Now if I told you that today we donned surgical gowns, gloves and masks you might be forgiven for thinking that doctors here are in short supply. But fortunately for all concerned it wasn’t our medical skills that were in demand but rather our DIY ones.
On the North Coast of the island – where the majority of refugees land – is a hotel that has been abandoned for over four years. And some incredibly hard working compassionate individuals have found a way to make good use of it.
The political situation here is complicated, and I don’t just mean the international one. This tiny island – that relies mostly on tourism to survive – has found itself forced onto a world stage without rehearsal or even a script. Imagine that this was happening the UK and almost overnight boats of traumatised individuals started arriving on the coastline between Brighton and Margate, Dundee and Aberdeen, or even Portmadog and Aberystwyth. See if you can visualise over three thousand five hundred cold, frightened, often sick, men women and children arriving in rubber dinghies every single day. What would we do? What could we do? Well I’ll tell you. While governments and politicians haggle, argue, postulate and make ridiculous declarations, ordinary people get off their backsides and roll their sleeves up.
And that is exactly what is happening in LesVos. In an already struggling economic climate, local people are doing their best to cope with the situation. And of course that brings its own kind of politics, just as it would in the UK. There are many locals supporting refugees and indeed volunteers, but of course there is also suspicion and resentment. It’s not just the UK that has a UKIP.
And if you think that international political negotiations are a sensitive issue, add into the mix over two thousand volunteers from an extensively baffling range of organisations. There are NGO’s such as Red Cross, Samaritains Purse, Oxfam, UNHCR, IRC, BDFM and actually if you take any four letters of the alphabet and randomly rearrange them you are likely to find an organisation with that acronym. There are small independent groups that are often proud not to be an NGO but sometimes then have to become an NGO in order to survive. And there are many many individuals from across the globe that have just turned up to help. Together, these people feed, clothe, transport and provide medical treatment for the new arrivals which otherwise simply wouldn’t be available. They also clean up the beaches, recycle the boats and the life jackets, provide information and support, crayons for the children, tea and company for the adults.
What people often don’t realise though is that there is no overarching body organising all of this. Each group or individual has their own agenda and their own methods of working. Sometimes they are complimentary, other times conflicting. Almost always with a good heart and excellent intentions.
Which brings me back to The Hope Centre. An initiative started by two wonderful individuals from the UK, Eric and Philippa Kempson.
On the North Coast there is only one camp – Efthalou – where refugees that are picked up on the beaches are taken. This is a transitory facility where emergency treatment is provided before refugees are bussed to the south to register. As an aside, there was another similar camp on this coast but when the Efthalou one opened, the other was forced to close. Don’t ask – let’s just say politics again. But Efthalou cannot possibly cope on its own with the huge demands placed on it. Furthermore the only road to it is little more than a dirt track and often unusable in winter. And – here we go with the politics again – it’s illegal to pick up refugees on this road or drive hired vehicles along it.
And so the Hotel Elpis is to be transformed into The Hope Centre. Completely managed and funded through volunteers and donations it will provide emergency short term transitory support for people as they arrive on the island. But instead of tents and plastic huts, here at least for a few hours or maybe a night, families will have a warm room, some hot soup, dry clothes and access to medical supplies, a place to pause just briefly before they continue on their unimaginable journey to who knows where.
And here we spent the day with some sterling volunteers from London and Glasgow, parts of Sweden and the USA , all helping to transform the run down hotel into a place of refuge. Dressed in surgical gowns – a donation from goodness knows where but extremely useful for DIY – we cleaned, painted, scrubbed and drank tea. Our team included a doctor and a med student, a nurse a carpenter and an electrician. All chipping in, all getting their hands dirty.
And the wonderful people managing all of this have bought a puppy – a cute little thing that will make the children laugh and provide a brief distraction from reality. His name is Elpis.
So while the politicians squabble and close border after border, route after route – ‘No room at the inn here ‘. While fingers are pointed and egos propped up, laws are rewritten and promises broken, the ordinary people in this world pick up the tab.
The transformation of this hotel into a refugee centre is not without problems, and certainly not without critics, but hey – that’s politics for you.
More information about The Hope Centre can be found here The Hope Centre