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Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Bank closures, refugees, and showers: An update from Lesbos


Photo by Michael Honegger – www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com

Guest post by Timothy Jay Smith

This is the third in a series of reports on conditions for refugees arriving on the island of Lesvos, Greece, by Timothy Jay Smith. Earlier posts:

The banks in Greece may be closed, but that hasn’t stopped the steady flow of refugees arriving on Lesbos. Today eight boats landed on the north coast, and seven yesterday. That could easily be 750 people, and that is only on the north coast. Last Friday, along the airport road in Mytilini, dozens of refugees were streaming into town from where they had landed in the south.

Closed banks, limited ATM withdrawals, and a local government preoccupied with the upcoming national referendum, have hampered some initiatives, but not stopped everything entirely. Of course, the food program in Molyvos continues, which is entirely managed by volunteers and funded by donations. More than that, the volunteers provide dry clothes, shoes, diapers, and other essentials. Lots of tourists have been generous and put money on account at local grocery stores for the volunteers to spend down as needed. (I opened four credit lines using some of the donations I received.)

In Mytilini, the island’s capital where all the refugees end up spending a week or so, the conditions are grim and overwhelming. The largest camp, Kara Tepe, opened about a month ago for 600 refugees, now has closer to 2,000. Of the six original toilets, only one was functional last week; and there is not one shower.

I returned home last week, but on my way to the airport, I met with a couple of representatives of Village All Together, an ad hoc association of NGOs across the island working on refugee issues. We had met a couple of times previously to discuss how I might help. They finally got permission from the mayor for showers at Kara Tepe (he even offered municipal plumbers to install them for free), and I have agreed to pay for twenty showers. I want to buy an equal number of toilets, but the question is how—or even if—to hook them up to the city’s sewage system. (Ironically, Kara Tepe is located next to the town’s treatment plant.)

We met at PIKPA, a small camp now used for the most vulnerable refugees (families with infants, disabled, women accidentally separated from their families, etc.). Compared to other camps, it is a shady paradise, but not without its problems. The holding tank had filled and backed up, knocking out the plumbing system, so with donated funds I sorted out all of those problems.

A week earlier, I had discussed with Village All Together the idea of a mobile medical unit at Kara Tepe. Apparently a couple of international NGOs have promised some support for this idea—including the well-known Medecins San Frontieres—so on that topic, they are sorting out what’s been offered, what they lack, and how I might use donations to fill in some gaps. I have offered to try to get money from foundations, if needed, and an experienced proposal writer in Molyvos has offered her help.

Village All Together has also come up with a list of twenty-five items that they need, from baby bottles to sunblock to an assortment of over-the-counter medicines. I have asked them to put together an emergency list—what they need right now—so I can buy them.

One of the big problems faced by refugees is the lack of information on the ‘process’ ahead of them once they land on the island. Very few speak even rudimentary English, and almost none Greek. Village All Together has identified two interpreters (Arabic and Farsi) to work with refugees in Mytilini, Kalloni and Molyvos. I have agreed to pay them a small stipend which will be matched by an NGO in Kalloni.

As long as I still have donated funds to spend, I will keep responding to needs as they come up. I have had enough overseas development experience to know how useful it is to have a small source of quick-response money that doesn’t have to be approved through bureaucratic wrangling. I also know it is important to be accountable to donors, so everything I spend must be backed up by receipts or purchase orders. One hundred percent of the money I receive is used to help the refugees.

Finally, in Molyvos, where I spent most of the last five weeks, the local volunteers need a Volunteer—seriously. They are looking for someone who can come for two or three months, coordinate their efforts, and pitch in. Common sense and a willingness to work are the main qualifications. Some past refugee or international experience wouldn’t hurt. You need to get yourself to the island (airport code: MJT). You will be provided with a modest room and food allowance. It’s a great opportunity for someone wanting to do something very satisfying with their life: helping people who really need it. Thanks to everyone who has donated to help the refugees arriving on Lesbos. The response has been heartwarming. I am home in France now, but in regular contact with the volunteers on the island. I return to Lesbos at the end of August for another month.

Anyone wishing to make a donation for these types of activities, please contact me through smithtimothyjay@gmail.com or Facebook. Please share.

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