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Louise from Welsh organisation SHARE wrote these moving blogs during her time volunteering in Leros in October 2015.
I’m finding it hard tonight to put in to words just what the situation is like here. I think there are somewhere in the region of 700 refugees in the Police Compound this evening. Outside it is lashing down with rain, windy and there is constant lighting. At the compound there are two toilets, no showers. The refugees sleep on pallets and filthy sleeping mats, some may have nothing, undoubtedly many of the blankets given out this evening will be soaked through already. There are many children and babies.
Many many people brought across from the island of Farmakonisi were already soaking wet today and in the tiny storage room at the Compound we had run out of men’s trousers, shoes and underwear. As well all the nappies had been handed out and volunteers resorted to giving out old sheets and curtains found beneath the bags of unsorted donations to try and provide some warmth for the refugees.
Although there is a very organised and scheduled volunteer group here, there are not enough people to share the many jobs that need to be done. And there is NOT enough money to go and buy the absolute bare essentials needed to keep the refugees warm and dry and to feed them.
No amount of Facebook posts, photos or videos could portray just how tragic a situation this is. Whilst working within the compound this afternoon, there is no time to take in and process what is seen. Between handing out food to hundreds of people and trying to find the clothes and shoes that fit them, giving out handfuls of nappies and making up bottles of milk for the babies, the time just flies.
But back in the comfort of our hotel this evening we got talking to a couple on holiday from Switzerland and their response moved me to tears.
They had spotted the boats travelling across to Farmakanisi packed full of refugees and as soon as they realised we were volunteers wanted to know more. The man sat and cried as we related our experiences and the lady went in to her bag and gave us hundreds of Euros. The lady was a teacher and she’d been teaching her children about the plight of the refugees. They’d written poetry about it, learned their poems and took them out on to the street and recited them in the town where people gave them money. This was the money she handed over to us – delighted to know that it would go directly to help the refugees.
On a lighter note, it was an absolute joy earlier today to hand out some of the kids packs we had made up. Nothing fancy, just a small colouring book and a few crayons ties in a sandwich bag. The smiles upon their faces and especially on the faces of their parents was heartwarming.
I’ll leave you this evening with a photo of tonight’s refugees, 500 of them walking along the harbour front to the police compound. While we lie in our warm beds this evening, with all of our basic needs met and more, these people, just like you and I put their trust and faith in us, that somehow we will find a way to provide for them and perhaps somehow we may also find a way to persuade the governments of our countries to step up to the mark and not a day too soon, do the right thing. It’s an absolute outrage that nothing is being done to stop the people traffickers sending refugee packed cheap boats with limited fuel out to sea when there are vessels that could be deployed to the Med within days that could safely transport these human beings to a place of safety.
It leaves me speechless that this is so widely known about and yet still…nothing is done.
Tonight, the reality of what the refugees experience as they take their perilous journeys from Turkey to Greece hits a little harder. I’m standing outside on the deck of our ferry as it sails from Leros to Kos. Jagged outcrops of rock pierce the darkness, the light of the full moon silhouetting them against the black sky. I imagine that this is what the military island of Farmakanisi must look like.
In the distance I can see the Turkish coastline speckled with lights. Aboard this huge boat it doesn’t seem so far away, but for the refugees the distance must feel like it goes on for an eternity.
The water beneath us is black and the sea is choppy tonight. It makes me feel sick to my stomach to think of how terrified the parents must feel when they place their children and babies inside the inflatable boats. And what about the elderly and injured, those on crutches and who walk with sticks, mothers with disabled children, men with only one leg – so many people who are totally dependent upon the kind heartedness of their fellow refugees to be able to travel any distance at all. Some of these brave people have paid as much as $2000 to make this trip.
Imagine then, the fear that is experienced when the boat you are on begins to deflate, is punctured by the sharp rocks of Farmakanisi or simply runs out of fuel as is so often the case. Picture yourself sitting inside a boat at night, the water pouring in, at first throwing all your belongings in to the sea in a desperate attempt to keep the boat afloat. Then the realisation that you are sinking and that you must jump overboard, along with your family and friends and somehow remain afloat long enough to make your way to shore where you then must scramble up sharp ragged rocks to reach safety.
But there is no real safety. You find yourself on an island with no shelter, no food, no light, no water unless you ask for it and nowhere that you can comfortably rest your body and sleep. You sit in the dark, in your soaking wet clothes and wait for daylight in the hope that the coastguard boat will come and take you to Leros. If the weather is bad it is possible to be trapped here for many days.
We have heard some horrific stories of what it is like to be stuck on this island and what amazes me most, is that in spite of all this suffering the refugees remain hopeful and optomiistic. Just this evening in the police compound there were groups singing, doing what ever it takes to feel happy about their lives.
I am in AWE of them all, they are more than worthy of our support, of our love, kindness and compassion. I wish all the people I have met during the last 7 days a safe route through to the country they decide to live in. And I also wish that one day, very soon, the governments of Europe will wake up from their slumber and see what is right before their eyes. A humanitarian crises on a a HUGE scale; that the everyday people of their countries are doing their best to prevent in the only way they know how. They SHARE their donations, their love, their compassion and one by one do all they can to to ease the pain and suffering. Some days it feels like a giant sticky plaster on a wound that can never heal. Yet on other days it really does feel like you make a difference. The simple act of sharing a smile, saying hello and listening to the stories that people want to tell is often all that is needed to help a refugee feel that they are loved and that some cares about them.
As we sail closer to Kos my heart is heavy yet my faith is strong. I am so sad to think of the onward journeys being made as I sit aboard this ship. At the same time though, the courage that people have already shown is astounding and I have to believe that they will make it through. That their wish to find a safe place to call home will come true and that one day we may all meet again in a truly civilised society.