A Travellerspoint blog

Greece

Remembering the positives, along with the negatives

My final blog from Greece...

sunny 20 °C

This is my last blog about the refugee crisis in Greece, as I've just landed back in England. There are a few last things I would like to share if you have the time to read through.

Last week we had a day that was very quiet, with hardly any boats arriving- and it appears it was very much planned that way by the authorities. The Greek Prime Minister was on the island to see the crisis and to see how everyone was coping. It turned out the Turkish coast guards stepped up their coastguard patrols and stopped ALL boats arriving on Lesvos. They also sent four large boats from Lesvos to Athens to clear a number of the refugees from the island, so that it looked like everything was under control. This meant that at about 11pm there were about 10-15 boats that arrived (approx 600 people) in the pitch black after the coast guard had stepped down for the day. I was so angry that people's lives are put at risk even further just to try to conceal things for political reasons.

The next day I started at 7am, but it was also quiet with only one boat arrived in the morning, as the Turkish coastguard is still preventing all boats from crossing. I took a break at about 2pm and I had a quick power nap before heading back at 6pm. When I arrived at Oxy camp there were only about 100 refugees and everything was a bit quiet. So the ex-brownie leader in me decided to get some people together to play a game as I had found a football! I went round and found people who wanted to play, set up two goals and refereed a football match. I know- I think it's hilarious too. It was really good fun and after one yellow card for a handball and two penalties (for when the ball was accidentally kicked over the barrier so the ball had to be searched for over the cliff), the game ended and everyone was happy.

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Photo: The football team (excuse the hi vis jacket!)

The night became busy from about 10pm when quite a few boats arrived. I was in the food tent so was taking people's food tickets (which we give them for free when they arrive) in exchange for food and water. One father was doing a very impressive job of balancing his child on his shoulder whilst holding juice and posing for the photo!

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Photo: A very impressive multi-tasking dad!

By about 2am it was very quiet again and most refugees were asleep, so we closed the good tent and headed home...only to hear that four more boats had arrived (approx 200 people), so we quickly turned around again! The extra problem with night time crossings is that everyone turns up wet generally from the waist down, including children/babies and it is very cold. They are shivering so the race is usually on for all available cars to pick people up so they didn't have to walk for two hours. When they get to Oxy we quickly give them food and dry clothes. On this evening, I finally got into bed at 7.15am for some much needed sleep.

One morning, after we had bussed everyone to the registration camps, we had an empty camp. It's fair to say that the camps were covered in litter and bedding, so we all got stuck in clearing up the rubbish, to make it more pleasant for when the next set of people arrived.

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Photo: Before

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Photo: After

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Photo: Evidence that I got stuck in for those who may not believe me ;)

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Photo: I found this whilst cleaning up...a great example of a picture painting a thousand words

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Photo: The camp has a beautiful backdrop

Another evening a man stood with me in the clothes tent and helped translate. He stayed with me until 3am, helping translate for when I needed to move families into tents, describing symptoms of sick babies to medical professionals and other situations. He even went and came back with a tea for me! He used to run a factory in Syria and was a successful business man, he has sold his house and is now travelling to Europe with his family where he wants to be able to set up his own business again in a safe country.

One more myth to dispel is that refugees are coming to Europe to claim off states and take all money. All I have experienced is refugees being helpful and hard working. When I was cleaning up litter the other day, a man from Afghanistan came over and asked if I would like some help. He grabbed some gloves and a bin liner and got stuck in. I thanked him and he just said he was pleased to be doing something. He used to translate for the British Army in Helmand Province and other areas, until he was shot in the foot and felt it was no longer safe. If these were Americans and Australians, would our reaction be the same? Would we doubt their intentions? Assume they aren't really in danger and that they are just milking it to get benefits? I very much doubt it.

In my first blog, I said I was uncomfortable about being surrounded by tourists, given the current crisis. I have changed my perspective on tourism since first arriving though. Tourism is so so important for this small island. Without tourism, this island will suffer even more and some bookings for next year have already been cancelled. For people to be around to help refugees, we need the local economies to function, so tourists should still be coming here, but just need to be sensitive to the situation (and preferably spend a day or two volunteering) in my opinion :) .

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Photo: Ariel picture of Mytilini, Lesvos

One day it was incredibly stormy (we struggled to walk down the road in a straight line, things were falling off buildings)! To our horror, some boats still arrived. Some mentioned that the people smugglers had been offering a discount from $1000 to $600, because it was so dangerous. This shows these people couldn't care less about safety. I was told of one woman who arrived a few days ago with a baby who was an hour old. She had given birth on the beach in Turkey and was told that she must still get on the boat. As soon as she arrived in Greece, a doctor was on hand to see her and her child. I could keep going with heart breaking stories that I've heard first hand from refugees themselves, but I think I've painted a picture by now.

On the flip side of all of these sad stories, I think it's important to talk about the positive experiences I've had too. Seeing people excited in the hope they can now finish their education, the joy on a girls face as she called her mum from my phone to tell her she was safe after being rescued from a sinking boat by the coast guard, the constant compliments and thanks that we've had from people who just can't process that volunteers care about them (as they have often been treated so badly, especially in Turkey), the few people I've met who I have swapped details with and will keep in touch with to see how they get on and one day hopefully meet again when they are settled in Europe, the girl of about 8 who came up to me and wanted to play clapping games, the language barrier not being a problem. The list of positive experiences is also very long and shouldn't be forgotten.

I've been lucky to be with the volunteer group 'Starfish' for the last 10 days or so of my trip. The volunteers at Starfish are amazing and the group are doing incredible things. Without this group there would be no proper 'welcome' to Europe for those arriving in the north of the island, often no food, no dry clothes and no transport to the other part of the island. If you have time, please read the article at the end of this blog where Melinda (who runs the group) was interviewed for Al Jazeera news, and she talks about the important role the group plays. This whole trip has been truly life changing and will stay with me for ever for many, many reasons.

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Photo: Why the group is called 'Starfish'

Finally a really big thank you for taking the time to read these blogs. I really wanted to share this experience and convey the realities of the refugee crisis, to share some of the stories of the people seeking refugee and to increase our understanding of why people are forced to take this route to safety. I've been able to do that because you have taken the time to read- so thank you ?

Related links:

http://www.aljazeera.com/news/2015/10/captain-table-restaurant-helping-refugees-151012133022206.html

http://www.itv.com/news/2015-10-12/i-cant-sleep-at-night-greeces-coast-guard-count-the-cost-of-the-refugee-crisis/

http://www.itv.com/news/update/2015-10-13/funeral-held-for-baby-who-died-during-crossing-to-lesbos/

Posted by Poppy90 09:00 Archived in Greece Tagged people #greece #lesvos #refugees #volunteering #blog #molyvos Comments (1)

The stark realities of deaths in the Mediterranean Sea

sunny 23 °C

Two nights ago, I saw a child die.

I was on a shift at the harbour in Molyvos. This involves being on standby for when the coastguard comes in with people they have had to rescue from the waters. It was the first time I had been on this shift. It was dark and cold and when people arrive they are soaked through through as they have often been submerged in the water. The first boats came in at about 7.30 pm and three of us handed out emergency blankets, took them to a small camp very close by and gave everyone food and dry clothes.

At about 9pm we were notified that the coastguard was bringing in another group of people they had rescued at sea, but that there was a child with a very low pulse and a doctor was urgently needed to meet the boat when it arrived. We ran down with the harbour with emergency blankets and there were already other volunteers/doctors there due to the seriousness of the situation. As soon as the boat came close enough the child (who cannot have been more than 1 years old) was passed to a doctor, who immediately began CPR with two other Doctors. We tried to keep everyone calm, move spectators away and get emergency blankets to the other people who didn't have them. There was another family on the boat who needed a doctor and a family approached me saying that their child urgently needed an injection from a doctor. Thankfully another doctor became free and was able to help this other family. The other volunteers took the rest of the group away to the camp, as usual. The doctors continued to try to save the child on the ground, in the middle of all of this happening around them.

There was one boy left who was very distressed, who had not gone with everyone else. I then realised that he was the older brother of the little boy having CPR. His mother was being looked after by a volunteer who spoke Arabic. I stayed with him whilst the doctors tried everything they could do. They couldn't have done anymore and unfortunately the boy died.

I don't think it's fair on the family or right to talk about all the details of everything that happened, so I won't. I do feel that it's important to write this blog though because this is the reality for a lot of families. They are so desperate to flee war that they put themselves in danger, because they have no other choice. A mother with three children left her country to try to keep them safe, and now only has two children. Heart breaking doesn't even cover how I feel about what happened and what I saw this family go through.

I haven't used the word 'refugee' in this post deliberately. Being a refugee is a status. The definition of a refugee is 'a person who has been forced to leave their country in order to escape war, persecution, or natural disaster'. This group of people are human beings and sometimes the portrayal in the media and the fact that there are so many people seeking refugee, means it's easy to forget these people are individuals, each with their own story. I saw a mother lose her son and two brothers lose their sibling. No family should ever have to go through that.

As I type this I'm sat on a balcony, that overlooks exactly where this all happened. If you walked by there now, you'd have no idea anything had happened. It's a beautiful sunny day, the sea is calm, there are locals and tourists alike going about there day. Of course, life continues for the rest of us, but it's important that we don't forget. This isn't an isolated incident and we all have to do everything we can to try to stop unnecessary deaths. The UNHCR (The UN Refugee Agency) website stated in August, an estimated 2,500 have died in the Mediterranean Sea this year alone. This is of an estimated 300,000 people making this journey. This little boy will now join that statistic.

When meeting these people, either on your travels, where you live or anywhere else, please remember they each have a story and we should show kindness to them and welcome them. This family will be placed in Europe somewhere safe and, just like everyone else, deserve that as a minimum.

Posted by Poppy90 03:57 Archived in Greece Tagged #greece #lesvos #volunteering #blog #perspective #molyvos Comments (0)

The arrival of refugees by boat (Molyvos)

A trip to the north of the island where the refugees arrive on boats arrive from Turkey

semi-overcast 22 °C

I feel I have so much to share but am trying my best to keep this to a minimum and interesting.... It's much harder than I thought!

I have taken a few photos of camp Moira at Mytilini, to show you the conditions. One guy has travelled from the UK and set up a welcome stand. Refugees were arriving at the camp with no idea of where to go, what was where etc and there is no information point. so he drove to the island and set up this stand explaining where things were, what they needed to do and current border sits ruins. Such an amazing idea!!!

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Photo: Info board at welcome camp re border crossings

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Photo: queuing for registration at camp Moira

I met another volunteer, Aliki, and we decided to hire a car drive up to Molyvos, which is the northern point of the island. This is the closest point to Turkey and therefore the place where the overwhelming majority of refugees boat landings are. About half way there (45 minutes in), we began to see groups of refugees walking back to Mytilini. They had decided to walk 60km in the baking sun, rather than wait for a bus. The other possibility is that there boat landed where there were no volunteers and they were none the wiser that buses were being put on for them. It is illegal to transport refugees here (as they have not been through the registration process at this stage), without prior agreement, so many locals/tourists are unable to help. We had no supplies with us, so we were unable to hand anything out.

We got to the section of dirt track which follows the 3 miles or so of beach where most boats arrive. I have no idea how the tiny car we had rented managed to go along it in one piece as clearly this road is meant for jeeps and 4x4s!

Along this stretch were dozens of deflated boats and hundreds of life jackets.

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Photo: boats and jackets along the beach from Skala to Eftalou

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Photo: view from a cliff of hundreds of life jackets

It was incredibly surreal to see so close and there were refugees who are being helped off the hosts by volunteers. This part of the island is seeing 50+ boats a day and is getting busier and busier as people try and cross before the weather deteriorates. To put the numbers into perspective, over 73,000 refugees arrived in September to this island alone.

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Photo: new arrivals being helped by volunteers

The next day we helped sort through some clothing donations in Molyvos, which are then taken to the beach so that refugees can change into dry clothes when they arrive. At about 4pm we went to the refugee 'camp' at Oxy. I say 'camp' as it was designed to be a pick up point for refugees to be taken by bus to Mytilini so they can be registered. This area has a few UN tents for shelter, but it is being run by a volunteer group, which we have now joined. The place is a dirt area, with a road on the edge, with a cliff face after that. I cannot even try to describe the conditions, it's not a place for adults to be, never mind children. It is probably designed to hold about 200-300 people. On this day it was holding thousands as police had ordered that no more refugees could go to the registration camps in Mytilini due to overcrowding. It seems the police had not considered the bottle neck that would cause in Oxy.

This ultimately led to 2,000 people sleeping along the side of this road. One of my jobs was to go along and tell all the families at about 6/7pm that they were going to have to sleep the night there. People looked at me and asked where, I had to point at the ground and say here. We could take women and babies into one tent to try and give some cover, but young children and hundreds of families were still outside. It is very cold at night and it was heartbreaking. Some asked if they could stay in hotels as they had money, but they cannot as they are still not registered. At about 10pm we had some blankets delivered and we went around in the pitch black trying to find children/babies/pregnant women who were sleeping with no blankets and cover them. We also handed out sandwiches and water to those still awake. We finished just after 1am. That was hardest day so far. There were no NGOs present here- this was all co-ordinated and completed by volunteers. Although there are a few UN tents here, they are not present or running the camp at the moment.

The next day was similar, although we sent buses to Mytilini with 3,360 people, which was a great number! These buses are all paid for by charities/volunteers/NGOs. The next night though, there were still about 1,600 people sleeping overnight.

Since being in Oxy I have spoken to a number of refugees. One refugee from Afghanistan is 19 years old, been travelling for four months to reach this point and just wants to carry on his education. He was particularly helpful with translating!

The refugees can see we are volunteers and some are also helping with organising lines etc, which is a massive help. Even when we have to give difficult messages to people, they still thank you for telling them what is going on. Given the situation they are in, I don't think I've ever met people who are so patient- even if queueing British style is not something that comes naturally! They are given a sandwich, a piece of fruit and a bottle of water when they arrive. On a few occasions I have been offered food by the refugees as a thank you as they can also see we are hot and tired. Of course I have declined, but it's very touching when they have hardly anything but still want to thank you and share what they have.

I have a stinking cold, but I really couldn't care less. This is without a doubt the most worthwhile thing I've ever done, and whilst I don't expect appreciation, you get it from people everyday.

This morning I read the BBC news article about Theresa May concerned with integration of refugees and migrants into society. A group of us were discussing the cultural differences yesterday and how it will be hard it will be for some people to adjust. We all feel very strongly that by welcoming these people now in this way and doing everything can do, smiling, showing them kindness, the process of integration will be much easier for them. They will start to trust us. By ignoring them and not caring it will only lead to resentment and further separation down the line.

Oh and the country everyone wants to go to? Germany. Not a single person has mentioned the UK to me....

Posted by Poppy90 06:33 Archived in Greece Tagged #greece #refugees #volunteering #blog #oxycamp #molyvos Comments (5)

First few days in Moira Camp (Lesvos)

Overview of the first few days

sunny 22 °C

So the next day I woke up and was feeling tired. I thought what an achievement it had been that I hadn't had a single cup of tea in 2 days! Then I very quickly realised that an actual achievement would be making the journey from Syria to Greece, by walking miles, often taking two long journeys by open boat and in some instances (of reportedly) having the Turkish coastguard try to shoot at you and sink your boat with your family on board! Seriously though. There have also been stories of coast guards (not Greek coast guards) leaving migrants to drown, whilst watching and drinking coffee. This place and situation gives you perspective!

I am currently helping Doctors of the World with aid distribution at Moira Camp. The day was very intense. One of the first things I saw was a girl about 8 years old being carried to the Drs, her face had totally ballooned on one side and you couldn't see her eye. There was blood on her face too- I've no idea what happened but it was a difficult sight to see.

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Photo: Donations that needed sorting!

After separating the clothes into men's/woman's/children's items yesterday, we started distributing them. The clothes are in a storage room, with another storage room next door where we give out toiletries, sanitary products, baby food etc. The language barrier was difficult at times, especially when asking parents how old their baby is so that you can provide the right food/milk. The families are grateful, especially when you are providing things for their children. It's a very humbling experience at times. Seeing children's faces light up when they are given a teddy bear is great (unfortunately we have run out of those already, but I'm on the hunt to find some more).

I ended up holding a lot of babies, mainly whilst their mothers were trying on shoes to wear. It's hard to imagine that babies as young as 4 months have been on a boat across the Mediterranean Sea only hours/one day before. There was a pregnant woman who was 4 months pregnant who was seeing the doctor as she was forced to jump from a boat a few days ago. She had had stomach pains ever since. The Doctors called an ambulance and she was taken to hospital. These people have not made these journeys out of choice in any way, and we all need to remember that. They are just like you and I, they've just been put in a horrific situation, where their lives are at risk to the point they have no choice but to flee and take themselves on a dangerous journey to try and escape. There are so many people to help that we can't help them all. At times there were crying mothers wanting to get to the front and families who we had to turn away after we had been told we had to stop (non-essential) giving, due to the crowds. Without a shadow of a doubt that was the hardest part. Saying no to people in desperate need (but knowing its for the greater good of being allowed to continue in the long run) is extremely hard and it took me a while to come round to understanding this.

On a lighter note, there are some funny moments too, when a mother is talking to me in Arabic and I am trying to explain that I don't understand and trying to act things out, her daughter of about 8 years repeated what her mother had said to me louder and slower like I would understand it then. She seemed to find it funny that I didn't understand :) . There were many gestures throughout the day as it was the only way to communicate- which with it came many smiles from us and the refugees, with everyone doing their best.

The thing I'm surprised about the most is that there appears to be no free food or water being distributed at the camp. There are some vans and vendors selling at the front of the camp, but some families have lost their money in the sea. I was told that in two days time they hope to be distributing this again.

The next day I heard two very sad stories before 9am, about the day before. The first was a crying mother who went to the Doctors with her baby that was four DAYS old. She was concerned that the baby was ill - she had given birth on the boat on her way over to Greece.

The second was a situation that an interpreter told me over breakfast. He had been translating for an Iraqi mother who was explaining her situation. She had been on a boat with 28 other people, including her three children. The children were in the cabin (presumably as this was seen as the safest place for them to be whilst crossing). Unfortunately the boat capsized and everyone else on the boat survived, except for all three of her children, who died because they were trapped inside the cabin. Apparently she was crying and saying that there was nothing to live for now. I cannot comprehend what she must be going through but the situation is heart breaking and again shows that these people need support.

The rest of the day was spent handing out clothing and toiletries to refugees. A mother and son arrived at the clothing area who were wet through, having just arrived on the boat and we managed to get them dry clothes to change into. There was one moment when there was so much demand that people began to push and shout, it became very chaotic. There were three of us having to hold everyone back from entering the door. We had to close temporarily, but after 30 minutes or so, when everyone was a little calmer, we were able to carry on handing out things.

Two ending thoughts:

1) We should all be far more thankful for the things and people that we have in our lives
2) I've not worked out how to correct the typos from my last blog... (But as above!)

Posted by Poppy90 11:51 Archived in Greece Tagged #lesvos #refugees #volunteering #mytilini #donations #blog #perspective Comments (1)

Volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece

...because with time on my hands I couldn't think of a more worthwhile cause

sunny 20 °C

So with visa drama meaning that I couldn't leave the country just yet, or process my key visas for another two weeks, I finally committed to do something that I've been wanting to do since I saw the refugee crisis unfold- help in some way (because like it or not getting angry/upset whilst watching the news doesn't improve the situation). So I took to the Internet and applied to be a volunteer for METAction (a Greek NGO) and fly to Greece to help on the small island of Lesvos, which has been widely reported as being in desperate need to volunteers with hundreds or thousands of refugees arriving by small dingey boat everyday, with resources stretched to the max. I left London Friday evening and hopped on a plane.

There was something quite odd about getting on a plane to an area you know is in complete crisis and being surrounded by holiday makers off to the same place. I'm not judging those people as many of us have been on holiday to countries where there is some form of 'issue' ongoing (I've been to Eygpt for one). I think it's the proximity of the crisis/holiday resorts that makes it so jarring - some holidaymakers are going to be sunbathing on the beach, literally just yards from where a boat of refugees will land in desperate need.

Coming into land I looked out of the window. You'd have no idea from the sky that the beautiful small island below was the centre of hundreds of boat landings and thousands of stranded refugees. The only thing I could see that gave some indication were blobs of orange on beaches, which are piles of life jackets.

The next day, I was picked up by one of the local co-ordinators and went for dinner with everyone from METAction and a few UN employees who work together. They were all incredibly friendly and taught me some Greek whilst we drank oozo and ate some amazing salads. The group consisted of interpreters of many languages, Guardians (who escort unaccompanied minors) and local co-ordinators. METAction have been in Lesvos since January. At that stage they were receiving and registering around 700 refugees a month. By August that number had swelled to 60,000 and they were working 24 hours in order to keep everything moving. During the meal they did find it very funny that I didn't want ice cubes (as it wasn't bottled water and I didn't want to risk being ill), given the conditions of the camp I was going to be in the next day!

I was dropped off in my hotel and would be picked up at midday the next day. At that stage it was unclear exactly what I was going to be doing, but I made it clear that I was happy to get stuck in doing whatever was needed. I'm looking forward to getting stuck in and helping.

Related links:
http://www.metadrasi.org/eng/

Posted by Poppy90 11:58 Archived in Greece Tagged # #greece #lesvos #refugees #volunteering #metaaction #moria #karatepe Comments (0)

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