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Operation Christmas Stocking

How Met, customs & immigration officers gave children from Kingston, Jamaica a happy Christmas.

The adage, ‘a life changing experience’ is a much-heard expression today and will frequently involve experiencing a new environment and meeting new people. It would be true to say that just about every UK law enforcement officer who has spent any length of time in Jamaica will, at some stage, utter those four words.

They will of course notice the abject poverty of many and the almost daily headlines in the two national newspapers that reflect the country’s high crime rate yet those officers will quickly become aware of the beauty of the country matched by the warmth and selflessness of the vast majority of its people.

When working in Jamaica, daily journeys to and from Kingston airport via the British High Commission approved ‘safe’ route gave intriguing glimpses into the so called ‘garrison or to use a harsher term, ghetto areas. At the end of my first tour, I prevailed on two narcotics detectives who had been acting as our protection officers, to take me into the garrison areas that can be found across Kingston.

The day is still etched on my memory as Jack and ‘Shooter’ (a story in itself) complete with M16 rifles and sidearms took me of the heart of the areas that have formidable reputations.

The UK customs officers I was working with and yours truly felt we should be contributing something but we weren’t sure what. Then, at Kingston Airport, we ensured that the baggage of a frequent traveller to and from Jamaica was searched. The lady, a white Irish Rastafarian, turned out to be the legendary Moira Morgan who worked on the ground in arguably the most dangerous area of Kingston.

The legendary 'Miss Moira' (Photo Andy Thompson)

It was the start of a relationship that endures to this day. Moira is known throughout Jamaica and her charity, the Griffin Trust, carries out some truly remarkable work amongst the disadvantaged of Kingston. We decided that the role of our yet to be established charity would be to support the poorest of the poor children, thus enabling them to remain in education. These included the children of Mums who were imprisoned both in Jamaica and the UK for attempted importation of drugs.

On a later deployment, under Moira’s watch, and with the permission of the British High Commission, local dons and the Jamaican police, I with customs officer and fellow trustee Andy Thompson, went on a ‘walkabout’ in the Kingston 11 area meeting some of the children being helped by our small charity.

It was an emotional experience which later, in the confines of our comfortable hotel, reduced us to tears. We were to make many further forays into Kingston 11 and on each occasion, it was truly uplifting.

Those frequent returns to Kingston 11 included helping out at a summer school in conditions which were, shall we say, interesting. After sweeping goat droppings from the classroom floor we were astonished to find that the children actually wanted to learn. I later discovered that all the children were familiar with the sound of gunshots; most had lost relatives to the violence and most had seen dead bodies in the street.

The back alleys of Kingston 11 (Photo: Andy Thompson)

Early on in the history of the Airbridge Charitable Foundation, thanks to major fund-raising events at Heathrow airport hotels which were supported by customs, police and immigration officers, Andy suggested that we should try and give the children of Kingston 11 a Christmas they would treasure.

We were all back in London in the weeks before the festive season when we implemented ‘Operation Christmas Stocking.’ The concept was tried and tested; contributors would fill shoe boxes with suitable presents relevant to a specific age range and sex of the child….but definitely no ‘meltable’ chocolate!

Taking on board the advice from Moira, items that filled the shoe boxes included soap, toothpaste, toothbrushes, combs, small mirrors, flannels, handkerchiefs, pens (highly sought after), pencils, rulers, erasers, chalks, exercise books, small toys including teddy bears, dolls, cars, small torches (& batteries), reading books (again, highly prized) and ‘non-meltable’ sweets!!!

You could say we under-estimated the response. Shoe boxes arrived in droves from customs, police and immigration officers and staff; clusters could be seen in law enforcement offices throughout the airport terminals and at Heathrow police station.

The shoe boxes were moved across to the Custom House HQ on the fringe of the airport and piles began to accumulate in the various offices. The links senior customs officers had with the Foreign Office enabled the numerous boxes to be ferried, with the diplomatic baggage, across to Jamaica where they were picked up by the British High Commission flatback truck.

There was no Airbridge deployment in the days before that Christmas but the remarkable High Commission staff were an integral part of the operation. Much of Kingston 11 was, and probably still is, off-limits to those working at the High Commission in normal circumstances. These, however, were not normal circumstances and, with the permission of the local dons and Jamaican police the High Commission truck rolled into the heart of ‘the bad lands’ together with its suitably festively dressed staff.

Moira had ensured that those children most in need would benefit and she enabled us to witness the event by filming it herself. The expressions of the dozens of Kingston 11 children as they received their gifts which showed both bewilderment and delight, were a joy to behold.

Operation Christmas Stocking was a one-off. Whilst the Foreign Office transported our shoeboxes, we later got a bill for £500 which made a bit of a hole in our limited budget. There was no resentment as there is no reason why the taxpayer should subsidise our operation and at least there was a little magic dust sprinkled over that Christmas for lots of Jamaican children for whom life is, to say the least, frequently challenging.

Kingston 11: A game of street football pauses (Photo: Andy Thompson)

Today, Moira continues her marvellous work in Jamaica. My retirement from the Met means we can no longer stage the major fund raisers we once did but the odd TV appearance & bit of writing means we can still make a contribution.

Finally, a little plug for Moira’s recently published book (available on Amazon) which chronicles some of her remarkable works. These include negotiating peace accords with gunmen as well as helping the impoverished young and the old.

Chris Hobbs is a retired Metropolitan Police officer who served in Special Branch

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