Seeing the refugee crisis first hand

Sue Spendlove washes sea-soaked shoes which are then dried and passed on to the next batch of refugees ANL-160321-104055001
Sue Spendlove washes sea-soaked shoes which are then dried and passed on to the next batch of refugees ANL-160321-104055001
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The two young Syrian women huddled against a tree waiting for a ferry in Lesvos were about the same ages as my daughters.

They did not want to come forward for food, so I took them some and spent a while with them. Aged 22 and 17, they told me their parents raised the money for them to come to Europe as there was little left for them in Syria.

Sue Spendlove, left, helps another volunteer to remove debris from a beach ANL-160321-104139001

Sue Spendlove, left, helps another volunteer to remove debris from a beach ANL-160321-104139001

After leaving them at the port I worried about them for a long time because they were someone’s daughters and travelling alone not knowing what will be at the end of their journey.

I was on the Greek island of Lesvos to try and help the refugees like them from Syria and other war-torn countries who were seeking safety for themselves and their families. The experience connected me with a world which sometimes, safe here in East Anglia, seems so far away that we can feel disconnected from it.

I was hoping to apply my skills as a social worker with children and families to help refugees but most recognised NGOs, such as UNHCR, require a longer stay than the two weeks I had to offer so I went as an independent volunteer.

There are several camps on the Greek island of Lesvos but the main camp for registration is called Moira which is where all refugees register and stay for a while.

A volunteer gathers discarded life jackets, some of which are lethally stuffed with newspaper ANL-160321-104106001

A volunteer gathers discarded life jackets, some of which are lethally stuffed with newspaper ANL-160321-104106001

Most will get a ferry to Athens and from there walk, via Macedonia, into Germany.

Most of the refugees who are able to register, at the time of writing are Syrians, Iraqis, Afgans and Eritreans.

Outside the Moira camp is an informal camp created by volunteers and donors, which evolved because the main camp could not always take the number of refugees needing to register and was why the organisation Better Days For Moira (BDFM) was created last October.

There is much work to do at BDFM so there are three shifts over 24 hours. Many boats arrive on Lesvos overnight when the seas are calm and on one night alone during my stay 15 boats arrived in Mytilini and Molyvos.

A refugee camp on Lesvos ANL-160321-104117001

A refugee camp on Lesvos ANL-160321-104117001

After being registered the refugees come to BDFM camp for help and support. If their clothing is wet, or if they do not have suitable clothing for travelling to the much colder north,they are given clothes, shoes and hats.

Hygiene packs are distributed to all refugees and families with young babies are given baby carriers so parents are able to carry young children, freeing their hands to hold on to others.

My work included sorting clothes in the distribution tent, organising clothes into ages, sizes and gender. The work was hard and continuous because as quickly as items were placed on shelves or rails they were taken by volunteers for refugees.

Many of the families are told by the smugglers that food and clothes are included in the price of their ticket. I am sure when buying their 15 Euro life jacket they are not told that it will not save them because it is stuffed with newspaper.

The holiday brochure view of Lesvos ANL-160321-104044001

The holiday brochure view of Lesvos ANL-160321-104044001

Each day was different at the camp, one day I would be helping mums dry their children’s feet and taking refugees who needed it to the medical tent to get checked over.

Another day was spent washing the hundreds of salted shoes in cold water, as there is no hot, then drying the shoes in the sun for the next batches of refugees to wear.

People argue that many come for reasons other than escaping conflict, but in my experience this was not generally the case.

I heard many stories of the terror of continuous bombing all night. It was sometimes the children who told the stories while playing in the play tent where they are simply left to play same games as own children.

There were children who were clearly upset but would be able to find calm when playing alone with Lego.

I spent three hours at a bus stop with one family from Damascus as they waited for the bus to the port. The father was deeply concerned about what would happen once he got to Athens with no money,I could see and feel his anxiety.

A charity from London called Abdullah Aid gave him some money because of his desperation, though it was not encouraged to give financial assistance.

I just hope he managed to get through the Macedonian border before it closed to refugees.

I spent two days at the Hope Centre in Efthalou. This former hotel is being renovated by volunteers to accommodate refugees. It was begun by Eric and Phillipa Kempson who are originally from UK but have lived at Efthalou for many years. They had been helping refugees with food and clothing months before the outside world took notice.

The Hope centre was created out of the need for a safe place for refugees once they landed on the beaches in Efthalou.

I played a very small part over two days, clearing boats from beaches and helping make rooms ready for the refugees who were still expected to land once the sea was calmer.

Two days after I left the Hope Centre, the sea had calmed and at least 11 boats landed on the beaches of Molyvos and Efthalou.

Many of the younger volunteers were an inspiration. They were from all parts of Europe – France, Germany, Spain, Holland, Portugal – but many were from the USA, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Lots of local people have also contributed in many ways to help the refugees.

However, I only met one young volunteer from the UK.