Tuesday, 30 June 2015

A tragedy of our making?

Our next visit to help was two days later on Saturday morning. We were determined not to cause any problems! This time as we arrived at The Captains Table there were two Australian women offering to help and a younger woman all also on holiday. As well as a Dutch lady who owned a shop in the harbour. There was no one at the camp in the harbour but about 70-80 people down at the bus stop.  So we would all be needed. 

It turned out that having helped once meant Keeley and I were trusted to know what we were doing. So the new helpers set about making Nutella sandwiches as we loaded the car and climbed in to feed those at the school. Apparently some locals have said they must stop feeding arrivals. Melinda's sandwiches are causing these people to come here! We laugh about how even in Afghanistan people are talking about Melinda's sandwiches! 

When we arrive we find large groups of people spread out across the vast car park. They are sitting in the groups they arrived with, coming from a variety of conflicted countries - Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan.  Local wood carver Eric and his wife Phillipa are also there doing what they can.  At one point they hand out toys to the children there. Children will always be children. 

We set about our simple task of giving a cup of milk, a sandwich, some fruit and water. Children also got a croissant. Everyone lines up patiently and says thank you as you give them what seems so very little. Today though there was some more excitement as not only was a Danish journalist taking photos we had two men who had been interpreters for the U.S. Army who were acting as interpreters for us. Once we'd finished handing out food we were able to start finding out some more about who we had been serving.

Rock and his friend had worked for 5 years for the Americans, they were clearly very proud and still wore their uniforms. When the Americans left they gave them money and now that money has mostly run out and he said they were frightened and needed to get out. They hoped to head to Sweden and work as interpreters. There was also an 80 year old woman sitting quietly, her family wondering how she would make the next part of the journey. 

After eating Fami and Melinda began to explain that no help would be coming and they would have to walk to Mytilene. I doubt this gets easier for them. They have maps which mark out the water stops, the mid point at Kalloni and their end destination. It's hard for them to grasp. "No car?" "No taxi?" - all you can do is set them on their way and hope someone takes pity and gives them a lift. Slowly they all begin to gather their things and start drifting off towards their end goal. We wish them luck. The photographer clicks extreme close-ups of weary faces. 

It's a brutal routine. Fami tells us later how the day before he was in the same car park yesterday talking to his wife and suddenly he broke down in tears. There is only so much the human heart can take. We watch as even the 80 year old woman eventually rises with her family and begins to walk.  All we can do is hope they find a lift. 

Those that leave generally clean up as they go but with so many today Keeley and I put on disposable gloves and clear up anything missed. This exposes some of the undignified lives these people now lead. We find nappies, sanitary items - all having to be used in the exposed car park as there are no toilets there for them.  There is hope that temporary toilets will be put up soon for people to use.  

When we return to the storage area to unload our Australian helpers have made nearly 200 sandwiches. They are on holiday - celebrating their first visit to Lesvos 40 years ago. Di explains they didn't expect to be doing this but feel so ashamed at how Australia is treating their migrants they had to help. She's off to Cambodia next year. The other young woman now lives in Germany - she remembers fleeing her home as a 6 year old and felt she couldn't ignore others doing the same. 

It's a random international group thrown together to try and help - it makes you wonder how those at the top of our international trees can't do the same?  

Sunday, 28 June 2015

A drop in the ocean

Lesvos is a beautiful island and Molyvos is perhaps it's most picturesque town. With the castle standing high at the top and narrow, winding streets that snake down toward the harbour. If you ever visit do make sure you start at the top and work down as the climb up is brutal! A volcanic island Lesvos has high sloping hills and at times mountainous terrain. But it's stunning. "Crisis in paradise" - this isn't my term it was how a representative from the UNHCR (United Nations High Commission for Refugees) described it  - but we will come to him later. 

Thursday we rose earlier than normal and made our way to the 9am shift in Molyvos. Not sure what to expect or even if we'd be needed. But keen to see what we could do. Awkwardly waiting at The Captains Table not sure who would appear - Melinda arrived. Melinda coordinates all the work that takes place in the harbour. And The Captains Table has become a stopping point for tourists with bags of clothes or supplies, longer term volunteers as well as journalists and representatives from any agencies exploring the situation. We stood waiting for any instruction as there was a flurry of phone calls and activity. Fami could be seen walking with a small group and it emerged we had arrived on the same day as the UNHCR. They were exploring the camp and current provision. 

The group from Afghanistan we had met a couple of days before were still there. With an additional 27 and 60 people down at the bus stop in Molyvos. What happens is those who are rescued in the water are taken to the harbour by the coastguard. They then use the small camp there. If people arrive on land they make their own way to the bus stop and large car park where they gather before beginning their walk. So with people we know there will be something for us to do. It's a question of what. But before any of this I'm quite interested to hear what the UNHCR is going to do. Their rep is from Armenia. He's been moved to come and help his colleagues based in Greece and "assess the situation". As he sits and starts to explain what he's there to do, it's clear it isn't much more than make notes. He has two colleagues with him and you begin to sense they're quality checking the set up in Molyvos rather than offering practical solutions. Keep the camp clean, don't serve them pork, give them instructions. They fail to see that Melinda, Fami and others have been working non-stop for weeks. They are being told nothing they don't know. And when they start to list what they need for help there are awkward looks. The UNHCR rep explains that the financial situation is "difficult" as Greece is an EU country the EU has a responsibility to find any relief effort. Many at the UN don't think global funds should be used to offer help. But it's being "worked on". It's okay though as sleeping mats are on procurement. 

The main thing that's needed is manpower. People to volunteer. Help out in all the things that need doing. Especially when they have large numbers. The UNHCR is "considering" what volunteers they can provide. How they don't see that the current position is unsustainable I'm not sure. Melinda manages a list of volunteers. But it's decreasing - down at the moment from 14 to 8. And most of these people have jobs and businesses to support at the same time. 

In order to store the necessary food and drink that's used to feed arrivals the locals have rented a small apartment where they can prepare sandwiches and load up the cars to take food down to the bus stop. Today it takes some time for Melinda to locate a car (how I wished we had a hire car!) but once she does she leads the way to the store. It's a dark, cramped space with a bed that's been propped up against the wall to make room for boxes of bread, water, fruit and milk. Alongside nappies and sanitary items for women. We're joined by Hannah from Holland - a regular volunteer. And of course the UNHCR want to make sure the food prep is hygienic. Happy with what they've seen they leave us to go and speak to local officials. We load the car with plenty of nappies (the 60 at the school has many young children and babies with them) and sandwiches, water, fruit and milk. The car is so full there isn't room for everyone but as more food is needed we agree to stay behind and make Nutella sandwiches. 

140 sandwiches later we are relieved when the others return! Being left we can see how organised everything is. This "spontaneous camp" isn't just a random undertaking. It's been thought through and worked out. How to maximise resources, provide vital nutrition, respect religious and cultural observance. All without support or guidance. 

It's now time to feed those at the harbour. This involves carrying the supplies along the back streets of Molyvos and round to the camp. When some of the men see us approaching they come to help carry. It's a well organised approach. Handing out cups and then providing a glass of milk, a sandwich and an apple. Everyone is polite and grateful. We aren't the only ones at the camp - new visitors Doctors without Borders have also chosen today to "review". They have sent three reps from Mytilene. Apparently Molyvos is lucky and they've seen a lot worse in terms of arrivals and conditions. But they too can't offer much help. Melinda and Fami again explain their worries about no medical support. Molyvos has no health centre. They have no Doctor or first aid. Access to this would be a relief as well as essential. You feel that as this written down in yet another notebook no one quite hears them. But also what they see is so organised and well maintained that in the end they don't need to act. They can offer support to less fortunate sites. Yet it will only take one catastrophe for this approach to be found wanting. 

As we finish breakfast some good news filters through a call from the coastguard to say the bus is coming to pick them up. Gather them all in the harbour! These are the lucky ones. If luck is having to be rescued from cold seas which means you get a bus rather than a walk. As we leave the camp the message is gather your belongings you're being moved. Everyone begins to clear up any rubbish and fold the blankets they've been sleeping on. They will leave it as they found it.  Already out in the harbour we can see the coastguard boat coming in - there are more people on board. New arrivals who've been plucked out of the water. What we can't see is how many. 

The coastguard unloads 14 wet and weary men, women and babies in arms. They make their way up to the camp and begin to hang up their wet clothes. There are shouts of anger from the coastguard as he sees the others gathering along the harbour wall. "Why are they here and not still in the camp". Explaining we were told to move them there to wait for the bus just leads to more shouts. Everyone is tired and stressed. This is not what any of these people ever expected to be doing.  

More shouts and suddenly I'm asked to move them all back into the camp and line them up. The bus is coming but they will need to walk out of the back of the camp to reach it. I do as I'm asked but am unsure really where we are going. Keeley realises help will be needed and comes to support. The coastguard reappears. Still shouting. Still stressed. He tells those in line we're going to walk 200-300 meters to the bus. They must stay in line. If they don't stay together, if anyone goes missing then no one will get on the bus. His voice is angry but I suspect it's simply a sign of how near breaking point this whole town is. The walk begins. I smile at those in line and laugh "we'd best all do what he says. He's very grumpy today!"  Some understand me and laugh too. Others just look tired and confused. We don't get far. The gate he wanted to lead them out of is locked. No key. So back we go. 

Which means a clamber down a drop with no steps. Old people, women carrying children. It's not ideal. But this bus is the best way to Mytilene. It's a small price to pay. Until we realise that his 300 metres is more like 2 miles. And no one has checked the health of those walking.  The group begin to string out as an older woman struggles up the hill. Her daughter is worried, telling me her mum has heart problems and can't walk. I giver her my arm - which she takes and we slowly climb the hill. She stops to sit and I start to worry. "Is there no other way" her daughter asks. "No, look you have to get this bus. Really. You do. Otherwise you will have to walk much much further. Please it's so important". Whether it's the tone of my voice or she understands the woman stands and we start to walk again. Keeley appears worried as we are going slowly and the coastguard isn't pleased. She heads off to tell him someone is struggling. As we turn the corner there is a car parked. Suddenly a voice says "can we help" - before I know it the woman and her husband are bundled into the car. But wait - we don't know where we are going. They don't speak English. This won't be good. I see Keeley by a gap in the wall - this is where they've passed through to walk across the fields to the bus. I realise there is no way this woman can make that walk. But we can see now where the end point is. So I sprint up the hill after the car. It take a few streets for the car to realise I'm running along behind. He stops. Throws his wife and kids out and asks me to get in! I'm frantic at this point as I know this shouldn't be happening. But we must get them to the bus. We round a corner and suddenly are at a dead end. But can see the now apoplectic coast guard across the fields. He shouts and shouts - I can only imagine what he's saying in Greek! But I do also hear the words "castle castle". The man driving our car turns out to be Turkish and doesn't know Molyvos. But at least I do know where the castle is. He is trying to load his sat nav and I'm pleading - we just have to go, we must hurry! A phone call to Keeley and finally I'm talking to a calm member of the coastguard team who says it okay. Just head to the castle and meet them at a turning point mid-way up. Finally I start to feel okay. We snake upwards to the castle and can see the bus heading from the army point on the hillside. Relief is overwhelming as I watch the couple climb onto the bus. My Turkish driver having sped off quickly. I assume never to offer to help again! 

A lift back to the harbour with the coastguard reveals that in 15 years this is the worst they've ever known. Their stress levels are high. They're tired. And they're ill prepared for the challenges they face. Let alone two crazy English women nearly losing two refugees! 

Friday, 26 June 2015

Mixed emotions

Our use of language is an interesting thing. Before my holiday the media has been full of stories about the migrant crisis. I've not met anyone here yet who calls these people migrants. They are always refugees. A subtle difference. But one that perhaps recognises the complexity and history Europe has with those in flight. 

I've spent some time talking to locals and trying to understand the situation. The facts first - people have always crossed from Turkey in boats. Usually not many and without much notice. But in the recent months it has become an overflowing tide of boats. Each day 30, 40, 50, 100s of people arriving. With no set schedule or idea of even where they will land. The Turkey facing shore has a couple of likely stopping off points. Pot luck. They are from a mix of countries. And not all war torn - Pakistan, Syria, Afghanistan seem to be the main source. But all in search of one thing - "a better life". Even the arrival isn't straightforward though. If they land on the rocky beaches and walk on to shore then this means the authorities do nothing with them. Until they get their papers from Mytilene they cannot spend any money, nor can they use transport and it is illegal for Greeks to drive them. So they must walk. Everyone. If they are rescued from the water then they are processed and can await transport to take them to Mytilene. According to some locals even this is unclear. Believing that in the beginning they were all offered transport but due to the numbers arriving it was stopped to make it less attractive to land in Lesvos. There are also now tales of some of the traffickers splitting the boats to ensure people enter the water so they get transported. Remember those in the boats range from young babies to the elderly. 

Once in Mytilene the refugees are placed in holding areas until they can be transported to the mainland. The ferry can take 1800 but there is only one a day. However they are able to spend money now and buy food and supplies. They haven't come here with nothing. They have come to start their lives again. The holding camps in Mytilene have started to create perceived problems and the locals here talk of fights and problems. I read before I came that sanitation was an issue and many migrants protested at the conditions they were being kept in. I haven't seen it so can't comment. 

Generally though everyone is agreed they cause no trouble - especially in Molyvos. No begging. No stealing. But they have begun to upset businesses and those who earn a living from picturesque Molyvos harbour are worried about this and want them gone. "It's a difficult position". Apparently the ex-Mayor of Molyvos said let them come to a non-tourist area of Lesvos and we'll arrange transport. That way we will help them but it won't impact on tourists.  As someone put it the people themselves aren't causing trouble - but indirectly they're causing a lot of trouble. 

So, a compromise has begun. With a group of people in Molyvos working together to try and provide some humanitarian aid. These are mostly ex-pats from other European countries. Not Greeks. "The Greeks will not look after them" is a phrase sometimes used. Why not? It's complex but mostly it seems fear. Although a nation of refugees themselves they are not used to the strangeness these people bring. Sadly many countries across Europe seem to feel the same. But Greece is a country on the edge - "you want to help them but we can't. Europe know the situation we are in, it's time Europe did something".  

However Europe is doing something as what this small group of mixed nations have achieved with no formal support is amazing. Establishing a quiet camp outside of the view of the harbour. Providing basics in terms of food, water, shelter and advice on what to do next. A chance to dry off. To catch breath. 

My first visit to the camp on Tuesday I met Fami - from Denmark but native in Arabic and now spending his summer doing what he can. He is able to translate and give advice. They make sure to ask everyone where they plan to go and advise on which European countries they shouldn't head for. The list of places to go is short. And I was embarrassed the UK wasn't on it. We are now an "unfriendly" destination. No longer a safe haven for people in need. But somewhere that doesn't want to get involved. 

These people spend their days and nights doing what they can. Reliant on volunteers, donations and good will. They have no support from the EU, the UNHCR or Greek government. Everyone is tired. They have jobs and livings to make also so after helping refugees many then work long hours in restaurants or local businesses.  Tuesday was a quiet day. 11 had arrived from Afghanistan. They were all friendly and polite. Most wanting to go to Sweden or Holland where family was already waiting. They were hoping for a bus to take them to Mytilene. But no one knows when these will come.  

I left having given a small donation and a vane attempt to fix a phone so it could make calls. Sadly my knowledge of Samsungs and lack of Afghan meant I wasn't much help. But we made a promise to return to provide more practical help. People who can volunteer gather each day at 9am, 2pm and 8pm to see what they can do. As we were told "if there are people here - you help, if not you have your holiday". 

Wednesday, 24 June 2015

In search of the truth

The truth is sometimes hard to find especially as there can be so many versions of the same truth. It's within our instincts as people to adapt what we're told based on the value judgements we hold. Or to suit agendas either obvious or subtle. Or simply to be able tell a great tale - embellishing the details not out of malice but rather excitement or spontaneity. Isn't that why some of the greatest tales start in bars? 

So in knowing that I was to spend two weeks on holiday in the island of Lesvos [Lesbos] an island with a dual weight on its shoulders due to the impending Grexit and the rise of migrants seeking refuge by travelling across the narrow waters from Turkey I wanted to find the truth. Not about the Euro and probable deal or no deal. But rather about the refugees. After all the media has begun to warn future tourists that Islands such as Kos and Lesvos are over run and cannot cope. That the streets around where we lay on our sun beds may be less pleasant and that an already struggling Greek economy simply cannot cope. Would this be true? What would I find on my short two week holiday? A holiday we have longed for over the preceding weeks and work hard to pay for - could this be blighted by sights that seem safely far away when we see them on our TVs or in newsprint? 

Let's be clear I'm sympathetic to those fleeing war torn countries, the threat of Islamic extremists or even poverty for a better life. I could not travel here and simply pretend it wasn't happening. I spent some time before our flight out finding out what is the current situation and also what I may be able to do to help. The Internet makes this simple now and the fact I've been to Lesvos before and recognised the names of the locals who are offering help meant I could make direct contact. So I didn't fill my case with spare clothes as I knew these may not be needed. Instead a few hats and money is what I've come armed with. The Help for Refugees in Molyvos Facebook page is perhaps the most useful. Kept regularly up to date and a list of things you can bring if you want. 

So here I am. Yes I'm in Lesvos - writing this from the comfort of my sunbed. Enjoying the first few relaxing days of our holiday. We landed in Mytilene and were transported to our resort by Thomas Cook. There was little sign of refugees during this - we saw a small group who we guessed to be walking near the harbour in Mytilene and as we passed through Kalloni the mid point from Mytilene to Molyvos our rep quietly pointed out to us the "new" refugee camp next to the police station. It's only been there a couple of weeks. Opened out of necessity. We knew before we came that refugees landing near Molyvos (the shortest distance from Turkey - at some points only 5 or 6 miles) were then walking to Mytilene - a walk of nearly 30 miles. The Kalloni camp provides a stopping point on that journey. But we didn't see anyone walking and arrived safely at our destination in Petra. 

My next challenge is to enjoy my holiday but also to begin to see if I can find out some of the truth as to what is really happening. That and to find out what (if anything) I can do to help during me short stay here. So I will share what I find out and hope that you share it too so that we can find the truth together.