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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More Greece

Since I last blogged we have immersed ourselves into the work at the Salvation Army and also into other groups. Within the Salvation Army, I’ve now completed putting their records onto a data base, so that we more accurately see how many families we’ve got registered with us and some other key data. We’ve registered an additional 210 families in the three weeks since we’ve been here, and I’ve heard some very sad stories. Stories of lone females living in fear and having suffered sexual assault, refugee families who are living in a schoolroom with 5 other families sharing one bathroom between 300 people, and a Greek family who having lost work are now living with no water as this has been cut off. They are all such sad stories and we are learning about the real need of both the asylum seekers and the locals. 

Currently on a worldwide scale there are other countries like Sudan, Kenya, Somalia and Ethiopia where people are starving, and in this context it has been declared that Greece is no longer in crisis. I guess that this is true, in as much as refugees are not flooding in to the country at the same rate as they were over the last couple of years, (although about 50 people a week are still arriving on the Islands), but the fact that people in other countries are also suffering does not reduce the needs here in Greece. Many of the refugees here are really struggling to make any life for themselves, or see a way forward for themselves or their families. They have escaped horrors that I can’t begin to imagine, seen family members die and find themselves here in Athens, where their future is, but there doesn’t appear to be a way for many of them to establish themselves with a home and a job to support their families. On top of this, things are very uncertain in Turkey which could have a huge impact on the number of refugees that arrive in Greece in the future.

The Greek Governement have recently announced that as from 01/04/2017 NGO’s will not be able to supply many non food items like toiletries, nappies and female hygiene products to refugees. The NGO’s have until 01/07/2017 to use any existing stock that they have from which date I understand it will be a criminal offence for NGOs to supply these items. I understand that the intention of this is that families will instead have to register for cash cards, which are topped up by UNHCR, with money depending on the size of the family. If the refugees use their cash cards to purchase the non food items then this will boost the Greek economy which needs all the help it can get. This is all very sensible except that you have to qualify to have to apply for a cash card, and there has to be sufficient money on the card to purchase these essential items for the scheme to work. Unfortunately the qualification for a cash card is tough, as you have to be registered as an asylum seeker and either living in a camp or in a proper house (not a squat, or on the street) which disqualifies many at the first hurdle. The prices in the shops are more expensive than in the U.K. and families are not given a lot of money on a card, so it is unlikely that a family with children that need nappies will be able to afford nappies, food and other costs on the money they’re given.  I do not know how this will work its way out, but it seems pretty hopeless for many.

Aside from the day centre, we’ve been helping a wonderful man called Artur who runs a ‘Tea and Sandwiches’ programme. Twice, or sometimes three times a week, Artur makes 60 huge sandwiches and 4 flasks of tea which he then takes out to feed the homeless on the street. We’ve helped make sandwiches, and been out on the streets with Artur a number of times and met many of the people that he’s helping to feed. The first group he visits are the most desperate. Many of these people have no papers and so really have no recourse to access any of the formal services. They are living on the streets with only the clothes they wear and the food they can source from either free services, begging or going through bins. During the course of the route Artur takes he feeds at least 60 rough sleepers. He sometimes has medics accompany him who treat any injuries and ailments, and he also distributes clothes. We’ve come across a couple of English people who have been in Greece for many years, been caught in the crash and ended up on the street. They live alongside others from across Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq and many other countries. 


The Salvation Army are also going through changes in leadership which impacts on Captain Curtis and Captain Ray who will have increased responsibility in this project, and within their church, until further support arrives. We have been able to assist them in making some changes to the day to day running in the day centre which has had a positive impact, but there is work to be done as we try and sort out how to work through the Government instructions and how to give access to the clothes that we currently would like to distribute without there being fights and squabbles. 

We would value prayers for the refugees in Greece and their situation, for the work in the day centre, that we can find a way to still provide a useful service that meets some of the needs of the the people we are trying to serve and for the staff in the day centre. We are a team predominantly made up of volunteers, some of whom are asylum seekers themselves, and they are working hard to use their skills within the day centre and also trying to establish themselves with getting homes, connecting electricity, getting bank accounts and establishing themselves in a new country. A tough call.

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Our first week in Greece

We’ve been here for just over a week now and have enjoyed a holiday weekend, a service, and great welcome, at our host church St Pauls in Athens and more importantly started to understand some of the issues of the Greek refugee situation. We have the pleasure of volunteering alongside the Salvation Army who have a project in Athens. One of the aspects of their project is their day centre which aims to provide services to those refugees that are registered with them. Greece has in excess of 55,000 refugees (UNHCR Sept 2016 figure) from countries like Afghanistan, Syria, Morocco, Iran, Iraq and some others. 


Many of the refugees have been in Greece for some time and whilst they may have hoped to travel out of Greece to other EU countries, the borders are now closed and it appears that most will be in Greece for the long term. Most of the refugees that we have encountered have made claims for asylum and having had their applications accepted, fall out of most of the help offered to refugees. It is deemed that when asylum is granted the individual has the right to work and therefore can be self sufficient and won’t need any further help. This might work if there were jobs, but since the Greek crash, about one in three Greeks are out of work, and looking for jobs. Consequently the competition for jobs for those with asylum is really tough, especially given that most lack Greek language skills and any local knowledge that may be a benefit for local people.
The camps are still being used for those with asylum status, and many families are living in tents or in containers, with other families, in very cramped conditions with little privacy and little access to sanitation. Many other families who have moved out from the camps are living in squats in many areas of the city, again it is assumed, in fairly poor conditions. Some have managed to get flats, but I am not clear on how this is paid for or arranged. 
At the Salvation Army day centre, clients are interviewed to try and identify who they are and try and assess what their needs are. There are interpreters who are available who are key in making this work possible. When they have been registered by the Salvation Army, the clients are then able to receive milk, nappies, hygiene products, clothes and anything else that has been donated. The goods are given out on a Monday to Thursday and this can be very chaotic as registration is confirmed and goods are given out. It seems that the British are better at queuing than the average asylum seeker and sometimes scuffles break out which need to be quelled.  
I’ve been involved in the interviewing of potential clients during which you hear some dreadfully sad stories including separated families, hunger, an inability to access other services, and sometimes despair. Alongside that, many are very grateful for even small items that we are able to give them, with the promise of more tomorrow. I am so impressed by how dignified the vast majority of the clients are in the face of such difficulty, having been through so much to even get this far.
Roger has been involved in both interviewing clients and in helping to organise the handing out of goods to clients. 

At this early stage of our experience, we would value your thoughts and prayers for the situation, and for the people that we are meeting. There is much work to be done as the Salvation Army are trying to improve the service they offer to give a better individual case management service that is fit for purpose for the longer term. Please pray that Roger and I would continue to enjoy good relationships with those we’re working alongside,that we are able to be useful in this situation and that the clients we are engaged with feel valued and respected by us as a team.

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Our next adventure

I mentioned in my last blog, a training weekend with USPG – United Society for Partners in the Gospel. We had come across USPG at Greenbelt last year, and were very challenged by work they had been doing in partnership with the Anglican Church in Greece with refugees. We found out about their ‘Journey With Us’ programme, which sends people out with an opportunity to experience and share in the life and mission of the world church. We have been working with USPG, and have been fortunate in securing a placement with them in Athens, Greece with the Anglican Church of St Paul’s and the Salvation Army.

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We are heading out for just under 10 weeks as volunteers to assist in programmes being run to support refugees. We anticipate working in the warehouse, the day centre and the community. We are warned of the ‘unpredictability of Greece’ and the responsive nature of the humanitarian programme, so will need to be flexible in our approach.

I am sure that this will be a challenging time for Roger and I, but also one which we expect to be life changing. We hope to be useful in the situation and not get in the way.

We will keep folk up to date though my blog and would greatly appreciate prayers and positive thoughts for the situation that we are going into.

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