If you think that matching socks for a busy family of 4 is a challenge, then you don’t know you’re born! Here at The Dirty Girls, bag upon bag of dirty washing is delivered, where pairs of socks don’t even arrive in the same van, never mind the same bag!
The search to find shoes that belong together isn’t easy either, especially when there may be hundreds to sort. But each good sock is found a mate, and matching shoes are firmly tied together, before they are thrown into the industrial sized washing machines.
Dirty Girls volunteers are simply fabulous! You won’t find any of the glamour associated with the high profile sea rescue missions here. But you will see dedication, commitment, and people who believe strongly in a basic kind of justice. And they don’t just believe in it, they get off their backsides and do something about it.
Started by Alison Terry Evans in Sept 2015, shoes, clothing and blankets are gathered from the beaches and camps, and recycled for newly arriving refugees.
And I’m not overstating the case when I say that this is a mammoth task! And with it comes a mammoth price tag, currently standing at €2000 A DAY!!
But hey – some people like a challenge – and Alison is clearly one of those people. We are a little gutted that we can’t meet her – she is taking a short break while we are here. But word on the street has it that she is a charismatic force to be reckoned with, one of life’s real movers and shakers, someone who gets things done!
I can’t talk about Dirty Girls without also introducing you to Peter Mylonas, the owner of the laundry in Anaxos where all of this action takes place. It’s one thing to have a vision, and the drive necessary to make a difference, but getting a commercial laundry on board is an entirely different matter.
Peter is the English translation for his Greek name. He did ask me if I would like it in its original form, but I wasn’t confident that I would be able to find the Greek alphabet on my keyboard! Peter is eager to show us around, and he makes us feel really welcome.
But he is a worried man. Sympathetic to The Dirty Girls cause, he confides in me that the situation is somewhat desperate. He asks me if the photos I’m taking, and the article I’m writing will bring donations. He says that normally most of the storage areas are clear, but right now the laundry is piled high with white plastic bags of washing, that has yet to be paid for.
He explains that it costs almost 3 euros to wash and dry just one blanket. In the last 10 days he has laundered 7,000 UNHCR blankets and expects it to reach the 10,000 mark by Tuesday. Furthermore, he points out that the weather won’t significantly change until May, and so refugees will need warm clothing and blankets for another four months.
He jokes – in part – that the pictures I am taking of volunteers, may get him into trouble with the Greek Inland Revenue. They appear to show that he has a huge workforce, when officially he has only 4 workers ‘on the book’.
Peter and The Dirty Girls are incredibly grateful to charities such as Oxfam and Medicine Sans Frontiere, who offer significant financial support. But it doesn’t stop them from worrying about where the next donation will come from. And it’s not an unfamiliar tale. People are happy to donate to a cause that has big eyes, fur, or preferably both. Typically this amounts to small children, stray cats and dogs, and sometimes donkeys. But ask them to put their hands in their pockets for something like petrol – the camp at Pikpa typically spends a €100 a day on fuel – or electricity, or goddammit soap powder, and they quickly develop short arms and deep pockets!
Today is a quiet day for The Dirty Girls, but even so, there is always something to do. Mostly they sort shoes, separating the worn from the useable, snow boots from the sandals. Katerina – a Dirty Girls co-ordinator – explains that every item that is laundered costs money, and so it’s important to only select the items that are really going to be useful. Katerina is Irish and bubbly, she has a great relationship with Peter and the laundry staff, and the volunteers clearly love her. She is also fluent in Greek – very handy!
But sorting footwear is not as straightforward as you might think. Sea water plays havoc with leather, it becomes stiff and crusty. Each pair of shoes must be examined individually, some are able to be recycled, many are irretrievable.
A debate breaks out about childrens’ wellies, and whether we should keep them or throw them away. Katerina explains that children can’t walk easily in wellies, and that a load had already been sent up to the camp at Skala Sikamenias. They had been stacked in rows there for weeks, without any takers. But then again she says, it has been raining for two days – maybe the demand will increase?
That’s the thing about LesVos. There are no rules, and everything can and often does change on a daily (if not hourly) basis.
About 2 pm a van load of fresh hands roll up, and makes short shrift of the newly delivered black bin bags filled with lives.
A jumper that once had a proud owner, a coat that someone paid good money for.
Sometimes there are clues in the pockets – about the owners. But mostly you just have to use your imagination.
A bag is found containing some notes written in Arabic, a photo ID card and some US dollars. No-one is quite sure what to do with it.
Personal identity is a serious business if you come from a country like Syria. On one hand anonymity is essential, in order to protect refugees and their families. But on the other hand, without an identity, how can you prove who you are and what you are running from?
So, a conversation ensues about what to do with the documents and the money. It’s difficult to locate someone if you can’t publish their name or print their picture. Social media is not an option for those that must remain invisible.
We don’t make the rules, we don’t even know what they are. Yesterday a rucksack washed up in the harbour containing clothing, food and a photo ID in a plastic wallet. It’s impossible to know if it had been lost, the owner drowned, or even if it had been thrown away intentionally.
This is not a normal situation, says Catrina, we try to think on our feet and do the best we can.
Peter says that he will contact the registration centre in Moria to find out if they have any record of the person in the plastic bag.
I think he is being optimistic.