It was the children who had the greatest impact on me after spending time on Leros Island during Christmas 2015.
The children arrive on the island with nothing except the clothes they stand in, for when you are fleeing war and running to save your life, you do so without any of your possessions or any of your favourite toys. And yet, the children appear so happy. They are so pleased if someone spends time with them whether it be teaching them how to count to ten in English; colouring or painting; playing football; blowing bubbles or dancing and singing with them (the hokey-pokey was very popular!). One young man, Mahmud, used to love playing noughts and crosses, and as a result he used to call me “X,O, X O” across the refugee camp.
Like many others, it was the picture of little Aylan Kurdi’s body on the beach that affected me most and inspired me to try and do something to help.
Two Irish policemen had also seen the picture and had gone to Kos and then Leros. I had heard their story on an Irish radio station about setting up a feeding station on the Island of Kos so that the refugees would have at least one hot meal a day. It wasn’t long before I was considering going there myself. It took a while to figure out if I could persuade my job to let me take the holidays but this eventually worked itself out. So on the Saturday before Christmas as I was babysitting (two adorable little boys who were sleeping soundly upstairs) I trawled through the various internet websites, trying to work out the best possible route to get to Leros on time for Christmas.
This was no easy task and it ended up taking me almost two days to get there, flying from Cork to London, London to Rome (overnight at the airport in Rome), Rome to Athens, then Athens to Kos where I spent a few hours waiting for the ferry.
During my time on Leros, I got to help in a lot of different areas.
It was an early start if you were on the morning shift, but invariably you kept working throughout the day and late into the night as there was so much to do – collecting and serving meals; sorting clothes and working in the boutique (where clothes were distributed to the refugees who were deemed as needing them); wrapping presents for the kids; playing games with them. I was invited to attend one of the meetings to discuss organizing shifts at the Villa Artemis (this was a refuge centre for extremely vulnerable women and children). When I went to see where the Villa was located, I ended up rolling up my sleeves and getting to work cleaning it from top to bottom, sweeping and mopping floors, making beds and preparing a warm meal for the new guests of the Villa. I suggested that it might be a good idea to have someone staying in the Villa overnight in case any of the women needed extra support and volunteered to stay a couple of nights. Early in the evening the women and children arrived needing changes of clothes, showers, to wash their clothes in the one washing machine, and food. I helped the women with their babies some as young as 11 days old, washing and feeding them, playing with the older children and helping calm them down and trying to make them feel safe and warm once again. There were a few toys at the Villa for the children to play with and it was lovely to see how they treasured these precious moments where they could become children once again.
When I got back home to Cork in Ireland, many people asked me what it was like and I shared some of the stories with them. Many asked what can they do, how could they help?
I remembered the teddies I had helped knit years before in Australia. I got involved making them for the first time in Perth as part of a group who used to send teddies overseas wherever there was a natural disaster like hurricanes, earthquakes etc., where people lost their homes and the teddies brought comfort to the children who had lost everything familiar to them.
I asked a few of my friends if they would be interested in helping knit teddies too. There was a great response to this idea so I decided to type up a pattern and send it on to people. I then thought why not use social media to help spread the word and in April 2016 I created the community page on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/teddiesknittedwithlove/). My friend Anne signed on as administrator and another buddy Gemma also came on board and opened an instagram account https://www.instagram.com/teddiesknittedwithlove/?hl=en.
As this was our first time running a community page, we learnt by the seat of our pants. The pattern for the teddy was posted to the top of the page. https://www.facebook.com/notes/teddies-knitted-with-love-for-kids-in-need/teddy-pattern/1694381357482520
We wanted people to be able to start knitting the teddies straight away. We all asked our Facebook friends to like the TEDDIESKNITTEDWITHLOVE page and also to share our posts on their personal pages. We started posting pictures of teddies we were knitting. We all asked friends to come on board. People who had never knitted before were so inspired by the idea that they started knitting and very quickly grew addicted to it – one girl commented that she didn’t even get dressed one day, she just stayed in her pyjamas all day, knitting. People loved the idea of designing and knitting their own teddies. Friends commented that they were delighted to help and were thrilled to re-discover their love of knitting.
We put up video posts of how to finish the teddies. A simple bit of crochet or ribbon added a nice bit of decoration! Slowly but surely the page was getting more likes and within a short time had reached quite a number of people. I couldn’t believe that people all over the world were clicking and viewing our posts.
Over a short period of time we had people asking if they could join, not just from Ireland, but from England and the United States too. We were amazed at how many people were looking at our posts from all over the world places like the Ivory Coast, and the United Arab Emirates. We were stunned at our simple idea reaching so many people.
We loved the idea of people all over the world united in knitting teddies for kids in need. The idea was to knit small teddies so that if kids were travelling with them, they would be easy for them to carry.
We got offers from local knitting groups in Cork (Wilton, Fermoy and Ballyphehane) to help too.
One of the teddies was knitted by a 16 year old student. (I loved the idea of kids knitting for other kids).
We set up lots of different folders to show where all the teddies were coming from.
Some of the folders were for groups, like the ladies working for Citizens Information – we put all their teddies in the one folder.
Lots of teddies were knitted in Waterford and the UK, so we put all these in individual named folders too.
Some of the knitters commented that they got very attached to their teddies and were sad to part with them but knew they were going to a much better home.
Each teddy would be like sending a hug from the knitter’s home to the child who ended up with their teddy.
Our first lot of teddies were sent to Greece with Carmel Nic Airt as part of a two truck convoy she’d organised from Clonakility, Co. Cork – a sock monkey snuck into the box too – can you spot him in the photo?
Carmel had also worked in Leros and was more than happy to take our first lot of teddies over with her to Greece.
We aimed to send our next lot of teddies on-board an Irish naval vessel that was heading to the Mediterranean to help with the rescue mission but we missed the boat that left in June. We kept knitting over the summer and the teddies made the LE Samuel Beckett which sailed in September 2016 .There were 90 teddies in total. The Navy said they made a huge difference as the children are so scared when they are rescued from the sea and the teddies helped them relax and be able to sleep for the first time in a long time.
We next wanted to get teddies to the children for Christmas. Margaret (although ill and receiving cancer treatment) posted her teddies directly to Greece from USA. How about that for dedication to the children?!
We sent out another appeal and we managed to get 31 teddies (one for each day of December) and send them in the parcel post to the library in Leros who offered to take delivery for us. Unfortunately, they did not make it on time for Christmas Day but did make it in time for Women’s Little Christmas (Irish Celebration of) on January 6th which is also a time in Greece for giving gifts to children.
The teddies were handed out and Sandra and the other volunteers took loads of photos of the kids. The expression on some of the kids’ faces was only fabulous and was proof of the joy that a small teddy can bring when it is knitted with love.
Lots of volunteers wonder whether they should send the cost of their fare to the charities helping the refugees on the islands instead of travelling themselves but on reflection, I think seeing it for myself and being able to give a first hand account to others at home, is more important than donating the money and has had a far wider impact.
Roll on 2017, and lots more teddies for the kids!!!