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Daniel is the son of a dear British friend of mine. He was born in Palestine, home of his dad, and grew up in Jerusalem with his three brothers. Today he is volunteering in Lesvos, a Greek Island where lots of refugees arrive daily. In this moving and detailed account, Daniel shares his feelings, his work and gives these people a face and a story, to help us understand the tragedy that is taking place under our eyes. Daniel is working as a volunteer and covers all of his costs. If you want to support him and his important work even with a modest donation, get in touch with me. Thank you, Daniel.

Claudiaexpat (Claudia Landini)
December 2015

 

My friend David from Barcelona and I - Building the flooring for the changing rooms

My friend David from Barcelona and I (in front) – Building the flooring for the changing rooms

Today is my 11th day on Lesvos Island and my first day off work. This is also the first day I sit and contemplate all that has happened since my arrival, and how can I possibly explain the journey the refugees are going through? I guess I will start with myself and my specific involvement with the crisis. Firstly, I have been working with an organization called “Lighthouse Refugee Relief,” which is a relatively new international NGO founded by a group of volunteers here on the island. I have committed to work with Lighthouse Refugee Relief for a month, as I thought they would be a proficient organization to introduce me to the humanitarian crisis on Lesvos. The organization is growing as we are building new shelters and expanding our operation zones. I thought I would attempt to explain the journey the refugees must go through on Lesvos and the challenges each part of the journey presents. In addition, I will share a story or two that have stuck with me and I still often think about. The journey the refugees go through is split into 3 main stages:

Our team welcoming a boat in Skala

Our team welcoming a boat in Skala

Stage 1 (Skala – where I’m located) – Stage 1 is the frontline of the crisis. It is the area which you probably see on the news. Turkish smugglers load onto rubber dinghies 40-60 refugees and charge an average of 1000-1500$ per person. You must pay extra if you want a lifejacket or other safety equipment. The refugees are then sent across the 10km patch of Mediterranean Sea hoping to arrive safely in Europe. The majority of the boats arrive safely on the north of Lesvos in Skala [zone 1]), Kagia Beach (a little East of Skala), Molyvos (a town to the West [zone 2 &3]), and the lighthouse area. On one of the more tragic days here, fourteen people drowned (including seven children) in zone two whilst I was busy welcoming two other boats during my night shift (12am-8am). It is often hard to think that I was only fifteen minutes away from the scene, but simultaneously I was clueless that people needed my help. The next day we had an assembly of all organizations on the island and decided to create a coordinated radio system in order to avoid such a tragedy again.

Our clinique

Our clinique

Women and baby changing room

Women and baby changing room

 

 

 

 

 

People often ask me if I have seen or helped any of the arriving boats. On the first day I arrived to Skala, I helped welcome 147 boats throughout the whole day. As a team our priority is to make sure to bring the boats in safely to land and avoid unnecessary drama. Then, we systematically remove the babies, children, elderly, women and lastly men from the boat. The doctors on site assess whether there is a medical emergency many times by the amount of pictures the refugees take of each other on their phone. In the meantime we rap everyone with emergency blankets and direct them to our organization’s camp area. In the camp area we provide a new set of dry clothes (often run out of men’s trousers and shoes), water, tea, hot soup with bread and transportation (families with children and elderly) to stage 2. If boats arrive late at night we have the capacity to hold up to 140 people for the night in tents we have erected. We have had Syrians, Afghans, Iraq’s, Somalians, Eritreans, Kurds, Iranians, Yazidis, Bangladeshi’s, Pakistan’s and more stay at our camp, and these individuals have fascinating stories that are occasionally told around our bonfires. It is clear to me that these people are making this journey because they have no other choice. I have heard hundreds of refugees tell me that they did not want to leave their homes, but cannot risk living under ISIS or constant fear of starvation.

 

One of the registration lines in Moriah: some of these people have been waiting in this line for days

One of the registration lines in Moriah: some of these people have been waiting in this line for days

 

Stage 2 (Sykamnieas) – Everyone from stage 1 gets transported or directed to stage 2. Men have to walk up the windy road for about an hour and families with children get transported. On arrival, every person is provided with some food and a bus ticket for their transportation to the main registration camp. Syrian refugees get sent to a registration camp called “Kara-tepe” and all other backgrounds get sent to “Moriah” (Stage 3). Kara-tepe is relatively manageable with a high density of aid organizations including the UN, Action Aid, International Refugee Commission, Save the Children, UNICEF, etc. In addition, the registration process is relatively reasonable (the refugees are not allowed to get on the ship to Athens, book a hotel or take a taxi without the refugee registration documents). On the other hand, Moriah is a mess, there is extreme poverty, no facilities, sick people sleeping in the mud unclothed, and waiting for registration can take weeks. Turmoil develops easily at Moriah due to the harsh conditions, black marketing of the ticket process and the involvement of the Greek police at the camp. After receiving the registration documents the refugees continue their journey by boat from Mytilini to Athens and beyond. This is a brief summary of the journey that refugees undertake, but also understand that I have intentionally and unintentionally left out some of the things I have seen and heard. Every person that has shared with me his journey can write a bestseller book about his life.

One of the boats that sank – It required a huge rescue operation (no casualties)

One of the boats that sank – It required a huge rescue operation (no casualties)

Working in Lesvos has often presented challenging scenarios to which “moral” decisions have to be made, and the best decision isn’t always straightforward. For example, one of the boats I welcomed late at night had two teenagers with extra petrol who tried to turn the boat around and return to Turkey. There have been similar attempts of individuals to return the dinghy boats to Turkey because Turkish smugglers (according to rumors) can’t meet the demands of the large amount of refugees waiting to cross. However, before they could turn around my friends and I deflated the boat and encouraged the young men to cooperate. The puzzling part about the scenario was that these teenagers were Syrian and not Turkish. The two of them pleaded, asking us to let them return claiming that their families were held captive by Turkish smugglers, and they would be killed if they did not return with the boat. Some volunteers insisted that we should let them return to Turkey (high chance of the boat overturning due to lack of weight and darkness); others said this was a typical trafficking scenario and it should be transferred to the police (if we allow them to return many will start doing the same). Others suggested they were trying to save money by earning a rubber dinghy to retrieve their family in Turkey. What was the truth? Were we putting their families in danger? Could we have been taking part in a trafficking transaction? The teenagers were eventually picked up by the coast guard and transferred to Mytilini for questioning. Some people were very upset by the outcome of the decision and I will have to settle with uncertainty as I will never know the final outcome.

A Yazidi family in Moriah – Yazidi families are extremely vulnerable because they are few and their women are notorious for being trafficked because of their unique beauty.

A Yazidi family in Moriah – Yazidi families are extremely vulnerable because they are few and their women are notorious for being trafficked because of their unique beauty.

A Syrian family who came on a rubber dinghy with triplets! They were both students and had to leave because their university was bombed

A Syrian family who came on a rubber dinghy with triplets! They were both students and had to leave because their university was bombed

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

One of the volunteers working here on the island is called Ibrahim. Ibrahim is a Syrian refugee who made a very similar journey through Crete and then finalized his destination two years ago in Norway. Today, he speaks almost fluent Norwegian and has a sustainable job and income as a construction worker and has returned to help his people on their journey. It was amazing to see how all the refugees gathered around him asking him endless questions about how they could succeed in Europe and what it would take to learn a Scandinavian language. Ibrahim would explain that they must work hard, practice the local language daily, and show kindness to those who are racist and mistreat them. As Ibrahim shared his experiences, a “light of hope” would brighten the faces of the refugees. Ibrahim is truly a primary example of what all the refugees dream of becoming. People like Ibrahim give me hope, hope of a brighter future for the refugees and Europe.

 

Daniel Munayer
Lesvos, Greece

Photo Credit ©Daniel Munayer