How a HFRWelcome Member got Involved: A Personal Blog
I was inspired by seeing images in the Summer of 2015 of crowds of German people welcoming Syrian refugees at Munich train station. One particular image, that of a German woman handing a Syrian child a teddy bear, moved me. I wanted to help these people, to show, that we in the UK can be as welcoming to refugees as our fellow European citizens.
With a group of friends we organised a trip to the refugee camps in Northern France. We formed a FB page, crowdfunding page and shared our planned Calais trip to all friends, family, workplace and organisations.
The experience of visiting the camps in Northern France was emotional: saddening, but also uplifting as it drove me to want to do more. Thus, in December 2015 I decided to visited another refugee crises point: Lesvos. Here I share my personal diary of that wonderful trip.
Day 1 – Gatwick Airport.
I’ve been to Gatwick Airport many times. Always have happy memories at Gatwick as it normally means I’m off on holiday, usually to some sun kissed Mediterranean destination. Today it’s different. Yes, I’m heading off to another Mediterranean destination, but it’s December (is Greece still sun kissed in December?), and I’m not going on holiday. I’m flying to Greece to meet fellow Glaswegians Paul and Ciaran McElhinney who are helping with the refugee crises in Lesvos. It’s a strange feeling this. I still have that feeling of excitement when about to start a holiday, but I also have a feeling of…I don’t know. Nervousness? Anticipation? I’ve been to refugee camps in Calais and Dunkirk, seen some heartbreaking things and heard some harrowing stories. I’ve also met some wonderful people in the camps: refugees and volunteers. I wonder what Lesvos will be like? I’ve been following the refugee crises via social media and Paul’s excellent written blog (Paul and Ciaran have been in Lesvos for a few days now). Channel 4 News also had a series on Lesvos recently and it looked desperate. I think it’s improved recently, in that the authorities appear to be getting their act together. Paul and Ciaran are volunteering at a camp called Pikpa and I’ll be joining them on Tuesday. Right now, I’ve an hour to kill before my flight. What to do? Probably have a pint, which I normally do before a flight from Gatwick, but this feels slightly strange (almost guilty), as it’s not a jolly.
Day 2 – Athens
Well well. Greece is sun kissed in December! It’s nineteen degrees here. For a Glasgow boy, that is almost tropical. Clear blue skies and I’m cutting about Athens in a T-shirt and shades. The locals are all wearing winter jackets, looking at me strangely. Last time I was in Greece was three years ago at a wedding in Patras and then on to Crete. Then, like now, I took the overnight ferry to a Greek island. However, this time the ferry is on its way to Lesvos, and I’ve that similar feeling like I did at the airport: strange. It feels like a holiday, but it’s different. I had a slight sense of what awaits me outside my hotel this morning. The hotel is in an area called Victoria Square. During the day the square is filled with refugees. It’s not a big square and I reckon there were about 200-300 refugees there. The largest gathering of refugees I’ve seen out with the camps of Northern France. They are from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq. I try to strike up conversations with some of them, but few speak English. Also, some seem apprehensive to talk. Eventually one guy does start chatting to me, but his eyes look suspiciously down to my hands, and I’d forgotten I’m walking about the square with two hammers in my hand. These I bought for Paul, to help with construction in Lesvos. Thus, maybe that’s why some were reluctant to talk. A pale white Northern European, asking immigrants where they are from whilst carrying two hammers! Maybe I seemed that wee bit intimidating..
Day 3 – Arrive in Lesvos
I manage a few hours sleep in a chair on the overnight ferry to Lesvos. I awake just as the boat is entering the port. It’s sunny outside and Lesvos looks lovely. Paul is there to meet me and we drive to the apartment they’ve hired through Air BnB, in a town called Asomatos. The town (or village to be precise) is a twenty-minute drive from the main town of Mytilene. On route to the apartment we drive past a beautiful lake called Kolopos Geras. Yes, so far I’m impressed with Lesvos. Today, for me, it’s about resting and then starting work in the camp the next day. So, I sleep most of the day while Paul and Ciaran go to the camp. They return around seven and we hit the town: taxi to Mytilene. The harbour town looks great when lit up at night. We planned to have a few beers and dinner. However, it’s three Glasgow lads and dinner takes a back seat as we pile into the beers. The “dinner” we do manage is a kebab on the way home, which is probably the best kebab I’ve ever tasted. Today, this definitely was a jolly.
Day 4 – First day at the camp
We are volunteering at a camp called Pikpa, which specializes in aiding the more desperate refugees – those with young kids or who have disabilities. There are volunteers from all over Europe and North America. Normally the volunteers have a meeting at 11.00 and we discuss the day’s tasks. We missed the meeting this morning, which had absolutely nothing to do with the boozy night before! When we arrive, we set about tasks we’d been working on. That is, Paul and Ciaran do. Ciaran is a pretty good handy man and he’s been building up a tool shed: making a workspace, shelves etc. I volunteer helping with the construction of a gravel path. Basically hammering wood into the ground, laying the foundation for the path. It’s a good mix of people here and I immediately have a bit of craic with an Irish and an American lad who I’m working with. Tomorrow, we’re doing the nighttime coastal watch, that is, a few of us will be manning the coast, trying to spot any refugee boats arriving and give them a hand coming to shore. I’ve seen the shore littered with the remains of boats, life jackets, clothes. I wonder what it will be like when I actually see the shore with people arriving. It’s 4.00 AM start, so an early night for us.
Day 5 – Nightshift
Paul and I have volunteered for the nightshift. It’s 4.30 in the morning and we’re staking out an area of the cost watching for boats of refugees to arrive. It’s a clear night and it’s really cold. In the distance we can see a cluster of lights, which I’m told is Turkey. Wow, Lesvos really is very close to Turkey. Leading the night shift is Matt, a Canadian guy from the camp. Matt is a bundle of energy, even at this time in the morning. He reminds me of a cross between an all American action hero and Captain Haddock from Tin Tin. He’s a cool guy! Others arrive for the look out: other volunteers, medical staff, locals and Matt seems to know them all, having banter with them. I was looking forward to this look out shift. Wanted to see the refugees arrive, helping them ashore, but Paul and I have been in the car for nearly three hours and nothing’s happening. To be honest it’s boring. We decide to take a break and do a “coffee run”, taking everyone’s order, we drive to a local café for coffee and snacks. Returning 20 minutes later and it’s all happening. There’s a buzz and Matt is now stripped into his wet suit. Daylights breaking now as Matt shows us a blob just under the horizon. Grabbing the binoculars, I can indeed see an arrow shaped boat, so we take some torches and start flashing them to approach the island at this entry. However, they change direction and start heading North. “Come on, follow me” says Matt as we jump in the cars and try to pursue Matt who’s sped off, but we’ve lost him at the first turn. We drive along the coast but there’s no sign of Matt or the boat. “Damn”, I think. This is why we volunteered for this shift. We wanted some “action,” though, of course, we hope Matt has found them and they’re safe. Heading back to the look out point, Matt returns an hour later and tells us, he and others successfully guided a boat full of Afghan refugees to shore. They had seen our light and were a bit scared, they didn’t know who we were. Something to consider when we get that opportunity. That is, try to think how we appear to refugees coming to shore. Fifteen minutes later, we get that opportunity. Three boats arrive within an hour. The first boat comes in and we’re waving at them, welcoming them ashore with big smiles. They see the many faces shouting “Salam alukam” and head our way as we guide them to a less rocky bit of the coast. As a boat hits the shore a sudden burst of adrenalin kicks in and I’m straight down helping them off the boat. The first refugee I’m handed is a baby, who can’t be more than over 1 year old. I hold the kid and he nestles his head into my chest. My heart is racing here. I’m a little overcome. Another volunteer helps his mother ashore and I return her child. Then, I repeat this process helping first of all the young, the women and then the men. Once ashore we fetch bottles of water, handing them out to the refugees. I’m greeted with replies of “merci”, “Sukran”, “thank you.” After we help two more refugee boats ashore, we decide to head back for the 11.00 AM daily camp meeting. Matt’s busy talking to other volunteers and tells us he’ll catch up with us later. At the meeting we discuss what we’ve been doing and plan to do for the rest of the day. Describing the night shift, many of the new volunteers want to take part and ask for my number to get involved. I tell them, that we’re rookies to this, and best wait and touch base with Matt, who coordinates these things. Matt, I say will be here soon. Except, he isn’t. Paul and I are assigned different tasks at the camp. My task for the remainder of the day is painting signs for the camp entrance. I keep an eye out for Matt, to introduce him to the new nightshift volunteers, but Matt’s not returned from the beach. Four hours later, Matt’s back. “How’s it going? I ask. “Oh cool, man” Matt replies. “I got a little caught up there. Seven more boats arrived just after you guys left.” “Wow!” I think, eleven boats in total. We’re on nightshift again tomorrow.
Day 6 – Nighshift 2
It’s cold tonight and the sea is very choppy. Matt’s training some folks and arranged to meet with us later in the morning. He lives near the look out point and has said to call him if we see anything. We don’t, and Matt turns up around 7.00, tells us it’s unlikely boats will attempt the crossing when it’s this rough. There are a few others here as well and Paul and I decide to call it a day, head home and have a few hours sleep. Later, we decide to have a break from the camp, take the car and explore the island. Lesvos has some amazing natural scenery. There are fantastic hills, lakes and amazing rock formations. We drive to the North of the island where other volunteers are based. Until recently, this was the main crossing point for the refugees. We see some camps and evidence along the shore of previous crossings. There’s not much happening though, so we continue driving around the island. A quiet day.
Day 7 – Nightshift 3
The weather is bad tonight. It’s incredibly windy, cold and the sea is very rough. I doubt and we’ll see any crossings today. I really hope not. Despite these bad conditions, we’re told they they still make crossings. We’re informed that a big boat with 350 refugees had crossed to the North of the island around 1.00AM, so you never know. Thankfully, though, nothing happens and we quit around 8.00 when it’s daylight and there are other volunteers to man the look out. We drive into camp and meet Thasos, a local volunteer. Thasos is looking after the camps warehouse and we decide to drive there for the day to help clearing and boxing the donations. The warehouse is situated in a hill overlooking the port. After a few hours, Paul and I decide to take some donations back to camp,. As we arrive we see a boat of refugees has arrived, literally right across from the camp. We park the car and I grab a box of emergency blankets to go help. The refugees from Syria are cold and wet. I speak to one of the volunteers who said they had a rough ride coming over and the boat had hit the rocks on the shore, causing many to wade through the water. There are many volunteers here, with cars and they take some of the refugees, especially the kids into the cars to heat up before the bus arrives to take them to Moria (the main registration point on the island). After dropping off the supplies at camp, we head back to warehouse to pick up the volunteers. They’ve done a good job sorting through the massive donations. We call it a day.
Day 8 – A good day
The alarm goes off at 3.00 AM and I bang Paul’s door for the nightshift. Pauls’ beat and says he’s going to give it a miss. To be honest, the past few nights have caught up with us and there are others on patrol, so we decide to have a break and go into camp later in the day for the 11.00 AM meeting. Driving to camp, we spot a boat coming in near to Pikpa, we have the supplies in the car, so we stop with others to wave the boat ashore. However, there’s a problem. The boat’s engine has stopped. Proactivia – a Spanish Life guard outfit who have been doing work out here, have a jet ski, so they jet out, connect with the dingy and tow it to shore. There are a lot of volunteers on the shore and I help steady the boat as it hits shore and help refugees out the boat. I grab a box of emergency blankets and water and distribute them to the new arrivals. Job done, I head back to the camp and get stuck in to some carpentry. I help build a bench from some of the wooden remains of previous refugee boats. Nothing goes to waste at the camp. I surprise myself at how good this looks as I’m shit at DIY. I just about manage to construct Ikea shelves and that’s about it! In the afternoon we load the car with supplies for the early morning nightshift, go home and Ciaran cooks a cracking meal, which we devour with some nice wine I picked up on the way home. Great teamwork all round today. A successful and enjoyable day!
Day 9 – Return to nightshift
It’s a beautiful night/morning in Lesvos. It’s 4.30 AM, it’s mild and the water is the calmest I’ve seen it. It’s a clear sky and we watch multiple shooting stars. I’d never seen a shooting star before; tonight I count about twelve. There are quite a few of us on patrol, having a bit of banter. A refugee boat arrives around 6.30 just as daylight is breaking and we successfully bring it to shore. Same drill as previous. We head back to camp for the morning meeting and hear one of the volunteers is heading to Moira, a camp and registration centre for refugees. I’d never been to Moira, only read about it on Paul’s blog which he described as a detention centre. His description is pretty much spot on. There are thousands of refugees here from Syria, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Palestine, Lebanon and other conflict areas. There are several NGOs here, each doing there own thing but no actual central organisation. I meet a nice women from London of Iranian descent. She is a volunteer and speaks Farsi. She is helping with the chaos, organizing where people should queue, get food, medical attention etc. She is doing this of her own free will, not getting paid. This is madness. Without people like her, there would be riots. Why is this not professionally organized? We drive back to Pikpa but there’s nothing much going on. We quit fairly earlyish.
Day 10 – Wee bit of carpentry
We’re off the nightshift and rock up at camp around mid-day. Quite a few of the volunteers we met in the first few days have left the camp. A lot of the strong personalities have gone and there’s a degree of, well, no organization. We just crack on with whatever seems need doing. Ciaran got his tool shed going and I help out there, which to be honest, my help is basic. I finish off a wooden bench I was constructing .The rest of the afternoon is holding bits of wood for Bruce, anther volunteer, as he constructs a work bench. If I were a carpenter…
Day 11 – Final Nightshift and RnR
4.00 AM and the cold has returned. Struggle to get up this morning, but we make it to the look out point. Nothing is happening, so I have a snooze. As today is my last day, we decided to have a jolly after this shift: we plan to hire a boat with a few guys from the camp and have a wee sail around the coast of the island. That’s on my mind. However, at, 7.30AM, it all kicks off. Four boats, one after the other arrive. Thankfully there are a lot of us on look out and we get it get it sorted. Same procedure as previous. By now, it’s getting routine and the powerful emotions I experienced on my first landing is, now tempered as Paul and I help the refugees ashore, sort them out with warm clothes and water. We are late for our 11.00AM boat jolly, but eventually we get it together a few hours later. A fun day sailing on the coast. However, I still find myself scanning the water for refugees.
Day 12 – Farewell Lesvos
Time to leave (for me). We drive into camp and I say my farewells to the many, many wonderful people I’ve met at camp. Bruce is helping construct some shelves, so, well, with an hour to kill, I get stuck in. Paul drives me to the port and we have time for a few beers before I embark the ferry. We reflect on the time spent out here. It’s been magic!