The recent Channel boat crossings have created a media storm and, while this may have been an opportunity to emphasise the deep rooted issues in hostile European immigration policies and increasingly violent and impenetrable borders, the perspective of those most entrapped by the lack of legal routes has been omitted. These are a few snippets of conversations we’ve had with displaced families living in both Calais and Dunkirk, who have resorted to these desperate measures.
Chios is snowing and there is a desperate need to buy blankets for people in the refugee camp. People live in tents and sleep right on the plastic bottom of the tent. People are shaking with cold when they queue. At the last delivery I had a warm scarf that I used to warm ice-cold hands with. If you want to be a fellow man then this is the right moment.
According to the testimony of those who knew him, the man lived in a tent in the Olive Grove, an overspill area bordering Moria camp. He had friends who were sometimes able to host him in a container. For three weeks, the man had been complaining about the cold. Winter in Lesvos has been very bitter this year, with temperatures plummeting below zero at night.
A young boy of about 13 helped me cut firewood for the group tonight. He's from Syria and lives in this squat where conditions are pretty bad. I wonder what his life holds for him and i feel guilty for having an insulated space with all my own amenities to live in when he has so little.
So let’s take a look to the streets in Thessaloniki. If we take a look on the streets, we'll find places where people have no home and are forced to sleep on the street, in abandoned buildings or empty trains. We will meet people from different countries, different ages, who are currently struggling to survive.
“Hundreds of refugees and migrants arrive in Sarajevo every week, many after attempting to cross the Croatian border. Countless people have shown me injuries, smashed or stolen phones (to prevent them orienting themselves with GPS, or to stop them contacting their friends) and told stories about their money and other objects (sleeping bags, blankets, food etc) being stolen by the Croatian police. Thankfully, these stories are now beginning to be scrutinized on the international stage, but for a long while they were unheard.”
This week I made the mistake of reading the comments section on an article about refugees rescued from a small boat in the English channel. I don't actually believe people are quite as malicious in real life as their online personas might sometimes suggest, but it's a good reminder that not everybody agrees with what we're trying to do.
An open letter to my wonderful new friends in Chios, Greece.
Dear Omar, Ahmed, Hasib, Baby, Kaled, and everyone else I had the privilege of volunteering with, eating with, taking chai with, laughing with, being told off by Greek neighbours with, being friends with, in Chios over the past week. New friends and old. I don’t really have the words, but here goes....
For the people living in The Olive Grove we found hardly any toilets (port-a-loos), no showers, just three concrete sinks for all washing - selves, dishes and clothes. And, despite the great work of groups including refugees from Moria naming themselves The White Hearts, and volunteers from Refugee 4 Refugees regularly clearing rubbish, it was still inevitably piling up.
Electricity cables are strung tangled in trees at eye level. Waiting to stop working in the rain, at best, and spark and start a fire, at worst.
The mood shifts of the boys are very real as the warmer weather disappears and the colder weather moves in. It’s harder to find time to really chat and find out what life is like as they are so cold and so hungry, but I also have found myself thinking that very real fears of how they will cope with sickness and surviving the cold and sleeping in ditches are more tangible.
Once again the people have thrown away their bland, small, microwave style meals in protest. The people in camp receive two meals like this for lunch and dinner and in the morning they receive a carton of orange juice and a stale plastic-wrapped chocolate croissant. Every day the same.
The father with a young teenage son and daughter were sharing a thin curtain as a blanket. The father was sat sleeping with his head on his knees and his children were huddled close to him. I took some blankets and went to them. I thought of my own son, soon to be 8, safe, warm.
At 7am this morning over 500 police beset upon the small town of Grande-Synthe just outside Dunkirk. Within an hour they had surrounded the large patch of woodland in which over 1000 people have been living.
We’re now more than three years’ on... Three years since the global refugee crisis landed in Europe. Three years since the image of 4-year old Syrian, Alan Kurdi, washed up on a Turkish beach sent shock-waves around the world.
Volunteers on the Greek island of Lesvos are now being largely silenced by the authorities who don’t want the world to see and hear the devastating truth about conditions for people in Moria Refugee Camp. Because in three years things are arguably worse instead of better.
By some miracle this tiny overcrowded boat made it to within 50 meters of shore thankfully meaning most people survived, swimming and wading to shore.... But three people didn’t make it. And the three dead were all children.
Three nights ago Alex had his birthday in a secret, tucked-away corner of a Parisian city park.
He is young in his round face. Has an easy sticky-out-toothy smile that reaches his soft eyes. He has one of those silly annoying hairstyles that is half flicky emo fringe and half super stylish. He's kinda goofy, charming and desperately talkative. His English is perfect but with unmistakable Afghan mannerisms.
We understand only too well how compelling it is to a donor to spend £10 on a packet of nappies for a vulnerable baby and mum. And how the opposite is true of a £10 donation towards a £1000 monthly van hire, or towards insurance, or worse still, tax! Hearts and minds grabbers they’re definitely not! But vehicles are often the one thing volunteer groups can’t live without.
For two years, since the Calais “jungle” camp was demolished in October 2016, the French authorities have inflicted the same heinous actions time and time again on the refugees who have found their way to northern France. Heavy-handed, intimidating evictions, destruction of tents, encampments, and personal belongings and police force, tear gas and brutality. Time and again it’s not worked, and yet still they keep going.
Here in Puglia there seemed to be a very different, more commonplace response to these (mainly African) guys by the locals. Everywhere I looked, they interacted. Shop, cafe and bar staff, bantering with the street traders. Fine-dressed women, smiling, inspecting their goods, politely declining. Italian kids sharing fist-bumps and more - laughter, camaraderie. I saw colleagues and friendships, between locals and migrants.
Hermon was one of the kindest and softest guys of the camp. He always had tired innocent eyes but a beautiful smile on his face and crazy hair. Earlier this week, his body was found in the town's canal with marks of severe beatings and torture on his body.
As we were leaving, Trish emptied her backpack, grabbed her toiletries, reached for sleeping bag and passed as much as she could to the long term volunteers as donations…. thinking what else she had that she could leave for someone who needs it so much more than she does.
About a three hour drive south of Athens in Greece, lies Patras Port - one of Europe’s remote dark corners for refugees. Disused factories complete with broken glass, crumbling ceilings, no electricity, water or other facilities. Life as a refugee in Patras is tough.
Rando got back from his monthly trip this morning…
“My heart is full”, were the apt words first-time volunteer Lucy found herself saying from the Greek island of Chios, and I knew exactly what she meant. The people, the situation, the place. It’s now my third day on Chios and I’m struggling to share even half of the story and emotion of being here.
I volunteered with Heather and Kelvin, our partners at Paris Refugee Ground Support (PRGS), for five days from 22nd February 2018. In sub zero temperatures over 1000 refugees are surviving under bridges and at the side of canals in Paris, Europe’s City of Love.
It’s been said that volunteers are “lights in dark places” and that’s certainly how I felt today! Today was all about aid distribution and I had the privilege of volunteering alongside our partner Rafat and the House of Humanity team in Lesvos, Greece. Rafat himself is a Syrian refugee and most of the volunteers here are also refugees, many who themselves live in nearby Moria Refugee Camp.
Omar took me to see the tented overflow fields of the Moria Refugee Camp, known as the Olive Grove.
It was worse than I’d imagined. I hadn’t known that the people in tents are the people who’ve been on Lesvos for the longest, generally over a year. Just when you thought life couldn’t be any worse... Men, women, children, indiscriminately abandoned and forgotten there.
I’m in Athens with our partner Rando of One Human Race and, as always, he’s good friends with many of the refugees he’s supporting. Meet some of them below.
“Cut out the bureaucracy, treat them as human beings. They are not just numbers, they are human beings.” - Lisa Campbell, volunteer, Greece
M is 26, married, and from Syria. And he’s bored, so bored, after months’ stuck in Greece., so he volunteers with Rando translating Arabic as needed, which gets him out the shared flat and keeping busy.