Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Filling the gaps on Lesbos

Refugee families arriving at the Moria camp on Lesbos.
Photo by Ashley Anderson
Last month, some 125,000 people fleeing violence, oppression, and abject poverty in their home countries made the treacherous journey by sea from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos in hopes of starting new lives in Europe. Though their numbers threaten to overwhelm the infrastructure of the small island, they are just a small percentage of the millions of displaced people currently on the move worldwide, as many as a million of them heading for Europe alone this year.

As border crossings become tighter or less restricted and as weather and other conditions change, the routes taken by these refugees and migrants are constantly in flux, making it difficult to direct aid where it's most needed. This is especially true in places such as Lesbos, where unpaid volunteers are shouldering much of the load due to what appears to be a vastly insufficient response from large aid agencies and governments.

During the four days I spent on Lesbos, I met some of these devoted volunteers and learned about the challenges they face and the needs they are trying to help meet, including hunger and a lack of shelter among refugees, and difficulties coordinating and building capacity for the emergency response. I worked with a small group of independent volunteers dedicating to filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos in order to direct funds where they are most needed now.

The money so generously donated by friends, family, and complete strangers has been used to purchase:
  • 100 rain ponchos to be distributed during the next rainstorm to people without warm clothes and shelter

  • 30 tents, which refugees will take with them as they continue their long journey in increasingly wintry conditions

  • Ingredients for a hearty breakfast for around 350 people, many of whom have been eating at most one meal a day

  • Four crates of apples distributed at the port area to children and others who have very little fresh fruit in their diet

  • Five industrial-size cooking pots that are being used to prepare and serve two additional meals per day to chronically underfed refugees on the island
Two of the new cooking pots being used to prepare and
serve additional meals to refugees on Lesbos
Thank you all for your compassionate and generous response! For those who would like to continue to support this effort, additional donations can be sent directly to the "Filling the humanitarian gaps on Lesbos" fundraiser, which is administered by the trusted people I worked with on the island.

If you want to aid refugees elsewhere in Europe, the crowdsourced RefugeeMap.com is a fantastic resource for up-to-date information on where, and what kind of help, is most urgently needed, both in terms of donations and volunteers.

No matter how dedicated and well-funded, however, volunteers can't -- and shouldn't -- do it alone. Dozens of volunteer groups that have been helping refugees across Europe have come together to "call on all the governments of Europe to act immediately and decisively to alleviate the situation." You can support their #europeact open letter by calling, emailing, or visiting your elected officials and asking them, "What are you going to do to prevent suffering and death among refugees?"

Other recommended ways to donate to Lesbos:

Buy items needed by refugees arriving on the island through an Amazon.com registry created by Lesbos residents and longtime volunteers Eric and Phillipa Kempson

Help fund the Migrant Offshore Aid Station, a search and rescue charity that has been saving refugees' lives in the Mediterranean and is launching a new rescue mission in the Aegean

Help Proactiva Open Arms expand their team of volunteer lifeguards, who are helping refugees disembark safely as they arrive on Lesbos and another Greek island, Chios

Support a Greek NGO providing interpreter services on the islands to help register asylum applications and escort unaccompanied minors from detention centers to proper accommodation facilities

Other volunteer groups working on Lesbos:

Lesvos Volunters

Lighthouse Relief

Starfish Foundation - Help for refugees in Molyvos

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Stranded by a strike, and dangers still ahead: Day 4 on Lesbos

People wait to buy tickets and board the ferry to Athens
Each day, a massive, cruise-ship-sized ferry leaves Lesbos, transporting refugees who've been able to secure the necessary permission to move on to Athens -- and the money to buy a ticket for their passage. Neither task is an easy one.

Non-Syrians in particular face long waits for registration papers, and with high prices and limited public transportation on the island, the poorer refugees can run out of funds for a ticket before they even have a chance to leave.

Now, another obstacle has been thrown in their path: a port strike by the Greek seaman's union in protest of austerity cuts. The strike means a halt to ferry operation, though travel companies continue to sell Athens-bound tickets to refugees.

One wild-eyed man storms up to volunteers serving free food in the port, waving his ticket and screaming in a broken mix of languages as he points to the dates on his and his friend's tickets, dates for which the scheduled departures have now been cancelled. Another man quietly explains that he and his family of nine had been booked to leave today but now have nowhere to sleep tonight.

Life jackets and the remains of rubber rafts litter
the coastline in Lesbos after recent arrivals by sea
Meanwhile, yesterday's calm already seems poised to end as reports come in from other parts of the island of dozens of boats arriving or en route, including one that is said to have left Turkey with 300 people onboard. The mayor of Lesbos told reporters this week that the island has run out of room to bury the 55 bodies still in the local morgue after being recovered from previous shipwrecks.

Those who survive the sea voyage still face many uncertainties and risks, even once they are able to leave Lesbos. Winter is coming to the Balkan countries that tens of thousands of refugees are crossing, often on foot, after reaching Athens, and to the northern European destinations where they hope to eventually settle.

A special report by The Guardian details just some of the perils: "Hypothermia, pneumonia and opportunistic diseases are the main threats now, along with the growing desperation of refugees trying to save the lives of their families. Fights have broken out over blankets, and on occasion between different national groups.
Crowds of people stranded at the Lesbos port
Now sex traffickers are following the columns of refugees, picking off young unaccompanied stragglers." Other journalists have reported how women and children fleeing through Europe have little protection from the sexual assault, coercion, and exploitation that are an ever-present risk on their journey.

For now, though, being stuck on Lesbos for yet another night has its own prosaic concerns. As the sun starts to fall below the mountains, we see men digging through a dumpster for cardboard boxes, which will provide a thin layer of insulation from the cold ground.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: 

Monday, November 2, 2015

From chaos to eerie calm: Days 2 and 3 on Lesbos

Rice to feed thousands being prepared at a Lesbos
catering company
If a refugee on Lesbos had a meal today, chances are good it came from a nondescript warehouse tucked away on a rural road lined with olive trees outside the town of Mytilene.

Inside this building, the staff of a small Greek catering company stir pots of lentils and rice so heavy they need to be winched out of the cooker, make sandwiches assembly-line-style, and pack thousands of small single-serve containers of salads each day. Aid agencies, governments, and other donors contract with them to prepare the food, but the company's cheerful young owner keeps the meals coming even when he isn't getting paid for the work he's been asked to do -- which has sometimes happened for months at a time.

Waiting in line for breakfast at the Moria camp

As soon as the company's van pulls into the parking lot at the port, or into one of the refugee camps, people begin to line up -- women and children in one line, men in a much longer one -- to take the bowls of simple but hearty food as fast as volunteers can dish them out. Some wait patiently, others try to cut the line. Nearly everyone seems to have a reason to ask for another bowl -- a sleeping child back in their tent, a relative who couldn't make it to the line-up. It seems cruel to say no to obviously hungry people, but impossible to say yes when there are still so many more mouths to feed.

So much suffering is in evidence on the island: A young boy takes his bowl of food with one hand, his other arm hanging limply by his side. A man walks by with his ear bandaged and half of his forehead raw from severe burns. Children carry their baby siblings up to the food table, asking if we have any milk. An elderly woman plods along in men's trainers many sizes too big for her feet; many kids run around in no shoes at all. A man asks for someone to come help his sick children; a volunteer nurse who visits their tent reports back that they all look severely malnourished. Attempts to distribute small amounts of additional food and donated clothing out of the trunk of a car draw crowds up people pushing up against each other to grab whatever they can.

An outdoor community kitchen also serves food to refugees
It's eerie, then, to drive up to the encampments one afternoon and find them nearly empty. A rumor is going around that they've been cleared ahead of a visit by the Greek prime minister, all the Syrians pushed through registration and packed onto boats to Athens, leaving the Afghans, Pakistanis, and other increasingly desperate people behind.

Volunteers say this happened before, ahead of another official delegation's arrival, and that the coast guard was out in force during that previous period, keeping boats from entering Greek waters. After the big-wigs departed, they say, the held-back boats poured onto Lesbos' shores at a rapid pace -- which means another onslaught could be just days away.

Full series of posts on refugees and relief efforts on Lesbos: