(By Dora Chalari / Production Assistant at SKAI TV for OTE TV)
It might sound strange, but no, it isn’t. Last October, one of the largest refugee disasters happened in Lesvos, I run across an article full of despair, from volunteers, doctors who were already on the island, with statements full of despair: ‘Europe is dying at this place, we hardly manage to pull half dead children out of the water, Lesvos being full of ambulances and shocked, terrified people. We are looking for help from people who will help us to regain our strength and continue together.”
On the very same day, early November, I am on the internet, I am searching for information on organizations who are already there, in order to do something, to help. How can I help? Zero medical skills, just my presence, my “two hands”. By end of November I receive a message from a self-organized group, located in the city Sykamnia of Lesvos, the “first line” as the locals call them, the place where most boats from the coast of Turkey arrive, the nearest point across.
– May I come on upcoming holidays, when I’ll be able to get a leave from Athens?
– You might come any time, the needs are great and do not stop, we are awaiting you.
I had one month to ‘prepare’ myself, following daily what was happening there, getting the collywobbles when thinking about what might be expecting me, alone, in a place I don’t know anyone, with one purpose only, to manage to help those who are already there to ‘regain their strength’.
December 2015, Sykamnia. People from different countries, Spain, France, USA, Iceland, all strangers to each other, at the beginning. As the days passed they became friends, family. If someone told me this before I would have laughed at him. These moments, you know, sometimes the change you forever.
The day passed calmly, with smiles and small talk, ‘where do you come from’, ‘how long will you stay’. “This is the place that will change your life’. Nonsense, I thought. I came here prepared for the worst, I know what to expect and how to deal with it.” Night falls. A message on the radio: “A boat about 70 refugees, engine stopped, we tow it in, will approach the coast in 10′, be ready.” I follow the others. Isothermal blankets in our hands and running to the coast. ‘Prepare for the worst’ I said to myself and followed the group.
The boat arrives at the shore. My blood freezes… I had seen videos, I had read about it, I was informed. But watching it on the screen of your computer, in your home, is completely different to experiencing it in reality. Reality is shocking. People stacked, feet out of the water, children crying and looking for your glance, exhausted women, tired, shocked men with empty eyes.
I remained motionless and frozen. I did not know what to do, how to behave. Rescuers were grasping both ends of the boat, trying to stabilize it to help people disembark. In a certain order, first the toddlers, then the women. Hand in hand they forwarded us each of them to wrap them with the blanket and see if they are OK. Bring then to the camp, to give them a hot tea, dry clothes. to make them feel like human beings.
Their feelings were mixed. For most of them this journey took months, by the end of the journey some of them remain orphans, lost their family, child, grandchild. Some are shocked and weeping, sick with hypothermia from the sea or exhausted from the journey, others swoon just when they feel that you are there to take care of them and that they reached the shore. Those who recover from the shock and begin to recover their strength will begin to tell you how they got here. “We were told that we will cross the great river, the river that burns” (because of salty sea water), “for the first time in our life we saw the sea, they told us to hold still to not fall in and drown, all the way we did not wag nor our foot, we were scared.”
There is also the time you are alone with yourself. And at that time you are allowed to process what you experienced, to break out and collapse. Only at that moment. The next day will come and another boat with other people, different experiences, lives, situations, this time there where unaccompanied children which will wear a tag around their neck with their data (if they are lucky), alone, because their parents either have been killed or do not have the necessary money for the traffickers and prefer to save those even if themselves die… have you ever thought about how much power it requires for one to do that? For these people the island is like the lighthouse they were searching for and when they see you, you are like a part of it.
That’s how I felt about volunteering… A small light that you are responsible for keeping it burning always.
Time passed and buses came to take them to the registration centers. It was night now. Hesitantly they entered one by one the buses, this time not crowded and calmer. They were dry and winked us goodbye with a smile and a “thank you”, off to the last part of their journey.
These are the reasons for which you have to be there, to do the minimum to your fellow human beings, and when the day ends and the night comes and you stay alone, to think about that the only reason you are not in their position, is luck and nothing else. You happened to be born here. And you are even luckier when meeting these people and mingle with them, to give them your hand, the look in their eyes and offer them even the least you have and can to make them feel human again, at this border that shouldn’t been dividing you.
Do you have a personal experience with refugees? Xenophobia is greatest among people who have rarely if ever met a refugee. Let’s counter their unfounded fears and fill the web with stories of people who regularly spend time with refugees or who have had a significant real-life experience with refugees. Post your story on your blog or on a forum, use the hashtag #let_them_in and tell DiEM25 about your post by sending an email to [email protected]. The most interesting stories will be featured on DiEM25 and promoted through our social media channels. There’s nothing to fear but fear itself! Carpe DiEM!
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