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