This Former 'Love Island' Star Now Fights the Refugee Crisis
Global Citizen talks to Camilla Thurlow about keeping promises, divisive rhetoric, and Piers Morgan.
Right now, Britain is not as divided as you might think. Forget Brexit — it’s 9 p.m., and the whole country is frozen in rapture.
You know what I'm talking about: Love Island is on TV.
For the lost, unconverted few: Love Island is a reality show in which hunky 20-somethings escape to a villa in Majorca to find everlasting love, with the last couple standing winning £50,000.
Millions have been gripped by the pop culture phenomenon almost every evening for eight weeks — and on Monday night, it draws to a shuddering stop.
Among the finalists are a nuclear engineer, a pen salesman, and an A&E doctor, with entrepreneurs, models, and one political adviser gracing the villa’s hallowed halls. Essentially, they’re everyday people, albeit with fantastic faces and head-turning volumes of Instagram followers: The last 10 contestants together have an online following of 6.4 million people.
It’s suntan meets soft power. Indeed, bookies favourite Dani Dyer — the down-to-earth daughter of Eastenders actor, namesake, and total legend Danny Dyer — already has 25 times more followers than Theresa May on Instagram.
And former contestant Camilla Thurlow is just as normal — and just as extraordinary.
‘Each time a woman stands up for herself, without knowing it possibly, without claiming it, she stands up for all women’ - Maya Angelou. Every woman has their battles, both public and hidden. There are days when they wake up broken, but somehow find the strength to carry on. Thank you today and all days because it is that everyday bravery that has given many of us a better present, and together a chance to work for a brighter future for women across the world #IWD2018 #TimeIsNow #InternationalWomensDay #tbt a very special shoot with the lovely @tombarnesphoto
Thurlow and boyfriend Jamie Jewitt came in second on last year’s Love Island. Thurlow had previously worked in explosive ordnance disposal for the Halo Trust, the world’s largest humanitarian mine clearance organisation. Essentially, she would find and neutralise landmines, travelling to Afghanistan, Zimbabwe, and Cambodia.
But as the series came to a close, and the nation mourned the end of an era, Thurlow got in touch with an old friend from Loughborough University who ran a humanitarian organisation called Indigo Volunteers, which supports refugee camps in France and Greece.
“As soon as we got out of Love Island I spoke to her about the possibility of coming out and volunteering for a week,” Thurlow tells Global Citizen. “She was based in Thessaloniki at that point, so we ended up going to northern Greece. We visited different camps every day, different grassroots organisations, pretty much all funded through the Help Refugees model.”
Since her visit to the Thessaloniki refugee camp, Thurlow has been a vocal supporter of Help Refugees — a group that fundraises for projects like Indigo Volunteers all over the world. In less than two years, the charity has become the biggest facilitator of grassroots aid in Europe, according to its website.
“All of that money was plugging a really essential gap,” she says. “Particularly in Greece in areas where there’s almost a bit of donor lethargy, people are no longer thinking about funding things — it’s no longer mainstream news all the time. It’s vital they have those kinds of funds.”
“It all comes from a position that they genuinely believe in helping people,” she adds. “And that’s exactly how I feel about it as well.”
Experts say that Britain has some of the harshest asylum policies in western Europe. The UK takes fewer refugees, offers less financial support, and is often more bureaucratic than almost anywhere else. So what does Thurlow think Britain must do better?
“My first thing would be to reopen the Dubs scheme,” she says. “It was meant to be an essential part of how we fulfilled our commitment to unaccompanied minors who have ended up in truly devastating situations, and yet we don’t even complete … the minor obligations that we said we would do.”
Almost 100,000 child refugees sought asylum in Europe without their parents in 2015. The Dubs scheme was passed through parliament to bring 480 of the most vulnerable kids to safety in Britain — a substantial drop from the 3,000 initially expected when the amendment was voted through.
It’s a Gordian knot often tied by the unsympathetic hands of the media. When we talk about the press, Thurlow grows more increasingly impassioned.
We were incredibly lucky today to have the opportunity to volunteer with A Drop in the Ocean (@drapenihavet) in Nea Kavala camp. This incredible organisation abides by true humanitarian principles, delivering essential food and clothing in a dignified manner under difficult circumstances. Our whole trip has been coordinated by the amazing @hollypenalver founder of @indigovolunteers, and after an exceptional day one we are so excited to see what the rest of the week will bring. We will be keeping you updated on a daily basis, and will provide full information on how you can get involved in a short documentary when we get back 💛📽 @jamiejewitt_ #indigovolunteers #drapenihavet #HelpRefugeesUK #volunteer
“We must work on improving the rhetoric around it,” she says. “We cannot be continually pushing this ‘us and them’ divide. It’s so dangerous how it’s represented in the media. It means that people who want to help no longer want to because they hear fairy stories that reframe the issue.”
“[Refugees] have had these really traumatic journeys that have taken months, years — and when they’ve finally made it to the UK, they’re treated with such disdain,” she continues. “That must be so unbelievably upsetting. You’re finally in a safe place and once you’re there you don’t feel like you’re welcomed. We need to all treat people with respect and love.”
We talk just days after 98 members of the Syrian White Helmets and their families were evacuated by Israel to be rehomed in the UK, Canada, and Germany. The volunteer group saved more than 115,000 lives during the Syrian Civil War, providing ambulance and fire services to areas overrun by conflict — but were besmirched as terrorists by online propaganda supported by the Russian government, according to the Guardian.
Scared and injured but alive, a child was rescued by the #WhiteHelmets from under the rubble of her bombed home after Russian air raids on #ElTaebah city in the eastern countryside of #Daraa yesterday. #Act4_southernsyria#Act4Daraapic.twitter.com/LsaCEp4hEW— The White Helmets (@SyriaCivilDef) June 28, 2018
“The White Helmets have been subjected to a smear campaign, in part by Russian bots,” Thurlow says. “They’ve been misreported multiple times in different publications — and it’s had a really damaging effect on their public profile. So while you have these incredible guys — and women now as well — literally risking their lives on a daily basis to save people, there’s still someone willing to sit down and write an entirely damning article about something they’ve never had the opportunity to see on the ground and they don’t necessarily fully understand.”
“That’s definitely something we’ve got to look at,” she adds. “For them that’s devastating — especially if they then don’t receive the funds they need to do the vital work they do.”
The tired link between refugees and terrorism is a dangerous stereotype. Thurlow works to unravel it through sharing her own experiences as an activist, while at the same time transforming perceptions of reality television contestants.
Take Piers Morgan. The Good Morning Britain host tweeted that he’s “not interested in thick people” after interviewing several “Love Island halfwits”, despite never actually having watched the show himself. Thurlow intervened, condemning Morgan’s “incredibly restricted understanding of intelligence.”
In my opinion, categorising people who you’ve (apparently) never watched as thick demonstrates an incredibly restricted understanding of intelligence, and the idea that your interpretation is the only one that matters - slight superiority complex perhaps? https://t.co/gt1Ra4HmRt— Camilla Thurlow (@CamillaThurlow) June 11, 2018
Few people asking why I haven’t responded to this tweet, but I’ve never been one to kick a man when he’s down 😉... pic.twitter.com/TLQUgZclAe— Camilla Thurlow (@CamillaThurlow) June 13, 2018
“Just because someone doesn’t conform to your understanding of something doesn’t mean that you’re in a position to then call them thick,” she reflects. “It just isn’t the way to do things. If you were truly intelligent, you wouldn’t say that because the outcome isn’t positive.”
“I don’t want [reality TV contestants] to feel like they have to aspire to something in order to fit in,” she says. “I just don’t think it’s a fair way to treat people — to try and push them to certain things in life that you deem as credible as opposed to what they actually want to do. I think that’s only ever going to cause problems.”
I cannot stop thinking about this tweet - I think it’s a really dangerous notion that we have the right to tell people that there is a correct way to aspire to live their lives. Below are a few points from a talk I did last year on the subject pic.twitter.com/YdVcu50I4q— Camilla Thurlow (@CamillaThurlow) July 16, 2018
Thurlow’s online intervention is typical of her celebrity activism. Last year, while on Love Island, she famously proclaimed “shouldn’t we all be feminists?” and hundreds of thousands have since engaged with her posts championing female empowerment, raising awareness about the Yazidi survivors of genocide, and modelling the iconic Help Refugees “Choose Love” t-shirt.
The refugee crisis is a global issue, and can seem like an undefeatable obstacle, but pop culture — and Love Island — can genuinely help open it up.
“It can seem like an insurmountable issue … It’s easier to turn your face from it,” Thurlow says. “But if you can put it in a bitesize chunk to keep people’s interest you can remind them of the truth: that ordinary men, women, and children like them are just caught up in another place.”
“At the heart of it is helping anyone that needs help,” she adds. “It’s trying to do the right thing by others, on any level you possibly can.”
Global Citizens of the United Kingdom is a series that highlights Britons who dedicate their lives to helping people around the world. At a time when some world leaders are encouraging people to look inward, Global Citizen knows that only if we look outward, beyond ourselves, can we make the world a better place.