In September of 2015, I went from my home in Athens, Greece to Lesvos to help with the refugee crisis. This was my first of three volunteer trips to Lesvos. In retrospect, it was ironic timing because as a graduate of Los Gatos High School, I lost two classmates (Mark Bingham and Todd Beamer) in the September 11, 2001 attacks. Who would have thought that 14 years later, I would be driving Afghani refugees across a Greek island…
My experience in Lesvos was a stark reminder that a few extreme individuals cannot characterize the whole of a population. I’ve recounted my experience below, but I cannot emphasize enough how the majority of the refugee population are the opposite of extremists–=-they are normal people, very much like me and you..
I was in Lesvos Sept 12-14 to try to help out with the refugee situation. I’ve summarized what I learned below to try to help others who might end up volunteering and for those who are just trying to learn more about the situation there. Please keep in mind the situation is constantly changing in Lesvos so this is just what I observed/learned as of Sept 14, 2015.
I was only there for a weekend and I wanted to feel useful so I rented a car with the idea I would transport refugees who had to walk long distances from where the boats left them to get to the refugee camps.
Who exactly was I transporting? It was a total mix of people. Most of them were from Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Their backgrounds differed a lot. Some had flown in airplanes from the countries they were fleeing and then began their journey from Turkey. Others had walked from the countries they were fleeing. Some looked pretty clean and organized, had their things in backpacks, along with their iPhones, travel documents, etc. Some looked totally disheveled and had their things in dirty plastic bags. Some spoke pretty clear English. Some spoke no English at all. The one common denominator I found was everyone was polite and grateful for help (some things translate even without a common language).
People asked if I felt safe as a single woman driving refugees around the island by myself. I was transporting families with young children and in every single instance felt completely safe. Most of the time the families either fell into a deep sleep minutes after being in the car or broke down sobbing from the sheer emotion of it all. At no time did I ever feel threatened in any way. It was just painful to see so much suffering.
While there was a lot to feel bad about, there were also rays of sunshine. Many people are really stepping up in the face of a very tough situation. This includes:
–The Afghani refugees I had just picked up asking If we could stop to drop off their water to other refugees who still had to walk.
-The two Swedish girls who rented a van independently and were driving around delivering water and driving refugees to the camps.
-The Eurovision employee who stepped out of his work filming to help translate Arabic<–> English for several families in Moria.
–the lovely students who let me stay at their place in Mytilene so I didn’t need to rent a hotel room.
–the Greek woman in the Audi on her way to the beach who stopped to pick up an Afghani family and transport them to a camp. She was really kind and clearly shaken by all the children she had seen walking.
–all the volunteers and agencies trying their best with an overwhelming number of refugees in need.
And there are many more examples….
We’ll be organizing through Lynn’s Kundalini Yoga to partner with an NGO onsite and to offer very specific, focused relief efforts there. If you want to participate, please join our group.
A Basic Overview
The refugees come from Syria, Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc. They come by boat from Turkey and land on the north, south and east costal parts of Lesvos. As I understand it, the west coast is mainly void of refugees.
The stream of refugees is totally dependent on when and where the boats drop them off. To state the obvious, these are illegal boats smuggling refugees so there is no set schedule. There can be long stretches with no refugees on the road, and long stretches with lots of refugees on the road. As it happened for me, a boat must have landed to the south shortly before my plane arrived as there were refugees walking by the airport when I left and I was transporting seven Syrian refugees to camps within minutes of arriving. When I went back the next day, there were almost no refugees walking on that same stretch.
The refugees land on the island and begin their journey to the refugee camps. The distance from the northern part of the island, where the majority of the boats leave them, is about 70 km to the refugee camps. However, there are also shorter stretches. There are some refugee-focused buses to transport them but as the refugee flow is unpredictable, there is no regular schedule. It is very difficult to know when the buses will arrive, what the odds are of getting on one, etc. There are also individuals and organizations transporting people but this too is very ad hoc. The other option is walking to the refugee camps, which is what many of the refugees end up doing.
Along the way there is very little access to drinkable water. And Lesvos in August/September is quite hot. There are a few faucets (a handful I’d guess) and no organized, stationary water points that I observed. There are many volunteer efforts with individuals and organizations driving and delivering bottles of water but these seem ad hoc. There are also some people/places/trucks selling water but these too seemed sort of random.
There are two refugee camps:
Kara Tepe for the Syrians,
Moria for the non-Syrians.
Both refugee camps are extremely rough with limited, if any, available tents, cleaning facilities, etc. There is no welcome tent, information counter, etc. and the overall scene is chaotic. Neither camp is marked, so you would need to know where to go (although for Kara Tepe you would probably notice the crowds of people near the entrance as this camp is near a well traversed main road). The Moria camp is also not marked and the lack of clarity of where to go had many refugees wandering confused through the village of Moria (the camp is on the outskirts of the village). As you can imagine, the villagers don’t love this and neither do the refugees as they are exhausted. I didn’t spend much time In the camps, but I know free meals are served and there are snack counters selling food (and in the case of Moria, tents and mats).
Moria–this is inside the camp
In the camps, they register as refugees, get their papers, and most often continue to the port where they take a ferry from Lesvos to Athens. The registration process is also chaotic and confusing with each person being issued a piece of paper with a number written on it. The numbers are called and each person must be present to get their papers. The processing time is unclear (days–not hours– when I was there) so refugees are milling near the registration area waiting to see when their number will be called. Each person must be present for his/her papers.
After the papers are received, most people go to the port to get ferry tickets to Athens. The port and surrounding areas is filled with refugees, most of whom are trying to leave Lesvos.
PIKPA: this is a camp for the very vulnerable (pregnant women, small children, very elderly, sick or injured). It is about a 10 minute drive from the airport.
Kalloni: this is a mid way stop for some crossing from the north to the camps. There is a refugee resource here (also unmarked but I’ve dropped a GPS pin) with a large room for refugees.
The actual volunteer process is also worth mentioning. In my instance, a Greek friend of mine had approached me about a call for help put out by one of the NGOs on Lesvos. We agreed together to go. I wasn’t formally under that NGO since I was paying for my rental car myself, etc. but I let them know what I was planning to do regarding transporting refugees. They agreed there was a need, and they helped me with most of the details I’ve documented here. I would definitely connect with some group because I think coming in with no affiliation would be difficult.
The NGOs/volunteer groups are not currently well coordinated so there is a lot of confusion/misinformation, etc. I know some organizations are saying they have enough volunteers in Lesvos. What they probably should be saying is that we have a lack of infrastructure in Lesvos that is making it hard to organize volunteer efforts. There is a huge need for volunteers, there just isn’t currently infrastructure to support it. Hopefully that will be changing..
Things to know as a volunteer if you are planning to transport people:
- If you are going to transport refugees in your personal vehicle you have to call the police (dial 100 from a Greek phone) to report the transfer. This call must be placed each time. The police ask:
- the number of refugees
- where you are taking them from
- where you are bringing them to
- your name
- your vehicle license plate.
It is a simple call but it needs to be made each time. If you are caught transporting refugees without “registering” with the police, you could be fined. If you speak Greek, that would be the better since some, but not all, of the police speak English.
2) If you are going to transport refugees individually, it is better for everyone if you can keep the families together. If you can’t (due to vehicle size, etc), make sure to write on paper to each party which refugee camp you are taking the people you are transporting to (Kara Tepe or Moria). Many of the refugees don’t realize there are two camps and it is easy to get it all mixed up.
3) There is an almost endless stream of refugees in need so If you are transporting them, you will need to triage the situation. Generally, the guidance is to take children with their parents first but also see #2 above. Often it is large families traveling together which makes the triage process hard.
- There are huge language barrier issues as many of the refugees speak little or no English. Some basic info:
Syrian and Iraqis: Arabic
Afghani and Iranian: Farsi.
If you speak Arabic or Farsi and are available on Viber or WhatsApp, we may have a need for you. 🙂 It would be *tremendous* if someone organized a Viber/WhatsApp network so we had free access to translators. Imagine, you could be working at your office job in Palo Alto and helping us out in Lesvos. Yes, you. 🙂
As I outlined above, If you want to volunteer directly on the island, I recommend doing it through one of the established NGOs, as I think this will make your experience easier and will help you keep up with the ever changing information. There are many needs and many ways to help out on the island. Coordination, however, continues to be a major issue. I found my strategy of going in to the situation already focused on a particular need made my experience easier.
I’ll continue to update this with more info as I learn more. If you have any specific questions about my experience, please feel free to email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
As of January 28, 2017
Because I live in Athens, Greece, I’ve been in the unusual position of having the refugee crisis on my front door step. This means I’ve met and interacted with refugees/migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Iran, three of the seven countries now banned from entering the US for the next 90 days. I say this just to make the point that for me the word “refugee” or “migrant” isn’t a word, it is people who are part of my daily life.
If you are reading this and you live in the United States, my direct request is please find a way to meet at least five refugees or migrants from one of the seven countries currently banned from entering the US. It is easy to stereotype and to be misinformed. The best solution is to have your own direct experience.
As a final note, my mother at one point asked if I felt safe interacting with refugees/migrants after they learned I was from the United States. The ironic (and sort of embarrassing) thing I’ve learned is my American status makes me a kind of minor celebrity in the refugee world. They are thrilled to meet an American. They usually have lots of questions, most relating to the movies and lifestyle, and all thus far have expressed an admiration for the United States and a desire to come at least for a visit. In my experience, they express genuine respect and admiration and are the opposite of dangerous. If there was one word I could use to describe how they relate to me it is “grateful.”
thank you for reading this!