Elaine Ortiz is the founder of the Hummingbird Project, a Brighton-based charity that works with young refugees in the local area.
In her words
I’ll never forget my first visit to the Calais ‘Jungle’ in 2015. As the refugee crisis in Europe worsened, the camp near the French port became home to thousands of men, women and children. Unable to go any further and make it to the UK, the refugees found themselves trapped at the French border, some having travelled from as far away as Syria and Somalia.
Having made these treacherous journeys, the refugees were then confronted with the harsh reality of the Calais ‘Jungle’. There was very little sanitation or medical support available in the camp, with no protection for the most vulnerable including unaccompanied children. Refugees were desperately trying to jump onto moving lorries or climb over fences to reach the port. Many were suffering from poor mental health, which was worsened by their living conditions.
As there were very few organisations working in Calais, we founded The Hummingbird Project to provide aid to the refugees in the Jungle. We started making regular trips to the camp with vans filled with much-needed items, and undertook fundraising activities to support our efforts.
People could no longer ignore the unfolding crisis when the photo of Alan Kurdi appeared on the front pages of newspapers around the world. The shocking image of a three-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach threw a spotlight on the human cost of the ongoing crisis. Attention also turned to the places where the refugees were ending up, such as Calais.
As part of the media coverage of the crisis, the Hummingbird Project was listed as an organisation that was already working directly with refugees. That was when I started receiving hundreds of emails with offers of help from lawyers, builders, human right activists and medical professionals... The response was amazing, with our fundraising page raising nearly £14,000 in 48 hours.
So I quit my job and started organising full time. We knew that medical help was desperately needed so we helped to staff a clinic in the camp. Alongside a medical centre and tea kitchen, we also ran a much-needed safe space for young unaccompanied refugees where they could come to take time away from the harsh realities of the camp.
We can all be hummingbirds and try to make a difference to the lives of those around us no matter how big the challenge may seem.”Elaine Ortiz
Founder - the Hummingbird Project
We ran our services in Calais until the French authorities began to demolish the camp in 2016. Since then, The Hummingbird Project has worked with young refugees who have made it to the UK, and more specifically to Brighton, Hove and the surrounding area.
Our project is currently working with nearly 40 young refugees. The Global Social Club gives them the chance to make friends with other young people. Many of the refugees feel extremely lonely and isolated, so it was important to give them opportunities to spend time with people their own age. We also run a homework club led by Dr Mick Taylor, a Teaching Fellow at the University of Sussex, to give the refugees academic support so they don’t fall behind at school.
The Hummingbird Young Leaders programme shows just how much young refugees can achieve with the right support. Our young leaders have spoken at the Houses of Parliament, met with MPs and given speeches at events. They have also used their skills to help their local communities and shared their own experiences to help shape the services and support offered to other refugees.
The young people I work with are some of the most inspiring and resilient people I’ve ever met. Many of them have come from places of conflict and have risked their lives to come to Europe. And although they’ve now made it to the UK, they face an uncertain future waiting for the decision on their asylum claim. Whether it’s through our social club, homework support, or young leaders programme, we do all we can to help support them during this difficult process, no matter what the final outcome might be.
The Hummingbird Project is inspired by a South American parable. As other animals flee a forest fire, a small hummingbird fills its beak with water and tries to tackle the blaze alone. When questioned by the other animals, it turns and says ‘I’m doing all I can.’ As my work over the past 3 or so years has shown me, we can all be hummingbirds and try to make a difference to the lives of those around us no matter how big the challenge may seem.
To find out more visit The Hummingbird Project website.