Take a few tins of paint, some creative volunteers and a bit of elbow grease. Put them altogether in a refugee camp and what do you get?
Our early morning shift at The Lighthouse Refugee Relief (Lighthouse for short), in Skala Sikamineas, began like so many regular mornings around the world – with tea.
No, you’re right this isn’t the tea picture – this is the picture of two volunteers (one of which you may recognise), preparing for the OAP beach sack race!
Sorry I jest – will come back to this later.
Yes, tea – but no regular cup of tea. This morning we were joined around the camp fire by Karolina, a lovely little lamb, hand reared by the volunteers. Here she can be seen modelling a rather swish woolen jumper that someone clearly thought she might need to keep out the cold – as if her own natural jumper and the log fire would not be enough!
On our first visit we had been warmly greeted by Daniel, one of the founders, who took time out to show us around. One of the first things we noticed, was the vibrant colour used to decorate the camp. Daniel explained the importance of creating a welcoming space that goes beyond the purely functional. Of course the basic structure is likely to be similar in all camps, with medical facilities, changing tents for the refugees, a kitchen and supplies tent. But at Lighthouse they make it beautiful!
Daniel uses the word ‘respect’ a lot, and refers to the refugees as ‘guests’. There is a genuine appreciation here for everyone involved in this tragic situation, the volunteers and the local people as well as the refugees. And the atmosphere is noticeably calm and trusting.
My co-volunteers around the fire this morning include, an Australian, an American, two Spanish a Canadian, and a doctor from the UK but who now lives in Portugal.
Falling into conversation I asked the two youngest volunteers who were in their 20s, what had brought them to LesVos. Both the American and the Australian surprised me with their answers, which were fundamentally the same. They wanted to change minds. They had both experienced negativity at home,towards the refugees. They believed that people had been misinformed and influenced by sensational and scaremongering news reports. They wanted to be able to return home with first hand knowledge of the situation, so that they could ‘tell it as it is’. Both young women agreed that if they could help change perceptions, then that would be at least as valuable, if not more so, than the actual volunteering itself. And their hope was, that others would get involved too, by also volunteering, or fund raising, or organising donations.
Of course they wanted to be useful too – in practical ways – and they were.
The weather has been really stormy for a few days, and so refugee arrivals have been sporadic. But this morning there have been two boat sightings in the North where we are.
Lighthouse are situated right on the shore, and their priority is not to bring in the boats – as you might think – but rather to divert them away. Daniel explains that it’s quite perilous along the coast, and so when boats are spotted, Lighthouse volunteers alert the coastguards, who then pick up the refugees and deliver them to a safe port. There are other groups also working in the water providing support to the Coast Guards, such as the Spanish Pro Activa Open Arms, Medicine Sans Frontiere, and the Greek lifeguards from Hellenic Red Cross.
We barely had time to finish our tea, when an empty boat was delivered by Frontex (European Union Border Agency). And it’s down to the volunteers to dispose of it.
Recently evacuated, the boat contains remnants of the journey from Turkey made by between 30 and 40 refugees. I can’t help thinking that the small plywood oars would have been useless on an English boating lake, let alone the Agean sea.
The boat has to be destroyed, firstly so that it doesn’t float out to sea, and secondly so that it’s easier to dispose of. Imagine trying to get a large inflatable into a waste bin – you can’t easily squash air.
You could be forgiven for mistaking this man for a local Greek Folk dancer. But actually he is a Frontex officer disabling the boat.
There are a lot of uniforms here, some official, some not. From full on camouflage to high vis vests, from serious life saving apparel – to rather fancy boots. They all have a role to play, respectfully co-operating with each other to get things done. But it’s not easy to figure it all out – especially when you don’t speak Greek!
Daniel doesn’t speak Greek either, but he is fluent in English, Arabic and Hebrew. Now, that’s useful.
Which brings me back to our two vibrant volunteers, whom, despite first appearances, aren’t actually wearing a uniform. Co-incidentally though, they do appear to share the same taste in jumpers and hats – maybe it’s a generational thing?
OK, it wasn’t actually sack racing that was occupying these hard working individuals. After the engines were ripped out of the boats, the plyboard bottoms were removed, and then the rubber was hacked into manageable pieces, for the refuse collectors to take away later.
So far as I’m aware there isn’t a culture of re-cycling here, at least I haven’t seen any evidence of it. In many ways it’s like time travelling back to the UK in the 1980s – without the shoulder pads or the RaRa skirts. I sat in a restaurant the other night, surrounded by smoke, and watched the bar staff and the chef lighting up while they worked. Ah how things have changed!
At the Refuse Tip, there appeared to be only one category – Land Fill.
It’s often the least obvious things that are the most illuminating. The doctor on duty tells us that one of the biggest conditions she has been treating is severe nappy rash. And of course it makes sense when you think about it. Refugees on the road for long periods of time, often have little or no access to basic toiletries or essential hygiene products. If any of you reading this have ever packed a bag for a day out with a baby, you will understand that it is a major operation. Food – bottles (sterile) and solids – spoon, hot water, gripe water, Calpol, soother, baby wipes, nappies, clean clothes, sun hat and screen in case it gets hot, warm coat and blankets in case it gets cold, rainproofs, a buggy and toys to entertain.
Well imagine setting out on a trip where you have to carry everything that you take with you. Imagine a journey that is likely to take months, with a small baby and a rucksack of supplies.
Then, imagine a four hour journey on a boat in the dark, if you dare.
I tried to photograph the dark sea last night – but it just comes out deep black. In order to photograph, a camera needs light, and the same applies to eyes. The only light here is a line of tiny pin pricks on the opposite coastline five miles away. I suppose it must be a bit like this in a boat too, with nothing to see except the pinpricks of light moving up and down. Small torches lost in the blackness. Four hours with nothing but sea.
And the other passengers, can you smell their fear too?
The doctor says she finds a lot of evidence of sedation in children – I am not surprised. If they are asleep they can’t be scared. If they are asleep they won’t rock the boat. Medication probably doesn’t stop with the children.
Lighthouse volunteers don’t only work out of the camp, they also have lookout points along the coast, and operate out of a real lighthouse.
Here, when possible they divert boats away from the treacherous rocks, but it’s not uncommon to rescue refugees too. Usually the boats sail at night – well lets face it the smugglers aren’t going to operate in full daylight now are they? And I’m informed that the refugees are drawn by the light at the lighthouse. They somehow see it as a safe place to head to. I must admit that I struggle to understand why anyone in a boat would knowingly sail towards a lighthouse, given that the whole purpose of a lighthouse is to ward off sea vessels, to guard against the perilous rocks. But then again I haven’t spent four hours on the sea in virtual darkness, with up 120 other passengers. I haven’t spent four hours unable to stand up, move around, or use a toilet.
So I am not best placed to guess.
This is where, in the early hours of yesterday morning, the second boat turned up unannounced. One of the Lighthouse volunteers, involved with rescuing the passengers, explained what had happened. There were 24 people on this small boat. The smugglers had claimed that it was really safe because it was wooden (as opposed to the rubber dinghy’s). They charged each passenger €2500. The volunteer told me that in his opinion the boat wasn’t seaworthy. He also explained that one passenger hadn’t paid. That the smugglers would often find someone without the means to pay for his passage, give him a quick ‘Sailing for Dummies’ course out of the back of a van, and then he would become ‘Captain’. He would steer the ship across a perilous sea, in all kinds of weather, at night, in the dark.
Well, good luck with that. I wonder if the other passengers are aware of their captain’s extensive qualifications and experience. I suspect that they are, but really, what are they to do about it?
The volunteer showed me a picture on his phone of the passengers that he had rescued. A row of smiling faces looked back at me, faces just like yours and mine. Families and friends.
It gets me every time. The faces, the people that you almost recognise, the similarities between Us and Them. The regular people.
On the way back we saw many journeys, but no faces.