs to be harmony, respect, tolerance, open-heartedness.
At the moment Britain is living in a Brexit bubble, but we cannot ignore the most important story of our times. What shows character is how we react in a crisis. Right now the world is in crisis and we are one of the best-placed countries to help.
The Refugee Camp: Our Desert Home, tonight 9pm BBC2