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Days 5 & 6 | What is Normal?

One of the interesting things about the refugee situation is the importance of social media as a communication tool. To date, almost all of the volunteer efforts here on Lesvos have been coordinated using Facebook and WhatsApp as a way of connecting volunteers and coordinators. For the refugees, the first thing they do after landing safely on the beach is pull out their smartphone and call or text to tell their family they are safe.



One of the interesting things about the refugee situation is the importance of social media as a communication tool. To date, almost all of the volunteer efforts here on Lesvos have been coordinated using Facebook and WhatsApp as a way of connecting volunteers and coordinators. For the refugees, the first thing they do after landing safely on the beach is pull out their smartphone and call or text to tell their family they are safe.


Due to some limitations with WhatsApp – an instant messaging system popular in Europe and with travellers – the Starfish Foundation has recently switched to using Slack, an instant messaging and group coordination app. The schedule of volunteers is posted via Slack and any timely updates throughout the day are sent out by Slack.


On Friday night are 8:30 pm, we were on our way to dinner after a day of greeting refugees, transporting them to their bus, making hundreds and hundreds of sandwiches and playing with some kids at the OXY camp. We had started at 7:00 am, so we were a bit tired and looking forward to a glass of wine and some food. Then a Slack message came through – “Can people pick up people from Petra Port now that need to go to Oxy now?” Dinner would have to wait.


Fifty people had been picked up by the Coast Guard and brought to the Petra harbour, a town about 15 minutes from Molyvos. We got onto Google Maps and headed to the port, not really knowing what to expect. When we arrived, we were greeted by a somewhat chaotic situation. The refugees were out on a concrete wharf. It was big enough for me to drive out on, but narrow enough that turning around was extremely unnerving.


A lovely group of local Greek volunteers were already on scene with bags of dry clothing and shoes. Despite language barriers, they were trying to help the arrivals find some clothes to replace their sopping wet gear. We were the first shuttle car on the scene. There were three of us in our car – me, Ellen and Martha – so Ellen and Martha jumped out to help with the clothing while I rounded up a group of 4 to drive to the nearby OXY camp where they would be able to spend the night before being transferred to the registration camps.


The first group was four young men from Somalia. They were freezing cold. When they shook my hand, their hands were like ice. And they were soaked to the skin. I quickly cranked the heat in the car, which was much appreciated, and we took off to the camp. One of the young men spoke some English. He didn’t tell me exactly what had happened on their trip but he kept repeating that he had thought he was going to die that night. They had all been terrified.


I dropped the first group at the camp, transferring them to the tender care of the volunteers there and went back for another group. This time, it was a lovely family from Afghanistan. They too were freezing. They spoke no English, but kept saying thank you over and over.


Other cars had arrived, so I didn’t need to make a third trip, but then it was time to clean up the wharf. Wet and dry clothes were strewn over the pavement. Wet clothes are pealed off and abandoned. Dry clothes end up in a big mess as people dig through the boxes trying to find something that fits. We bagged the wet clothes to be laundered and gathered up the dry clothes to be returned to storage. The dozens of life jackets – most of them dangerous fakes – were left to be retrieved by the local officials and transferred to the landfill.


We ended up with soaking wet car seats (we had forgotten the cardinal rule of picking up refugees – put an emergency blanket down on your upholstery) and I suspect I may be facing a cleaning charge as there are some salt marks as well, but it is worth it. After our late night refugee run, we went for dinner, met some friends and went home to bed.


The next morning we were all exhausted. At first we were a bit confused. We hadn’t really done that much the day before, but then Ellen pointed out that perhaps we weren’t taking into account the emotional energy involved in what we are doing. It really seems so normal here. For the locals. For the volunteers who have travelled from around the world to be here. We have come to expect this kind of craziness as just a part of life here on Lesvos.


At the same time, our fatigue can’t even begin to touch the level of exhaustion that the refugees must be dealing with. The other day, Martha was brought to tears assisting a young 20-year-old mother and her two very young children. The woman was travelling to meet her husband who had gone before her. The kids were full of energy, but the lovely young woman kept nodding off while Martha was helping her. As Martha loaded the family on the bus to Moria, she was stricken.


How would this mother and her children cope with the living hell that is Moria camp? How could this young woman make the long journey ahead of her and her family if she was already this exhausted? Will she be able to join her husband?


Perhaps the most difficult part of doing this is that you never know what happens to these people. You cross paths for a few minutes or a few hours and then they are gone. Occasionally, you exchange contact information and hope to here from them again, but most of the time, these scared, strong, determined people pass through your life and then they are gone.



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