Lighthouse Relief on Lesvos

We enjoyed a good last week with the Salvation Army before saying our goodbyes on Maundy Thursday. We had worked with so many lovely people there and we enjoyed cake and hugs on our last day.

We enjoyed a lovely Easter weekend in Athens, where the celebrations were shared between both the Anglican Church and the Greek Orthodox Church. We enjoyed experiencing a mixture of the two with some new events for us, most notably the lovely candle lighting service at the Orthodox Church at midnight on Easter Saturday. A truly special time as the crowd waits patiently, each with their candles, and the priest comes out and the candles are all lit. The light of Christ being spread through the crowd, signifying Jesus rising from the dead and his light spreading throughout the world. It was lovely to light our USPG candles again, which added greater significance.

         

Easter Sunday was lovely, with a great service at St Pauls followed by a lovely lunch shared with Father Malcolm, Olga, Paulina and Rev James. A lovely time in the sun with traditional fayre.

Early on Easter Monday we were up and out to the airport for our flight to Mytilene on Lesvos. We were going to work with Lighthouse Relief for a week on the north shore of Lesvos which is only about 5 miles from Turkey and is one of the routes used by smugglers to transport  refugees across the Aegean to Greece. Lighthouse Relief is an NGO registered in both Sweden and Greece. They provide emergency relief to refugees that land on the island of Lesvos, and also long term services for residents in camps across mainland Greece in Filippida, Katsikas and Ritsona. Their mission is to provide immediate crisis response, as well as long term relief, for the most vulnerable groups , in a dignified, respectful and empowering way. In Lesvos the concentration is on emergency response, night and day watch, camp management, and ECO clean up and up cycling. 

We were picked up at the airport and driven to Skala Sikamineas on the northern shore. A fairly hairy drive, but we survived and after a sit down and a few cups of tea were fine! (Quite looking forward to a bit of road traffic legislation being enforced on our return to U.K.!) We went into a team meeting and met the team of volunteers and the field officer Andrea, from Peru. We were quickly slotted into the rota of work for the week and had a really good briefing from Andrea on what to expect and how to act if we had a landing. We were each given duties as day spotters, night spotting and boat landing team standby so a busy week was planned. On top of this there were eco clean ups to do and also up cycling of the recovered boats and life jackets.

On the Tuesday we were part of the eco team and walked for about an hour and a half to a beautiful cove to the east of Skala. We spent a few hours picking up rubbish and adding it to a pile of previously collected rubbish which included refugee boats and life jackets that was awaiting collection on a fine day when a boat could access the cove. It was heartbreaking to see the old, punctured boats and the life jackets and other refugee related rubbish that had already been collected, or that we found. Items found by the group included an ID paper with Arabic script, presumably lost by a refugee at some stage.                       

Day spotting is carried out on the top of the cliffs at Lepetimos, where there is a good view across from the northern shores over to Turkey. You can see from Babakale in the west to Adatepe in the east depending on the weather, sometimes further. There is good equipment and good radio and phone contact with boats that also patrol this area of water. There’s the Turkish coastguard that stays on the Turkish side of the channel, and on the Greek side there are the Greek coastguard, NATO, Proactiva- a Spanish NGO who operate a rescue boat, Refugee Rescue/Mo Chara – an Irish NGO operating a rescue boat here and Frontex, the EU border and coastguard agency who also operate a boat. For such a small stretch of water it can get busy out there, particularly when the fishermen are out too. The day spotting is done in teams of two or three with the aim of spotting any refugee boats. Roger and I each carried out one day spotting duty. 

Night duties were conducted from Korakas, an old, but still working, lighthouse. This is a particularly poignant landmark, as apparently smugglers load up boats with refugees, point out the lighthouse to them, and tell the refugees to head towards the light. As the lighthouse is protecting a particularly craggy headland this has resulted in many crashes and difficult landings over the years. The night shift was from midnight to 0900, so a long night. There’s good equipment and its done in teams. Again there are lots of boats to be seen, with all the potential formal boats that were out at various times and the fishermen. It was quite disorientating in the dark to discern which was which. Cruise boats also pass through which are very lit up and light everything around them. I was fortunate to see a school of dolphins in the morning as the sun was rising. A perfect moment. No refugee boats though.

     
I did a couple of landing call outs which necessitate staying within 5 minutes of the base for a 24 hour period in case a boat comes in. Whilst we were in Skala no refugees landed so we weren’t used. This left lots of time for me to do some up-cycling. I had some fun working with the rubber from the boats, the straps and the padding from the life jackets. I got the sewing machine out and designed and made a water bottle carrier, and also made a couple of wallets and a case for an iPad. All good fun and hopefully some of the designs can be utilised by the team and added to the standard products that are made. 

  

We were also included in several training sessions about both first aid and also about landings. Brilliant training, very professionally delivered. Roger also did a training session with Mo Chara and Proactiva teams. He enjoyed going out with other volunteers in the boats so that they could practice transferring people from one boat to another and also recover people from the water. 

         

As we were leaving Skala on Monday on the bus back to Mytilene to catch our flight, we heard about a refugee boat that had sunk in the middle of the Aegean and bodies were being recovered. We’ve subsequently learnt that the boat launched from Turkey at about midnight and capsized somewhere after launch. They had been about 25 people in the boat and only 2 women, 1 pregnant, were found alive. The bodies of 6 women, 2 men and 1 child were found by Greek’s coastguard, and Turkish authorities found the bodies of a further 6 men and a child in their waters. If there were 25 people in the boat then 7 people are still missing. This was such an unnecessary tragedy and will no doubt harden the resolve of the Lighthouse staff and volunteers to keep going to spot boats in order to ensure the safety of the refugees. 

We were so impressed with Lighthouse Relief. They run a really professional organisation and the people in charge are passionate about why they are there and what they are there to do.

Back to Athens for one more week before we go home. 

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Further adventure of Greece

Since I last blogged, we’ve continued our work with the Salvation Army. It’s very much settled into a routine of what we give out on a particular day, so hopefully this helps the clients we seek to serve, as well as giving the staff and volunteers a greater expectation of what we’re going to doing. We’ve now started re-registering our clients, in order to see how they’re doing and ensure that they are still here and eligible for service. Some we haven’t seen for ages, so perhaps they either don’t need our service anymore, have left to be reunited with other family members elsewhere or been sent back to Turkey or their homeland. We’ve no way of knowing as they don’t come and say goodbye. 

Just this week three people that I’ve interviewed have had harrowing stories. One woman told me that her 8 year old daughter had died at some point during the last 3 months. Unfortunately I didn’t find out much more, as my interpreter was unable to understand the questions I wanted to ask. Another male from Syria, told me that he was in Greece with his wife and four children. He had a son in Germany and a married daughter of 22 still in Syria. When I asked whether his daughter was safe, he told me that she wasn’t. At least once a week she has to shelter from aircraft dropping bombs and he feared for her safety.  I know how much I worry about Jack and Polly, our children, who are safely working in England, and can’t image how that man manages. Another woman from Afghanistan who had fled via Iran to Greece, told me that her 18 year old brother had just died. Apparently he had died in Syria. When I asked what he was doing in Syria, I was told that Iran sent young Afghanistan males to war in Syria. Such terrible stories, that are retold in a matter of fact way.

This pain is off set by seeing some of the other refugees who are so glad to be here and to be safe. There is a particular family with six children who bring joy wherever they go. We’ve had the pleasure of volunteers being at the day centre playing with the children, and they’ve had a lovely time making bracelets, applying nail varnish, colouring and face painting. The children were so excited by the crafting and their joy was shared around. Now every time that I see the girls, they run up to me, give me a hug, and tell me they love me. They always come to say goodbye and give me another hug.

Aside from being at the day centre, we’ve also been involved in other groups serving the refugees. We’ve done tea and sandwiches  a few more times, and been and helped our friend Kerrie at Hope Cafe. Kerrie is working here as an independent person and is doing fantastic work supporting refugees and Greek nationals by supplying food packages, non food items and what ever else is needed at a particular time. She has the advantage of being independent, and small, so can quickly change course when circumstances change. An example of this is when refugees came to see her explaining that they were to be relocated to other EU countries and needed a suitcase. Kerrie just went out and bought some. She is doing remarkable things and is currently changing course again to establish her cafe. 

We’ve had the opportunity to visit one of the refugee camps at Oinofyta. We were welcomed to the site and spoke to some Afghan residents. In general the refugees are happy to practice their English on us, and to find out about where we’re from and answer questions about themselves. The camp is set in a disused factory building and the majority of the residents reside in the building. There are still a few tents and some are occupied by mostly young men, who choose to be in the tents. I think that the tents are quieter with a bit more privacy. The camp houses about 600 refugees and the staff, mostly volunteers, do their best to ensure that the refugees have things to do including a sewing workshop which is run as a business, a garden and a workshop where refugees can make items of furniture for their rooms. There is also school for the children and language classes for all. It is clear that these camps are going to be here for some time to come, so it is important that there are lots of things for the asylum seekers to do so that they can be purposeful and learn new skills.

We’ve also attended a few meetings. We went to the UNHCR meeting which was interesting to see which organisations are working in Greece and what is being done. The statistics about the number of refugees is startling, but there is a lot of work being done to try and administer the applications and then settle those that are allowed to stay. We asked about the non food item ban that we’ve been informed about, and there seemed to be a lot less worry about this, and the thought that this would be watered down, if not abandoned altogether. None of the other NGO’s appeared to be worried about this at all. I’ve been to a practitioners meeting which was interesting, and also the Churches Together in Athens meeting which was inspirational. It was fantastic to meet so many other Christian groups in Athens who are helping by hosting, and providing services to refugees. 

Away from our volunteer work, we’ve enjoyed taking part in some aspects of Greek life. We’ve been out to the countryside to have lunch with Deacon Chris and her husband Cliff, seen the celebration marches for Greek Independence Day, which involved military parades with the armed forces being clapped and cheered. (It seemed that the bigger the tank, the louder the clapping and cheering was.) We’ve visited the 2004 Olympic site which is a ghost town now, but with very impressive buildings. We’ve been to the birthday party of one of our colleague volunteers, and last weekend we hired a car and went to visit the Temple of Poseidon. A lovely day out and a beautiful spot at the southernmost point of the Greek mainland. The driving in Athens wasn’t much fun for Roger though.

We’re now nearing the end of our time with the Salvation Army and so are beginning to transition ourselves out. On 17th April Roger and I are heading to the island of Lesvos to spend a week working with Lighthouse Relief. They run the camp on Lesvos, carry out a 24h hour a day boat watch, meet any boats that arrive from Turkey and also run an eco project. They are using volunteers to recover abandoned boats and life jackets from the coast. These get cut up and taken back to the camp. At the camp the asylum seekers have set up a sewing workshop where they make items out of the recycled boats and life jackets which they then sell. A fantastic project that will no doubt be giving them some purpose in the extended period that they have to wait for a  decision from the Greek Asylum Service. We are looking forward to this time, and to compare what we’ve seen and learnt in Athens with what occurs on Lesvos.

There are still so many problems her in Greece and in Athens, and so many people in need. We would value your prayers for all the asylum seekers in Athens, particularly those that seem to be suffering so much with death and loss, even when they thought that by leaving their homeland they had escaped this. Also for the Salvation Army in Athens as they move forward, and that our leaving is seamless with others coming in. We’d also welcome your prayers for our time in Lesvos and our travel there and back.

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