Leila Dregger (right) and Aida Shibli (2nd from the right) took part in helping refugees on the Greek Island of Lesbos, together with RefuGEN, an initiative of the Global Ecovillage Network. Although the temperature has dropped, the sea is rougher and the Turkish boarder police controls the shores, there are still around 3000 daily arrivals. Much immediate help to do for the hundreds of volunteers on the island. RefuGEN has started a closer cooperation with the Village of All-Together which tries to build sustainable structures and a community approach to improve the situation of refugees.
We arrive after a long and complicated trip with many delays on Christmas morning in Lesbos. Robert Hall, president of GEN Europe, Anna Fillipou from Greece and Munir from Canada have arrived some days earlier, and right away we drive with the whole team to the north of the island. It is a beautiful warm day, everything looks so peaceful, the coast to Turkey is just in front of us.
In Molyvow, we have a meeting with Elena from the Starfish NGO who coordinates the spotting and localisation of refugee boats. We wanted to see how we can support them and arranged that they can call us whenever they lack volunteers. We see friends from the seawatch boat and the Greenpeace boat arriving from patroulling the sea. It is amazing how well all the different volunteer groups are organised, how well they work together – anarchists, official NGOs, even a person from Frontex was seen help pulling people out of the water. There is a new collaboration developing here, born by necessity, compassion and the wish to be of use. People seem really happy to meet, proud of themselves, ready to cooperate, at least this is my first impression.
When we travel further to the beach, a boat just arrives. 20-30 people, many of them children, came out unharmed, happy, moved, laughing, celebrating. They were received by helping hands, provided with dry clothes and warm drinks, transported in busses to the arrival camps – all by cheerful young people from many places of the world. Another group cleared the beach after them right away, removed garbage and boat wrecks, locals came and took what is useful – 15 minutes later it looked as if nothing had happened.
There are many clever little teams, for example the “Dirty Girls”, started by Alison, an English lady who has lived in Lesbos for a while. Every group receiving arriving boats can collect wet and dirty clothes, put them in sacks and place them on the side of the road. The Dirty Girls pick them up on a daily base, sort them, have them washed in a local laundry, dry them and deliver them again. 3000-5000 arriving people per day produce a huge mountain of clothes. The work of the dirty girls means that this mountain doesn´t add to the garbage but becomes useful again and even provide the economy of Lesbos with a bit of income.
Later we had lunch in a quiet café in a little harbour, and suddenly a crowd came by carrying refugees in emergency blankets to the medical team, again many children among them. We ran out to see if we could help, but they were already taken care of. A young boy said their boat had been leaking, the engine collapsed in the middle of the sea, all children were crying, nobody knew what to do, the Turkish police cruised around them laughing at them – and then they were spotted by the boats of the International Rescue Commitee and taken to the shore. All of them survived, but it seemed like a last minute chance. When I see all the freezing children walking by who could have been dead by now – I don´t know what to say. Yesterday 11 drowned. It is such a perverse situation!
We then went to the Village of Alltogether, which will be our main working place in the coming week. It is a little inofficial camp, where they take people who cannot travel further because they have lost somebody or pregnant women or handicapped people. We took part in the Christmas dinner and had mainly contact with three happy women from Syria who just started two days ago. What to say? Sometimes things turn out to be lucky.
The people of the village are very interested to learn from ecovillages. It is a place where they create a lot of human interaction with the refugees, and provide the people in the big camps with free food and clothes.
From Sunday on, RefuGEN will have 11 volunteers, and we can provide other organisations with many helping hands. Robert is amazed how many ecovillages are sending volunteers. This is a new dimension of our movement.
TWO CAMPS – TWO PHILOSOPHIES
The two refugee camps Moria and the “Village of All-Together” on Lesbos are run by volunteers. However, the places represent different philosophies and organisational principles.
Nothing prepares you for Moria. Thousands of people – extended families of 3 or even 4 generations, groups of young men, single travelers, old people, people in wheelchairs, covered in blankets, sleeping on the ground, waiting in lines – for food, for tea, for clothes, for toilets, but mainly for the papers. This is why they are here: getting registered by Frontex to continue to the ferry, the mainland of Greece and further North. We ask a family from Syria, how long they stand already in the line. “Three days.” They have been taking shifts, and now they hope to make it tonight.
Official institutions are apparently overchallenged to support the refugees while they are waiting in the cold. ´All they do is sending soldiers´, people complain. Every help that is being given here – every blanket, every piece of dry clothes that is been handed out, every piece of trash that is removed, every food unit is being prepared by the hundreds of volunteers who have come from throughout the world to help. No matter if they have come self-organised and anarchistic, or as parts of the big NGOs: nothing would be given here without volunteers, no first aid at the boats, no transportation to the camp, no information.
Walking through Moria, Aida and me cannot imagine what happens when it will rain – where will all those people stay? Where would all the children play, how would the waiting lines survive soaking-wet?
In front of the Family Compound which opens at 6 pm, a hundred or more families are waiting in a long line. They have settled here since the afternoon. The Compound manager takes us around and asks us to stay and help. “We have run out of volunteers, we urgently need people for the evening shift.” “What qualifications?” “The only one is: be cheerful. We cannot use volunteers that push people around. We cannot use mean people. Especially the children are frightened, this place looks like a prison, so we them to gain their trust.”
The compound is heavily enclosed with barbed wire and huge iron fences, it is a former army accomodation. Our job is to take the families to the rooms, show them their places, hand them food, dry clothes if needed. 800 people every night. The rooms are stocked with 12 beds, but we have to put 40 people in. Only sick people and mothers with children can use a mattress or bed. During the night, many more people will arrive, often soaking wet directly from the boats, often with small kids, and need shelter and food.
We take families of sometimes more than 20 members. The young woman from France who introduces me into my job reaches her limit of resilience when a refugee woman shows her sick child. “It is so little what we can give them. The electrical light and the heaters are broken. She has given birth just two weeks ago and needs a doctor, and I don´t know if one will show up tonight.”
As volunteer we have to make choices: we have to refuse a thirsty child a bottle of water, knowing that then everybody would wish water, and then we would never come through the accommodation process for 800 people. We signal a thousand times: Sit in your room, wait, food will come, water will come. Only sick people get a bit better treatment.
Some people are cheating and make us give them a second drink or food unit. I see them doing it, and I cannot even be angry on them. It must be one way to not feel as a passive beggar waiting that something is being put into their hands and say thank you. Other refugees offer their help, carry boxes for their fellows, translate. Some families organise tiny spaces of community and comfort, sharing the little what they have. A smiling young girl of maybe 12 years impresses me. She insists of helping us carrying the food and the drinks to the rooms, distributing it, being a part of the helpers and not of the victims. People like her will go through this situation becoming stronger and stronger.
It is clear that it is a very basic help that we can offer. We cannot make everyone happy. And indeed a smile, a friendly Salaam aleikum sometimes makes the difference, and I amazed, how composed and polite most refugees are. What does it take to keep your dignity in such a situation of dirt, cold, and tiredness?
I run so many times up and down the stairs, taking little kids at the hand, guiding families, helping carry a baby or the luggage of a overloaden or elderly woman, I forget my own hunger and wish to sit down for a moment. I just want to help as good as possible. I see people with empty eyes, apparently resigned to their fate of being homeless, identifying with the lable refugee. Others seem unaffected in their friendliness – just people who accept some weeks of struggles and already carry a better future in their eyes. There is family of six from Iran, nobody carries any luggage. “All is gone”, signals the father and laughs. “Better than to loose a child.”
There are numerous kids of all age groups, some playing, some crying, many tired and some sick. I observe breathtaking moments between parents and children, and I wonder about the family bonds that are being created here. How will these children remember those weeks in 20 years?
But there is always also another side. As I help a tired mother with many kids to carry a one-year-old, she says something to me, makes gestures between me and the baby. I am pretty sure she says: Would you like to keep the baby? I try to take it with humor. What ordeal must a mother have gone through – and see in front of her! – that she rather would give her child away?
In the end I feel totally exhausted, but over-happy that I could be of use. Only later in the night I wake up, and cannot sleep again. Thousands of eyes look at me. All those people, what they have gone through, where they will go to? 3000-5000 thousands every single day. The whole planet seems to be in movement. Most of them will go through a hard and long walk to the North, many of them will be denied asylum in the end and be sent back to the situation they wanted to escape. They must know it and still they have tried. Seeing this you really understand that this system is about to collapse. It has already collapsed already for so many people on the planet.
The Village of All-Together
The Village of All-Together is a totally other story. Greek activists had come together on this former official site of the “Patriotic Institution for Social Welfare and Assistance” (short P.I.K.P.A.) based in Athens. Here the activisted created a place to support empoverished families due to the economic crisis. During the last year it became an alternative refugee camp hosting mainly refugees who have to stay longer, be it because they lost a family member, because they are sick, pregnant or just gave birth, because they don´t have the money to continue or because they don´t get papers.
“We are not a camp, we are a community”, Mareike says, a long-term volunteer. “A community of volunteers and refugees. You have become part of it by stepping into the site. You are all responsible. When you see something that does not to be ok, change it. We have some guidelines, the most important one is: have fun! If you do something and don´t enjoy it, don´t do it. There will be others who will enjoy it.”
Compared to Moria, the All Together Village is paradise. Up to150 people live in wooden cabins, cook for themselves, or choose to eat in the common dining room.
Achilles, one of the longterm volunteers, is troubled. “Imanuel was crying this morning. I want to find out why.” People cry often in Lesbos, for many reasons, but only in Pikpa volunteers can take the time to find out why.
My day in the Village starts with cleaning toilets and showers. “If the bathroom is clean, they feel save, they can relax, and they can become more creative to find solutions”, my co-cleaner Munir explains. The place shows the stress that their users have gone through. We try to start a new standard. Never before I cleaned toilets with so much love and care.
There are service jobs for the big camps like sorting second-hand clothes, preparing and packing 700 meals every evening. And there are projects like running a compost system, starting a garden or teaching children. A group collects some of the thousands of life vests that have been left on the beaches, tears them apart and upcycles them. They produce orange hand bags to be sold to make some income for Pikpa, insulation mattresses to hand out in cold nights, and insulation for the wooden huts in winter.
In the Village of All-Together, there is clearly a lack of leadership and clear organisation. That said I am amaed that the most important work always gets done. Everybody is asked to take responsibility and “to have fun”, as Mareike puts it: “If you don´t like what you are doing change your attitude or do something else. We will only succeed if we like what we are doing.”
The vision of the All-Together team is not only to provide immediate help but to create a sustainable place, where all kind of people can live together as a model for co-existence, hospitality, and cooperation with nature. Many of the volunteers from all age-groups and countries enjoy the community spirit of this place, some of them say: this is how I would always love to live.
Together with Fadi, a Syrian communication engineer who has decided to stay on the island and seek asylum in Greece, Aida has started a permaculture garden. Young men from Kurdistan, Morocco, Algeria, get their hands dirty, together with volunteers from Switzerland, USA, Germany and England we build several raised beds.
Aida: “As Palestinian I have learnt that only handing out food and clothes is not really the help that I want to give. We as Palestinians have become dependent on aid and lost our ability to be autonomous. If you know how to grow your food even in the poor or small spot that you have you have created a piece of autonomy and resilience for yourself.”
During my last night on Lesbos the temperature drops below zero. I do another evening shift in Moria. After accommodating the waiting people we still have space, and we stroll in pairs through the entire camp, locate families with children and invite them to come to sleep inside. The frozen families are deeply grateful to have a place to spend the night in the warmth. As we cannot speak their languages we show them a little drawing of a house. It now has become my most precious souvenir that I take back home to never forget the meaning of home and a warm place to spend the night.