Kim Returns to Lesvos – Refugee Journey to Lesvos

This blog is more about my personal experiences linked to what happened on day 4 and the refugee journey to Lesvos.

Arriving on Lesvos 2018

When I arrived in Lesvos on the Sunday night I was on my own, Lucy was flying in the following day. I had booked an Airbnb right in the heart of town. And whilst I didn’t have the drama of an hour and half drive on the treacherous Greek roads in the dead of night following a crazy taxi driver to the North like last time. I did have to navigate a rather large car around some very narrow streets on the wrong side of the road.

And after parking the car in town I realised there was something kicking off. It soon became apparent it was something pretty serious and as I later learnt from the comfort of my AirBnB, fascists from Athens had made a trip to Lesvos to stir up trouble and hate.

 

In direct contrast to their approach refugees were silently protesting in the square due to the conditions in Moria. A man from Afghanistan had recently died in the camp and refugees believed it was avoidable they knew their protests and anger wouldn’t make the news but a silent protest in the centre of town might get them some attention.

Refugees are not being heard. They complain about conditions, issues, health problems and the legal process – they are often dismissed told to be grateful for what they have and fall back in line and wait – wait patiently.

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

The rubbish builds up because the collections aren’t frequent enough for the amount of people living in Moria. Many volunteer groups arrange litter picks and clean ups.

If you’re a refugee you fall into this grey area of where certain rules don’t apply to you. Certain safety nets, privileges, human rights are bent and often not in your favour. The odds are stacked against you…

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

Home for so many now…

Day 1

On my first morning on Lesvos I had that heart wrenching pit of stomach feeling you get when you’re really nervous, when your throat tightens and makes your voice change. The reason for this was because for all the bravado and “yes of course I’m going on my own and I will be fine” I knew deep down the trip in 2015 changed me to my core. And when I came home I spiraled into a very dark place. I couldn’t help but wonder if I was being selfish, leaving my children at home for a week and what would I be like on my return…I knew at some point today I would drive past Moria and see with my own eyes what it had become. I didn’t know what my week would entail and whether I’d have the bravery and courage to face it head on, show smiles not sadness to the people I would meet. And whether I would show up as someone who was useful, helpful and able to make a difference.

Rewind back to 2015

On my final night working at the Moria refugee camp in 2015, we had one of our worst nights. The temperature was very very cold. There were so many new arrivals, when the weather is bad you know the people arriving won’t be in a great condition. And one young refugee I met was no exception.

He was an 18 year old boy who’d made his way over from Turkey in a boat, a journey that should have taken less than an hour but for him had taken 5hrs in the bitterly cold December temperatures. A boat ride that left him on a beach in the North in just his underwear. No sign of his bag, or his money. A boy in a foreign land, lucky to be alive. It was by chance another volunteer introduced us and asked if we could help. He refused our offer of money. Instead he had agreed to work his way out of Moria serving tea, litter picking and translating.

With a heavy heart I left him in the early hours of the morning in the camp knowing that I had done nothing.

Every night after we finished for the day I would drive our crew back to the North of the island. It was about 50km and on this trip, I was reminded how crazy we were to do that every day. And how even crazier I was to be the designated driver. But on reflection the journey was our safe place to unload what we’d witnessed that day. Talk through the tragedy we’d seen unfold, share the successes and wins when we’d solved a problem or tackled a crisis. On our final drive north I told the girls about the young boy I had met and together we agreed, we’d try one more time to help him in the morning before we flew home…

We had a lot of gear to unload before our flight that morning, some for Moria some for Pipka. We had decided to fill one of our brand new backpacks with supplies and I decided to tuck some cash in a pocket to give him a head start getting off the island. We didn’t even know if we’d find him and we were limited by time as we had a flight to catch.

By a stroke of luck we did bump into him and through my powers of persuasion I convinced him to take our bag…I also told him to take my details and contact me when he’d managed to get to Germany. We warned him about the conditions along the journey and we told him what we’d experienced in Slovenia. We wished him well because that is all we could do.

For what felt like an eternity I finally got a phone call, it was him. He had made it to Germany, he was safe and he was starting on his journey to become a German citizen.

2018

Fast forward to 2018 and as I stood waiting, looking at the big blue ferry I wondered if I’d recognise him, how would it be to see him again and how would he be feeling about his return to island?

When you strike up a friendship or connection with refugees for the most part you want that relationship to be as far away from their reality as possible. You talk about the weather, football, how beautiful someone’s children are. You don’t start an interrogation. Anyone who knows me will know I am naturally curious, others might say nosey. I do tend to ask a lot of questions and in my comfort zone of being at home I pry. I find my curiosity isn’t curbed when I’m volunteering but I feel uncomfortable asking lots of personal questions. For this reason I didn’t know much about his journey, his reasons for leaving his home and family. Even over the years as we’ve messaged back and forth I’ve never asked.

He did share his story with me over the space of the week. But on reflection and as I write this I don’t feel it is appropriate to share all the details here.

But what I will do is share snippets of what he experienced and try to put it into the context of how some of his experiences would have been similar to others. And I will share the details I think help to illustrate how devastating the situation is for so many.

Re-tracing our steps

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This image shows most of the island. To the South West you can see the refugee camps and Humans4Humanity and in the North you can see the stretch where refugees land.

He wanted to go back to the beach where he arrived and he wanted to see the life jacket grave yard. I didn’t know the exact point where he had arrived but I did have a fairly good knowledge of the Northern landing points. The reason a lot of the arrivals come into the North is because this is the shortest stretch of water between Lesvos and Turkey. The challenge is in winter there might not be a lot of lights for the designated person responsible for the boat to aim towards. It is also an incredibly rocky stretch of the island.

For this part of the story I really need to rely on some other contributors because I made a very conscious decision in 2015 that I didn’t think I’d be very helpful dragging people out of the water, not least because I was pregnant but because it takes a someone who is calm and able to make very quick life and death decisions. I’m ashamed to say I don’t think I possess those skills.

This video is from our friends at Humans4Humanity. Neda does a really good job of showing and explaining what is happening and how the volunteers on the Greek side help guide the boats onto the island as safely as possible.

 

The Journey North

On the Thursday H4H was closed to guests so we decided to use the day to retrace the journey he had made.

The journey North was as I had remembered it – lots of hair pin bends, steep hills and absolutely stunning scenery. Our sat nav was set for Molyvos, by a coincidence my eyes were watering and we pulled over at a perfect viewpoint. There were two people set up with a telescope and looked like bird watchers. I was mistaken they were from the lighthouse team. As the refugee numbers have started to pick up again so has the need for people to work around the clock to keep look out for boats.

Why are they looking for boats? The volunteer teams in Greece can’t help them get into Greek waters. And often they don’t even get that far before they’re picked up by the coastguard in Turkish waters. What the team are looking to do is make sure that the boats do not get distressed. And ultimately they are looking to preserve life.

Thursday was a calm day, the weather was warm and the sea looked peaceful. But it is deceiving when the boats are at the furthest point from land the sea isn’t calm and in the dead of night it is dark and in the midst of winter or a stormy day it is deadly.

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What you can see in the back ground is Turkey, the water looks calm. But over the last few years the Mediterranean sea has claimed the lives of over 13,500 men, women and children.

There was silence as we took in the view, he was very quiet and then he spoke…

“all along that stretch people have died”

I was taken aback, this wasn’t news to me it was Aylan Kudi washing up on a beach in Turkey that sparked my need to do something in the summer of 2015. But it was still a shock to hear it here on this hill looking out at Turkey. And it was then we got a small part of his story…

Turkey to Greece

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

Men, women and children are packed into the boats tightly. The more people in the boat the more money the smugglers make. This photo is taken by Kevin McElvaney.

On the night he was due to travel over to Greece his smuggler had asked him to help get the boat ready. This isn’t a choice by the way, if you’re selected to be the person put in charge of the motor or steering or squeezing more people onto a boat you do it because there is often a man with a gun telling you to do it.

But what he witnessed was people washing up on shore who had failed to make it on their first attempt and what the smuggler wanted to do was get the boat back on land to fill it with more people and send it again. And what of the people who were on that first boat…well some swam back to land and were able to try again and others DIDN’T MAKE IT. I’m capitalising those words because when he explained this I got chills and I felt sick. As I imagine you probably feel right now too.

I was suddenly standing at the top of a view point looking at a stunning stretch of coastline and realising that so many people who were on the other side would have thought they were so close and were probably looking at the calm water and the short distance to land and thinking I’m going to make it…

People who’ve made it to that beach have survived war, regimes, religious persecution, political persecution, walking over mountains, walking miles, avoiding being robbed, being robbed but have picked themselves up and moved forward. They’ve slept rough in Izmir so they can save every single penny to pay smugglers for a seat on a boat and buy a life jacket.

And then the boat they are given isn’t quite as good as the one they gave the other group, perhaps they load one too many families on it. Perhaps they hit a rock when the boat launches and creates a hole, perhaps the waves are just too high. Or perhaps they just don’t have enough hands to hold every one of their children’s hands. Perhaps the life jacket they sold them is stuffed full of material that will actually soak up water and not in fact help them float but actually contributes to them sinking. Perhaps the only life jacket they had for their small child was nothing more than a pool toy.

You very quickly start to realise why so many haven’t made it.

I was speechless…lost in the thought of every one of those lives that have been lost in that sea and angry knowing that safe passage for all would have avoided these deaths.

Did you know over 13000 men, women and children have lost their lives crossing the Mediterranean during this crisis and you can’t help but wonder how many more will. When you see people cheering and kissing the ground when they land, it is for this reason. They made it…they didn’t die!

Landing in Greece

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

The boats are often filled with children. the experience must be terrifying. This photo is taken by Kevin McElvaney.

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

Abandoned life jackets along the coast. This photo is taken by Kevin McElvaney.

In 2015 the road from Skala Sikamineas to Eftalou wasn’t pleasant, it is a very winding stretch, the route is bumpy and dusty. The day we drove it in 2015 the rain had made it particularly bad. All along the route you could see discarded life jackets and abandoned boats. In the summer of 2015 refugees would have to walk the 10km to the top of the hill. In 2018 the route bared no resemblance to that winters day in 2015. We drove in relative silence, I needed to concentrate on the pot holes, craters and sharp drops. But in my head I was thinking about how many people had walked this road. Often cold, wet and in shock.

What happens to refugees once they arrive?

Immediate assistance if available

Volunteers are often meeting the boats, depending on the volume and where they arrive, emergency foil blankets, water and medical assistance are often provided. Refugees would then make the walk to the top of the hill. In 2018 and on the day we visited the North there are teams picking refugees up to take them to stage 2 camp. It all depends on timing, location and the resources available.

Stage 2 Camp

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This stage 2 camp is situated near Skala. It is run by the UNHCR.

This is where needs are assessed, the refugees are counted, their location of origin is determined. Back in 2015 this was a big area next to a nightclub, today it is a smaller space run by UNHCR.  At stage 2 refugees can change their clothes, if they have their own and/or swap them for dry clothing. A bus then takes them down to Moria where they will be registered and then allocated somewhere to stay.

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This coach will take the new arrivals from the North to the South where Moria will become home.

Moria

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

Life for a newborn baby and her mother is nothing more than a tent and crate for a cradle. This should not be there only option…

Kevin McElvaney, #love4lesvos, humans4humanity, godberstravel, refugees welcome, moria, lesvos, volunteering, refugee crisis, refugee aid, love4lesvos, chooselove, peace not war, love not war, refugee crisis europe, safe passage

Often tents are just summer pop up dome tents. The refugees have no choice but to try and winter proof them with tarp and bricks. Winter is cold in Greece it often snows.

Refugees do receive funding from the EU. This money is provided on a card which is topped up on a monthly basis. The card can then work like Visa/Mastercard. It can be used in shops (like the supermarket next door to Moria) to buy goods. Refugees are able to use the bus for free. And the money they receive is allocated based on whether they are male or female and how many children they may have. The system is flawed. The card can take a long time to get in the first place – until then, you rely on your own funds and the food and aid distribution in the camp. You may get lucky and be offered a trip to Humans4Humanity, or another NGO on the island. You may get your card but regularly the payments aren’t processed and refugees are left with no funds. This is another example of how refugee’s mental health and sanity can be chipped away at.

Leaving Moria

For months, years you are left waiting. Then one day you’re told you’re moving. You must gather your belongings because tonight you will be taking the ferry to Athens. You are taken to the port on a bus which has a police escort – like a prisoner. For some this is what they dream of, but the reality for many when they arrive in Athens is a confusing busy capital with little or no support. Many refugees are now living on the street. They might be allocated to another camp, a hotel, an apartment but there is little support and many refugees don’t speak Greek.

Some are lucky enough to be granted reunification with family members in other parts of Europe.

But for most this is not the case. And the task of making this next place home begins again…

What happens to the life jackets once the refugees move on?

Our next stop on the journey was the life jacket graveyard.

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Like the refugee camps, the evidence they came through the island is hidden away out of sight.

Life jackets are such a symbolic visual for the refugee crisis. In reality it is a rubbish dump, but the sheer volume of jackets that have arrived on the island, like the number of refugees it is significant and it is impossible for it not to move you.

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The life jackets are deep and they gone on as far as the eye can see.

Human connection often brings tears, i’d shed a few through the first few days working at Humans4Humanity. Mostly of joy and in solidarity, whilst making that human connection.

But on this day in the middle of that rubbish dump standing on a mountain of jackets I sobbed, I sobbed my heart out….

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The sight of this teeny tiny life jacket in a sea of jackets, debris and rubber rings, tipped me over the edge I sobbed so hard for the family who had to put their faith in this jacket.

The life jackets symbolise so many dreams, so many heartbreaking decisions made by individuals, families and so many moments of fear, adrenaline and hope…

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This would be the kit we’d have had to keep ourselves a float on our trip across the med. A life jacket for each of us and a lot of faith that we’d be one of the lucky ones.

the life jackets represent the refugees in Moria, thrown on the rubbish pile, like they’re nothing, not important and now hidden away from sight…

Except the refugees in Moria, across Europe, across the world aren’t rubbish they aren’t a nobody. They are like you and I, they are doctors, teachers, chefs, dentists, carpenters and plumbers. They have children who may grow up and discover the cure for cancer, be an inventor, a coder, a lawyer, an engineer or midwife.

But what is for sure is if you cut them they bleed the same red blood, they cry the same tears and they feel the same pain we all do. They just happened to be born somewhere where they are not safe.

Our journey back to the south was a sombre drive. A time for contemplation and a time for Lucy and I to plan what next, what would we do on our return to the UK.

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A sign of hope love and peace

And as I drove along the familiar road from Kalloni into Mitilini. I started to think of a special place, Humans4Humanity and pulling up outside made my heart swell. It was a tough and emotional day but one look at the faces of the volunteers, a quick scour around the centre and seeing all the hard work that had gone into the clean up and knowing I was amongst friends, I knew I was where I belonged. A place where we can make a difference.

THANK YOU RAFAT AND NEDA FOR ALL THAT YOU DO TO MAKE HUMANS4HUMANITY possible

Thank you for your ongoing support!

I am now writing this post after returning but I do hope that the stories i’m telling might make you consider donating to my new campaign. The money will all go to Humans4Humanity to keep those running costs paid for.  As of 1st May H4H have received £3001 in total. Future donations will be documented on my GoFundMe page.

DONATE NOW

Kim’s Return to Lesvos

 

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