The other day I went to an impromptu Turkish Truckers Tea Party in a traffic jam by the border with Bulgaria and Romania. I never thought I’d get to say that but it was the most sociable traffic jam I’ve ever been stuck in. I was fed eggs and sausages and a delicious salad washed down with chai. Those Turkish Truckers really know what they’re doing.
I was on my way back from Greece, as an organisation, Hope and Aid Direct, were one man down on their drivers for their return journey and I was lucky enough to be able to go. I was the only woman (trucking is a bloke’s world it would seem) so, for the sake of argument, let’s just say I was a mother trucker for the week… We drove through nine countries in five days, powered by many cups of tea and a general feeling that we were doing the right thing.
Hope and Aid Direct, run by Charles Storer who I met in Lesvos last November, have been running for years taking humanitarian aid out to wherever it is needed and in vast quantities. The organisation is a result of one man’s vision to gather aid, take it in person and make sure that every penny and donation goes to the people who need it. The logistics of it all makes my head spin but I was very happy to play my small part in what is an inspirational project. Charles has been going out to Kosovo for many years but, more recently, has been also going out to Greece to take aid to some of the 60,000 refugees now currently stuck in Greece between borders closed on all sides to them. They are stuck. Greece, which is on its knees, is dealing with thousands and thousands of desperate families and relying almost entirely on aid from the public and on volunteers to man the decks. It is insane at very best.
For one reason and another, I didn’t get to spend much time in the camps but I did go to a Kurdish camp where we were greeted with smiles and children whose buoyancy and resilience never fails to make my jaw drop. Many have been there for months. Charles spoke of the Konik camps in Montenegro where some people have now been for sixteen years, forgotten by all and with a future that does not hold a great deal of hope. As the plight of the refugees in Greece falls away from the public eye, there is a danger that the same fate could happen to these people. The media are no longer focusing on the tens of thousands of refugees whose lives hang in limbo and, unless, you go digging, you could pretend the whole thing is not even happening. Europe has ‘solved’ the whole refugee crisis – which is not a refugee crisis, it is a crisis in lack of humanitarian response – by locking everyone into Greece who have made the perilous journey across the sea and basically forgetting about them. I remember last year, when I was in Lesvos and greeting the boats as they arrived, watching a ferry make its way across the water. A whopping great big safe boat that costs passengers ten euros to make a pleasant and safe crossing but only if you have the right bit of paper. Just inches away from the same stretch of water where the ferry ploughed its calm and solid path, thousands of people, often children, have drowned and at vast financial cost because they do not have the right bit of paper. I continue to be completely baffled by this. Almost three thousand people have died in the mediterranean sea already this year. I’m not sure how anyone can justify this, it makes no sense.
The camps vary hugely in the quality of care available. I only saw the one camp which is somewhere that you would probably be alright for a few days but it is in no way a long term solution. The atmosphere was relatively steady. Other people from the team went to another camp on the same day where the atmosphere was edgy and tense. The temperature was in the high thirties and the sun is relentless if you have precious little respite from it. The following day a young woman died in that camp as a result of the heat. She survived war in her country. She survived the treacherous journey and sea crossing. She died in the place where she was meant to be safe.
I met an elderly lady who said that she had been in the camp for five months. She and her husband had got separated at the border – this happens a lot – and he is now in Germany but she can’t get to him. She had eyes that stayed smiling even when she wasn’t because of the years of laughter lines on her face and she just shrugged ‘Inshallah.’ The response that indicates that everything is out of her hands and all that remains is a strong faith and hope. Even the darkest of stories needs hope, without hope any one of us would just give up.
In the camp I spoke with a young man who was taking photos. He is seventeen years old and from Homs in Syria and one of those people who just shine out. He said that he was an artist at home but that he has started doing photography as he does not have access to art materials but a volunteer had found him a camera. He showed me some of his art work on his phone and I recognised some of his paintings as I had seen them on social media and they are stunning. He volunteers as an interpreter with the aid organisations and I came away with the feeling that I had been in the presence of someone pretty special. Even in his desperate situation he is doing whatever he can to help, to better what there is of his life and to create a future.
We can take aid and heaven knows it is sorely needed. We can provide toilets and clothes and doctors and all of the things that are most definitely needed but what these people do not have is time. The children are running out of childhood, they need an education, a proper education to be full time at school to be able to have a future. Time is running out for people to be able to create families, have a partner and all the things that so many of us take for granted. The elderly lady is running out of time to be with her husband, it may be that they never get to spend their remaining time together. People in the peak of their youth are running out of time to be able to get qualifications, to get jobs, to be able to use all of that potential that is just sitting around waiting for someone somewhere to come to their senses and provide a humanitarian response to all of this. Families are split up and running out of time to be back together as is only right.
As time passes and politicians continue to wage a war of indifference, so many people are running out of time to have some semblance of a dignified life. Like anyone else, these people have planned for many things in their life except that of being a refugee. Please do not be afraid of refugees. I don’t even like to use that word but I don’t know what other words to use. I have met the most extraordinary, kindest, funniest, most clever people among the refugees that I have met and am continually humbled by the resilience of people in face of such inhospitability as is shown by Europe’s so called laws. Please do not be afraid of refugees. It is the people who are creating refugees that we should be afraid of and I mean really afraid of.