For the first time ever I went somewhere not totally unprepared. I read some things and watched documentaries about the whole situation... The refugee tragedy that started in from 2015. The 7th of May I took my one-way flight to Lesvos, a Greek islands to which thousands of refugees took a rubber boat towards a new life. At least, that is what they hoped for...
With a bar of pistachio chocolate at my right side and the sound of the sea bouncing against the rocks on my left, I think about the Greek life. Well, from what I have seen so far. Last Monday I arrived in Lesbos, one of the largest islands of Greece.
I felt so happy to be here. Surrounded by water (that is what you mostly get on an island), a blue sky and a sun that is just about to set. Life seemed so beautiful. But I was not here for a relaxing holiday. Lesvos is a well known as a tourist island, for both Dutch and Greek people, as well as many international tourists. But since the end of 2015 it is also known as the island where refugees arrived- mostly on rubber boats. People who have fled countries such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq where war was so violently that they saw no other way out than leaving anything they had behind. One of the routes was the dangerous trip through Turkey that took them across the Aegean Sea to Greece. Until March 2016 they could go from Lesbos with a large ship in the direction of Athens from where they make their way to the rest of Europe. The Netherlands, Germany and the Scandinavian countries were most popular destinations. But in March 2016 there was a drastic end to all of this. From one day to the other it was over- no more boats on the horizon of this Greek island. In 2015 this was at top about 10.000 a day.
But the Turkey-deal was made. The deal was that Turkey closed their borders. Europe would give Turkey a lot of money so that Turkey would keep the refugees and each European country would select 'x' number of refugees per year and bring them over to their country. Whether the money has gone that way it is unclear, but there are very few refugees that actually went to one of these first world countries. For example, asylum seeker centres in the Netherlands are distinctly empty. And the situation in Turkey is terrible. Where it is definitely not the best to be in the camps in Lesbos, at least they have some shelter and get a small budget. Life in Turkey will be on the streets.
In any case... From March 2016, no people went legally towards Europe anymore. There came a strict coast guard in Turkey. From that day on, there will be only very occasional boats Europe bound. Only under the cover of night people dare to travel by boat this way. There is now an average of 100 per day (see chart). During the night, NGOs and private organisations in Lesbos survey the horizon, staring towards the distance, eyes and ears strained for lights or to hear the sounds of desperate people.
About the trip itself.
People smugglers have great stories. They make promises that the boats are great and
you'll be at the other side in only 10 minutes. The truth to their stories are very far from
their colorful stories. This is Turkey. And it seems so close, but if you realise that it is
20 kilometers, in the middle of the night with a rubber boat filled beyond capacity. And
as a passenger, you can't swim... I challenge you to think of a more nerve-wracking,
frightening situation. The people pay about 800 euro per person for the crossing and
when they find out what a danger there is in front of them, there is no way back.
Once arrived in Lesbos, they will usually go to the largest refugee camp in Lesvos: Moria
(click for photography series). There are no precise numbers, but estimates are between 5,500 and 9,000 people in camp Moria. The sick and the women are often relocated to camp Kara Tepe, about 15 kilometres away. Camp Kara Tepe is controlled by the municipality of Lesbos itself and there are better conditions. People do not have to sleep in tents but have containers, and the showers and toilets are a little better. This is in stark contrast to Moria. This camp is made for 2,000 people and the facilities are very poor. Sometimes there is no light, the water is cold and often there is no water at all.
Many live with their family of 3/ 4/ 5 people on 2 meter by 2 meter rug on the ground, the tent being shared with up to 3 other families. Facilities do not improve with seasonality- summer tents are used in winter, even through prolonged periods of rain and snow.
Perhaps the saddest thing is; it is a hopeless situation. They are not welcome in Europe and must currently wait about 1.5 years before someone will have a look at their case and, with hope, and relocate to another place in Europe or the world. And until that time they'll have to deal with the situation. And here is where I enter the picture.
Where I had the best and most beautiful adventures myself for the last 3 years around the world) (South East Asia, Australia, Uganda and Portugal) I thought it was now time now to give something back in life. There are hundreds, if not thousands of projects and places where I could head to, and I chose Lesbos. Actually for the refugees that mostly came towards Lesbos, people from Syria (40%) and Iraq (23%). I consciously chose this region. From what have understood, refugees from Syria, Afghanistan and Syria were of backgrounds that had a functioning economy, and there are also many people who study and have (good) jobs. Often they made the war between the government, citizens and organizations such as ISIS and Hezbollah an end to all of this. I feel so sorry for them because they know better. Because if I would have lost everything in once, I also would have loved a helping hand.
"If I would have lost everything in once,
I also would have loved a helping hand"
Now they all missed the warm welcome already. This is a major failure where we as Europe should be deeply ashamed for. But well, there is nothing to change about that now. Looking ahead of me is the only option now. So, what can I do now?
That didn't really matter to me. I wanted to go somewhere where they can really use my help. I didn't come here so much to enrich my own life or spending my time with doing 'good things'. Believe me, I know many other ways to do so, like driving with my yellow Volkswagen trough Portugal and sometimes catch a wave here and there, like I did last year. Now I want to serve others.
It was quite difficult to make a choice between so many organizations (currently there are about 40 active) to find the one that best suits my skills, experience and qualities. But my path crossed with Shower Power, here they were looking for a coordinator for a month or two. Shower Power is a Dutch organization that was founded by 3 Dutch people (Dinne, Liesbeth and Pieter) that helped refugees in Lesvos for the last few years and could see that there's not a decent place to take a shower. So they founded it themselves.
Shower Power has been actively serving refugees since February 2018, and is a bathhouse for women and their children. It is not only a place where they can take a shower, but also a place to relax, where they can take off their headscarf,
where they and their children can do arts and crafts, have a cup of tea and sometimes get new underwear, if
necessary and if we have it in stock. At the moment we have 3 shifts where ladies are waiting and we take them
in a mini car to the house with 3 bathrooms. The same house where the volunteers, and I live and sleep in. About
10 minutes' drive from camp Moria.
It's Friday now and I've done three full days. And I mean really full. Around 9 o'clock we head in the morning
in the direction of camp Moria for the first group and around half past 5 I bring the last shift back to the camp.
Moria. I think that today I've driven about 5 times up and down and took each time 3 to 5 people, often also
many children. After the last shift we have to make everything clean, tidy for the evening and the next day.
And that for 6 days in the week. Great respect for Pieter and Liesbeth who already do this for a few months,
day in and day out! Sometimes with the help of Pieter's sister Dinne and volunteers like me.
I will try to update regularly, but as you probably have noticed there are so many other important things to do!
It is intense but despite the heavy workload, it is very beautiful and graceful 'work'. I can't wait to fully put my
shoulders under this project and make the most of each day, all together.
Well, that was the not so short introduction of the first days!
More soon... About the fantastic driving style of the Greeks, how it is to learn two languages (Greek and Arabic)
at the same time and my most poignant moments
Head to Shower Power if you want to know more about the organization or if you want to make a donation.