Our Wild correspondent Peggy Whitfield is volunteering in Lesvos, Greece (and has raised funds) to aid refugees escaping from atrocities in their homeland. Peggy reports from the front line...
Amidst the thousands of people who arrived by dinghy in Lesvos, Greece, last week, a Syrian man was asked why he left his country. He replied, wordlessly, by pulling down the t-shirt of his two year old son to reveal the freshly healed entry and exit wounds of a bullet in the boy’s shoulder. No more explanation was necessary.
The people who arrive by boat are humanity stripped; stripped of their homes, their jobs, their families, their educations and their hopes and dreams. According to UNCHR figures updated on 2 October, 131,000 refugees arrived in Italy this year and 400,387 refugees have arrived in Greece on unseaworthy, overcrowded dinghies. 207,993 of them landing on Lesbos, which has a population of a mere 86,000. For refugees arriving in Greece, this is merely the beginning of their journey. If they choose to leave Greece then they face days of ‘illegal’ travel through Serbia and Macedonia, and possible tear gas and beatings on the Hungarian border. But this is considered better than what so many have left behind. When it’s quieter here, there is time to chat over a coffee and listen to horrific tales about torture, barrel bombing, forced conscription to murder innocent civilians and family members being disappeared. There are too many hair-raising stories of Turkish people smugglers who have beaten and abused women too scared to get in the overcrowded boats, life jackets being filled with plastic rather than foam and the organ trade offering to buy kidneys, blood vessels in legs that lead to amputation and most terribly of all, children. Unaccompanied minors are particularly at risk around the camps in Turkey and there are reports of children being snatched off the street, their bodies later dumped once the organs have been harvested.
(This Afgahi woman passed though the transit camp at Oxy with her 15 day old baby.)
Long before NGOs such as Islamic Relief and the IRC came to Lesvos, an army of volunteers have been spotting boats, pulling drowning refugees out of the water and feeding, clothing and sheltering new arrivals. I travelled out to Lesvos as I wanted to give the refugees arriving here the best possible welcome to this continent of ours. So what happens on an average day in Lesvos? Up to 60 dinghies land here every day, containing between 40 to 60 people each. The majority of them land in and around a tiny village called Eftalou, where an army of volunteer spotters, armed with goodwill and binoculars, try to ensure that each boat lands safely and people arriving are met with emergency blankets, water and medical treatment, if needed. The coastguard here heroically works to pick up boats which are sinking or have capsized and these refugees are dropped off in the harbour and registered, where a volunteer group offers them dry clothes, food, water and medical attention, if required. Most boats are not intercepted and they are guided to a transit camp opened and run by volunteers in the car park of Oxy, a closed nightclub, which is a few kilometres outside of Molyvos. There, volunteers work long hours providing clothes, food and water, onward bus travel to Mytilini and somewhere to sleep, if needed. All refugees end up in two camps in the Mytilini, where they await boats to Athens, often in very over-crowded conditions.
In quieter moments we have time to speak to the refugees here and hear their stories, which are beautiful, tragic, bittersweet, hopeful and desperately sad, often all at the same time. Many of the refugees help us by cleaning the camp, offering translation skills and sometimes even medical advice. They are keen to give back to people who have helped them and offered, as a Syrian man told me last the week “The chance of breathing the air of freedom, not oppression and war”.
(Video of a dinghy arriving at Eftalou. They had been out on the water for five hours).
But so much more needs to be done. Donations and volunteering are fantastic, but we need to change public opinion towards these people and pressure our governments to do more to help, to offer more people fleeing war a place to live to help them raise their families in safety and to contribute to the societies they join. Winter is coming and people will start to die on the road if more is not done. Quotas offered by EU countries so far are not enough. My country, the UK, has pledged to let in a paltry 20,000 Syrian refugees over five years, taken directly from camps in neighbouring countries to Syria. The fifth richest country in the world has plenty of money but apparently limited compassion. When did fear override compassion? We are so complacent in our comfortable, easy lives. I look at the refugees here, some of whom have very little, sharing everything they have with their fellow travellers, as well as offering food and water to volunteers working 12 hour shifts. And when I look at our governments’ responses, with the exception of Germany, Sweden, Italy and Greece, I feel ashamed. I read articles by so-called journalists and fume over comments on social media, written by people who have no experience of war and horror, or the hopelessness of being stranded in refugee camps, blithely saying that these refugees should be put interred in some of the poorest places in Europe, Sicily and Greece, so we don’t have to deal with the problem. These people who arrive by boat are human beings; they love, laugh, cry and bleed the same as the rest of us. They have seen more tragedy and carnage than most of us here in Europe have the wit to imagine. With a roll of the dice of fate, this could be you or me, our families, our children. It’s our moral obligation to do whatever we can to ease their suffering.
(A Syrian man and his son who have just arrived on Lesvos by dinghy.)
Of course, there are millions all over Europe who want to help and hate the way that our governments are acting on our behalf, but kindness is being drowned out by a well-oiled fear machine. It’s hard to get our voices heard. It’s not just refugees who feel powerless. Most of us feel we are too small and unimportant to have any effect on events. But this isn’t true. This refugee crisis gives us an opportunity to drastically change the course of people’s lives for the better. We are so lucky that we are given this chance to show how much we are prepared to give to ensure people have a better, safer life. But it’s up to us to reject fear and propaganda and seize the moment and effect change. I see the British prime minister capitulating because of an online storm of criticism. I see Swedish people paying for planes to fly desperate people to safety. I see Hungarian people fighting against the fascism of their government to pay for train tickets and give blankets to the sick and the elderly. I see volunteers welcoming refugees to Germany with hugs and blankets. I see the disparate cultures of Europe coming together for common cause because some of us have learned the lessons of our bloody history. I see the gratitude of people who land here in Lesvos when I give them water and a banana. I see the smile on the face of a Syrian woman when I give her donated shoes for her toddler, with the tag saying:
“Dear Parent, I had a child as small as yours. He learned to walk in these shoes. I hope you and your child and your loved ones find peace soon.”
Each one of us has the power to help others in their hour of greatest need. It’s up to us all to unite in common cause and step up and exhibit that rarest, but most precious of human attributes, the quality of kindness.
(Syrian children still in their "life jackets" waiting for the bus. Some children are sent in arm bands and rubber rings.)
How you can help:
At the foot of this article is a list reputable organisations and grassroots volunteer movements all over Europe who you can contact about how to help. There are three main ways you can contribute to these groups, by making a financial donation, by sending essential non-food items and by volunteering.
If you are making a financial donation, some people like to specify what they would like it to be spent on. Please bear in mind that organisations are likely to know best on how to spend money on the refugee crisis as the situation and needs of people often change very rapidly.
Donations of essential non-food items:
PLEASE contact organisations before sending these kinds of donations, especially large ones. Sometimes organisations stop accepting donations for short periods as they are overwhelmed with parcels and containers. They may also have storage issues at times as well. Sometimes organisations only collect particular items at certain times as they don’t have enough, such as shoes, and don’t accept other items as they have too many currently, such as baby clothes. Please take note of what is required, and if they have no need of what you have collected, don’t send it, but contact other organisations that may need what you have to offer.
Please send culturally appropriate items. The majority of refugee women in this particular crisis have no need of high heels, generally do not use tampons and are unlikely to require bikinis or hotpants.
Please do not send threadbare clothes with holes in. A good rule of thumb is it’s in such poor condition that you would not wear it, then don’t send it.
If you are sending donations from outside of the Schengen area, please pay your import tax in advance and most organisations will not be able to pay it when it arrives.
Always contact organisations beforehand, rather than just turning up, as they may have enough volunteers at that particular time.
If an organisation does not need any more volunteers at the present time, then contact another organisation in different region. Macedonia and Serbia, particularly, are often looking for more people.
If you speak Farsi or Arabic or have medical skills then you will be in very high demand.
Be prepared to work very hard for long, unsociable hours.
Please do not turn up at camps, without having contacted anyone first, and start distributing water/food/toys our of the backs of cars. This often causes a stampede and can lead to safety issues for refugees and volunteers alike.
Reputable organisations helping the refugee crisis across Europe:
(This list is by no means exhaustive and great new organisations are springing up all the time, please do your own research before donating).
Whilst European states quibble over accepting a few tens of thousands of refugees each, Turkey has been quietly managing with over 2 million arrivals from Syria. Support to Life has been doing great work and you can visit their website here. Ad.dar is a community centre which has also been doing fantastic work with Syrian and Palestian refugees in Istanbul. Find out more here.
Lesvos – I’m currently volunteering here with other volunteers. Our organisation is in the process of being turned into an NGO. In the meantime, you can go to our Facebook page and find out how to donate, give money and volunteer there.
Kos – Kos Kindness is a fantastic NGO that has been doing brilliant work. For more information on how to help, visit their Facebook page.
Leros – This is a tiny speck of an island that has been ignored by the media and has been struggling to cope. The population is a mere 8,000 and they have been receiving several thousand arrivals per week. Visit the Facebook page to see what is needed.
Athens – Faros is a great NGO that is doing street outreach work in the Greek capital to help unaccompanied refugee minors. Refugee children are particularly vulnerable and you can find out how you can help by visiting their website.
Macedonia is one of the main routes up to Serbia and streams of refugees pass through here. It’s one of the poorer countries in Europe and so far has had limited help from NGOs, relying mainly on volunteers. For more information on how you can help, please visit this Facebook page.
The charity Legis has also been doing fantastic work in Macedonia. You can visit their website here.
Serbia has coped fantastically well with vast amounts of refugees for whom this country is the gateway to the EU. Volunteers and donations are always needed here. For more information visit this Facebook page.
Sicily is one of the poorest regions in Italy and has been coping with more than 100,000 refugees arriving a year for some time now. The boat journey from Africa is incredibly dangerous and refugees arriving here have often been treated abysmally by people smugglers. The following two organisations have been doing good work out in the camps in Lampedusa and elsewhere. Firstly, www.scegliilgiusto.it and secondly, www.azionecontrolafame.it.
The unofficial camp in Calais, called “The Jungle” by its inhabitants has recently become infamous. Conditions here are very bad and help, especially volunteers, are desperately needed. You can find information on how to help by visiting this Facebook page.