Day 27 – London, United Kingdom
Dear reader, my time in Lesvos has come to an end and this will be the last update you will read for a little while. The past few days in Moria have consisted of the same old mayhem, the same cold nights. Many ill people are trying to get the attention of the volunteers to see a doctor: having a place to send them remains difficult: there just aren’t enough medics on the ground and they seem to be shut all the time. We try so hard us volunteers, but there just isn’t enough of anything. Not enough shelter, blankets, food, water and not enough doctors. What can a handful of volunteers do in the face of such despair?
The way I see it we must keep applying pressure to the European Union and UN to do more: the authorities and the big NGOs are the ones who need to take charge and solve the mess they have sat in for so long. The other day, as night was setting I walked out into the hundreds of people needing shelter and blankets together with an employee from UNHCR. A crowd quickly gathered around us and started asking for things. Within less than a minute I could see her loose her cool. She shouted ‘I cannot work like this’ and ran back to the safety of the police tape, leaving us, the untrained, unpaid and powerless volunteers to deal with the crowd instead. A lot of the times, they hide behind the gates whilst we sort out the mess they are supposed to be in charge of and leave at 8pm whilst we stay until the early morning, they don’t even leave one person on shift. It’s utter madness. I have very little good things to say about the NGOs on the ground in Lesvos. If you want to donate, then donate to the small charities: Starfish, Lesvos Volunteers Coordination, Live for Lives, Human Appeal, Mercy Worldwide or Collective at Pikpa camp. Money donated there goes directly to the refugees, not into the pockets of some greedy director. Oxfam I do praise because they deliver thousands of meals every single day when nobody else does. I’ve never in my life been involved with activism, anarchism and have never been into conspiracy theories. But after the things I have seen in Lesvos with my own eyes I no longer trust the UN, nor the authorities. It feels like money isn’t being spent where it should be, and it feels like things are made purposely so terrible to deter people from coming across the sea in their dinghies. The question I have asked myself every single day during my time in Lesvos: where is the humanity? I don’t care if people are coming because they just want a better life and aren’t necessarily fleeing from bombs, the authorities can figure that out later. But where is the humanity in how we receive them in the meanwhile?
What was supposed to be a 10 day trip turned into nearly a month of heartbreaking work. To illustrate my initial naivety: I still have my unused bikini in my bag, I had packed it for a sunny afternoon off. With a heavy heart and a feeling I cannot describe in words I left Moria, driving by the people with tears in my eyes. It is a feeling of betrayal, a worried feeling about who will look after them and how will the rest of their journey go? I cannot imagine going back to my old carefree life. How can I, after everything I have seen? But I have neglected my friends and family for the past month, my career, my finances, my health and the state of my unplucked eyebrows. I need to go home to attend to my old life and cherish all the blissful things I am lucky enough to have. But I go home a changed person, forever changed. The things I have seen have made my heart feel so humble, so small and so interconnected with humanity. Before I came to Lesvos it was easy to have a sense of ‘them’- the refugees, and ‘us’- the privileged Europeans. But within the crowds of thousands who have passed me by this past month I have met individuals who have given the refugees a face, a name and a story. And they have touched my heart and filled me with tenderness, humility and awe for their incredible strength. These are people I will probably never meet again, but they will be with me for as long as I live. Abdulrazzak and his family: the trust he gave me in sharing his story. The single mother with the seven girls. Sayeed, the Iranian fashion photographer who helped us every spare minute he had. Handsome Afghan Ali, only 18 and already so traumatised in life, where is he now? Does he know we’re thinking of him? The Syrian boys in the port, Chad and Omer: the burning curiosity and intelligence on their sweet little faces. The lady who touched my cheek and said ‘thank you sister’ as I changed her soaking wet daughter. The days of rain and teargas in Moria I will never forget, the image of the children and babies with rotting hands and feet are scratched into my soul. The Afghan girl falling on her knees in the rainy mud begging me to help her. Opening the tent to 5 soaking wet and crying feverish children, their blankets covered in their own urine. The little girl I tried to pull out of the pile of people stuck at the bottom of the stampede at the gate: I couldn’t move her. The sounds of crying children and wailing mothers. The girl I held, kissed and cried with after the teargas. The 15 year old Afghan boy with the red coat: I will never forget him. I don’t know his name but his face still haunts me, not a day goes by that I do not think of him. I met him during the days of rain in Moria: some of the worst days in my life, and of everyone there I imagine. Soaked to the bone he still smiled at me, hugged me and called me his sister. Miserable as it was, wet as it was he still helped others. He waited for me after I got hit by the teargas, he took my hand and we ran away from it together. The next morning I bought him new shoes, trousers, a jacket and everything. But he was gone, I looked for his face in the port but he had vanished. I’ll never know how my brother is and if he makes it. If there is any righteousness in this world he will.
Leaving is very hard, but there are some great comforts I cling onto: Abdulrazzak and his family are safe in Denmark. When they are settled in I will go and see them. I haven’t seen the same kind of police brutality since the days of rain: quite the contrary actually. I have met many kind policemen since then who have offered their help and are pointing out the vulnerable cases to us and asking us for blankets to give to the children. The other big comfort are the dedicated volunteers on the ground I have met who are staying for longer, some of them for several months, I don’t know how they manage for so long, such strength! And also the fact that I know there are many more volunteers coming out. Some people I met and some people who messaged me have told me that they are helping in Lesvos because of my updates. That has been the most rewarding outcome of writing these stories : I know I can pass on the job and care to the next volunteers. I know you’ll be doing an incredible job at it, and I’m so incredibly grateful for that. I’m also indebted to you my dear reader for sharing my posts, your encouraging words and the aid supplies you guys have sent to Lesvos. Grateful for your extremely generous and often anonymous donations to the crowdfunding page. The biggest part of it is still unspent: I will be in close contact with the volunteers on the ground to figure out the best way to spend it once the funds get released. This may take a bit of time but we want to make sure it’s spent well, rather than spent quickly. Hopefully I’ll be back in Lesvos to see that happen and I will update you on that in the near future. Grateful to my friends and mum who came out to join me and also the ones who have been working hard back home to raise funds, aid and awareness.
You have been my online voice and my support dear reader. This part of the journey is over for now, but there is an enormous job coming your way I will need your help with: the people who have been arriving on the dinghies these past few months will have arrived and will be arriving into your countries in Europe. The huge job that lies before us is to make sure we as citizens make them feel welcome, it isn’t just up to our governments to integrate these people. We too, have a duty from human to human during the greatest tragedy happening in our lifetime to introduce them to our culture with gentle kindness, to each take a family or a friend and ‘adopt’ them into our world. I think we will have a very big problem if we keep up a separatist wall between ‘them’ and ‘us’. There will be difficult times ahead in Europe dear reader, not every single person I’ve met here is a walk in the park: as within any country the refugees are diverse. We have mostly met wonderful people but we’ve met also many lying and cheating people, men who don’t respect the female volunteers and spit on the ground when we walk in. There are many uneducated people also, who don’t speak any other languages, it will require a huge amount of patience and dedication to help them speak, read and write. Some people, like the elderly for instance won’t be able to integrate into our societies at all and they will live within their own micro-communities. We have to remember their tragic stories and accept that. We’ve encountered a lot of racism also between the Syrians, Iranians, Iraqis and Afghans. Violence even. It won’t be easy to introduce some of them to our western values: tolerance for homosexuality, equal rights for men and women, the way we dress. It won’t be easy dear reader, but the problem will be so much greater if we keep up a sense of segregation between us. Let’s welcome them to our values and let’s share the privileges we are lucky enough to have for the simple fact that we were born in Europe. I hope the authorities are clever enough not to just stick all the refugees together in a centre outside of town, though this is already happening. People need to be relocated to live among the Europeans, to become neighbours and to become friends. The only way I see the world work out its problems is by compassion, interfaith respect and a sense of solidarity in humanity. Like Abdulrazzak wished for: consider them human. Many of the people will be sent back to their own countries, I hope our authorities will make the right decisions, but I fear that often won’t be the case. There are hundreds of thousands of traumatised people heading our way and we all have a duty to help with that. Especially the children, none of this is their doing and they will be part of Europe’s future. Let’s make sure we get that right.
I have been so grateful for all your support. My family and I have had a very difficult year as we lost our beloved dad to cancer in March. When that happened I received unimaginable support and love from people in places I did not expect it. I have now been in a position to pass on that love to other people in need of it, and I am grateful for that. My dad was a policeman and tried to make the world a better place with the work he did and I think he would have been proud of the work we’ve done, that thought has kept me going.
So my dear reader, I thank you for being a huge part of my journey. It isn’t over yet of course. You will hear from me again. Still so much to be done, this part was only the beginning! I thank you for everything you have done and I ask you to keep applying pressure on your leaders to do more. Because they can always do more than they say. With love and a very fond farewell, I wish you all the best and until we meet again.
Words and images from the brave and hone Merel Graeve