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.