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.

 

 

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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.

 

Reflections on 3 Full Weeks on Lesvos

Thursday 12th November marked 3 full weeks here on Lesvos for me. I had intended to mark it with a special post and I didn’t get round to it for many reasons, the main one being that I have simply been too tired. With the tiredness comes an inability to decide what to write about and also an inability to express myself, so if I do find time to get online, I sit staring at the screen, not knowing where to start. Two days off were forced upon me when exhaustion caught up on Friday morning and I came down with fever. I am now feeling much better and will be ready to go again tomorrow. I can hear you all saying “Make sure you look after yourself”… Yes, I’m trying, everyone is trying but sometimes it is just too hard to put yourself first here. Do I not get up to drive the wet and cold families at 5.45am and 2am? No… I get up, because they need that and it makes one step of their journey easier for them. But I do then have to make sure I get a nap in the afternoon…if possible.

Three weeks feels like a lifetime and a good point to stop and reflect. I will stay for another three weeks, so am looking at how I can best make the most of them and what I have learnt so far. Being here for what is a (very) long time in comparison to the vast majority of volunteers who will stay for a few days to a week, means that inevitably I suppose my role is changing or changed long ago. A few days here is not long enough to see the bigger, long-term picture and everything that is going on in the background, everything that needs to be done in order to keep going, in order to help the refugees to the best of our ability with the resources available. A few days is a good amount of time to work full power, helping people off boats, changing clothes, giving out food, driving people, etc. The energy and enthusiasm that these volunteers bring is the big advantage and it is so needed. Those of us who are here for longer need it and the refugees need it. But there are big disadvantages too… because they are here for such a short period, they want to get stuck in straight away, and so with no idea what they are doing, begin directing boats to dangerous places, doing things that put lives in danger or cause unnecessary panic and stress, to give just a couple of examples. The lack of understanding of the situation is sometimes coupled with an arrogance that they know best, and an unwillingness to listen to the people who do know. Deep breaths to be taken, and no comments or aggression to be taken personally. It is deeply frustrating as it needn’t be this way, and a lot of energy is lost. This is why at some point my role had to change. We have been stationed at one place now for well over a week and very positive and practical changes have taken place in that time. New tents have gone up, a seating area was created, rubbish bins fashioned out of rubber rings built. We even have a gas burner and huge pot dedicated to making hot tea. There is a team of Greek lifeguards posted there 24 hours a day – incredible! Now we don’t need to worry so much about the sea operations of getting people onto dry land. And of course, the tent is functioning and serving people well. But all this needs to be kept up, continued, and still more can be achieved – we need to make pictorial signs with instructions and explanations for the refugees. We need to figure out how to best handle the individual short term volunteers who turn up and make sure they know what to do and don’t create unnecessary chaos. We need to see if we can get shelving or clothes rails put up in the tent so that we can find the clothes and shoes we need faster and more easily. Flooring needs to be installed in the tents. And then we need to make sure that there is always a strong team of volunteers there to run the place, and that they do a handover to the next team of volunteers, to keep everything running. So this is how my role has changed! Thinking long term. Trying to make these changes now so I can move on from the lighthouse and explore other areas, but it may not be possible…we shall see.

To give you a quick update about the van, I now have all the money needed for the rental thanks to all the very generous donors. Having the van is actually indispensable for what we are doing here. Every day we transport probably hundreds of people in it. I can also load it with supplies and in the boot there are always women’s clothes, children’s clothes, socks, plastic bags (put on dry socks, then plastic bags, then wet shoes can be used again), towels, blankets, hats, gloves, scarves and a huge bag of teddy bears. We were called out one night last week at 2am to pick up families from the beach and drive them to transit camp. Without the van they would have had to wait a long time in the cold. Because of the van, they didn’t. Two mornings ago at 5.45 we drove to help transport more people who had just arrived off a boat. I will never forget the grandmother who sat down in the road when she saw me coming, too tired to walk anymore, desperate to be picked up. I helped her into the van, she kissed my hands and face with gratitude and hugged me, thanking God. Her husband was wet from the waist down. He didn’t want to get in the van  because he didn’t want to make the seats wet. I had to insist. Can you believe that after all he has been through and is about to go through, he still worried about getting the seats wet. Even once he was in the van, he still wanted to stand. We are deeply humbled every day.