For your information: first-hand account of one volunteer on the Greek island of Lesvos

My dear reader, the logistical and structural problems in #Moria are so great and the authorities and NGOS have let it gone so far that it’s very hard to make any positive changes in the middle of this catastrophe. We often sit around with the other volunteers and dream about a clean slate. If we had money how we would build a new camp from scratch: big enough so nobody would ever have to wait outside in the rain, sleep in the cold of winter without a tent , not be able to see a doctor or not have dry clothes to put on after getting ashore. And it would be so simple, so straight forward and with so much common sense. But the organisation and coordination in Moria is none of those things. It’s a mess, a disaster, a complex catastrophe made impossible with bureaucratic nonsense and rules.
So my dear reader, we try and fight it on a daily basis for the people who need our help so much, to make their situation a little more bearable. We have all seen on the news the images of volunteers pulling people out of their dinghies when they land. But let me tell you about some of the forgotten heroes, the unseen people who are volunteering in Moria: far away from the cameras and sensational images. They are the volunteers who sit on their hands and knees with thin latex gloves and a scouring sponge cleaning toilets that are covered in human waiste and nappies. The ones who till deep in the night, walk around opening shelter doors and get people to huddle in more so they can put a roofless family with them. The ones who climb on the gates in the pouring rain to hang up tarpaulins with their bare hands. The ones who put up big tents in the dark, using only a head torch, to make sure those people have a shelter to sleep in. The ones who drive to Lidl and buy water for people coming in from a shipwreck, because the Big organisations take a million years to sort even the simplest issues. The patient volunteers who mediate between the police, the NGOs and the refugees to try and come up with the most humane solutions. And the hugs, the smiles and the love they give: it isn’t always easy to do with the energy-draining depressing conditions of Moria. But goodness, do they work hard and with so much dedication! Their innovation and use of resources goes far beyond that of the big NGOs: they are on the ground solving immediate problems and each and everyone of the volunteers I have met here deserve to be knighted really.
The past few days the UNHCR have opened 3 rows of barracks to house the most vulnerable and tent-less families who are awaiting their registration papers. Before they could open though, we spend the entire day cleaning: filling up over a hundred garbage bags, and mopping the toilets and showers. Even after our attempt they still look awful: these are old army barracks and I don’t think they’ve been cleaned for years. It should all be taken out and replaced really, but that will not happen. There were not even the proper cleaning supplies to make a difference: we had to go out ourselves and get them. Oh, but how the Dutch team cleaned, the elbow grease was flying around left right and centre. I think cleaning the barracks was one of the best things we could have ever done: to give someone a roof over their head when the alternative is sleeping outside is so grand. But the conditions are such a shame and the sanitation is non existent: there are no bins, so things just get left on the floor, including the nappies. Half the taps, showers and toilet holes are blocked or broken so cannot be used and though there are lots of bunkbeds, there are only a few disgusting old mattresses in each room so the people ask us for an extra blanket to cover the mattress but of course we do not have enough to give those out either. Sometimes I’m so embarrassed to bring people in here that I wonder if it is really a better alternative than staying outside. (A few people have come in and then left again: I think they’d rather stay up the whole night then be somewhere so dirty). UNHCR calls us all together for an emergency meeting: a shipwreck of 240 vulnerable and traumatised people will be arriving soon. They are the survivors but many of them don’t know if their family members are alive or missing or critically injured at the hospital. We prepare the barracks by getting all the blankets together, arranging the aid, cleaning out the rooms. We await them, knowing there isn’t enough aid for every single person: not enough blankets and not enough mattresses to sleep on, not enough new clothes to put them in. Sometimes it makes us feel very ashamed, though it isn’t our fault the state of things. The people start pouring in, you can tell some of them are relieved they’ve survived and have come out with just a scratch here and there. Others are not so lucky: one look at their faces and you can read the worries that are playing on their mind: they obviously have a family member dead or are at the very least uncertain of their condition. Licia jumps in the car with a mother and her children to translate at the hospital. Her little son has died. That was the hardest thing she had ever had to tell anyone. A guy questions me about information about his family, I have none to give him. There is no water with the food, and no cups for them to drink from the taps. Nathan, Lance and I jump in the van and drive to Lidl to pick up 300 bottles of water: we try to fill in the gaps when it is within our reach to do so. How delicate the situation is: untrained volunteers comforting traumatised people, these horrendous barracks: is this really a suitable place to house such vulnerable people? It is sad that this is the best we can do. But we try.
My friends from London arrived to support me the night before and that evening my mother flies in, it feels good to have her after everything I have experienced these past few weeks. How good a hug from your own mum can feel! The next day we leave early to buy supplies again. A wonderful American lady told me about the young boys in the detention centre (where the unaccompanied minors get separated and locked away), and I have been longing to see them ever since. We bought two fuss-ball tables, skipping ropes, sweets and footballs. We’re not allowed in to give it to them, but find a wonderful team of Dutch doctors who will give them the games during their assigned playtime. Through the small gap in the gate we hand them apples and sweets and pour them little cups of juice. I will never forget the faces of the two girls who are there. Faces of complete loneliness, how I long to hug them. I often think about all these people and what they go through on this terrible journey into Europe. It is essentially a breeding ground for trauma and depression, especially the things these children will have to endure in their young years. I hope that once they reach their destinations they will find the right people to talk to about everything they have been through.
As we pull out in the car from the detention centre we get out to ask a family sitting behind the car to move. One look at them though and it takes my breath away. It’s an Iranian family with 3 children, the oldest girl is 6, the father holds her on his lap. She moans with pain: an enormous tumor, the size of a tennis ball is growing from her cheek, half her hair has fallen out from previous treatment. Another growth has affected her right leg which looks like an elephants leg compared to the skinny left one. Good god, how on earth did they get this child over in a dinghy? The mother explains they are here because the doctors in Iran cannot do anything. Utterly shocked we take them down to Doctors Without Borders, they will try to get them to Athens to see a specialist. I have never seen anything like this in my life.
In the evening a surprise call from Abdulrazzak: he and his family have arrived safely in Denmark! I hope their process there will be quick so they can finally start the peaceful life they deserve. They have been through so much, such good people.
Let me tell you dear reader, about one other type of volunteers. And that is the refugee volunteers: The self appointed ones who help to create order in the chaos of the queue for registration and for food, the ones who help put up tents in the dark, the ones who try to control the masses so the volunteers can get through with their cars. And every night when we go out to find the vulnerable families to take inside we find another Farsi and English speaking refugee to help us speak to the people to find out about their situation. They have never failed to amaze me. A few nights ago two afghan brothers: one of them an English teacher, the other a software engineer. The day after a young boy who worked tirelessly to identify the vulnerable cases. And this night a very soft spoken man with a family of 21 people. When I offer him food and blankets for his family at the end of the night in exchange for his services he says: “no thank you, we are all fine.” They are all very curious about us too, about the fact that we come from so far to help without getting paid for it. “Thank you for your humanity” the young man with the big family says to me at the end of the night. Not everybody we meet is like that trust me, there are also a lot of cunning people who try to cheat the system and cut the queue and try to fool us. But then you always meet someone again who is worth every bit of effort you put in, and a reminder that those are the people you do it for.
So my dear reader, thank you for taking the time to read up on our work again. The past few days have been a constant struggle between wanting to solve an issue but realising it takes solving another 10 before you can get to it. It’s sometimes hard to remind ourselves that we are doing something positive. That in the midst of all this misery we are here making small positive changes that otherwise wouldn’t happen at all, but it’s hard because you know that whatever you do is only a small thing, on a temporary basis so whatever you do never feels like it is enough. But we keep going, with you my wonderful reader, with your words of support and your donations that are helping us to help them. You too are volunteers, volunteers of awareness, of making aid supplies happen and don’t forget that you too are the volunteers of humanity as much as we are. With love and gratitude as always. By Merel Graeve

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