Friday, 29 January 2016

Lesbos Diaries

While I was in Lesbos, I kept a daily diary of my experiences. I shared each day's entry on Facebook, and I have now gathered them up into one blog post for those who didn't get a chance to read them all. Enjoy!

Day 1

After a long overnight flight with a painfully dull 3 hour transfer in Athens, I arrived at Mytilene airport at 8 am local time. I made it to my hostel soon after, dropped off my bags (they wouldn't let me check-in until mid-day, annoyingly) and then got a taxi to Pikpa camp. Pikpa is the camp for the most vulnerable refugees - the sick, the elderly, the disabled, and the young kids who are travelling alone or whose parents didn't make it this far.

As soon as I arrived, I fell in with the infamous Dirty Girls (and boys) crew, sorting the sodden clothes and belongings that refugees had worn on their crossing to Lesbos. At 1 o'clock, after sorting all the bags ready to be washed (and later to be redistributed to refugees), we left to go to Kara Tepe (the camp for Syrian and Palestinian families) to check on the clothes situation there, and then we went on to the orientation meeting at the main registration camp at Moria (at 2 o'clock). The camp is wet, muddy, and undeniably miserable - but the refugees and volunteers still manage to keep smiles on their faces.

After lunch was served to the refugees and orientation was finished, we headed to the beach near the airport as we had word of a boat arrival. We planned to give out dry clothes and collect dirty/wet clothes, but as it was a sunny day, there was nothing for us to do except get people warm and do lots of smiling. I then went back to my hostel for a much-needed rest (I hadn't really slept for 30 hours, apart from a brief nap on the plane) and later went into town to grab some dinner, where I met a couple of Syrian refugees who had registered and were excited to be heading to Athens (and then onto Germany) tomorrow. One of them kept telling me he wanted to go to England - I told him he wouldn't get in and that his best bet was Germany (we had a few language-barrier issues, but we laughed it off!)

They were looking for a place to stay that night, so I recommended a few hostels they could stay in – they then showed me their Google Translate saying "is it possible to sit down in your home"... Not sure what they were getting at there (don't trust google translate!) but anyway, they went on their way to find a bed for the night (now that they'd registered, they were understandably eager to get out of the terrible conditions at Moria camp).

UNHCR, Save the Children, Oxfam and all the other big NGOs are at Moria, but they respect sovereignty so they have their hands tied - because the camps aren't recognised as official refugee camps, the Greek government won't allow them to make any infrastructure changes whatsoever (they weren't even allowed to put doors on the toilets, so I'm told). After my encounter with the Syrian fellas, I went for a drink with some Canadian friends I met earlier. I knew I would have an early start the next day (on the beaches at 9 o'clock for early arrivals, then a night shift in Moria camp), so I went off to bed soon after!

Day 2

On the second day, I had an early start roaming the beaches with Dirty Girls looking for landings, but we didn't see any so we went off to Kara Tepe camp to help them empty their distribution huts so that they could put in a new floor (before, all supplies were getting soaked and muddy). I gave some little Syrian kids some toys to play with, which they loved!

We then went off to Moria for our shift (5 pm to 1:30 am) working in the clothes tent giving out dry clothes to refugees who had just arrived off the boats, soaking wet and sometimes covered in vomit or hypothermic. When we closed the hut, it was my job to sit at the end of the line to tell the refugees we were closed – I was lucky to meet loads of amazing people, Iraqis and Afghanis all living in Moria whilst they got registration to go to Athens.

After that, I had a wander around the camp (it’s normally really quiet at night, except when boats arrive) to see the registration point and find out how everything works. There were refugees camping outside the registration and accommodation area (an old detention centre for criminals), waiting until they could go through and get warm. Some of them had been waiting in the line for 8 or 10 hours, and they were all anxious that they might lose their place in the queue.

The camp is built on a sloped olive grove, so when it rains the water rushes down the hill, flooding the refugees camped out at the bottom (where Better Days for Moria work). It's horrific, really. Luckily it was sunny on my second day, so the camp was in higher spirits and not so wet. I got back to my hostel at around 1:40 and crashed out straight away!

Day 3

I only got to bed at 2 am the night before, so I woke up late on my third day and grabbed some lunch with some friends in Mytilene port. We then got a cab to Moria camp to see what we could help out with - we checked up on the Syrian registration lines and the camping area to make sure all was going smoothly and so that I could get some more information for my article.

When my shift started at 5, 4 trucks arrived from Munich full of donated clothes and blankets, so we unloaded those into the warehouse and distribution tents, and then we started distributing gloves, scarves, hats, socks, and most importantly, ponchos (it was about to rain!)

A little 5 year-old kid turned up wearing only crocs, so I took him to the side and grabbed him the nicest pair of shoes I could find and some warm socks. He was trying them on saying they didn't fit when I realised he had them on the wrong feet, so I put then on for him and he was so grateful! It's moments like that when you realise how important it is for volunteers to be here, not just to give people what they need, but to be a friendly, smiling face to make refugees feel safe and comfortable.

After some more sorting in the clothes tent, I joined a group of volunteers who were digging out rocks to place them on the paths to make a road (rather than walking through mud). To me, it's this sort of thing that seems to be the most important work - little things that will make a huge difference every day. Some young refugees from Iraq helped us to dig the rocks out and break them up, and afterwards we all got together for some chai tea outside one of the tents.

Before I left, a few volunteers and I went round some of the overflow tents giving out blankets to make sure people stay warm. Went for a few drinks after to celebrate getting into Cambridge, and by the time I got back to my hostel in Mytilene I was absolutely knackered!

Day 4

Day 4 was another late start (I'm always knackered after my late shift). I arrived at Moria camp at about 5 pm and finished off building a rock/gravel road through the mud to make sure that people's shoes stay dry and clean for as long as possible.

I then did some more sorting and distributing from the clothes tent, though it was pretty quiet because there weren't many new arrivals during my shift. I also went to have a look at the Afghan registration line and the bus stop to see how things were working down there and to ask some questions for my article.

Later, we gathered in the volunteer tent having some dinner whilst waiting for the new arrivals (we got word of four new boats arriving on lesbos at about 11:30 pm). The camp seemed almost empty - most people were in the tents sleeping.

A couple of friends and I went round giving out playing cards (the refugees here have literally nothing to do, so little things like that instantly put a smile on their faces). One guy spent about 5 minutes showing us a new card trick he had learnt, but it didn't really work in the end (there was a lot of confusion and laughter).

We sat around a camp fire with some refugees and chatted about their lives in Iraq, and most of them were very happy just to be in Europe, despite the terrible conditions in the camp. Finally, after waiting around for the new arrivals, the next shift arrived so we went off for a quick drink in town (there's an awesome place called Damas by the port, always full of volunteers). Then off to bed!

Day 5

Another late start, but it was pretty full-on when I arrived in Moria camp at 4 o'clock. I wandered around the camp to find an Arabic or Farsi translator to help me with my article, but most of them are incredibly busy helping at registration points and talking to refugees (though most of them speak English).

I couldn't really find anyone, so I decided to help giving out tea to the refugees waiting in the registration lines. Some of the young men had been queuing in the cold for 5 or 6 hours. As I was handing out tea to the crowd of shivering refugees, the Greek police opened the gate to the compound. Suddenly there was a huge surge forward and I thought I would be caught in the crowd, but some of the refugees around me made a circle so I could carry on handing out Chai.

I then went back to Afghan Hill (the olive grove area in Moria Camp) to start work in the clothing tent, but within 5 minutes I met a new Afghani refugee who spoke fluent English. The first thing he told me was that he was a "gunner" (an Arsenal fan). I asked him whether I could interview him for HuffPost, and he was really keen on having his story told (an article I’m still working on).

He described his trip from Afghanistan into Iran, onto Turkey and into Greece on the smuggling boats. He had tears in his eyes as he told me about his family in Afghanistan. His story was shockingly horrific, but he took it all in his stride - living in Afghanistan, you become desensitised to violence and terror. I took him to get some Chai tea and get registered, but on the way a young Syrian lady stopped me saying she had lost her family. I didn't know what to do. Luckily, we were able to find them, and I booked them a taxi into town (the women and children felt too vulnerable staying in the large IKEA huts).

Boats kept arriving so the camp was absolutely packed - around 2500 refugees arrived on Thursday alone. This means chaos in the clothing tent: jackets and trousers are left lying about, toiletries and toys are scattered everywhere. I spent the rest of my night handing out clothes, cleaning up the tent, and doing some litter picking around the camp. It was a seriously emotional day for everyone. Little kids walking around bewildered; men and women feeling awkward and frightened.

A few volunteers (Tarah from Canada, Siobhan from Ireland, Dave and Soph from Australia) and I then went for some drinks in Mytilene after our shift, so I only got to sleep at about 5 am. Overall, it was a good day: I helped a load of people, and I interviewed a refugee with an incredible story to tell.

Going Home

I spent my last day in Lesbos travelling around the island with some volunteer friends – we really needed a break from the emotional rollercoaster that is Moria camp. We visited some really cool restaurants and bars by the sea and had a great last night in Damas restaurant in Mytilene port.

On Satuday, my seventh and final day in Lesbos, I woke up early and got a cab to Mytilene airport. It was sad leaving – I felt that I had done so little, and that I could do so much more. I have to say though, the conditions in Lesbos aren’t as bad as they are in Calais – though the need in Greece is perhaps more urgent (as people are arriving traumatised, ill and injured), there are at least large aid agencies in Lesbos and a fair amount of organization.

Overall, I’m glad I went to Lesbos and that I made a difference, albeit insignificant. The trip gave me a broader understanding of the situation in Greece and demonstrated the real need for volunteers in Lesbos, not necessarily on the beaches (indeed, there are often too many volunteers waiting for boats), but in the camps and in the warehouses, doing the jobs that no one else wants to do.

It isn’t glamorous and it isn’t sexy (I can assure you), but it’s worth it to help these people in dire need, many of whom have come from everything, and now have nothing. Anything we can do to soften that contrast is important.

No comments:

Post a Comment