Lynne Jones is a child psychiatrist, relief worker, writer and founding Director of the IIHA course on Mental Health in Complex Emergencies (MHCE). She has spent much of the last 20 years establishing and running mental health programs in areas of conflict or natural disaster including the Balkans, East and West Africa, South East Asia, the Middle East, Central America, Haiti and most recently Europe. Her field diaries have been published in the London Review of Books and O, The Oprah Magazine, and her audio diaries broadcast on the BBC World Service. Her most recent book is Then They Started Shooting: Children of the Bosnian War and the Adults they Become (Bellevue Literary Press, 2012)
LESVOS DIARY: Lynne Jones
Monday 7th March, Molyvos, Lesvos island, Greece
The Castle above Molyvos has very thick walls. Byzantines kept out the cretan Arabs, Genoese kept out the Turks, Ottomans kept out the Europeans. Each empire adding yet more bricks and mortar so that today Asmamaw and I can sit among the carefully maintained ruins and gaze down on the NATO ships patrolling the tiny stretch of water between this Greek Island and Turkey. They are here to keep out yet another invasion, this one unarmed and desperate. The patrolling has lessened the flow slightly, but done nothing to decrease the dangers. 25 migrants died today just off the tourist beaches of Turkey. Can you imagine the reaction if that was off Bournemouth or Torquay? Here it is just a footnote to the more than 4000 who have drowned or gone missing in the year trying to make it to Europe. Those that do make it are either picked up by the Greek Coastguard and taken into Mytilene or like the 100 people that arrived early this morning onto the northern beaches, to be welcomed by a motley crew of Greek and international volunteers.
Asmamaw and I have spent the weekend getting our bearings, driving the dirt road between Molyvos and Skala Sykamineas between hillsides blooming with Broom and Ashphodel and a silky sea. Just below the Castle in Molyvos there is the Hope Centre, set up by Eric and Rachel Kempson, a resident British couple who have spent most of a year rescuing people and decided to use donated funds to convert a disused hotel into a small friendly way station with rooms for families and changes of clothes. Further along, sitting in strategically placed chairs on the cliff edge, armed with night vision binoculars are two Norwegians and a Japanese man from a ‘Drop in the Ocean’. The Japanese man has travelled for 60 hours at his own expense to spend 3 weeks ‘helping out’. Down the road are the mini buses and ranked tents of the International Rescue Committee (IRC). Rumour has it that the guards and drivers are all from the neo Nazi Golden dawn, their antagonisms to the migrants muted somewhat by the employment possibilities provided. Although migrants are still a divisive issue in Molyvos. The medical tent near the Hope Centre was burned down three times. Beyond IRC are the beach-side shelters created by the Lighthouse. These are my favourite. Well constructed of tarpaulin and wood set among trees, Jen, an advertising executive from London who used all her leave to volunteer showed us round. There is separate warming drying and changing space for men and women and children. There are sorted, donated clothes available for changing, a kitchen for making hot food and even a small playground for children. Platanos, a mainly Greek, Anarchist collective has a similar set up, slightly further along, while in the village itself, the Spanish life guard volunteers and the medics from Israid hang out at Goji café and wait to be called.
So this is how it goes: once your rubber dinghy has landed and you have got warmed up, fed, and been given dry clothes; you are then picked up by an IRC or UNHCR minibus to be taken across the island to the Moria registration centre in the olive clad hills near Mytilene. Unfortunately Moria looks like a prison, with cell blocks and barbed wire topping double metal fences, because that is what it was. But this is where the Greek Government provides papers that allow you to spend a transitional period in Greece while you make your way first to Athens and then up to the North to cross into Macedonia and the Balkans, and onwards towards the dream of Germany. The transitional period varies: 6 months for Syrians and one month for everyone else, but there is a chance of renewal or of applying for asylum in Greece.
Just outside the Prison is an informal tented Camp. This is Better Days For Moria, set up by unpaid Greek and international volunteers, who despaired at the conditions and understaffing inside Moria and their inability to get adequate services into people who needed them, because of guns, barbed wire and bureaucracy. So they rented land next door, set up kitchens, clothes and tent distribution. Currently some 600-800 Pakistanis, Morrocans and Afghans live here in tents among the olive trees. With brightly painted coloured signs, an always open tea tent, a seemingly endless game of cricket going on on the one flat space, and a children’s play tent and playground, it is much more welcoming than behind the barbed wire, where everyone is turfed out of their rooms at 7 am, to sit on the concrete walkways, come rain or shine. So not surprisingly many of the refugees walk over to use the facilities here. Now that the Macedonian border guards are allowing entry only on the basis of what city you come from in Syria, both camps are full to overflowing.
Both Asmamaw and I are now officially registered as independent volunteers. You can do it five minutes on the Northern Aegean Prefecture website or walk into their office as we did this morning. We also registered with the Greek Medical Association so we have permission to volunteer at the Health post in BDFM. There are official MSF and MDM run clinics inside Moria but they are understaffed and overwhelmed, so many people come to Health Point. Jim a retired GP from Scotland who has been working here a week has been seeing 70 to a 100 patients on every shift. Last night he had to take a man with a two week old suppurating fracture to hospital, deal with a person in status asthmaticus and sort out medication for someone with uncontrolled epilepsy. There are supposedly two organised camps for such vulnerable patients but they are both full.
… mostly its triviata, coughs, colds aches and pains. You are just providing comfort, as GP’s mostly do at home, reassuring them there is nothing more serious. But there’s a lot of antenatal care needed and quite a few with serious illnesses: vascular damage from cold injuries pneumonia, dehydration, feverish or hypothermic babies.
There is also a scabies infestation. Ideally we would like to refer these cases back to MSF who have hot showers and a treatment protocol. The trouble is the Pakistanis who make up most of the occupants of the informal camp don’t want to go to MSF because they are afraid that if they go into Moria they will be registered for deportation. There is no possibility of them transiting Greece. Unaccompanied minors can register with UNHCR and go to school and be cared for in Athens at least untill they are 18. Adults can claim asylum in Greece if they can prove there was a threat to their life, but most can’t do this so they face deportation and a humiliating return to their families with nothing to show but overwhelming debt. At one of the meetings discussing their options, one of the Pakistani men lay down on the floor and said well why not just kill me now?
Sofia, a volunteer translator who has come here from Islamabad has got to know many of them. She thinks a particularly vulnerable group have been targeted by smugglers.
…Most of them have very little education and cannot read or write. They have been sold a dream in Pakistan, spent a fortune to get here, they don’t fully understand where ‘here’ is and they certainly don’t understand the complexities of their situation. Untill a few weeks ago if they registered they got a paper saying they could stay in Greece a month. Now the paper says they will be deported but they have not fully understood that.
Sofia is completely frustrated at the attitude of the official agencies to informal volunteers like herself even when they are desperately short of translators. Recently she had persuaded some unaccompanied minors to go and register with UNHCR, promising to stick with them every step of the way, only to have the door of the office slammed in her face when she brought them up there. Unsurprisingly some of them ran off without registering.
There was a Silent Protest this afternoon: Moroccans, Pakistanis, Iranians, Afghans and other ‘secondary’ groups: the ones who have a B on the wrist band issued at registration, sat holding placards on the Cricket pitch while the volunteers joined in a protective circle. Wrist bands: the system of categorisation that defines your rights to assistance, not according to what you have suffered or experienced, but simply on the basis of where you were born.
I don’t have an answer to the migration crisis but looking for solutions surely has to begin with certain fundamental principles. One is that people have always moved to try and improve their lives. My Jewish grandfather did and as a consequence I am alive to day. One’s chances of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness cannot simply depend on geographical lotto. Bad luck, you are born in a dangerous corrupt state rife with terrorist bombings or war. No you may not leave. If capital can move freely causing havoc, why not people? Because everyone will want to come here! the cry goes up. So how do we make ‘there’ decent. It comes down to the Piketty solutions of a global wealth tax… Dream on I hear my readers scoffing.
Wednesday 9th March, Better Days for Moria
It’s official. The Macedonian border is now completely closed to all migrants, no matter how they are categorised, as are Serb, Slovene and Croatian borders. Orban’s fences are now de rigeur. There is no way to Germany through the Balkans. And while Balkan governments shout he started it at one another, the EU plans yet another crisis meeting and the Greek Government says there is a humanitarian emergency- which is true. Its not just the 12-15000 sitting in the mud and rain on the Macedonian border. We stopped in Victoria park in Athens on the way here. It is packed with families who have been sleeping on blankets for days because the official camps are full, as are the squats run in the neighbourhood by our Greek anarchist friends. One appartment block had 150 families staying there. The ports in Athens are apparently in chaos and Moria now has 3000 when it is only supposed to house 1500.
…That was my first demonstration. It was the first time I put up my hand, I am usually a spectator, Jim tells me at breakfast this morning.
… Why did you come?
… You sit at home. You watch John Wayne shoot Indians on the Telly, then you watch Homs being blasted to smithereens on the same screen, then you walk the dogs in the park, up to the pond, round the church, and you think about those two sets of images on the same screen and it’s like its not happening. It’s not enough. I needed to come… If I am brutally honest we did not give a monkees when we invaded their countries, we paid no attention to their borders. We chose the boundaries of the Middle East and Africa to suit ourselves. If you believe what goes around comes around… The sins of the Fathers… So I’m left with what responsibility do we bear because of what we have allowed our governments to do. It’s a complex and longstanding problem but we have inflammed and aggravated it if nothing else. So surely we have to hold out our hands and hearts. The Greeks have been incredible and they are economically destitute.
I am sorry Jim’s leaving. He has been friendly and welcoming, helping Asmamaw and I find our feet. He’s both sad and glad to be going. Partly because he’s exhausted, having done a shift every day for 2 weeks.
…You have to remember that people’s physical ills occur in the context of extreme danger after extreme physical hardship. They have been herded onto trucks, walked across mountains, suffered cold and heat, then there is the physical stress of crossing sea they see for the first time. They make it to Greece and let go and that is when the symptoms appear, just like when you go on holiday and have time to be sick. There are many elderly people who have lived all their lives in one place, then they up sticks for the first time with their diabetes and their high blood pressure and obesity, subjecting themselves to terrible hardship. They say things like ‘my Baby has died I have to get to Germany,’ Think about that: a 50 year old man rolling up his bed heading here, leaving everyone behind…
Jim bursts into tears. I think about this in the evening Clinic. The elderly Afghan lawyer talking to me lost three friends in that boat accident 3 days ago and he cannot stop seeing them in his mind’s eye. Actually I was not expecting to do clinics. Asmamaw is doing daily shift but I thought I would provide some training for volunteer staff, and come as wanted if there was a case where they needed advice, but I have had 3 referrals in an hour, so have pinned up an appointment sheet on the wall, where people can book into time slots.
There is a Pakistani man who broke down crying while trying to put up his tent. He had just heard that his father had died in Pakistan. The urdu translator sitting with him on the bed in the cubicle tells me she just brought him for quiet space, he does not want to talk to me, or anyone. She will look after him. I am delighted. The volunteer translators are the frontline staff and are completely amazing. Mehwish, who is normally the manager of a cosmetic supply chain in the US, told me she had never realised having two languages would be so useful. She sits quietly with the man while he weeps and agonises over whether he should immediately go back to Pakistan, making sure he has enough credit to call back; sharing, at his request, pictures of her own family on her phone, and then helping him get settled for the night and making sure others are around to take care.
Meanwhile John, one of the best farsi translators and a refugee himself, brings in another young man, Samir, a 20 year old Afghan who had arrived from the boat that morning. He registered in Moria and was given the appropriate B wrist band, but had ended up in Better Days. John had tried to help and became increasingly concerned at his odd behaviour and strange way of speaking. His answers were off point and made no sense, he seemed confused, looked terrified and was quite unable to erect a tent, so John brought him to me.
…Believe me I have seen a lot of upset people but this guy is completely different and really strange.
In the warmth and light of the clinic Samir is less confused and able to explain that he has been seeing and hearing things for years, since his twin brother died. In particular, he sees three men following and trying to kill him. It has got worse since fleeing Afghanistan, he saw them on the boat, and started shouting, because he was terrified. The other passengers thought he was crazy. In one assessment I cannot decide if this is an exacerbation of a psychotic disorder or some kind of dissociative experience related to panic attacks. As warmth light, reassurance, dry clothes and tea have calmed him down I don’t think it’s a psychiatric emergency, but the young man needs a safe place to sleep and someone to keep an eye on him as he’s completely alone and unable to organise his own care. Then he can be reassessed in the morning.
I get on the phone, starting with MSF inside Moria, who, in theory at least, will manage the more serious cases if they are registered refugees. The doctor on duty tells me they cannot take psychiatric cases. MDM are closed. I ring Caritas. They have a camp for vulnerable people but he is not the right kind of Vulnerable Case for their facility. In between I repeatedly try the on call coordinator for UNHCR, but only get through to voicemail. I try a friend in the mental health coordination group. No answer. With the help of a Greek volunteer doctor I ring the Emergency department at the hospital. The duty doctor is extremely reluctant to disturb the on call psychiatrist, but Giorgiou persuades her it is appropriate and a very nice psychiatrist and I discuss the case. They are happy to assess him immediately and possibly give him a bed for the night, but of course, require us to send a translator.
John is the only Farsi translator on site and we have a queue of patients waiting. On call UNHCR still not answering. I text a friend at UNHCR who immediately texts back and I explain we need a bed for the night. Finally after 3 hours of phone calls, someone from Moria rings me. She speaks Farsi, has arranged a bed in a single room for the night and a volunteer to check up on him. The young man is completely calm now. It looks much more like panic. John and I walk him up to the gate of Moria where their staff are waiting. We promise to see him the next day.
I am fascinated by the wary relationship between the professional Humanitarian organisations both UN and NGO, and the independent volunteers. According to Tracy at the Hope Centre it started out badly. The volunteers handled the Crisis alone all last summer greeting boats, saving lives and trying to help refugees on foot across the island. Then in the autumn UNHCR and a number of big agencies turned up.
…They basically said thanks, you can go home now you are doing more harm than good, leave it to the professionals.
This understandably did not go down well with people, both local and international, who had spent all summer saving lives.
… We were late, my UNHCR friend said. I have friends in Geneva who still think we should not be here at all when they lack funds for people who are dying in the CAR
… All the more reason to make use of the volunteers then, they fund themselves, you could provide the leadership.
Admittedly it is difficult to provide coordination and guidance to large populations of individuals whose average time on the island is 2 weeks. Moreover many of them, especially the Greek volunteers, come from solidarity groups whose whole ethos is a resistance to top down leadership. Last Saturday Asmamaw and I sat through a fireside meeting on the North coast in which some 50 supporters of Platanos debated for two hours whether Platanos as an organisation should send volunteers to Idomeni, or they should go as independent individuals. I don’t know the outcome as no consensus had been reached by the time we went to bed.
But by now many of the volunteers have recognised the need for some structure and created it for themselves. They communicate on Facebook pages. Like ‘information point for Lesvos Volunteers’ started by a volunteer who worked here last year and decided this was the most useful thing she could do from home. They join task focussed what’s app groups which are far more responsive to changing needs than any UN emergency cluster meeting. Many join established networks like Better Days, turning up for the daily orientation at the information hut, and then signing up where ever needed, to cook or do clothes distribution or help put up tents. In between patients I do the same myself. I particularly enjoy helping keep the lunch queue orderly. Standing there with half a dozen other women- it works best with women- stopping some 600 men queue jump brings out some kind of inner policeman in me. We are firm but kind, gently shaking our heads at any place saving. Having clowns wander around in full gear doing card tricks helps even more.
Or they join newly formed NGOs like Drop in the Ocean, Lighthouse or Health Point. All of these organisations sprung up out of nowhere to address the specific needs on Lesvos. They all have long term coordinators, but will happily take short termers and provide a structure in which the volunteers can fit. Fiona, another British GP would have loved to work for MSF, but could only spare her 2 weeks annual leave because she has children at home. Health point were happy to use her and she has worked flat out doing daily shifts for two weeks, all at her own expense. One of my favourites is Dirty Girls, started by women who realised the discarded wet clothing refugees were throwing away was creating an environmental problem, so they started gathering it up, getting what was salvageable professionally laundered, and recycling it. You see their cheerful purple logo bedecked bins everywhere.
…But they don’t follow SOPS or protocols, a colleague in one of the big NGOS complained to me. She had just stomped out of the Health Point clinic after discovering that they kept baby bottles in the supply room. The baby bottles are an issue. Many of the Syrian mothers arrive already using them, not breastfeeding, and still want to use them, even though they are a health hazard because they are so difficult to keep clean.
… Well why not take the time to share and discuss the protocols with them? I asked
… Just gap year students on holiday, another said, completely inexperienced!
I have actually not met anyone having a holiday. The biggest problem on the contrary, is burnout because many have not learnt to pace themselves and feel they must respond to every need. This actually matters less for people going home after two weeks, but is harder with those staying longer. I have learnt to offer 30 minute daily training sessions in the small carpeted rest room at Health Point, because everyone is ‘too busy’ to sit down for any longer. I am flattered that once they do sit down to discuss subjects like acute stress or grief and loss in refugees they always stay longer and they see the relevance to themselves. As for psychological first aid, that is what Better Days is all about and what every single volunteer is doing all the time: providing food, shelter, and vital information while comforting people, giving them dignity and helping them connect with relatives and friends. I ask Mehwish to come and explain to her colleagues how she helped the man who lost his father as a perfect example. More importantly there are enough of them to take the time to talk, to hang out, to problem solve, find the diapers, or baby clothes, or shoes, stand alongside the lunch queue to prevent a riot, sit drinking chai or join in the cricket.
Thursday 10th March, Mytilene
More people are now coming onto the island than leaving: approximately 800 a day, more than 7000 so far in this month alone and 132,000 this year. That’s just those who are registered. I learn this at the coordination meeting chaired by UNHCR and the Prefecture, this morning. Along with a briefing on figures and the new relocation programme (more of that later), we hear from the representative for International Relations and Communication:
… That is me, a phone and a laptop he jokes. Seriously, we expect an 80% drop in tourism this year. So we are asking you. Pick your favourite spot on the island, take a selfie, show that Lesvos is a safe and beautiful place to visit. We need your help! If you know any celebrities we need them. The local community has given everything to support refugees, now its time to give something back.
… Does anyone know how many unregistered migrants and refugees there are? I ask at the health coordination meeting that follows. Noone has any idea.
… But if they attend hospital, the police must be informed and they should be registered!
…That means those undocumented migrants who fear deportation will also avoid health care system completely because they fear police involvement, which will create a public health problem, says a visitor from WHO.
In fact it is even more complicated because there are no detention facilities on the island, apart from Moria prison, currently being used to house registered refugees. Pakistanis who do go to register are now being told to wait in Better Days and register on a Tuesday or Friday, when they can be bussed directly to the ferry for Kavala and the Turkish border. Moreover all of them are entitled to an interview to assess their claim and that is not happening. The whole asylum system is overwhelmed.
I meet up with Samir back at Camp. He insists on queueing for my tea and then sits drinking with John and I in the childrens play area. He is transformed by a good night’s sleep and much calmer although he tells me had another attack of voices and visions this morning. We agree to meet tommorow and do some relaxation training.
Maryam asks me to see Usman, a young pakistani who is self harming. He cut himself in a fall and since then has been refusing to eat and scratching open the wound. He sits reluctantly with us in the Clinic. He is obviously not suicidal. On the contrary, he has plans to get to relatives in Germany as soon as possible by going to the Border. He has no interest in eating with us, listening to the impossibility of this plan, or hearing what his other options are. Maryam and I decide that eating a meal in front of him might encourage his appetite. We all sit in the carpeted back room with a volunteer he has befriended. I pop out to see a patient and when I return I see that good food smells work. He is tucking into dinner and then picks up a guitar someone has left. Over the course of the evening, left to play with the guitar and chat with the volunteer he has completely changed. What a difference social space and company make.
Friday 11th March, Better Days for Moria
In the Vodaphone shop this morning when I was topping up my sim, the young Greek assistant asked if I was a Volunteer.
… How do I volunteer? she asked, I want to work with refugees. I tell her that yesterday UNHCR said they were recruiting national staff, so she should look on their website. She is really excited. I listened to the Mayor of Athens on the Radio the other day saying they they had learnt from their own difficulties in the last years and were giving a lesson in solidarity to the rest of Europe. He is absolutely right. The Greeks are extraordinary. Athens appears to be covered in graffiti and full of empty buildings. You have a sense of a city, indeed a country crumbling at the edges. But quite unlike Calais, everywhere I go, whether it is sitting for hours in a café with free wifi, or staying at a super cheap rate in the beautiful villa Daphnis and Chloe, or simply getting diesel for the car, I am greeted warmly.
This afternoon John brings Samir for relaxation training. I get him to lie down on the couch and explain that these are techniques to reduce stress that we could all use in our daily lives, and then we go through switching from chest to abdominal breathing, using the finger to nose technique which both slows breathing rate and requires such concentration to get right that it acts as a distraction and thought blocking technique. Afterwards I do applied muscular relaxation and he almost falls asleep, which is very satisfying, given the levels of peripheral noise coming through the chipboard walls of the clinic. Later John spots Samir using the finger to nose rebreathing technique in the jostle of the lunch queue.
I am doing these sessions for individual patients 3 or 4 times a day here. I like the stress management techniques, they are solid and tangible, address the physical stress symptoms like shaking and palpitaions that people bring to the clinic, and can be quickly taught. I explain each time that this is not a cure but just some first aid techniques that can be used on a stressful journey, sitting on buses, or in the port, or on the ground in Victoria square if that is where they are going. It’s better than medication as there are no side effects, and it wont make them dopey or confused, and I am reluctant to give drugs to anyone I might not see the next day.
Later there is a rather noisy and disorganised meeting with the Pakistani unaccompanied minors, to discuss their options in Greece and ask why so many don’t want to register. Usman is there, smiling at us. Because they don’t trust the system and are scared of being locked up, is one answer. They just want to travel on to relatives in other parts of Europe, but that option is closed. One of the problems that many have not grasped, both here and in Calais is that unaccompanied minors are rarely completely unaccompanied, they have often joined up with extended family members or made friends with protectors on the journey. Of course some of these people might be unsavoury, but most are not and have genuine relationships with young people for whom they are substitute family. Simply ignoring this is damaging for the child. Another problem is that families have sent them to Work and send money home. If they go into the protection system they cannot work or send money back which defeats the object of the journey. And there is no guarantee of what will happen at 18.
Saturday 12th March, Better Days for Moria
I wasn’t planning to see patients this morning because we are driving up North to do workshops but when I come in to collect Asmamaw at the end of his shift I am asked to see a Kurdish child. The story is heartbreaking as always. Their town was bombed a year ago and everyone in the house next door was killed. Their house also collapsed. Mother, father and seven year old daughter survived but she has not spoken for a year. Indeed she has gone backwards in many ways, crying, clinging, thumbsucking and bedwetting, and always afraid.
I sit with the parents and over an hour a more complicated story emerges. In fact the girl has never talked and always been a bit different. She was not a cuddly baby and has never played with other children. She is happy with her parents if they stick to her routines but gets very stressed if they are broken. Even before the bombing she hated loud sounds
… Listening to what you tell me I am wondering if your daughter is Autistic?
Father bursts into tears:
… My sister is in Canada and she visited and asked the same question three years ago. I did not want to believe this.
I ask them their plans.
… Go to Germany the same answer every time.
… But how?
…We want to go to the Macedonian border
I explain, as I do a dozen times a day, that the border is not open, that conditions are awful, and while it is their choice, I would not recommend it for a highly vulnerable child who cannot communicate, craves familiarity and routine, and whose regressive behaviour will only get worse in a flooded tent in Idomeni The parents look distraught.
…There are legal options. There is a relocation plan and as a vulnerable family you may have more chance. First you have to apply for asylum in Greece. This is not the place to go through the minutiae of what this involves or its chances of success. Everyone I meet has lost trust in all bureaucratic options and believes their only hope is to go where their feet will carry them. In any case that choice is unavailable at present as there are no more slots for refugees on any ferries off the island for at least a week. The coordinator at Health Point says she will make sure they are referred to the camp for vulnerable children. What they cannot do is stay in Moria. It’s raining and as usual everyone is sitting wrapped in blankets outside their locked rooms, there is nothing to do and people look utterly worn and miserable.
Sunday 13th March, Skala Sykaminias
The phone rings around 7 a.m.,
…Boat coming in.
Asmamaw and I pull on warm clothes and join people hurrying to the small beach beside the harbour. The water is smooth as glass, and when the boat comes in everyone claps. It is an extraordinary moment. I had been told welcoming operations were often a chaotic scrum with no one knowing what they were doing and competing to help. I see no evidence of that.
There are some 20 volunteers on the shore, some of the Greeks from the village, who have been doing this for years, the Greek Red Cross with their ambulance for any severely affected, Spanish lifeguards and the volunteers from Lighthouse, Platanos and Drop in the Ocean. The lifeguards get in the water to hold the boat and help people off. I am astonished at the number of women and children. The volunteers move forward with emergency blankets, everyone trained to put them under wet clothes not over, and the refugees are walked to the nearby warming stations. I and a friend end up changing, drying and warming an exhausted mother with two quite flat and very cold infants, and a third screaming child who cannot bear to let her mother go, so that she can remove her own soaking clothes. I hold and cuddle the 4 year old girl in my arms but nothing will diminish the screaming. She is Syrian, which means that in her short life she has only known bombing, collapse, flight and the terror of an ocean crossing. Screaming seems an appropriate response.
The idea that there are ‘too many’ volunteers is completely ridiculous. This is the kind of individual support and attention I wish was available in every crisis. It means that for a short period at least people get the personal, human attention they need without queuing in line. They are not a number or a group, but a person from a place, with family, who had a job, or studied, or played and wants a future. Every contact and connection, every handshake is a reaffirmation of human individuality and dignity. The more the better.
Within two hours all the babies are warm with dry diapers, the wet and bedraggled children are playing in play area among the trees, the men sitting around the fire smoking, the women chatting. There are no boats off the island untill Saturday so no rush to get them to Moria. Lighthouse and Hope are thinking how they can turn their facilities into longer term accommodation if numbers on the island are going to grow. Everyone is waiting on EU meetings next week to see what is going to happen. Opening the borders seems unlikely.
…Aren’t we sugar coating a guillotine, Stefan asks. He is a German theatre director who has been volunteering on the coast for a while and along with 30 others, is attending a workshop I have been asked to run at the HOPE Centre. I did the same thing for Lighthouse yesterday afternoon and the same issue got raised. Given what people have to face isn’t the warm welcome they get from the volunteers deceptive and misleading? One of the Arabic translators at one of my sessions in Moria went further.
… I wonder if we shouldn’t be telling them the whole thing is a lie! That the best they can hope for even if they are lawyers and professors at home, is jobs as taxi drivers or care workers in Britain or Germany. My parents have been refugees in Britain for 30 years. So I know what they face.
… Would it be better to be harsh and brusque? Like the Turkish coast guards beating refugees on boats? Jason from Platanos circulated a video on Facebook from Youtube showing this. My own view is that even a brief period of being treated well can increase your courage and resilience to deal with whatever comes next.
… If I am asked questions I answer them honestly and try to give as much information as I can. I don’t think we can do more right here.
I have completely changed the way I train. For a start I go to where the volunteers are based. No powerpoint or flip charts, just an interactive discussion drawing on the volunteers own experiences, to cover my usual topics. We start with a brainstorm on how their experiences resemble those of the people they are trying to help. Small similarities are obvious : confusion and disorientation, uncertainty over where to sleep or eat, not understanding the language, a long way from home and friends, not sleeping, feeling stressed, running out of money. The big difference being that the volunteers have not lived through the horrendous experiences of those they are trying to help, and have that magical thing: a passport and the right to travel. If they cannot cope they have the option of leaving. Even so they get the point that much of what we are discussing does not only apply to refugees. I am impressed with their common sense. What almost all refugees want on arrival is information about how to leave immediately. Noone thinks it appropriate to ‘make people talk’ about what they have been through, but they want advice as to how to listen when people do share their experiences.
One of the participants is Maria, a norwegian nurse who married a greek and has lived here for 30 years. She tells me half the small villas in the village, including the one where we sleep, were built to house a previous wave of refugees, the Greeks displaced from Turkey in 1922. Nothing changes. Maria saw her first boat arrive in 1991 after the first Gulf war. They were Kurds. As they came close to shore they were punching holes in their boat to make it unuseable after landing. The Greek coast guard arrested them, kept them in cuffs on the beach all day, then put them back on the mended boat and towed them out of Greek waters to the middle of the channel and left them.
We pack up our things. Asmamaw is working an early shift and we have to drive back over the mountains to Moria. Pink and white blossoming trees punctuate the endless grey green olive groves, carpeted with white and yellow star like flowers. The loveliness of the island continues to entrance me.
Monday 14th March, Better Days for Moria
Melanie wants some advice about two tiny North African children who are causing mayhem in the children’s tent when they are there. She and her husband Jerome manage the tent. They are a Dutch couple who moved to Greece sometime ago because they loved it, and worked hard in various tourist jobs but unfortunately had become homeless themselves 18 months ago.
… We spent the Summer living in tents, actually it was very beautiful. Then a greek neighbour offered us a place and we have paid it back through work. But it’s difficult. Then we started helping refugees last summer. At that point they were still walking 70 km to Mytiline so we were meeting the boats and driving them. Then the buses started, so we helped people out of the water at Skala. My son is 5 and my daughter was 3/52 old. Then a friend said help was needed in Moria. We all started this together, first of all in a tiny tent. The friend had to leave so we continued.
What they have created is a light airy warm marquee with a carpeted floor, walls covered with children’s paintings, a papier mache globe hangs down. Healthy snacks are available. Any volunteer who wants can help.
… We saw we could make a big difference, we have realised that if we are here all the time, we can control it and make sure there are rules. They have strict policies on NO Photos and media.
… Sometimes people just take pictures through the Walls. And celebrities visit who want to be shown with children, but we will not let the children be used or exploited in any way. We had no experience in this area, except as parents, but we are learning fast. UNHCR, MSF and Save the Children have all supported us and given advice
They still work for nothing. They don’t crowd fund and just accept direct donations for the tent, or money for fuel for the car and generators. The two children are running wild through the Camp, affectionate with anyone who will allow it at one moment, and breaking all the toys in the tent at another, or fighting and punching each other. Melanie initially had a policy of excluding them when they were naughty but while that protected the other children, she realised it did nothing for them so she wanted to do something more. Mum does come in. So we sit with her, encouraging her to spend more time in the Tent every day playing with her own children, explaining the simple idea that if they get lots of affection and praise when good, they will slowly begin to be less demanding and naughty. Mum smiles and nods, she seems very happy to be here talking with us. She has never been to school and tells us noone has ever told me what to do with children. I did not even know how to brush their teeth. She herself loves coming in just to colour with crayons. While she is doing that her son sits quietly beside her doing the same thing.
I have to leave to pack. Tracy, Asmamaw and I are driving north to Idomeni with a car load of goods, plastic emergency shelters, hygiene kits, etc. from the HOPE Centre. Before that the volunteers at Gate E2 in Piraeus got in touch on Facebook. There are 4000 sleeping in the terminal in the Port. They have heard about the workshops and asked me to come and do some for them.
Monday night 14th March, Ferry boat to Athens
The ferry boat isn’t moving because of stormy weather, but we are told to embark anyway. I bump into Usman at the gangway with two spanish volunteers. He greets me enthusiastically. He has an out of date ticket and unuseable papers, lacking a photo and with one clearly photocopied last page. I wonder what he paid for them. There is no urdu translator anywhere, and once Usman grasps his papers are unuseable, he runs off into the night. I text Maryam to let her know. I hope he will have the sense to return to BDFM.
On board every chair, every bit of floor space is occupied by Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan families. The smaller children are laid out on blankets on suitcases or across chairs, fathers and mother make blanket beds on the floor. On television on one screen in one corner Brad Pitt is storming Troy while on another they are reporting on refugees trying to get into Macedonia by wading up the River. They have been stopped and thrown back. Three afghans, including a pregnant woman and child have drowned. Tracy has printed off small leaflets with useful websites where refugees can get accurate news and information as to their ever changing rights. We go round the boat handing these out and then I sit chatting and listening to those who want to talk. There is an Afghan mother with 4 girls under 10. She was a shopkeeper but she has lost every single possession including her valuables because the captain on the boat told them to throw all their bags overboard. Mohammed lived in a city controlled by Assad and besieged by Daesh. His parents made him escape to avoid conscription but then he was kidnapped by Daesh and held and beaten for three weeks. He does not know why they let him go but they did and he walked to Turkey. Besides him sits Nur, with two daughters sleeping either side of her, their feet poking out over the seat edge from downey blankets. Her husband is in jail in Damascus but she smiles and smiles and smiles. In the early morning as the boat chugs past snowcapped mountains, I chat with Adib with his wife and 3 month old baby. He is an agricultural engineer. He wants to know what I think he should do. Not go to the border with the baby I advise there is so much sickness there at the moment. Anyway there are now continual announcements over the tannoy as we near Piraeus:
… We will arrive in thirty minutes. Please be ready for disembarkation. The border to Macedonia is closed. There will be free buses that will take you to safe accommodation. Please trust the Greek government and do not spend your money.
As we get off the boat, I see the buses and interpreters standing shouting instructions to the disembarking refugees. People are exhausted and compliant. Meanwhile we head across to the E terminal building, easily identifiable because of the crowd of tents outside and the mass of families camped out on blankets on the floor inside. There is no space left at all. A young man called Sam with short hair spectacles and an American accent greets me:
… Have you come to do the training? We really need it, its total chaos.
In fact as soon as some 15 volunteers have sat down on crates and boxes in what appears to be the store room next to a makeshift kitchen- there is no other quiet space- it becomes obvious they don’t need me at all. They all agree that their biggest source of stress is the lack of coordination between volunteers and that is because they all feel overwhelmed and have no time to sit down and meet each other and organise. So I simply suggest that instead of me saying anything at all they take the time to address the problem now. And they do.
I sit listening as Kat, who lives with her family in Athens, suggests having small groups form around each need: for food and cooks, for people distributing clothes, for people doing health care. Then a coordinator from each group should turn up for a daily overall coordination meeting. It’s the Humanitarian cluster system invented on the run, from the ground up. Everyone agrees, even the Greek anarchists and the vice Mayor of Piraeus, who happens to be sitting next to me and introduces himself as ‘a volunteer’. He tells me it was he who broke the lock on these office doors so that they could build a kitchen. Apparently he has squared it with the owners. Sam says he is off to buy a Gazebo tent from IKEA to build an information booth, both for incoming refugees and for new volunteers: Brilliant.
GREEK MACEDONIAN BORDER: Lynne Jones
Thursday 17th March, Macedonian border
If you have to put a camp beside a closed border choose your site carefully. A gas/service station is ideal, but not just any old gas station. It needs large empty parking areas where astonishingly tolerant owners will allow refugees to pitch tents and other agencies to set up tented clinics, distribution centres and portaloos; a café where they will let you hang out and project movies for children in the evening; and a shop where almost the entire stock has been adapted to the needs of refugees: I have never been in a service station selling waterproof boots, small tents and sleeping bags, down jackets alongside baby food, non prescription medicines, dustpans and brushes to keep the tent clean, and camping stoves. Think Mountain Warehouse plus Boots the chemist. I listened to a woman behind the counter teaching an Afghan man the greek word for gloves this morning. She was friendly and delightful. The man was laughing.
… You must live with us and learn more she said.
Outside on the empty forecourt small boys play with toy cars and girls play hopscotch. This is the ECO service station on the main road from Athens to Skopje, some 30 minutes south of the Macedonian border. At the volunteers’ orientation session last night Phoebe said she thought 1000 people were camped there. At a glance it looks more like 3000 to me, living in a combination of UNHCR marquees and small camping tents.
Phoebe is impressive. We met her at the Park Hotel in Polykastro last night where yet more extraordinary greeks have allowed their Hotel to become a volunteer hub: Caravans and tents fill their yard, volunteers talking earnestly and staring at laptops cluster round every table. The warehouse for donations is across the road and as we learn on the Facebook page: ‘Information point for volunteers in Idomeni’, an orientation meeting is held every night at 8 p.m.
….I just decided to start coordinating volunteers a couple of weeks ago. There’s no central committee or organisation. I don’t tell people what to do, just let them know what’s happening and how to connect with already existing teams on the ground. 150 have come in the last two weeks. The truth is you are not going to know what is going on most of the time. We are all just trying to make a bloody mess better.
…We’ve good relations with the police. They see how messed up it is. I saw one of them taking baby food to a tent yesterday. Please don’t alienate them.
… And we have a warehouse. Aslan rented it. He’s a Syrian refugee who came in September and has not left. He is the centre of everything here. He raises money and spends it on what’s needed.
… We could do with more help with distribution. Some volunteers haven’t quite grasped you cannot save Syrian babies, if the babies don’t have socks. And there are still lovely people throwing stuff from cars. I saw an elderly couple bring a cake up a few days ago. They had baked it themselves, but I was really afraid for them.
We have joined two WhatsApp groups: the medical one and the general coordination. As a consequence both our phones constantly bleep with messages: direct requests for help mixed in with personal jokes and hellos and goodbyes. I am learning to filter. Lighthouse are here and putting up a baby tent which will have a washing and breastfeeding area. Asmamaw and I have already been asked to help with protecting breastfeeding, and promoting infant stimulation, but as the tent is not ready yet, we are learning the geography of the Camps.
Eco Camp is a 5 star hotel compared to Idomeni. Here large canvas marquees and a cluster of Portakabin huts stand beside the railway line that crosses the border. They are surrounded by a sprawl of small, dome camping tents of every description. Some are in waterlogged muddy fields which are also open sewers because there is rubbish and human faeces everywhere. Some are pitched along the curved farm road and some on the railway tracks themselves, perilously close to the one train I watched come through this afternoon. It is like a miserable rock festival with no performers. The medics report skin and respiratory infections, gastroenteritis, even some cases of hepatitis A. Impossible to estimate the numbers, it could be anything between 8 and 12000. Untill a few days ago there were 500 to 1000 arriving every day, Phoebe told us some people are leaving. But the volunteer tent crews still go out every evening looking for the most vulnerable to add plastic or put up tents.
On the way back to our car, I notice a man standing stock still in the middle of the railway tracks. He holds a roughly penned sign on a piece of cardboard: ‘We survived War, but you make me wish I didn’t’. Something about his stillness draws my eye. I go over to chat. Hussam tells me he is a law student from Damascus. He lived in the Yamouk area and barely escaped with his life as DAESH had named him as a target for his secular beliefs. He escaped to Lebanon where he worked for local NGO’s and as a photographer for a couple of years before he decided he really wanted to continue his studies. So he sold everything, including beloved camera. After captaining a boat to Greece he reached the Frontier just in time to be told by the Macedonian border guards that Damascus was a safe city, so he should go back.
… I don’t have any plan, he says quietly. I will stand here every day.
Friday 18th March
So it’s agreed. Large new snakes have suddenly appeared on the snakes and ladders boardgame that all refugees must play if they ever want to get to Northern Europe. This particular one has its head in Greece and its tail in Turkey and you slide down it if you had the temerity to make it here by ‘illegal means’ i.e. a sinking boat that cost your life savings. Apparently if you are Syrian, you will be swapped for someone less audacious than yourself. If you are Afghan or Iraqi you are not worth swapping for anyone, you will just be sent back, and if you are none of the above you are probably on an even longer Snake back to your home country.
Recognising the complete illegality of group expulsions, a caveat has been inserted- all claims must be individually assessed. Where? When? By whom? We heard at a meeting yesterday that the Greek Asylum Application service is now getting 200-300 applications a day, and can only handle 20. And you can only apply for an interview via a dedicated Skype address, which certainly excludes most of the people sitting here in the mud on the border, and for those lucky enough to have internet on their phone, even an hour on line does not get through. Hussam told me he had spent hours trying. So how is the government going to sort out the 1000 a day still coming in by boat?
Many things remain completely unclear so the rumour mills grind away. Are all the Syrians currently here, with their papers allowing 6 months in Greece, going to be sent back to Turkey? The belief that this is the case has made people even more reluctant to move into the government camps that are being created. We were told about those yesterday as well as the awful conditions inside. People would rather stay with the misery they know and the illusion that the border will open.
I had an argument with Ai Weiwei this morning. He is staying in our hotel, making a documentary. Yesterday Tracy, Asmamaw and I all smiled and shook his hand and said how much we liked his work. But a friend working on one of the mobile teams came back back very upset yesterday evening because they had been doing a medical consultation with a mother and child outside the ambulance, because there are no indoor spaces in Idomeni. Ai Wei Wei had started filming with his mobile phone. Both patients and medics asked him to stop, but he kept standing there filming and smiling, stating that this was a public space and if they wanted privacy they should go in a clinic. Apparently it escalated and one woman even tried to damage his camera.
I approached him and his team at breakfast, asking politely if I could just explain about the lack of private spaces here, and the need to create confidential spaces for medical consultation, and respect dignity, even in these circumstances. He told me I had my facts wrong, he would not film a child, but he was filming the whole scene, as it was in a public space. Moreover I should fire the aggressive woman who kept telling him it was a private consultation.
…I am not in a position to fire anyone, these are my friends and colleagues not employees. Ai Wei Wei obviously does not get independent volunteers.
… Hmmph. I don’t believe you are a doctor!
… Well whether I am or not, I would just like to understand. Are you saying that if, as unfortunately happens here, some medical consultations have to be done in public, because there is no private space, and if I for example, am seeing someone and ask you not to film, you still feel you have the right to do so?
… Of course! Its public! it’s a human tragedy, its necessary to show people!
We are all exhibits now. Hussam is on the tracks again today. This time his sign simply has the days that he has been here marked out.
Walking back through the camp in the evening, sunlight catches the plastic of the tents and the pools of water that surround them. In the distance are snow capped mountains, in between there are woods with the lovely mixture of soft greens that appear in early Spring. Blackthorn blooms in the hedges. It is this toxic combination of beauty and pain that is both compelling and addictive.
Saturday 19th March
The sign at Harar hotel says welcome to Greece, next to it is a larger than life figure of a man in Greek national dress with arms stretched out. This is a roadside motel, down a slip road off the main highway and the first gas station after you enter Macedonia. Once again the hotel owners have been welcoming, allowing refugees in the shop and café, renting them rooms and allowing tents to fill their yard. It is still a disorganised and miserable place. Some families are camped out under blankets attached to balconies. Across the road there are some even more miserable encampments in and around ruined graffiti covered buildings, set in scrubby forest besides another gas station. In this one the owners have made clear that we should all keep out.
The Baby tent at Eco is still not complete so Asmamaw and I have started doing tent to tent outreach, sitting and chatting with any mother with an infant under two about how they are feeding and coping. The problem is not surprisingly many of them have given up breast feeding and as in Moria are using poorly mixed formula in bottles which are impossible to keep clean in these conditions. UNICEF has produced good guidelines in multiple languages about what to do in transit. Asmamaw discusses these and hands out cups that are safer to use for those who no longer breast feed. The mothers are both welcoming and interested. We also give out baby clothes and nappies and I discuss the importance of continuing to play. What’s impressive is how clean and cared for the babies are even in these conditions. I watch a mum give her baby a complete and thorough wash with water heated in cans on an open fire, the baby crowing happily. Both our translators are mothers living in the Camp themselves and say they will carry on giving out the same messages. Muna had an important job at a government ministry in Kabul and only fled when her own life was threatened and there was a bombing close by home. I had to for my children’s sake.
While we are eating lunch we get a Facebook message that all refugees currently on Lesvos are being shipped to the mainland, to empty Moria in preparation for interning those designated ‘illegal’ arriving after Monday. Where is everyone going to go? UNHCR have already said the new camps either full or simply not ready?
Amnesty have completely condemned the new deal: “Guarantees to scrupulously respect international law are incompatible with the touted return to Turkey of all irregular migrants arriving on the Greek islands as of Sunday. Turkey is not a safe country for refugees and migrants, and any return process predicated on its being so will be flawed, illegal and immoral, whatever phantom guarantees precede this pre-declared outcome.” I wonder if one day our treatment of migrants will be seen in the same light with which we regard slave traders today.
Back at the border, Hussam has changed his sign to a completely blank piece of cardboard.
Monday 21st March
Today I stood where Paul preached to the Thessalonians in 52 AD. Mark is over showing his films at the Thessaloniki film festival and took us there. We were the only people in the tiny chapel. I could look down the hill over the city to port, sea and mountains or turn and look at what once must have been stunning wall paintings. Almost all had the small faces chipped out by incoming Muslims who saw the paintings as a desecration. The strange thing is that the blizzard of white holes in the plaster had its own peculiar beauty, tinged by the sadness that nothing much has changed regarding our tolerance for other people’s icons. But if you follow the city walls down, there is another tiny ancient chapel in a garden, where the paintings of extraordinary loveliness are still intact and I could contemplate the sad face of the lion having it’s thorn removed by St. Jerome and a tranquil sleeping Madonna.
Had to get back to the border, as SAVE had asked me to train their infant and young child feeding counsellors on enhancing mother baby interactions. The relationships between the professional agencies and the independent informal volunteers are exemplary here. They get on really well. MSF has appointed a staff member to liaise with volunteers. So now there are regular appeals on Whats app, asking for volunteers to come and put up 400 beds in a new tent for example. I chat with Konstantin who runs the hotel.
…Greece is amazing. I have never seen anything like this hotel.
…the Gods speak to me. He grins. Solving the problems of one person can give happiness to another. We are all brothers and sisters. Did you know the Greeks are descended from one of the Sons of Noah? I confess I did not
… and what about Heraclitus?
… What about him? I am deeply embarrassed by my lack of classical and philosophical knowledge.
… Everything flows. He moves his hand in a waving motion and everything changes. He brandishes the kettle at me. Look! Water! Then steam.. He pours my herb tea. He taps the counter: at one point in the future this piece of wood could be a man. I am temporarily lost trying to reconnect this to the 12000 refugees up the road.
…If people have love they can see we are all the same, all one... Everything flows.
Eivar texts and asks if I will come with her tomorrow to talk to a man who is threatening to set himself on fire at the Railway tracks in the morning. She is a psychosocial worker who has taken unpaid leave from her work with unaccompanied minors in Norway and lives at the Park hotel in a shared caravan. She saw him making the threat this evening. I promise to be there
Tuesday 22nd March
Up at the border, the mood on the tracks has changed completely. It is no longer a quiet dignified handful of people, but a large restless crowd completely covering the lines, some sitting on blankets some standing. A tannoy is being handed around. A young man in a red sweatshirt is winding up the crowd. They are chanting: no food, no drink untill the borders open. Eivar recognises the man who last night was saying he would set himself alight. Aashif is slight, middle aged, in a brown padded jacket, standing to the side. He agrees to come and talk to us with our translator. He tells us he did not mean what he said last night, it was just a moment of anger.
…I know such an act is against Allah but what should I do?
I tell him I admire his courage.
…You are clearly a very brave man with great moral strength. But that is the reason all these people need you alive not dead, if you want to change this situation.
Eivar makes similar points and we chat for a some time longer. Aashif is completely without family here which concerns me. He smiles at us, he looks relieved. He shakes both our hands and says he will not do this.
…Please do promise us that, I ask, people need you alive, we will come and visit you every day to see how things are going.
Then he plunges back into the middle of the demonstration. The trouble is the man in the red sweatshirt is now making ‘lighter’ gestures with his hand, both at us, and at Aashif, who squats down, Eivar is beside him. Then she comes to join me at the side.
…He assures me he is not going to do it, but he says there is another young man who might do this, he does not know who he is.
… I just worry that Mr. Red sweatshirt is going to wind him up
Another man has taken the tannoy now. He is asking Germany to take everyone sitting here, and asking the crowd not to disperse but not to cause trouble as they can control us if we get upset. There is a slightly calmer feeling as he speaks. How easy it is to shift a mood in a crowd. I am slightly anxious that Hussam might be the other young man and we go off to look for him. When we come back past the tracks an hour later, the demonstration is much larger and a number of buses of police have arrived. I cannot see Hussam, Aashif, or Red sweatshirt. Still fortunately no burnings have taken place.
We are sitting eating lunch when we get a message on Facebook: two men have set themselves on fire. The pictures are vivid and horrific, a young man I don’t recognise is running ablaze. Aashif stands with lower part of his jacket in flames. People put blankets around them and they are rushed to hospital. So much for our intervention. I should have stuck by his side.
Then another message minutes later: Bombs have gone off in Brussels, at least three, and more than 30 people have been killed, hundreds wounded. Almost immediately another picture follows. A child is holding up a sign on the railroad tracks in front of a much quieter, mostly seated crowd. It says simply: Sorry for Brussels
In the early evening I run a mother and baby group in the newly created baby tent. It is bright and cosy, there is a bathing station and a breast feeding corner and a small circle of mums and infants sit while we share ways of playing in these circumstances and why it is important to do so. They are a lovely, intelligent mothers and the infants are all lively and happy. It’s a pleasure to do something so life affirming on a day like this. They share some lullabies they sing and then I go out to play with older children. I have been doing this every evening because there is so little going on for them here, so now four or five children at the southern end of the camp rush up to me shouting Hokey Cokey. I can think of worse names. We gather about 20 children and go onto a grassy space at the end of the camp. I think I get as much out of the singing game as they do, I particularly like the shouting bit at the end.
Wednesday 23rd March
Refugees are demonstrating on the Polykastro road. Eivar and I get past and up to Idomeni before they block it completely. We want to talk with people around the railway racks and try to discourage any more burnings. This morning there is just a quiet group with placards. Aashif and the boy are still in hospital. Noone has news, but we find Hussam walking along the road with a group of friends. It is pouring with rain. The drenching kind that penetrates every corner. The only dry place to sit is Eivar’s car.
Hussam tells us he hated yesterday’s demonstration, and wanted no part in it. He never had any intention of setting fire to himself and felt those who did had been pressured by the crowd.
… It’s not good to be so provocative.
But he does feel very confused as to what he should do about his own situation.
… I need you to imagine my life for the last five years. First 2 years in hell in Yarmouk, trying to help every day, people eating dogs and cats, finally getting out to Lebanon, another 2 years, helping small NGOS translating, helping people every day, refugees all the time. I just imagine a small room, somewhere, anywhere where I can be alone and quiet and listen to music and continue to study law.
The UNHCR legal advice team have told him he has good grounds for asylum because he has documentary evidence of Daesh threatening his life. But if he applies for relocation he could end up in Sofia. You don’t get to choose the Country to which you are located.
…What will I do in Sofia? Should I just apply to stay in Greece, where there is no work and thousands of refugees?
Eivar and I explain that Bulgaria might not be so bad, Sofia is beautiful, it has to be better than this. We take him to meet a Somali friend working as a translator for an NGO, Abdi whose father got asylum in Russia, then moved to Slovakia where Abdi grew up as the only Somali. He laughs and jokes with Hussam in Arabic: Everyone will help you. Everyone helped me.
Boats are still arriving in Lesvos, undeterred by the waiting snakes on the board game. When they arrive they get a leaflet on their legal rights from UNHCR who have refused to cooperate with the transformation of Moria into a detention centre and no longer provide the transport from the beach. The Greek government give the refugees a quite different leaflet: This tells them that they have been arrested and should behave quietly and that among other things they have a right to a lawyer, consular assistance and for their family to be informed. They also have the right to know what their offence is but this is not spelt out on the on the document, and that they should be brought before a magistrate within 24 hours. So far none of these rights have been granted to the families interned in Moria. It would be funny if it was not so serious.
I do my workshop for the mobile medics in the late afternoon. Among other things we discuss what to do about self immolation. It is new for all of us. Everyone agrees we need to look out for the single men and for those doing the winding up and talk to them. One of our Arabic translator’s points out that we should remind people of the teaching in the Koran, to kill one person is to kill humanity.
One of the team members asks advice on what to do about a woman who is due her fourth baby imminently. The previous three were born by arranged Caesarean. A C section has been arranged for her in hospital tomorrow. But she has been saying she wont go. She wont bring her baby into this situation. She has finally agreed to go in early tomorrow on the understanding that the hospital will keep her for two or three days, but noone wants her discharged to the camp, however all hotel rooms for vulnerable refugees are full. I promise to talk to UNHCR protection.
Thursday 24th March
The road is still blocked by demonstrators so we take back road up to the border. We drop Asmamaw to continue his tent visits and I go to tell UNHCR about the mother. She has just delivered a baby girl. A very sympathetic man says he just might be able to find a foster family to take in the whole family. This is a scheme started by another Greek solidarity group where they support Greek families prepared to take in vulnerable refugees. Then Eivar and I head over to the old railway station. I am not sure which is better: drenching rain or howling wind. Today it is the latter. Grey and white clouds pour over mountain tops like breaking waves, tent sides and doors loosen and flap in the wind, some smaller ones are down completely, bits of cardboard and rubbish blow across the mud. This is not a good time to walk through the encampment carrying rolled up tarpaulin under one’s arm. Everyone wants a bit of it and I have to repeatedly explain we are using it for at least 15 mothers and babies to sit on.
At the Old Railway Station more than 1000 people are camped in small tents on 2 platforms with a roof, on a disused siding. We lay the Tarp down on the tracks between the platforms. This is the first time in my life I have organised a mother and baby group on a railway line, but it’s a covered space and out of the wind and as more and more mothers see us they jump down to join in. A young man carrying another young man in his arms like a baby, comes up and asks if he can join the group too: much hilarity all around, then two actual fathers with 6 month old babies strapped to their chests join us. The session goes well largely because we have a brilliant enthusiastic translator. She is a nurse from Aleppo who has spent the last months watching people die in her hands. She has a 15 month old daughter who will not allow her mother to separate from her for a second, which is not a problem as she joins in the group. At the end everyone asks us to come back. Any structure, any activity is a respite here from the boredom of life in tiny tents.
When we leave we bump into a group of young men brandishing long poles, running towards one of the trucks distributing hot meals. Yesterday a similar group had insisted on the tea tent closing and then gone to the new circus tent where children were playing outside on a trampoline. They demanded the games stopped – they did not want media pictures of people looking happy. But back at the Railway tracks, it is still quiet and calm and Aashif is there, standing holding a card. When he sees Eivar and I, he looks very sheepish and embraces us both. Apparently he was not badly burned at all, nor was the young man. Red sweatshirt is standing beside him but in a completely different mood. There is none of yesterday’s hysteria. Both tell us they realise that in the context of Brussels, dignified non-violence will be far more powerful. People know this is the way. I tell Aashif it broke my heart when I saw the pictures yesterday. He takes my hand and promises not to do it again.
The food trucks have stayed open in spite of stick wielding young men, and I get other good news: UNHCR have identified a foster family for the woman with the new baby. Dad and other children are already there waiting for mum to come out of hospital. Amazing Greeks!
This evening I learn that Radovan Karadzic has got 40 years for genocide and ethnic cleansing. By some strange coincidence this is the 17th anniversary of the NATO bombing campaign of Serbia. That was the military intervention that precipitated the mass expulsion of some millions of Kosovars out of their province and into neighbouring Albania and Macedonia. I went with them and stood in a muddy field where the Macedonian police had penned some 30,000, without water and shelter, refusing to allow them into the country. On that occasion NATO came and built camps that housed the Kosovars decently until they could go home. This time it is Europe doing the expulsions back to a country sliding into dictatorship. MSF and Save the Children have both issued statements condemning the detentions in Moria, expressing their concerns about the dubious legality of the whole EU Turkey deal, and they too have withdrawn services from the Centre.
Saturday 26th March
Wake up to find an intense debate on WhatsApp. Groups of Spanish and Italian activists are coming for the weekend to demonstrate ‘Solidarity’ with the refugees by protesting with them. The longer term volunteers, especially those who witnessed the burnings and what happened in the river two weeks ago are completely against this.
… Independent volunteers! Sunday at 5 pm we call you to meet at the train tracks at Idomeni for a gathering to unite the refugees fighting to open the border. We are not here just to give food and clothes but also to help facilitate the return of dignity to these people. Nobody is illegal! We fight against the fortification of Europe because it is not representative of what we believe. Welcome refugees! We invite you to join us!!!
… Active political demonstrations by volunteers are discouraged within Idomeni camp. Tensions are extremely high, and incitement of protests has the very real potential to cause violence, riots, and harm to the many vulnerable individuals and children in Idomeni. Police are looking for any excuse to evacuate the camp. Furthermore, actions by a few volunteers affect us all-retaining the trust of police and authorities is the only thing which allows us to continue our work, and provide access and aid to Idomeni. As humanitarian workers, we must prioritize the refugees, not our own politics.
…Refugees who want to protest should be allowed to protest. Refugees who want to have the calmest life possible should be allowed to be calm. It’s not our job to start protests. It’s our job to help. It’s not our decision, it’s theirs….
And much more of the same. Yesterday evening Hussam was back on the Tracks with another card. Some 20 buses had appeared, and extra police. It was not a forced evacuation but free transport for voluntary transfer to a new camp. One of the buses had a logo: Crazy Holidays. But not many seemed to be moving. Hussam said he thought it was a bad idea to move.
… Because the media are not there and they protect us…
The buses are still there today and there are clearly empty spaces across the fields where people have packed up and left. But many don’t want to move. We don’t like big tents, one of my friends explains, even though they are stronger, waterproof and warmer. They offer no privacy or safety and families are often separated. In one case a man with a disabled son found himself at one end of such a tent and the son at another. They also fear it will be more difficult to register for relocation, although UNHCR assures them this is not true.
Hussam is sitting with his ‘family’. Four tents making a square around a fire place over which they have rigged a tarpaulin on metal poles. There is an elderly couple, a younger couple with one of the happiest infants I have seen, always smiling and laughing and seemingly indifferent to mud and cold, perhaps because her mother and father are always playing with her. There are a handful of small children running around and two Yazidi brothers. As in Calais I am astonished at people’s ability to create community in the middle of nowhere, out of almost nothing. Having created this they are reluctant to move and have this community broken up
… I love this place. Hussam tells me laughing I know it’s weird but we have made a home here. If I go off somewhere else in the camp I have to hurry back, because I love it, it’s where I feel comfortable.
Hussam has completely changed in the last week. He is no longer the sad young man I met on the Railway line, but engaged in trying to make things happen constructively. He wants to get musicians together to make music in the Circus tent, and perhaps do peace education with smaller children. Twice when walking across the fields we have come across small children fighting physically and he has pulled them apart then brought them together and reconciled them.
… Is it true that the Red Cross and journalists are coming to open up the border tomorrow and everyone will be able to walk across?
… Absolutely not Hussam! It’s just a rumour, you have got to tell people. If they come and that is not happening they will get more frustrated and angry.
… I already am. I was sure it was not true.
I tell him about the ‘activists’ and the worries that when things are so volatile that their presence could be provocative.
… The last thing needed after Brussels is a riot here.
…Tell them if they want to do something, just to join us in standing in silent protest. No marches, nothing else.
There is a big meeting in the Park in the evening continuing the WhatsApp discussion. An Argentinian man from Italy makes a speech. He has been here for a few days and he has heard from ‘the Refugees’
…They all say: thank you for the clothes and food but what we want is for you to help us open the borders. Assemble with us at 9 o clock so we can really go forward to the border. They believe if we are with them things will go well.
There are many similar speeches. The main thrust being that it is not enough to hand out Bananas. The Argentinian asks a refugee from Eco camp to speak:
… This is not the proposal of the refugees. Right now the police and military are putting pressure on the camps, so people won’t join any demonstration, what they are thinking about is food and blankets. We need a kitchen so we can eat…
The Argentinian man had clearly expected something different.
… Well that’s your view, but there are just 1000 at EKO and there are 12000 on the border
… And you have spoken to all of them in a couple of days? Someone asks
… 2 weeks ago we had volunteers willing to assist something similar with completely disastrous results- NOT for the volunteers but for the refugees. So I am begging you if you want to help you can be very helpful the refugees need you but not this way.
… The crowd can change its mood in a minute, we have had burnings and drownings
Phoebe is even clearer:
…The border will NOT open, no matter how much you shout, it will not and your presence on a demonstration gives people hope and prolongs this situation…
… A friend of mine in the Camp has explained to me that simply insisting on living here is his demonstration. He does not want a march, he wants to continue to camp here in protest. Perhaps the best way to show solidarity is to provide the humanitarian assistance that allows him to do so if he wishes and provide clear information for those that want to leave. Why not demonstrate in Austria where the problem begins or on the Macedonian side of the border? I ask. Don’t forget: You get to go home. You have passports. It’s the Refugees that will suffer from any clampdown. At the moment no one is forced to move. We don’t want a forced eviction. I have already seen that in Calais.
Sunday 27th March
I didn’t stay for the end of the debate. There’s a message from the Spanish on WhatsApp in the morning saying they have cancelled their afternoon action, and another from the Coordinators saying they don’t support the demonstration and will remove anyone from the WhatsApp group who calls for it.
We drive up to the border. When we get to the turn-off from the Skopje Highway to Idomeni we come across large groups of people carrying packed bags. Each group tell us the same story: the Red Cross are going to open the border today. The disappointment on their faces when we explain that this is a false rumour is unbearable. In the last group a large elderly woman is pushing a pram with two toddlers in it. She must have walked at least 5 kilometres from the nearest camp.
Up at the tracks, there is an enormous crowd but it appears completely peaceful. They all hold large posters and leave a clear walking space between themselves and the double line of police, this time in riot gear with white helmets, obviously prepared for disorder. 200 metres beyond the police line the barbed wire topped gates across the railway track remain firmly closed. No one from the Red Cross is visible.
Then we meet a couple from my mother and baby group at the old railway station. The mother has the baby on her chest. The man is carrying their tent and bags. They thought the rumour was true. When I explain that it is not, the man says we will stay here anyway. I cannot stand it here any longer, we cannot live in that place. Steyn a Dutch volunteer friend joins in the conversation. Other volunteers have been to inspect one new government camp at Katerini and it really is not so bad, basic but improving every day. He recommends they consider going there.
… I am thinking of going back to Syria. I am tired of promises
… Of course you are, but there really is no illegal way to cross and beyond Macedonia is Serbia, where the border is also closed, and the same across the Balkans. And if you do get through you will be pushed back. That will be so hard with the baby
Push backs are actually illegal. If anyone makes it across, the Macedonians should consider their application even if they have crossed irregularly. If it’s decided they are from a safe country they can be ‘handed over’ but it must be formally done to the authorities of the country from whence they came. What the Macedonians are doing are taking any irregulars to a hole in the fence and literally pushing them back through, with the help of a punitive beating from the Macedonian police. But who is bothered?
As the morning goes on the crowd grows in size and tension. At one point we find two mothers and six children sitting inside the fence, on the railway tracks, between demonstrators and police. They are Kurds, all packed up as if waiting for a train, except none is coming. I manage to find a translator:
…We are NOT moving until the border opens. One mother is breast feeding. I beg her to consider the risk to the baby if the crowd surges forward or the police hit back
… You will be trampled, I repeat. She shakes her head crying.
… I have no other option.
…You do, I promise you.
In talking I have discovered she has a husband in Germany so family reunification is a real possibility. Another woman comes up and sits beside her to comfort her. Suddenly the Crowd does push forward. For a terrifying moment I think we will all be crushed, but as I grab one child and the translator another, the women are on their feet clutching the other four, and somehow we have swung round to the safe side of the fence, where they sit on the ground again. It takes another hour of slow discussion. Someone from UNHCR brings pictures of the new camp and reiterates that it will be as easy to register for asylum claims from there as here- possibly easier as there will be fewer people in the camp.
… But if I give up my tent here and I don’t like it there how can I come back?
… The trouble is they just don’t trust us. They think their chances of leaving are greater if they just sit here, says the man from UNHCR.
I have to leave her with the officials as I have a final mother and baby group to run at the old railway station. As I leave the tracks I can see Hussam standing in the centre of the crowd saying go back! Go back! to those pushing forward against the police line and they seem to be listening. Another man makes a speech that makes me uncomfortable: do not allow Afghans and Pakistanis to provoke us into stupid actions… But we set up the discriminatory system in the first place, they have learnt the categories from us.
In fact I notice there are more people in the lunch queue than on the demonstration. And some people are in a good mood. On the road round to the Old railway station we bump into Red Sweatshirt and a crowd of young men all singing loudly. When they see me they surround me. Britani we love you, Britani we love you they sing, circling, arms linked before rushing off to encircle other volunteers.
We spend our last couple of hours sitting at Hussam’s fire. I do some face painting on the children and we discuss his hoped for musical event. Finally it’s time to leave, which I find extremely hard to do. This has become my home as well. At the tracks the demonstration is just the usual quiet handful, under an awning sitting on blankets. The two women and their children have gone, but a new family have taken their place.
…These people have just arrived here from Athens a volunteer tells me. We are finding them a tent and food. They say people in Athens think the borders will open soon, so they are still coming.