Safe Passage and the Right for All to Seek a Better Life Without Having to Risk Losing it on the Way

Safe Passage and the Right for All to Seek a Better Life Without Having to Risk Losing it on the Way

As you may have noticed my blog has been sadly neglected over the past week or so and I’ve gone the longest period without writing since I began. I’m sorry for this, because I’m enormously grateful that you, readers, take time to read it. I like to keep you updated and I feel a duty to do so. But my heart just hasn’t been in it. Nothing positive jumps out for me to report on. My energy is all spent up, even if there haven’t been many guests (refugees) and there hasn’t been too much work to do. It is time for a break, and thankfully, in one week’s time, I will be back in Scotland, inshallah. But it isn’t just the prolonged nature of my stay that has tired me out. It is politics.

Two events have scunnered me, although I know I shouldn’t really be surprised. The effects of the EU’s deal with Turkey are already being seen here.  In exchange for a 3 billion aid package from the EU (intended to help improve lives for refugees currently in Turkey, but will that happen?), Turkey is supposed to be stepping up border controls and reducing the numbers of refugees and migrants entering Europe. So let’s get this straight. The European Union is negotiating with a country with an appalling human rights record, a country which they don’t want to let into the EU for that reason amongst many others, a country with horrific living conditions for refugees… to keep the refugees there and out of Europe? What do you expect, I hear you say. Well, I expect better, but I no don’t know how to go about demanding this change.

And let’s be realistic… when people are desperate, and they’ve already committed their life savings and set their minds to seek a better life, or a life of safety in Europe, can they really be stopped? The refugee flow will only change places. People are already being forced to take more dangerous journeys. What we have seen here is definitely a reduction in the number of arrivals during the day, but running parallel to this we see a change in the pattern of the boats that arrive. The 15km stretch of coastline in the north which was so busy before is quiet during the day now, but more boats arrive at night. More boats are arriving to the south of the airport in Mytilini, under cover of darkness. So the EU, in all its human rights wisdom, is forcing people to make a longer and much more dangerous journey to try and get there. Keep them out. If they die on the way, that’s better.

Anger doesn’t come close to it. Deep shame that in 2015, people fleeing wars and poverty in search of a safe or better life have to risk their lives to do so is bad enough. That the EU then implements deals that put lives even more at risk is beyond comprehension. This has also highlighted the difficulties of working in this ever transient situation: the north end of the island is now excellently equipped with volunteers, tents, lifeguards, rescue operations and supplies as a result of the high numbers previously arriving there. The south has nothing like this in place as very few boats landed there until recently, so we are unable to provide a proper reception for the refugees although efforts are now being transferred.

The second event was the UK’s almost immediate bombing of targets in Syria following the overwhelming parliamentary majority in favour of military intervention. As we are surrounded on a daily basis by desperate people fleeing death and destruction from countries where the UK has previously meddled militarily, it was all the more difficult for me to swallow. I see only a government of egotistical idiots, hell bent on leaving a political legacy for themselves and for whom this military intervention seems only to be about keeping our (British) streets safe, and not about Syrian lives at all. I would have hoped that there would at least be a mention of more Syrian refugees being offered resettlement in Britain in the light of this action, but I have heard nothing. If anyone knows otherwise, then please let me know. If anyone would like to join me in petitioning the government to demand this, then contact me. I enjoyed reading this article from Commonspace on the matter, where they recognise that there is an argument for intervention, but not in the way it has been presented and justified.

This wee girl from Afghanistan and her family stayed in our tent for several days as they waited for their papers to continue their journey to safety.
This wee girl from Afghanistan and her family stayed in our tent for several days as they waited for their papers to continue their journey to safety.

In the midst of all this policy and decisions taken at the expense of human lives by people who will probably never see the direct impact on those lives, we have continued to serve chai to the good people who have had the misfortune to end up in Moria on their way to Europe in search of a better life.

The majority of our guests have almost consistently been Afghans. But recently there has been a strong presence of men from Pakistan and in the past few days, men from Morocco. They’re not refugees, I hear you say. Wait a second.

The Pakistani men are desperately poor. They have absolutely nothing with them. No money. No belongings. No food. Nothing and no one to fall back on, except us, as long as they are in Moria. Marked all over their faces is hardship. Desperation. Suffering. In their eyes, no hope. Just a vacant look. They think that if they get to Germany they will be allowed to stay, because they heard that Germany is letting people stay. Yes, but not you, my friends. They have spent everything they have, or have borrowed what is an absolute fortune at home, at huge interest rates, to be able to get this far. And now they are realising that it is not what they had heard. They wish they hadn’t come. There is no way they will be able to stay in Europe legally and they will almost certainly be deported very soon. We are working with some dear friends, fellow volunteers who are members of the British-Pakistani community, to see about mounting a media campaign in Pakistan to discourage men like those we see from making this futile journey, in the nicest and kindest way so that they do not end up in a worse situation than before. It is very hard to see this human suffering on a daily basis, but I am grateful because it has given me new perspectives.

I suppose the point I wish to make here is this: whether a person is fleeing immediate threat to their life as a result of war or danger, or whether they are seeking to escape a long and slow death from poverty and corruption, are they not searching for the same thing, a better life?

There has been a lot of pussy-footing around the terms ‘refugee’ and ‘economic migrant’. Even I fell into the trap of making differences in the beginning. I think it is dangerous to do so. It further dehumanises. Whatever a person’s motives for leaving their home, let’s remember that no one takes such a decision lightly, and no one does it if the life they wish to live is available to them at home. I know I’m preaching to the converted but please remember to put a face and a life to the terms and let’s not fall into the trap of further dehumanisation. We really are all the same, just people, looking to live our lives in safety and dignity, some of us able to do so freely, others are forced to risk their lives to do so.

Tonight I take the 8pm ferry to Athens, along with hundreds or thousands of people who have landed on the shores of Lesvos over the past few days and who, clutching their Greek registration papers, tentatively step out on the next step of their journey. I’m nervous. I don’t know what lies ahead either, but I do have the security of a plane ticket to Edinburgh and friends and family waiting for me.

I will travel with friends to the Greek-Macedonian border to get a better understanding of the situation there. I will spend some time in Athens to see how the situation is there. After almost 7 weeks on Lesvos, I only know one step of their journey and if I am to be of any use to anyone, I think I need to understand a little more.

I will try to continue posting once on the road but it may not be possible on this blog. Like the Facebook page “A Safe Place to Call Home” as I will certainly be able to update there.

Thank you all for your continued encouragement and support.

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Sad Farewells and First Confrontation with Authorities

Sad Farewells and First Confrontation with Authorities

This morning Nicky and I arrived at the tea tent at 6am to have tea on the go at first light. Our dear helpers and tent guards, Mohammed Ali, Mohammed and Hameed were still sleeping, wrapped up cosily in their grey UNHCR blankets, sleeping on a huge UNHCR tarp and some foam mats we found them. We didn’t like to wake them up, wondering what time they had finally gone to bed. When we left last night, their numbers had come up and they were waiting in line to register.

We knew they and their families would be anxious to continue their journey into onwards now that they had their documents and so as soon as everything was under control I drove Mohammed Ali and Hameed into Mytilini to buy their boat tickets to Athens. Tickets cost 45 euros 50 cents and they must show their registration papers. With tickets bought for all 13 family members for the 8 o’clock evening ferry, we headed back to the camp and the tea tent.

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Hameed and Mohammed after we had got their boat tickets.

 

It has been a whirlwind of activity all day. Constant tea preparation, handing out of fruit, water, biscuits, bread and sandwiches. Rain ponchos too. Sourcing and buying of supplies. Orientating volunteers and coordinating requests and deliveries. All caught up in the emotion of having to say goodbye to the three men who have so dutifully helped us non-stop for the last three days and with whom we have inevitably formed a very close bond.

On top of the routine preparation and distribution we were desperately searching for a new tent to replace our garden party one, which has so far withstood the storms but we don’t want to take any more risks. A chance encounter with a volunteer I met when I first arrived has led us to a new, heavy duty marquee. We are over the moon about this! It should be going up tomorrow. At some points during my stay I have wondered if I made a mistake staying for such a long time. Now I know it was a good decision – the contacts I have made and the lay of the land I have after 6 weeks are really paying off.

It took ages to get our families ready and into the van and car to drive them to the port. We encouraged them to stock up now on food and water for the 12 hour boat journey and warm clothes and sleeping bags for the long onward journey through Europe. They were very sad to be leaving behind what had become, for those three short days and two nights, a safe place to call home. They were visibly apprehensive about the unknowns ahead. We thought they had literally left a family member in the camp when they told us ” we think we are leaving behind family in the camp”. No, they meant that for them, we had become family. 

Parked in the port we unloaded and just like that, I found myself in my first confrontation with Greek officials. And I am choosing to write about it here because it was deeply unpleasant and wholly unacceptable and this is partly a way of denouncing it in addition to making official reports to an NGO monitoring such abuses of power by the authorities, as well as to the police.  

I had left the driver’s door open which is ordinarily nothing to worry about. As I was taking the bags out the boot I happened to notice a man wearing a hooded sweatshirt leaning into the car as if looking for something. Surprised and taken aback I stepped in to ask him what he was doing and to please get out, he had no business there. The first and only possibility that crossed my mind was that he was a thief. He responded defensively and aggressively that he was a member of the police and had to search the car. He also made it immediately clear that he was not going to be calm, understanding or professional in any way. As he was not wearing anything on his top half that identified him as police, we were having a hard time believing this or understanding why he had not informed us first of his duty to search all cars arriving at the port. Given his attitude and aggression, Nicky and I demanded to see his ID (a perfectly reasonable and legal request here in Greece), pointing out that he was in absolutely no way identifiable as a police officer. He refused flatly, over and over again and the hostility towards us only escalated. For the second time today I was glad for the length of my stay: two Greek girls from Pikpa Village of All Together pulled up right next to us completely by chance and I asked them to step in and try to make this man see sense. Not wanting to upset our friends and their families waiting nearby with this, I kept calm, tried to calm him down and took out my head torch (surely if the police really wanted to do a thorough job of searching the car at night, they would have a torch) to comply, showing him that all I was carrying in the back was a load of children’s teddy bears and toys. For the moment, I let it drop. Now wasn’t the time, the boat was leaving soon.

After a group photo, we said an emotional goodbye to our beautiful friends from Afghanistan and watched as they walked up the walkway onto the boat, carrying their bundles of blankets and clothes. They have promised to keep in touch and let us know where they get to each day. Two of them are hoping to get to the UK, as one has family in London. We have begged them not to try and get in through the Channel Tunnel and tried to make them understand how dangerous it is.

 

To the Greek port police officer I am grateful because I had no time for tears then. We were not leaving without making him understand that his abuse of power was unacceptable and that there would be consequences. It took a long time, and the help of our local friends from Pikpa and the stubborn determination of Nicky. After about 30 minutes, I could see the message had got through. He was repentant and scared of being reported. But he will be. Both the Greek people and the refugees are all too frequently victims of police brutality and this a very, very small way we can support them in their struggle against it.

 

 

Tea Tent Up and Running at Moria

Hundreds of litres of water. Thousands of cups of tea. Countless kilos of sugar and boxes of biscuits. The tea tent we have put so much energy into has come into existence and sits (and is hopefully still sitting there, I write in the midst of gusty winds, heavy rain and thunder and lightning and am wondering whether to go back and check everyone and everything is OK) on the Afghan side of Moria, just off the road at the bottom of the hill in the olive groves.

Things came together very quickly yesterday with many willing hands from all corners of the world. The tent was secured, pallets sourced and placed for flooring, ropes strung up for crowd and queue control. Water drums filled at the new UNHCR taps at the top of the hill, lemons squeezed, and by late afternoon we were serving our first cups of steaming hot tea to some very happy refugees! (Did I mention that after a few days of calm, boat arrivals returned to  their normal numbers yesterday and over 2000 people arrived, and I’m sure between 2000-3000 more arrived today).

Today tea was served from 6am till 10pm. That’s a lot of tea, a lot of warm hands and bellies. Lots of smiling faces. These two days have been some of the nicest I have spent since arriving on Lesvos. The social space created by the tea tent is very special – a place of calm, of chatter, of kindness and warmth, a place to get to know each other over a cup of tea. In the evening the surrounding olive grove is dotted with campfires and people snuggled round trying to keep warm. During the day people arrive and go about making a small space of their own in preparation for the night. The luckiest people are housed inside the registration centre – families and other vulnerable people. But the overspill is outside, at the mercy of the weather, the wind, the cold. Processing times for registration are too long and shelter is totally insufficient for the numbers arriving. All it would take is one more huge UNHCR tent. For those left outside, if they’re lucky they’ll get a wee tent, if not they might rig up a shelter out of some plastic, tarpaulin and tape. Cardboard boxes are good for sleeping on. We’ll try and make sure everyone has a blanket or sleeping bag. Honestly, I don’t think these tents will last long in the storm that is brewing outside. As for that cardboard it will already be soaking wet. And so will all the blankets.

Today we have served tea to and helped people from so many corners of the globe. Afghanistan. Iran. Iraq. Syria. But also Algeria. The Gambia. Uganda. Haiti. Cuba. Pakistan. And the van did its duty today as well. As we drove to camp this morning we passed a trail of refugees walking slowly along the road. We stopped to pick them up and shuttled back and forward until everyone was at Moria. Their boat must have landed somewhere near by, in a part of the island there boats don’t usually arrive. A young couple sat up front with me in the van, giggling happily. The woman was wearing the finest fur coat I’ve ever seen! Some people manage to come across the sea in style and it is so nice to see!

Here are some photos from yesterday and today. We are so grateful to our helpers from Afghanistan, kind and willing men who arrive and see we need help and take it upon themselves to translate, teach us Farsi/Dari/Pashto, make sure people queue in a single line, serve tea and biscuits and fetch water and look out for us. As thanks, they sleep in the tent at night, hopefully warm and dry, and look after all the equipment. I hope to write more about them and their stories in another post.

And here’s a video too, just for good measure:

 

 

 

 

 

 

People of Nowhere

This beautifully and poignantly shot video shows you everything you need to know about the people passing through Lesvos and what their experience here on the island is like, and what it is like for us volunteers too. Thank you Lior Sperandeo for a really magnificent portrait of resilience and humanity.

<p><a href=”https://vimeo.com/144857118″>People of Nowhere</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/liorsperandeo”>Lior Sperandeo</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a&gt;.</p>

All Quiet on the Shores of Lesvos

For a number of days now, boat arrivals have decreased dramatically and stopped altogether in some places. We are all left speculating as to the reasons for this. One person who claims to have a contact in Turkey says there are 100,000 people ready to go, but the smugglers have run out of boats. Or could there be more patrols on the Turkish side, sending the boats back, as part of the EU’s deal with Turkey to improve border control? Have they really run out of boats, and if so, why and how? Imports blocked perhaps? Or is it the weather? It is blowing a gale outside as I write, locals say with the wind in this direction it would be impossible to set off from Turkey. I certainly hope no one is on the sea in this weather.

As we speculate over boats and the availability of them to the smugglers, I have taken some photos of some of the vessels the refugees are arriving on. I was shocked to see one enormous, seen-much-better-days luxurious sort of party boat tied up in the harbour at Mtyilini. It didn’t take much to figure out it was a refugee boat, with the life jackets strewn on deck. How many people will they have crammed in there? Where did they land? What would have happened if the boat had got into trouble? How much did each person pay to be on it? Next to it a much smaller but still out of place leisure boat. Same questions asked.

Along the shore here, more old wooden boats that had probably long ago been scrapped, written off as unseaworthy. Glass windows smashed on one- what a reassuring sight. I have no photo of the one that shocked me most… a wooden boat, could fit a few people comfortably. Had a toilet on board… a toilet that was ripped out but still hanging there. The body of the boat, the deck, the woodwork was rotting and completely ripped up in places. The boat was a wreck. And people had still been put on it and sent over the sea.

So few boats means very few refugees or none at all. This is a strange sensation for everyone who has dedicated their time and energy for such a long time to helping them along their journey. Volunteers are making the most of empty camps to reorganise, sort donations, improve infrastructure. I am so impressed by everything that has been put in place since my arrival, absolutely everything is developing and improving.

We are all under a spell of uncertainty. What is holding people back and should we expect a tidal wave of boats any day now? If so, when? People who only have a short time to volunteer are asking if they should go elsewhere, to the Greek border with Macedonia, for example, where certain nationalities are not being allowed through and are stuck there with nothing.

I am enjoying having some peaceful time and recharging my batteries. I did something I have longed to do since arriving here: go running along the “dirt road”. This is the 15k stretch of coast from Eftalou to Skala Sikaminea where all the boats arrive. I’ve run it in the dark, running to meet a boat. I’ve run it in the day, running to meet a boat. I haven’t “gone for a run” along it until now because, well, can you imagine going running along a refugee road, running past hundreds of exhausted people struggling to walk the several kilometres till they can get a bus? No, neither could I. So today, refugee free, I ran it.  That was good.

On a work note, I am continuing to work on a small but challenging project with dear friend and fellow volunteer Juval: our tea tent at Moria. It was all systems go until our designated tent blew away (not in the least bit surprising given the quality of the tent and the strength of the wind here). We were busy finding pallets for raised flooring and getting a table made, but everything is on hold until another tent arrives. We need something really heavy duty to withstand this wind. We hope we can find it in the next couple of days.

On a final note, please take 8 minutes to watch this video from the Guardian. I recommend it because it will give you a very good idea of what the different places you hear me talking about are like: Moria registration camp for the non-Syrian refugees. Kara Tepe camp for the Syrians. Oxy transit camp features, which is where I have frequently driven people to in the van, it is just ten minutes from the beach here. At the end of the video you will see the port in Mytilini where they take the huge ferry to mainland Greece. You will also see the boat arrivals. Yes, it’s just like in the video. As for the debate put forward by the video on “classes” of refugees I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on this. It is very strange to receive people from many different war-torn or difficult countries and know that they will not all receive the same treatment. Watch it here.

 

 

 

 

Back at Moria

Back at Moria

A change is as good as a rest, they say. With this in mind and satisfied that the Lighthouse beach is now in very capable hands and that I can let go of this project now, myself and fellow volunteer Juval set off to Mytilini for a couple of days to assess the needs down there. Juval is a man on a mission to warm hands, hearts and bellies with hot tea. Everyday at the Lighthouse, every person stepping off a boat is greeted with a steaming cup of a hot sweet black lemon tea concoction. Delicious and nutritious!

We thought that the people waiting to register in Moria might need a dose of that too.

Moria is a registration centre. It featured in one of my first posts. It was horrifying. It is better now, but it is still not acceptable. All non-Syrian people must register here with the Greek authorities for their papers that allow them to continue to travel throughout Greece. As you will see, the nationalities are many: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia, Pakistan, Morocco… the list goes on. On arrival at the centre, they are issued with a ticket with a number. This sounds easy, but the only instructions are written in English, and there is NO ONE in charge of orientating the new arrivals. Each person is dumped off a bus and left to figure things out for themselves. It took me a while and I still don’t fully understand. (I had the English and the authority to go and speak to one of the Greek riot police who run the place and ask. I can guarantee you the refugees will not receive the same treatment and courtesy that I, a European volunteer, was lucky enough to get). Anyway, once they have found the place and the person who issues the numbers, they are left holding a piece of paper with a number on it. Where to go next? How to find out? More confusion. Again, no instructions except in English, to join a line to register ONLY when the number on your ticket appears on a board at the beginning of the line. But to complicate matters further, your ticket also has a date on it. And when we were there on the 17th November, the date being processed in the line was for the 10th November… this was the part I didn’t get. Had these people really been waiting a week to be processed? I’m still not sure. Anyway, one thing is for certain and that is that some people do wait days for registration. Days, camping in the olive groves in tents donated and set up by volunteers, eating food provided by volunteers, drinking tea brought to them by us. Without the volunteers, there is nothing.

Things are improving inside the fence- the UNHCR have a number of metal tents (known, I believe, as IKEA tents, perhaps they were designed by IKEA?) where families can sleep. The accommodation area inside which was not previously in use is now in use. The most vulnerable families are selected to sleep in this shelter as there is not enough for everyone. A volunteer who helps in the selection process explained to me that at the busiest time, they had to take the decision to take only the women and children from families and force the men to stay outside, in order to be able to have more women and children and babies inside. I was shocked that they were splitting up families, as there is a massive sense of being cut off from the inside of the camp (see photos of metres high razor wire fences patrolled by riot police and you’ll understand why) and it must have been very traumatic for those families separated, unable to communicate.

We helped Pikpa Village of All Together deliver thousands of meals on our first night, out the back of the van that you good people are paying for. The next morning we helped two English men distribute thousands and thousands of bowls of rice pudding for breakfast (video coming!). That evening, we served tea and cinnamon buns to a few hundred cold people. Yesterday  I went on a mission to distribute toothpaste and toothbrushes to all the people camping out, waiting to register.

Happily, everywhere, there is a strong presence of volunteers, and more and more great initiatives being put in place! I think we will soon be redundant and that is a good thing! We have one new mission: in the next few days a tea tent will be set up in Moria by Juval, with me and the van. The Lemon Tea Foundation.