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Sorting clothes in Lesvos

Last week I went to the Greek island of Lesvos. I went because a friend of mine had been at the end of last year and related her experience of working as a volunteer. I was not sure what to expect and on the small aeroplane from Athens to the island I became nervous. HOT’s Bev Francis writes.

I had booked a small apartment to share with three others. Getting accommodation at this time of year is not as easy as I had expected, as many tourist hotels shut in winter and other places to stay were fully booked by volunteers. Although there is an accommodation sharing page on Facebook, it’s not so easy to sort out with four people. Our accommodation is small; we have one saucepan, no kettle, one knife, scarce hot water and three beds between us. Over the next week we are grateful to return to warm dry space after each day’s work.

On our first full day we head to Moria where there are two refugee camps. We register to work at the overspill camp called Better Days for Moria, which was only officially recognised as a camp three weeks ago.

Better Days is situated in olive groves known as Afghan Hill and it takes refugees who cannot be accommodated in the official camp, which is a foreboding looking place with a police guard.

Afghan Hill on first appearances looks like a festival site. Recently donated bell tents reach up the hill dotted with food tents and portaloos. Rocks demarcate pathways put there by bored refugees waiting for their time to leave for mainland Europe. Trenches are dug to channel the water pouring down the hill away from the tents to stop flooding in the rain. These trenches are dug by volunteers and refugees together.

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We meet Camilla who shows us around the camp and familiarises us with the rules. Camilla is an inspiration; she is cheerful and sees the positive in everything, and when she isn’t organising shifts for volunteers and talking to refugees, she is also helping in the camp, muddling in with the humdrum jobs that need to be done. She is a volunteer herself but has been at the camp a while and has acquired a more supervisory job. She tells us “as one lot of volunteers leave, more arrive and the cogs keep turning”.

We are to work in the clothing warehouse sorting donated clothes into designated areas. The warehouse is in constant need of organising, as refugees arrive daily to change wet clothes or get clothes ready for the next part of their journey.

A young man in his twenties is sorting out sanitary towels and tampons into bags, these are in short supply; he puts three tampons into a bag and asks “ it is either tampons or sanitary towels, right?” I have to explain some women will need both and that three tampons might mean that as soon as they have waited in the queue they would probably need to join the end of the queue again!

We sort trousers and jeans and an Italian girl asks, “Where do the pants go?” This is confusing; men’s underwear is marked ‘pants’ and she refers to trousers as pants. No wonder things end up in the wrong place! People from all over the world are here and most speak English and it does make for interesting conversations. It also makes you realise how many brilliantly self-motivated people there are in the world who are happy to be helping, even though it’s boring work.

At midday we stop for lunch and a vegetarian meal is supplied at the volunteers’ tent made by other volunteers. There is also a chai tent free to volunteers and refugees alike. The sweet warm chai is a real pick-me-up after a morning’s work.
I look for a place to sit to drink my chai and see four Syrian men sitting on a bench made of scrap wood, poignantly the seat pads are life jackets. They stand up to let me sit down. I say “No, I’m happy to sit on the floor,” but they insist. A translator tells me, “It is the only way they can thank me for my hard work and they want to show their gratitude.” I feel humbled by this.

The next day is more of the same. The warehouse is untidy as the night shift was busy and someone has broken into a warehouse tent opened bags and made a huge mess. We set to work tidying and sorting. I spend a couple of hours handing out clothes; warm tops is what most people need today. Some people have tickets for the next ferry to leave for the mainland and are wanting warm coats and rucksacks for their journey. Rucksacks are in short supply and only families are allocated these.

A young girl of around twelve sees me fold up a pink fluffy hoody and signals that she would like it. I’m not supposed to give it to her, as she’s not next in the queue, but I do and she is so happy!

I love the fact that some of the women don’t take the first item of clothing you offer them; they want to look nice and why not!

Back in the sorting tent I find a pair of high heels; not really terribly useful for a person about to embark on an arduous trek across Europe.

A fellow volunteer is ushered into a tent where women and children are changing from wet clothes into dry ones. The women have just arrived and most have only the clothes they are in. These clothes are their only possessions from a previous life and they change from these to dry donated clothes. Their wet clothes are to be taken and washed by the volunteer group Dirty Girls. The Dirty Girls take the wet clothes, launder them and then return them to the warehouse where they can be re-allocated. Unfortunately this does mean the final links to the refugees lives are taken and it’s not surprising that some are desperate to hold onto their wet things, it’s often all they have left. “One young woman gets quite agitated that her prize wet trainers are going to be taken,” my fellow volunteer tells me. It is hard to imagine how it feels to have absolutely nothing left from your past.

On Wednesday we take a trip across the mountains to visit the camps there. We arrive at the beach front where Lighthouse Camp is; this is where people are taken as soon as they arrive on shore. Often cold, hungry and frightened, this is a front line transit camp. The camp has wood burners to warm the arrivals, a medical tent, kitchen and play area for the children. We sign up for an early morning shift on Thursday. Unfortunately we never make the shift as the brakes on our hired car decide they don’t like mountains and we have to turn back as the roads are too steep and it’s not worth risking.

We are disappointed but we don’t waste time. We had to get up at 4am for the shift so we head to the north shore to look for boats crossing. There are people looking for boats all along the coast, they arrive in the early mornings to avoid being sent back to Turkey. Looking out on the cold sea I wonder if I would be able to take my family on that crossing, knowing how many people have died trying to reach Europe.

We then work another shift in a huge warehouse that is in a complete muddle. A system has to be organised before the sorting begins and there is only a handful of us and a mountain of clothes to sort.

Our last day we return to the warehouse with an army of volunteers. Only two boats have arrived on the island this week, so there are plenty of volunteers looking for things to do, and we make a massive difference today. We find boxes of donated toothpaste and the camp at Moria has run out, some of the volunteers drive the toothpaste up to the camp. Opening the donation bags makes you realise how generous people can be: beautiful hand-crocheted hats and blankets and brand new hoodies are found.

Leith, a young man from South London, is coordinating the donations at the warehouse and is considering sending some of the donations to Turkey as there are rumoured to be 75,000 people heading to the Turkish border today. Later I find out that there is indeed a mass exodus from the city of Homs. A city no more: it has been bombed to dust.

imageI have watched Syrian children playing in the crèche at Moria with their gentle mothers and fathers, I have watched the children laugh as they were entertained by the Clowns Without Borders and can’t begin to imagine how these people feel. The children are blissfully unaware that this is only the start of a long journey for them and I can only hope it will be a safe one, where fellow humans will help and support them in their flight to safety. Sadly I know this will not be the end of their struggle.

For more information: Better Days For Moria and Lighthouse Relief.

Posted 14:59 Saturday, Feb 13, 2016 In: The HOT Planet


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