Opera North - The Little Greats

The Woman Sending Bras to Refugees

12 June 17 words: Bridie Squires

Persistent military conflicts in the Middle East have left millions of people lost and without. Imagine, just for a second, that Nottingham was plunged into war: hospitals bombed, schools and libraries gone, and your home destroyed. It's a situation you wouldn't wish on your worst enemy, yet mainstream media sources continue to vilify some of the most desperate people on the planet who find themselves in that very situation today. One woman, Caroline Kerr of Bras Not Bombs, is on a mission to make a difference for the better...

illustration: Laura-Jay Doohan

We've seen the images of refugees risking their lives to cross the Mediterranean and find themselves on European shores. For some, the water is the tragic end of the journey; for others, a safe space is eventually found; for many, the humiliating purgatory of a refugee camp, or a war-torn country, is very much a reality.

A few different charities have formed in the East Midlands to support victims of war who're subject to a lack of food, clothing, medicine, and suitable accommodation, among the many other basic human necessities we all take for granted. This August, it'll be two years since East Midlands Solidarity formed; a collaboration between Nottingham Solidarity, Derby Solidarity, and Leicester Solidarity that’s seen supply donations delivered to various camps by the van-load. Caroline Kerr is just one of the members involved in the movement, and it was from the organisation that her idea to do something about the situation for women and children in the refugee camps stemmed.

“One of the aid workers wrote on Facebook about how upsetting it was to see one woman pregnant, and another with two kids,” says Caroline. “She couldn’t find them any underwear at all.” At the time she saw the message, Caroline was housebound and looking after her late father. While eating with a friend one night, and with the situation on her mind, she thought up the name Bras Not Bombs, and decided to set up a Facebook group asking for underwear donations for refugees. It might not be something we immediately think of as being essential, but a lack of facilities and sanitary products can easily be added to the snowball of problems currently faced by women living without a home.

“We've tried to show a bit of care, provide some dignity,” says Caroline. “You think, 'What are knickers and a bra gonna do?' But it’s just that extra something to say 'We’ve being doing something and thinking about you.’”

Caroline isn't the only one in the city setting up this kind of movement. Paige Bromley recently kicked off The Monthly Gift; a charity that allows people to donate underwear and sanitary products for homeless women in Nottingham by visiting COW Vintage and dropping donations in the pink bin. “Through the Bras Not Bombs Facebook group, Paige and I organised a tampon collection,” says Caroline. “It’s great to find what people are doing within the city, because I can’t do it on my own.”

Sorting out a project like Bras Not Bombs is inevitably going to have its struggles, and Caroline urges people to send exactly what's needed to lessen the aches and pains: “I've had dirty underwear before; used, bloody and dirty pants. That was early on when I received used underwear, but then I started getting majority new stuff, and I was buying bulk.

The logistical side of receiving donations can be a tricky one. It's a relatively unknown problem; that various charity workers and institutions have to fork out for storage costs when masses of incorrect items are sent. “When you ask for aid, you get all sorts,” says Caroline. “I had some high-heeled leather boots once. There are some fantastic imaginations going on with what people think is needed.”

What's actually needed is enough to make you cry. With sexual assault rife in camps, many of the women and children are scared to leave their tents at night. “We asked how we can try and counter that”, says Caroline. “What they asked for was adult nappies. It’s mind blowing. It's 2017.”

After investing in a bulk-load of adult nappies, Bras Not Bombs spent the remainder of the money they raised on locks for the toilet doors in the Dunkirk camp, only for it to be burnt down shortly after. The people living inside the camps have been displaced once more, and it's organisations like Caroline's that remain as one of the only constants in their lives.

Where many of us turn a blind eye to the situation, Caroline can't look back any more: “I think about it every day,” she says. “This has changed the way I look at things; we’re extremely lucky to have all this when, just across the channel, people are being abused or raped.”

I can't even begin to imagine what the aid workers have to process, let alone the people actually experiencing the horrors themselves. “I find that there’s a lot of aid workers who do get exhausted. They try really hard to not ignore it, and face everything head-on, but it can be tiring,” says Caroline. “I just received a video of people being gassed, dead children, people crying, people being rushed to hospitals and then being bombed in an air strike at the hospital. It's overwhelming, and makes you feel utterly helpless, so I try to take the feeling of powerlessness, put it into fundraising, and do what I can.”

In recent weeks, Caroline set up her own Bras Not Bombs shop on Carlton Road, which is now open for you to pop your head in and show support. The shop will be selling second-hand clothes, vintage items, and “whatever curious stuff comes my way” says Caroline. The shop will allow her to continue on her quest to buy new underwear and sanitary products in bulk, to send them to the people who need them most.

“When I was first doing it, I had a part-time job, was bringing up kids and looking after my dad,” says Caroline. “Now, we get to see these women with all these packages of underwear and bras laid out. It can take your breath away, and it's not just me. I never thought I would get to this place. Women’s issues have always been important to me, but I didn’t think I would be spreading the word and empowering people every day; giving people a voice and doing something about it.”

If you'd like to donate to the cause, be sure to pop into the shop and drop off new cotton knickers, children's cotton underwear and socks, sanitary pads, nappies, creams, and strong bras. Or you could dob in a monetary donation. The best way to find out what's really needed at the time is to check in with the Bras Not Bombs Facebook group and take it from there.

It's all too easy for us to shrug the shoulders and rhetorically ask “Well, what can I do?”

“People feel so powerless,” says Caroline. “But if everyone gave a fiver, think about how much difference that could make. A fiver a month can enable the empowering of women, and people can empower themselves to do what people should do. I mean, go to Poundland; it's a pound for a stretchy bra.”

There's a tangible task, and it's yours to take up. Whatever the outcome of the election on Thursday 8 June, the problems we collectively face need forces of nature like Bras Not Bombs – and you, the reader – to counter them. “I can march and resist, and I can do what I can to change people’s perspectives,” says Caroline. “It’s in my power to do that.”

Bras Not Bombs, 25 Carlton Road, NG3 2DG

Bras Not Bombs on Facebook

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