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29 March 2017 / 1. Rajab 1438

Europe Refugee Crisis: Volunteer Reflections From Lesvos, Greece

Posted on Wed, 2015-09-30 14:24

Blog Six (08/10/15): Local Views

Having been here for a few days now, it’s amazing to see the local people come together to support the refugees arriving on their Island. They have been phenomenal. Everyone knows and agrees that this mass migration through the country has had a major effect on tourism over the last couple of months; however, they still behave in a compassionate manner towards the refugees. 

I have seen soup being cooked and distributed on the side of the road, hot tea being handed out, milk poured into glasses for the children and clothes being brought in at a regular basis. It’s easy enough for us to donate money from the comfort of our homes. We don’t have to open our front doors and see the streets constantly filled with litter, roads block by people walking and having to frequently avoid running over small children who are running around the street.

A British ex-pat, Rhonda, shared her views with me. Originally from Shropshire, UK she has been living in Lesvos for the past 8 years, having built a business and life here with her partner: 

“The community where I live, the municipality of Eressos - Antissa really came together as one when the crisis began. Members of our community began acting as co-ordinators, they allocated different drop-off points within the villages where us locals could drop off necessities from toothpaste to tampax and sleeping bags to tents. The co-ordinators would then collect the items on a regular basis and travel between the three main camps, (Moriya, Kara Tepe and Pikpea, where refugees stay to receive their papers). 

What’s really stuck with me is the sheer number of people I have seen and there are two images that keep playing back in my mind. I once saw a young family washing their children using a hosepipe they found on the side of the street. Literally,  washing them with agricultural water. 

The other image is one of a young man – maybe in his late 20s or early 30s pushing another male wheelchair down the road. What a hero to have come from Syria, through Turkey and over the waters into Greece. How desperate must one be to have made the tortuous journey with a disabled friend or relative?” 

However, reactions are not always as positive. Lela, a local property owner described how difficult it is with so many people inhabiting the Island: 

“We have lost the tourists. The refugees make everywhere dirty and they throw the plastic bottles on the floor. You know about the economy in Greece but this has really affected it. Tour operators book their offices in advance and already for next year only 50% of the regular numbers have booked. We don’t have anything against the refugees; it’s the people who are destroying their countries and harming them. In Lesvos we are hospitable even though we don’t have to be.”

Unfortunately there is no end in sight to the influx of people. Everyday more people turn up on Greece’s shores, fleeing persecution and discrimination. Whilst the locals do what they can, there needs to be a more concerted and organised effort by local and national authorities to organise the currently chaotic system and for world leaders to come up with a long term solution to deal with this crisis.

Looming over this crisis is the fact that the Greek economy is in the doldrums and whilst the locals are doing their best, with the dwindling tourist trade on this small Island, the worry is that resentment will set in and extreme groups who are already vocal about what they see as a ‘Muslim invasion’ on the shores of Europe will see their support spike.

We will continue to share more experiences from Lesvos soon.

EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS - PLEASE DONATE

The World Federation is appealing to community members around the world to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Fund. Your donation will save lives and bring comfort to distressed families. 

DONATE ONLINE:

In Europe, click here

Rest of the World, click here

JAMAAT TREASURER

Donate directly to your Jamaat Treasurer

For more information, please email relief@world-federation.org


Blog Five (05/10/15): Toilets, or lack thereof.

Yesterday, members of our volunteer team built a functional toilet system so as to help people by restoring some level of dignity. Up until then, due to a severe lack of sanitation facilities, they had been using a little ditch under a bridge, leading to increasingly unhygienic and unsafe conditions. Refugees (mostly women and children) often found themselves spending a long time after arriving on shore without access to toilet facilities whilst waiting for bus transportation to camps.

To help address this urgent sanitation need for the incoming refugees, our volunteers implemented Peepoople toilets which are portable using biodegradable bags and so could easily be collected and disposed of and would eventually breakdown into compost. A demonstration was provided to the refugees on how to use the bags and dispose of them. This was our response to creating a sustainable solution to the sanitation problem at hand. The area needs to be washed and sanitized daily so as to maintain hygiene and prevent the spread of disease and infection.

Sadly, this small gesture of dignity is refused to the refugees today the makeshift toilet is shut down even though we are using an abandoned shack to provide some level of privacy and shelter. 

I struggle to understand how someone can restrict such basic things from their fellow man. How can someone who has everything not empathize with people who have with them only what they can carry on their back? WHY can they not use a toilet like everyone else on the Island?

I meet an elderly Shia Afghani man who begins naming the 14 Masumeen and teaches me about them. Prayer time arrives and he wants to pray before boarding the long-awaited bus to the camp. However, when he realises that there are no toilets or washing facilities here, he says he will wait till he reaches the camp as he cannot pray to his Lord when he is unclean. 

My heart sinks as I realise there are no functioning toilets at the campsite either. 

As he speaks, I begin to truly appreciate how lucky we are and how much we take for granted. A man of his age shouldn't have to face the indignity of using a ditch as a toilet because of some arbitrary rule. This is the frustration here where there is only so much you can do when the refugees are not even recognized as people. We’re all made of the same flesh and blood, but how do we make others understand this? 

We will continue to share more experiences from Lesvos soon.


EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS - PLEASE DONATE

The World Federation is appealing to community members around the world to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Fund. Your donation will save lives and bring comfort to distressed families. 

DONATE ONLINE:

In Europe, click here

Rest of the World, click here

JAMAAT TREASURER

Donate directly to your Jamaat Treasurer

For more information, please email relief@world-federation.org


Blog four: Is it easy to volunteer in Lesvos?

This past weekend in Lesvos was tough, very tough; perhaps even the toughest weekend since the beginning of this crisis. I have no scientific frame of reference to make that claim or any data to support my hypothesis apart from the conjecture of tired volunteers who say in Skala there were a record number of boats that arrived - over 25 boats carrying about 1,125 people.

For those of you struggling to imagine, Skala is a stretch of beach in Sikamenia on the Island of Lesvos. From the point of arrival point on this Island to the makeshift bus station is a 3KM distance up a hill. Though the road is paved, it is only partly fenced with very sharp bends. The street is narrow for a two way road; and at its peak we have refugees, volunteers, cars and animals using it typically at the same time.

For those of us trying to coordinate a disaster situation, our number one problem is -how do you manage the road and ease the congestion given the fact that it is a public space? I would love to hear your thoughts, musings and ideas.

Once people arrive at the bus station, the ideal system is for them to make a queue, receive a ticket, wait for their turn and board the bus. Simple enough one might think.  However, it gets complicated with the high turnover of volunteers, resources, and lack of direction. As well, the more than 1,000 people coupled with the hazardous terrain where the bus station is located make it that much more challenging. So once again, anyone willing to offer up a solution is welcome to try and solve this bus station dilemma; though my response will be simple - come here and try to implement your solution.

The bus station is located on a hill. There is a ditchfull of rubbish. Human faeces can be found around the station and disease infested rodents are running around. Refugees are burning fires to dry their clothes; however the fire is very cancerous. Last but not least, the bus station bathes in the glow of beautiful yellow sunshine that can dehydrate any person during the day and make anyone shiver during the night. 

I guess what I am trying to highlight is the bus station’s inadequacy as a location, but also the inability of the volunteers here in Skala to effectively manage the situation; or perhaps I am being too harsh.

For now though it seems the challenges are insurmountable. So how are The World Federation and CoEJ volunteers coping? Truly all I can say is their work ethic is phenomenal; but one principle in such situations always stands true - "we can only do what is within our capacity to do." 

We will continue to share more experiences from Lesvos soon.

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates from Lesvos. 

EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS - PLEASE DONATE

The World Federation is appealing to community members around the world to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Fund. Your donation will save lives and bring comfort to distressed families. 

DONATE ONLINE:

In Europe, click here

Rest of the World, click here

JAMAAT TREASURER

Donate directly to your Jamaat Treasurer

For more information, please email relief@world-federation.org


Blog three: 10 volunteers arrive on Lesvos 

"When flying in, it made me realise how easy it was for me to cross borders. I've taken it for granted my whole life" Volunteer from Switzerland 

Walking out the door of the one-roomed airport, you are greeted by a sea of sparkling water. The sun is shining warming you to your toes; there’s a gentle breeze and there’s a queue of holidaymakers waiting for the next flight back to the United Kingdom. We weren’t sure exactly what to expect – but it definitely wasn’t this. Not entirely what we were expecting. 

To reach our accommodation, we drive from the capital of Lesvos, Mytilene, through the towns of Kalloni and Petra and finally to our destination, Efatlou. The towns are filled with whitewashed holiday homes and elegant hotels, a complete contrast to the horrors the refugees are escaping from.  But as we drive through the mountains and once again closer to the coast, we begin to see the sheer scale of the crisis. Abandoned lifejackets litter the otherwise pristine coastline. The number of people on the streets is overwhelming. Refugees fill the walkways; young, old, men, women, all Muslim, the camp essentially spill onto the street as they wait to move onwards to Mytilene. With a shortage of buses, so many migrants are walking the 76km trek over rough mountainous terrain from Skala Sykaminas to Mytilene with limited supplies and in the searing heat. 

One of the doctors in our group sums up how we are all feeling when he says: “As we drive past the small groups of people in twos and threes, and then seeing the large group sitting on the street and others queuing for food, it hits me, it’s real. I’m no longer reading about this dire situation in the newspaper – I’m seeing it with my own two eyes.” We’ve all seen the news reports and endless appeals, but nothing prepares you for the sheer scale of the crisis here. Earlier today locals tell me that the population of this small island increases by an average of 2,500 people every two days. It is plain to see how the overwhelmed authorities are struggling to cope – which is where the smaller charities and NGOs come in. 

Our group consists of 10 people from the UK and Switzerland; all volunteers who have left their homes and families to come and do their part in contributing to the cause. The real work starts tomorrow  when we will go to the beaches to start the clean-up, to greet people as they come off the boats, to hand out  supplies and so much more.  

As we begin what we came here to do, we will continue to share more experiences from Lesvos soon.

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates from Lesvos. 

EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS - PLEASE DONATE

The World Federation is appealing to community members around the world to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Fund. Your donation will save lives and bring comfort to distressed families. 

DONATE ONLINE:

In Europe, click here

Rest of the World, click here

JAMAAT TREASURER

Donate directly to your Jamaat Treasurer

For more information, please email relief@world-federation.org


Blog two: 'Each one of us is part of a larger family'

As dawn breaks in, dinghies that have successfully reached the shores of Lesvos bring with them people of various ages, ethnicities and nationalities. To the world around them, these people are known as refugees. 

Each passenger has his/her own story, life and loved ones of their own. They arrive on the island with emotions of sorrow and grief as many have lost their loved ones along the way, left their homes and possessions to an uncertain future where they are friendless and strangers in a new land.  At the same time, they walk in small steps, dehydrated, exhausted and some even manage to muster a small smile as they meet the volunteers.

Our team of volunteers is working alongside other volunteers belonging to different organisations who have also come to Lesvos to help the refugees. Together, we greet the men, women and children as they come ashore. We make sure they are suited in clean, dry clothes and fed before directing them to the bus station which is 3 kilometers away. It is at the bus station where families travelling on different boats are reunited; though sadly many have lost their family members on the journey or due to the horrors of the country from which they are fleeing from.

We meet many people with heartbreaking stories to tell. It is hard to listen and process their experiences, let alone imagine what they are going through. We forget our tiredness and hunger though our feet ache from standing for hours. The shifts are very long, and emotionally and physically challenging. Many times we feel exhausted, but each time we assist the refugees, there is a feeling of strength. What we see and what we experience are eye opening events. What we have come here to do is more than just holding babies who are scared and hungry and offering food to the refugees. It’s about staying strong and focussed to give hope to the great numbers of people who have no idea what to expect when they walk off the boats.  

There are many types of refugees we meet who make an impression on us. One such person is an elderly man who stumbles and collapses due to grief and exhaustion. He lost many members of his family in a horrific manner that he cannot speak of without emotion overwhelming him. There are widows and orphans, elderly and the sick whose lives have been shattered and destroyed, they have seen horrifying things, yet they all have a firm resolve and hope for tomorrow. They all utter the words of gratitude to God and many whisper prayers – some silently, some loudly. Together, they make their faith their courage and a source of strength. At times they recite prayers loudly, utter the names and invoke holy figures and are so pleased to meet volunteers who welcome them in Arabic or Farsi, with similar names to their own selves. 

There is a bond with the volunteers; but beyond faith, there is a link of humanity. There are many people of different faiths, both volunteers and refugees. The refugees tell us they are relieved to know that they will one day have a home again and not sleep on the hard floors and unwelcome shores. The refugees are remarkable people of different trades and professions including doctors, labourers, and teachers – all hard-working individuals eager to use their skills and to become independent in hopes of giving back and to be part of society once again.  Despite their sufferings, they have not lost their hope and trust in humanity. 

It is sad to see that the refugees are placed into different camps based on their nationalities; the Syrians are placed in Kara Tepe whilst the other refugees are in Moria where the camp is a former detention centre and not very well provisioned. It is disheartening to witness this because every refugee has already been through a great ordeal putting their lives in danger to cross treacherous waters.

For now, their journey is long, but it is comforting to know that the travel kits we are gifting to them will go a long way in making their travels easier. We are so blessed to have a global community who cares about the plight of the refugees and who have donated towards their care and relief efforts. As I look into the eyes and the heart of the refugees we are helping, I know in my heart that the Almighty has accepted your kindness.

Insha’Allah, I will continue to share more experiences from Lesvos soon.

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates from Lesvos. 

EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS - PLEASE DONATE

The World Federation is appealing to community members around the world to donate to the Europe Refugee Crisis Fund. Your donation will save lives and bring comfort to distressed families.


Blog One:

Our humanitarian mission to Greece is all about extending help to the masses of refugees seeking asylum from a life of persecution and violence. It is 22:30 Greek Time when we arrive at the furthest point on the coast of Skala in Lesvos. This point is marked by a lighthouse that stands on it. Upon our arrival, we meet a group of about 60 Afghani Shias who had taken shelter in an abandoned house with nothing but a fire to keep them warm.

Our encounter with the Afghani Shias first started when Henry, Samuel and I decided to leave Skala beach to scout a road and walk to a distant lighthouse that we kept on seeing from the beach. There was no paved roadway to the lighthouse; rather there was an uphill dirt trail which was dark and hazardous. We walked cautiously to avoid any falls on the unfenced side. Throughout the trek, we saw countless life vests and litter left behind by the boatloads of refugees who had already arrived on the shores of this small island prior to our arrival. After three hours of walking, we finally arrived at the lighthouse. 

Near the lighthouse, we saw an abandoned home. When we entered, we were surprised to meet a group of refugees from Afghanistan. I introduced myself and to my amazement, they immediately flocked around me saying “Abbas – Abul Fazl”. Now I know that that meant something to me, and I could see that it also meant something to them. They were trying to determine if I was Shia. A young boy asked me the same and I answered yes. Soon after, they grew closer and began to listen to me, and trust me. The group consisted of all Farsi speakers; so with my broken concoction of Urdu, Arabic, and Sign Language and with the help of a young 13 year old boy who knew some English, we managed to communicate.

We had no idea we would find refugees by the lighthouse; then again earlier that evening, we were informed that a group of volunteers saw a boat with their binoculars leave Turkey, and due to the rough water tides during the late evening, the boat could not make it to shore and landed at the lighthouse. This lighthouse marks the most dangerous point on the coastline; as refugees arrive, there is a sign that greets them and also commemorates the deaths of 7 young children who never made it from the water’s edge to higher grounds. 

The families we met had gone through a tough time where they spent their entire life savings and gave whatever they had to a greedy human trafficker that took advantage of their desperation. When I spoke to the men, they told me that they paid USD $1,200 per head to secure a place on the dinghy. Their arduous journey began in Afghanistan, where they walked to Turkey to board a dinghy.

As our walk to the lighthouse was purely to scout, we didn’t bring any food or supplies with us. So when we came across the refugees, we had nothing to offer them. They hadn’t eaten anything in 24 hours and the infants were wailing. We saw a pregnant woman and a child who had been paralysed. The dire situation of these families was among the worst things I saw on the Island thus far. All they had was the fire to keep them warm.

Henry, Samuel and I made a plan to send Henry and Samuel back to the beach where help could be sought for the refugees. We tried frantically to make calls from the lighthouse, however, there was no signal; Henry and Samuel had no other choice but to journey back to the beach. We decided that I should wait with the refugees as they had grown friendly towards me; I could then do my best to comfort them and reassure them that we weren’t going to abandon them. Subsequently, in the dark night, with no supplies or food, we waited not knowing when or how the volunteers would arrive or if they could get back at all before sunrise.

As I walked into the dilapidated building where the families sought shelter, there was a hole in the roof which let in the cold air from outside. Agha Murtaza, a refugee from among the group took out a copy of Du’a Tawassul from his pocket and said to me, “Abbas, can you help us pray, will you recite for us tonight?”  

So all of the refugees gathered together and we began to pray. It was in that moment when hopelessness turned to hope.

EUROPE REFUGEE CRISIS:  PLEASE MAKE A DONATION TODAY


Between 26th September and 3rd October 2015, The World Federation in partnership with the Council of European Jamaats (CoEJ) is working in Lesvos, Greece to deliver urgently needed humanitarian aid to refugees arriving in Europe. Upon their arrival, our team has identified Skala as the region with the greatest need on the island of Lesvos. 500 travel kits equipped with water purification tablets, 24 high-energy biscuits, 28-day toilet bags and a sleeping bag will be gifted to refugees here. The cost of each travel kit is GBP £25. Please make a donation to the Europe Refugee Crisis Appeal to support this visit and subsequent aid efforts which are so urgently needed.

Reporting from Lesvos, Greece, our team leader said:  “the accuracy of our ground work and needs assessment we carried out in preparation for this trip was spot-on. After arriving here and assessing the situation, I am confident that the items provided in our travel kits for the refugees are absolutely necessary and of the highest priority. Other organisations already working here appreciated and validated our planning.”

Insha’Allah, part two of our experience will follow soon.

Please follow us on Twitter and Facebook for updates from Lesvos. 

For more information, please email relief@world-federation.org


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