Approached on foot, there is a handy short-cut to the World Jewish Relief warehouse in Neasden, writes Stephen Oryszczuk. It is a narrow alleyway running alongside Denzil Road. So unnoticeable, so barely perceptible is this alleyway that it could be London’s most camouflaged path. SAS trackers would have a job finding it.
Like the short-cut, the warehouse also operates undercover, since it is sign-posted Asiatic Carpets. The ground floor is standard warehouse fare – trucks, crates, pallets and cardboard. But trundling up the slightly psychedelic lift (which features a moving brick wall that JFS students once filmed for a project) is a bit like tumbling down the rabbit hole. You land in the warehouse equivalent of Wonderland.
Ladybird books, computers monitors, Mitzvah Day hats, bed linen, birthday candles, flip-flops, wedding canopies, false nails, footballs – there are mountains of ‘stuff’ sent in by everyone from multi-nationals to Mr and Mrs Goldstein. It’s mesmeric. Big safety signs telling you to take your mobile phone with you to the toilet (a five-minute walk through empty rooms and abandoned offices) seem entirely in-tune with the location.
WJR’s Gift in Kind warehouse is managed day-to-day by the wizened foreman Eric. His usual assistant is at home when I visit, resting a broken foot. “It’s really inconvenient, because this is the busy period,” tuts Eric during a cigarette break. I ask what the busy period is. “All year round,” replies Eric.
If Eric’s the spit, Roz (pictured below right) is the sparkle. Her fancy designer glasses add a touch of glamour to proceedings. “It’s my bit of bling,” she says, warming her hands over an electric fire. Roz looks after stock, while her partner-in-crime Jo covers logistics. And as I set about taking photos, Roz prepares for the arrival of WJR volunteers.
They’re coming in for half a day to help out with the Gift in Kind project, the principal recipients of which are poverty-stricken people from Belarus, Ukraine and Moldova.
Aged between 16 and 82 years old, the volunteers stumble in and huddle together around the heater, dressed in orange safety jackets. It looks like a Guantanamo convention. Eric sets them to work on the ‘factory lines’ (two long tables) whereupon they begin unpacking, sorting, checking, filtering, storing, boxing and labelling.
Faye, an octogenarian regular fresh from winning a Diamond Jubilee award from Prince Charles, bounces into the office. I grill her on her richly deserved achievement, but she’s genuinely humble about it, saying: “I think Charles and Camilla just wanted to show the Queen that life doesn’t stop at our age.”
Once everyone’s set to work, Roz gives me the tour. The first section (Goods In) is stacked with rows of suits donated by a renowned Italian designer, which we inspect.To the side of the rails are two female volunteers arranging knitted blankets and kvetching about their husbands. On the wall, beside the darts board, is an enormous blanket-o-meter, the needle of which hovers around 3,700 – the number so far sent to the needy of Eastern Europe. It registers a truly impressive effort by the knitters of the community.
I’m led into the main sorting area. Those doing the unfurling seem to be in animated discussion with those doing the folding, as one elderly gentleman asks aloud: “Where do I put babies’ wetsuits?”
A huge emphasis on quality means numerous checks before clothing gets ‘bagged and boxed.’ Any torn or tired garments are sold for textile recycling. Money raised from this is used to buy staples not covered by donations, such as personal hygiene products. I see a number of the items thrown into the recycling pile. They look perfectly fine to me, but I’m assured they’re not. Perhaps mine’s an ‘untrained eye’…
Whilst most donations are winter clothes, which seems to be what the Gift in Kind team really needs, I also spot a Vanilla and Ginger Soap Dispenser, an autobiography of Daniella Westbrook and an Ultimate Golf-pack Cooler. I have absolutely no idea what an Ultimate Golf-pack Cooler is, nor how much use it may be in Belarus.
“That’s nothing,” says Roz. “We got false teeth once, and naughty bedroom items, but I’m not telling you what they were because you’ll put it in your article!”
At the tea-break we gather around to eat Suzanne’s homemade coffee and walnut cake. Josh from Head Office speaks about his recent visit to Moldova.
He’s enthused – evangelical almost – and uses the word ‘powerful’ a lot, especially in describing the impact of the trip. He seems intelligent and genuine, and stresses the need for volunteers to send only those items they would be happy giving to their own family. “Sometimes, all they have is pride,” he says. “They already have to accept free clothes, so let’s make them only the best we can give.” It is – dare I say it – a powerful message.
Back to work. A small contingent of student volunteers from a local synagogue gathers to watch a video showing how WJR also maintains dilapidated buildings, supplies fuel throughout harsh winters, runs an educational programme and encourages community liaison.
In fact, it’s is a bit like that alleyway: barely noticed, yet ever-so handy.