Landed in Lesbos

So much has changed since I was here in November. The Olive Grove project has grown from an idea to a fully functioning reality. The conditions on camp have improved dramatically, the weather has dramatically got worse. It’s now freezing at night and we regularly have snow. I’m back working with Better Days for Moria and mainly do admin work but try to get onto camp regularly as this is where I feel most at home. It took a few days to settle back in but I now feel at home again. I’ve found a place to rent with a bunch of volunteers and we finally have heating and almost have wifi ;-) The focus of our work has shifted from immediate response to more strategic and structural organisational work on a larger scale. As short term volunteers now have the structures in place to offer the immediate care for people arriving, the long term volunteers spend a lot more time behind the scenes in meetings with the large scale NGOs and government bodies to try and make sure that politics is not getting in the way of providing the people passing through this island with the care and dignity each human being deserves. We are looking at ways to work together and meet the strict bureaucratic compliance they require while still staying flexible and true to our core values and culture. It is a very interesting time as we wrestle with the day to day realities on the camp as well as the effect of decisions being made in offices in Brussels and between states. Currently the flow of people through the island has reduced from thousands to hundreds per day. The weather is definitely one reason for this but with both Greece and Turkey now being pressured politically more than ever to restrict the flow of people into the EU, it may not just be the weather stopping the people coming. There has also been an increase in deaths with another 3 boats sinking last week and our first cases of people dying on arrival due to hyperthermia which may also be deterring people. It feels strange stating it in such a detached way but the tragedy is sometimes almost too hard to comprehend and definitely challenging to put into words. When you have seen the body of a child wash up on the shore or comforted a mother who has lost her baby; then it is something that you will never forget.

A personal account of my last 2 weeks

Being back has been a roller-coaster of emotions. When I first arrived on camp I was dancing about like a fairy on gnome dope. It’s incredible how much has been achieved since November. When I was last here we had just started building this vision and now here it is! There is still plenty to be done and improvements happen every day (and we are in a constant battle with the harsh winter weather which takes great pleasure in undoing the days work at night) but the transformation is immense! There are now much more solid tent structures for dry clothing distribution and warehousing, a large kitchen, tea tent, medical facilities, production office, tool shed, information tent, kid’s protection and play area and accommodation for those who cannot find a place inside.

Before I continue, here’s a very quick overview of the usual journey of someone arriving in Lesvos:

  • Make the crossing from Turkey to Greece in a (rather dodgy) rubber dinghy.
  • On arrival the coast volunteers meet the boats and everyone is taken to a transit camp, given dry clothing and hot tea/soup (some skip this stage if they arrive on the south coast and go straight to the next stage)
  • UNHCR buses take everyone to Moria for registration (takes a few hours to a few days depending on arrival numbers)
  • Once registered they can get the bus (1 euro) or taxi (10 euro) to the port
  • Get the ferry to Athens (ferry ticket 45 euro)
  • Continue journey north until they get to a country where they can apply for asylum (currently people are being told that if they don’t state Austria or Germany as their country of destination they will be turned back).

Moria is the official registration camp. Everyone who comes to the island must pass here for registration. Registration is done by the Greek government and Frontex the EU border control agency. The wait is anything between a few hours to a few days depending on how many people are in the camp. Everyone who is registered is interviewed, screened, finger printed and photographed and then given documents which allow them to stay in Greece for 7–30 days (depending on nationality) in which to continue their onward journey. People who come here are either fleeing from war or poverty.

If you are from North Africa you will not be registered and can choose to either:

  1. be deported home
  2. live illegally on the island (a lot of our best volunteers have chosen this option and so far the police have let them be)
  3. buy fake documents and rely on smugglers to get further.

All other nationalities can register but only Syrian, Iraqi or Afghani can pass the Macedonian border at the moment. So if you’re from Eritrea, Sudan or Iran for example you’ll easily pass through Lesbos but then probably end up stuck in Athens or have to pay smugglers and hope to get in via Italy. If you were lucky enough to be born in Scotland, Germany, Switzerland or the US, you can just buy a flight ticket and pretty much go wherever you like. I have just moved to Greece without registering anywhere yet and plan to stay an indefinite amount of time and no one seems that bothered. I’m not even fleeing from anything really other than the Daily Mail.

Better Days for Moria

The official camp at Moria is a former detention centre surrounded by lots of barbed wire and feels somewhat like a prison. It has a capacity for around a thousand people so when it gets busy there is not enough space and people spill out on to the surrounding Olive Grove. This is where I came to in November and at the time there was no structure in place to care for those people and most just slept outside on cardboard or make shift shelters. As the temperatures were steadily sinking, a group of people got together and decided to do something about it. We called ourselves Better Days for Moria (BDFM) and set up the Olive Grove Project. I was there for the first few days of its infancy and then had to leave. After 2 months we have grown from a baby into a teenager. We now have 3 shifts that cover the camp 24/7 with around 30 volunteers per shift. We have a core team of around 30 people, a capacity to feed around 2000 people and house 200 in our permanent bell tents plus as many as needed in camping tents. We provide 3 meals a day, hot chai and snacks 18 hours a day, dry clothes 24/7 for those who arrive on the South beaches and come to camp freezing and wet in the middle of the night, medical outreach and first aid 24/7 and information services for everyone both refugees, volunteers and volunteer refugees. Everyone who works in the Olive Grove project is self-funded, no one is paid a wage. Everything we distribute is donated. All our costs are covered by donations. One of the biggest costs is firewood and fuel to power the generators to keep everyone warm, provide light, provide mobile charging stations and run any power tools or other stuff that needs electricity. Laundry bills are also very high as we try to reuse blankets and sleeping bags and can’t do that without washing them due to infection control etc. The biggest costs are those one doesn’t normally think about. Most of this money is raised from thousands and thousands of people all giving a small amount at a time. It is absolutely incredible what can be achieved by ordinary people with a vision without any large scale NGO or government support. What is happening in the Olive Grove is both so inspiring and so frightening. It is incredible what we have achieved and what can provide but it is scary that it is needed. Every day people are still drowning crossing that bit of sea because the EU doesn’t want them to be offered safe passage. Despite our best efforts, people still die on the island as they arrive too cold and wet and hypothermia takes them just after they’ve landed. It’s just not fair. We have the freedom to go wherever we want and they don’t, even though we’re safe at home and they’re not. There are many groups who work on this island. One I visited last week is the No Borders Kitchen, an anarchistic group with a strong political agenda. They are super pissed with the way the governments is handling this situation and are fighting their political cause through solidarity and a makeshift kitchen camp by the port that provides food to anyone and everyone 24/7. At Moria however we try to work with the government as we feel we can achieve more through mutual support. Our number one priority is trying to improve the situation for the people who pass through our camp. Due to this I spend a good portion of my time in meetings. There are meetings for all the different functions; general coordination, food, washing, health, protection, communication and information etc. It is very inspiring to see so many people coming together with the same wish to improve the situation, but it is also super frustrating how slow and bureaucratic it is to get things approved. Somewhere in the paper mess it is forgotten that these are people who are suffering right now and not something that might happen at a future point. There is also lots happening on a higher EU level which is casting a dark shadow in our direction. We don’t know what it means yet but it feels that in general we are moving towards closed borders rather than safe passage. This means there is a lot of behind the scenes work to be done and so the majority of the time (when I’m not in meetings) I’m in a smoky (wish Greece would implement a smoking ban indoors) café with wifi. Tomorrow I’ve been promised we’ll get wifi at home which will be awesome as then I can work from home in the mornings and evenings and spend the afternoons on camp. I’m always happiest on camp — it feels like home. Two nights ago I did the coast watch shift till 5am and last night I covered for the shift leaders on the 5pm — 1:30am shift. It was eerily quiet. We got the guitar out and some percussion and had a wee jamming session with the volunteers and our Moroccan guests while drinking chai and hot chocolate. This morning the boats started arriving again, then it started snowing so it will probably slow down again. Every day is different depending on the weather and politics. Tomorrow I’ll join a lookout shift from 3–9am to see if any boats come in before having a meeting at 11am (to discuss our social media and communication strategy) and then heading off to the North in the afternoon to visit the organisations there and get to know them in person rather than just following them on facebook and whatsapp. Currently my life is busy and varied. Each day brings a new challenge. It is fun, stressful, rewarding, frustrating, wonderful, horrible, painful, touching, overwhelming, boring and complex. I definitely feel very alive! If you have some free time and would like to join us we would love to have you!!! If you can do any of the following things you’ll be useful here: Speak Farsi or Arabic, litter pick, sort clothing, cook, make tea, communicate clearly, build things, drive, offer empathy and respect, help someone who’s almost frozen stiff change their clothes, play with children, clowning, music, build fires, social media, tech stuff, coordination, smile, stay positive, be reliable — any of those skills are needed here!

If you’d like more information see our website: www.betterdays.ngo and I will also try to keep posting on facebook.

Thank you to everyone who has supported me so far! I have been overwhelmed by the response and am really grateful. I feel so honoured to be able to be here and do this work and it absolutely would not be possible without all you lovely people chipping in to support me. Thank you so much!

The Olive Grove Camp & a Calm Day on the Beach

Originally published at us12.campaign-archive2.com. (Mailchimp email newsletter 26th Jan 2016)