I am home now from Lesvos but when I left that island I left a piece of my heart there. Faces of so many people are swimming in front of my eyes. It is such an intense connection made with people when they arrive having survived, their children survived and having survived goodness only knows what before that point. An intense connection made and then they are gone within the hour and I’ll never know what will become of them.
I have been absolutely blown away by the strength of these people. They arrive on these rubber dinghies, mainly, with up to 70 people on board. They are often loaded into the boat at gunpoint by smugglers in Turkey. There are tales of babies being thrown overboard if they cry, of people being crushed at the bottom of the boat where they are stuck for the whole journey. Yet they still arrive with cries of ‘Thank you!’ I have been blown away by their strength for survival, to protect their families, the strength to never give up. I have seen hope shining out of the eyes of those mothers, fathers and children as they get closer to their goal of a better life. Children so excited at the prospect of being able to go to school. A couple of days ago I sat with a mother whose knees had buckled beneath her on getting off of the boat. Within ten minutes the woman that she really was began to emerge – a feisty, funny and determined mother and the same age as me. She was travelling with her 4 children to Germany to be with her husband and an older son. Her two daughters had already bought school bags in Turkey and were so excited about being able to go to school that their eyes were shining. To think that we have truancy officers in our country. Her 14 year old son talked about how sad he was to leave Syria and that he would return one day to help rebuild his country. They asked where the hotel was. The hotel? They had been sold an expensive ‘package deal’ that included hotels already ‘booked’ and paid for. I tried to break it to them as gently as I could of the hell that was awaiting them on their journey. There certainly would be no hotel, far from it.
I sit in my cosy home (for which I am incredibly grateful) and remember the man who arrived with his family in the pitch black of night. That is the most scary and the ones who are the wettest. I handed him a manky coat that would not do much to keep out the cold, it was dirty, too big and not very nice but it was dry. ‘I shall wear this,’ he said, ‘because it will always remind me of your kindness and at night my daughter will be wrapped up in it to remind us that there are kind people and that there is hope in the world.’ I’ve done a lot of crying this week!
There are hundreds of thousands, possibly millions, of people yet to cross those seas. Over 3,500 people have lost their lives on that small patch of sea between Turkey and Lesvos doing the crossing just this year. 360 plus in the last 4 weeks alone. We were waiting on the beach one day for a boat to come in to hear the news that it had sunk. 18 lives lost and 10 children in hospital. 1 in 4 of those making the journey are children, often just weeks old. Hating them, being afraid of them will not stop people coming. They are fleeing a country that no longer exists, they can no longer be there. Also there is no ‘them and us’, it is just ‘us.’ Union creates strength and it is this union created through solidarity and common humanity that terrorists most fear. The courage to stand against all that is wrong, united, is what will make these regimes and organisations unable to flourish and prosper.
To welcome people, to feed people who are hungry, cuddle babies who are crying is not encouraging people to leave their countries, they have no choice. I wish people could understand that. Also, for the record, I only heard one family in the thousands of people that I met, who said that they wanted to come to England. An Iranian family who had heard that they should go to Calais. I was able to put them in the picture. The father was able to cry once he was a little distance from his family. ‘They will take my girls, we are not safe, we have nowhere to go.’ How can that be right?
I’ve said many times before that I have no idea what the answer is but surely it is not that. When there is a ferry that does the same crossing for €15 euros return to Turkey and these families are paying thousands of pounds to die because they were born in the wrong place. I heard a story of a 4 month old baby in prison in Hungary, separated from her mother because she is illegal. What crime could a 4 month old baby possibly commit? Her crime is that of being who she is. She is her very own crime that she can never escape from.
Showing humanity to people at a time of need, and goodness knows this is a time of need that is beyond all measure, does not mean that you welcome millions of people onto the same patch of land. I have been accused of bringing down the country single handedly by my gesture of giving someone a sandwich when they are hungry. Must be a bloody good sandwich! A shared humanity and politics are two very different things and both issues risk not being discussed humanely and getting lost in the ‘if you support refugees then you’re making them come here’ knuckles dragging on the ground kind of argument. Many volunteers hold many different viewpoints on the subject of immigration but that does not stop them coming together to help fellow humans.
When I got on the train at the airport, nobody’s eyes met, not one hello. It felt so alien and sad. If we, as a nation, cannot unite and simply salute our own people then how the hell are we ever going to welcome anyone else? The Greeks set an example to the world, they really do and I hope that their strength and compassion is recognised and held up as a beacon of hope to the rest of us. Get out there and simply smile at someone today, you never know the difference it will make and we have to start somewhere if we are ever going to battle off the evil bastards of this world. Thank you everyone with your messages of support, you have no idea what a difference it makes x
This is just some of the water that I have bought with money kindly donated. People are thirsty when they arrive off of the boat and it’s good to be able to give them a bottle of water for their onward journey. Today, just on the stretch of beach that I’ve been on, about 200 plus people have arrived so that’s a fair bit of water each week. I’ve also bought bananas, apples and oranges for people to eat. A never ending supply is needed.
This evening i went to buy a few balls for children to play with. ‘For the refugees? ‘ asked the elderly woman in the shop. When I said yes the price was immediately halved. The generosity and strength of the Greek people on this island is inspirational. They’ve got nothing to start with and they give of their time and resources because it is the right thing to do. Would our country do the same? Receiving people with hostility will not deter people, they are having to leave their countries. All hostility does is make life shittier for everyone all round.
I will never be able to look out to sea at a glorious sunset in the same way ever again. All i can think is that with the sun going down it gets dark and cold and people are in greater danger. Instead of marveling at the view i am scanning the horizon for boats.
After taking this photo i went back to the beach to drop the balls off and another boat was coming in. About 60 men, women and children rammed into a rubber dinghy which sat perilously low in the water. One little boy fell in but was thankfully fished out. I don’t really like to show pictures of people, especially children, but this little burst of sunshine was the one who was laughing and smiling just minutes after nearly drowning. The hat was one that belonged to my son and i brought it over to Greece with me. It has a new owner now and who knows where he and the hat will end up.
The boat was all people from Syria who left Aleppo a week ago. What a heartbreaking decision to make. Leave everything and pack your life into a tiny rucksack and run for your lives. Most of the people just cry when they talk about having to leave their country, it is not a choice made lightly. People are so incredibly grateful to be welcomed. They haven’t felt that in a long time. Some people have been in Turkey for even a couple of years waiting and hoping to return home. There they are often subjected to violence, cannot work and the children do not get an education. People speak of their money running out as they spend longer and longer in the Turkish camps and their hopes for a future fading fast as their country becomes impossible to return to. They all speak of bombs. Yesterday were some children who really brought it home, with scarred faces, fingers missing and eyes that have seen more than anyone should.
The fear that people are feeling in Europe is what these people have been feeling for a long time and some. Pretty much everyone has lost family and friends through war, torture and murder. Wouldn’t you run away too to save your children’s life, or your own. The younger men are particularly vulnerable. Stay and fight? Who exactly? You can’t fight a bomb dropping out of the sky. You can’t fight the murderers that are their government and isis. Wouldn’t we want to welcome the very people who run from the same abhorrent acts of violence that we fear? Give shelter to people who say ‘Not in my name.’
This evening i was on my own trying to sort out dry clothing and food and drink for about 25 men in a tent (quite a large tent) )all by the light of the torch on my phone. I did think that i might be the first European person that many will have met. A nutty English woman rushing about trying to find clothes and shoes. They were pretty much all wet to waist height. ‘it’s alright I’m not looking!!’ Was my loud refrain while I dished out dry socks. It was madness but the tent rang with laughter.
I don’t know where that little boy will end up. I hope his classmates love him wherever he goes to school. I hope his neighbours welcome him. He didn’t ask to be born where he was born, somewhere that the world has decided that he is not worthy to get on a ferry or a plane but must make long and dangerous journeys at extortionate cost in order not to die. That his life is somehow worth less than the next person, than other 3 or 4 year old little boys. I carry his smile and laughter and I hope he is able to carry mine with him in return.
The end of another day. Well, a break because it all gets busy again about midnight. In the pitch black is a good time for the smugglers to post people across that treacherous bit of sea which is now getting choppy. There are almost always children on the boats at night. The other night when the smuggler dumped a boat load of people at the bottom of a cliff and buggered off leaving them stranded in a place where one wave would have been the end of them. There were 11 children on the boat, two of them about 9 months old.
Some of the lifejackets are filled with grass or, even worse, styrofoam which just absorbs the water and would bring a person down rather than keeping them afloat. Children are often wearing flimsy plastic life jackets that are not even blown up. Some have their names written in pen on the back in case they are found floating in the sea. Who looks a baby in the eye, sticks a bit of plastic on them in the charade of it being a life saver and then dumps them at the bottom of a cliff in the sea? Murderers are not just the ones going round with bombs, they come in all shapes and sizes.
While the children, rightly so, are the first to be seen to and dried off and warmed up, I’ve noticed that the young men can end up getting a bit of a raw deal. They just get on with it and don’t complain about wet clothes and the cold. They go on from wherever they land on the beach to an interim camp which is overflowing. Young men, and older men are seen sleeping on the pavement by the side of the road. The UNHCR have donated a container load of blankets but that feels a bit paltry when they’re sleeping on the cold ground in wet clothes. They are the bottom of the list in the registration process. Maybe it is because of my own son, and most of them are younger than he is, that I just want them to be cared for. As I’ve said before, I just want to be the person that I would want my son to meet should he ever be in trouble. To many i have said ‘for this half an hour or so I am your mother’ and this has given some the space to be able to cry. Unless it’s the thought of me being their mother that is the proverbial straw in their distress. ..!
I also realise that they are probably going to walk straight into prejudice as they make their way into Europe and can’t help feeling that their future looks a bit bleak. They will be met with hostility for their colour, religion, because they are young males and goodness knows what else. The people who kill are murderers, nutters who strike terror into everyone’s lives. That is not the fault of people who are fleeing the very same thing. I think that the whole world is feeling the fear that is being force fed. I don’t know where it will all end, not particularly well if murderers and media and crazy leaders of countries continue to rub their hands in glee as the population is divided in their opinions. Divide and conquer is the oldest trick in the book.
A quote from Ghandi might shed a tiny slither of hope. ..
‘When i despair, I remember that all through history the way of truth and love has always won. There have been tyrants and murderers and for a time they seem invincible but in the end, they always fall – think of it – always. ‘
Welcome to Moria camp. This is where people go to the south of the Island to register to be able to get the right papers for travelling onwards. It is 60 km from where most of the boats arrive and up until last week everyone had to walk it. Refugees cannot spend money I.e. on food, taxis, hotels, until they have registered. It is illegal to give anyone a lift (technically) so up until last week people did a 3 day walk with children wet and cold and some were dying of hypothermia. The UNHCR are now laying on buses in a couple of stages which is a massive improvement. The UNCHR are great i have to say. Arrival at Moria camp is daunting and unwelcoming to say the least. Syrians go one way and ‘everyone else’ the other. Syrians are processed quicker and the camp is far more pleasant. It’s complicated but also serves to breed resentment. In the ‘other’ families are sleeping on the ground in the open air. It is unclear how long it takes to process papers there although I’m guessing it varies depending on how many people are there. One man said that he’d been waiting for 10 days, others 3. Personally i wanted to get out of there after ten minutes.
Word has reached out here of the tragedies in France. It’s so so sad and I hope the repercussions don’t spread into more lives lost. I can’t help thinking of that young lad yesterday and how i reassured him that there were no more bombs. I hope they don’t reap the hatred sown after all that they have been through. If we don’t learn how to treat one another with kindness, everybody, then I don’t hold out a great deal of hope for our world. This could tip into something serious if more fuel is poured on the fire of hatred and I’m not so sure we’d have a huge amount of places to run to.
The sun has set here and I hope that lives are not lost in the sea just metres away. I wish for people everywhere to be able to be safe in their own homes.
And so the sun sets on another day. The day started with 4 boats coming in almost one on top of the other and bear in mind that this is just one bit of the Island. The same thing is happening along a long stretch of the coast so visible to Turkey. One boat of very loud and wired men who hadn’t eaten for 3 days. More families all soaking wet and terrified. We try and get the children dried and kitted out before they are whisked off to an interim camp half an hour away. That place is hell.
We line wet shoes up to hopefully dry in the sun ready to be put on the feet of the next lot of arrivals either the same day or the next. The shoes break my heart. Rows of little shoes each with their own story and all just simply trying to stay alive. The resilience and courage of these families is utterly jaw dropping. Within ten minutes of standing on the shore shaking and crying with shock and terror at their horrific journey they are laughing and playing. Marcie’s skipping rope is a big hit. It gets people moving and warm again and, more importantly, laughing. As the children start laughing it ripples around everyone else in the way that children’s laughter does.
One 14 year old boy from Syria told me that he loves his country and he didn’t want to leave but too many people are dying. He gave the names of his classmates who are dead and talked about the ones who are still alive but who he will never see again. He looks forward to the day that he can go home and help rebuild his country but it won’t be anytime soon. He asked ‘am I safe now? ‘ I said that the rest of the journey is not going to be easy. ‘But there is no war now? No bombs?’ No there’s no bombs but who knows what the future holds for this bright, intelligent young man. But still we laughed and the whole family of 11 people laughed and shared their stories.
An older man from Iraq wanted to show me family photos on his phone, or so i thought, language was a bit sticky. They were photos of his son who’d had his throat slit by the military. Photos of young men lying dead. Graphic photos that showed every last inch of detail into their final moments. I couldn’t get to understand the circumstances or how the father came to be there but I didn’t really need to. The photos and these two broken parents painted all of the words that I needed to know.
Late tonight 2 boats came in. It’s pitch black. The second boat with 40 people aboard, 11 of them children, was driven into the rocks by the smuggler so that he could make a quick getaway leaving them to potentially all die. Thanks to the amazing lifeguard crew and volunteers scrambling up the rocks in the dark there were no fatalities. All of the children and families dealt with something so completely terrifying and almost death with such calm and grace. Again within minutes laughing and thanking everyone for their help. The Greek people are amazing. They have about 6000 people a day arriving on this island and many have just given up their lives to help people who arrive. The news that about 3 million more people are on their way is received with a shake of the head. For sure there are some people up in arms but it really is a minority and any exploiting of the refugees is frowned upon.
I could go on and on and already have. This is a shortened version of what is going on but the world needs to know what is happening.
Coming to the end of another day (it’s 2 hours ahead) although there is a boat coming in an hour or so for definite and more later, who knows. One of the boats that came in this morning was full of men of different nationalities. People don’t have a great deal of choice over which boat they go in, whether with family or not. I could go on forever about the stories around this but it would be an hour long post.
Four men are currently sat on the beach since this morning waiting for their wives, children and mothers to come on a boat from Turkey. There is no guarantee that that they will arrive on that beach or, indeed, arrive at all. Their fear is palpable. With a few words they said that the Russians have bombed their homes, picking up a handful of dust to show what remains of their lives.
On the same boat this morning was an elderly Palestinian man. Born with polio he left his home due to war. A refugee in Syria he became headmaster of a university. In recent times his home was bombed and his son was shot. He came off of the boat in a wheelchair, both of his legs have been amputated, waving and smiling. He insisted on photos and had us all roaring with laughter. He’ll certainly light up whatever part of the world he ends up in. Exchanges are brief but intense and it’s hard not knowing what is going to happen to people. That man will make any situation he finds himself a good one. A truly amazing hilarious man.
Late last night in the pitch black a boat full of people with very young children arrived. I found myself holding a 3 week old baby boy. All soaked and freezing cold, it’s quick get wet clothes off, dry the little people, rummage around and try and find clothes and blankets then hot drink and food. Imagine camping in the dark but in a very big hurry trying to clothe many children and sort out over 100 traumatised people, everyone tripping over one another and also raise spirits. While parents were going to get cuts and bruises sorted I found myself holding a rather surreal and impromptu puppet show in semi darkness. You need a very intact sense of humour to go with it all.
I got up this morning and marvelled at the beautiful sea view right outside of our window. It was dark when we arrived last night. By half past 8 this morning I was knee deep in the sea being handed a baby. I’ve seen videos and photos and thought is it possible that this is happening on our doorstep? It’s worse than any video. By 2.30 we had met 7 or 8 boats with I don’t know how many people. Smugglers often drug the children and I’ve never seen such trauma in people’s eyes before. After a little while the children start chatting and weird as it feels we had them laughing and playing. Marcie had a skipping rope in her pocket and we jumped and skipped and then bawled our eyes out the minute they were gone. I don’t really know what else to say. I’m knackered but I’m here by choice and i don’t have a fraction of the courage that these people have.
Piles of life jackets lying about the island are testament to those that have been before. Those that have survived the journey – many do not. A smile, a hug, a cup of tea and a moment to gather all that has been is what we are able to offer. It does not seem much, in fact it feels woefully inadequate but we are flooded with words of thanks and gratitude. These people have such grace and I can’t help but wonder how I might behave in a similar situation.