Volunteering with the refugee effort in Lesvos Island

I spent some time in January 2016 as a volunteer in Lesvos Island. It was an emotional experience which I would like to share with my readers. Below are posts and photos lifted from my facebook page.

Little baby girls sitting out in the cold at Moira camp, Lesvos Island. 

 This is Sham. I met her in the United Nations line for refugee papers. She fled Syria with her widowed mother and 16 year old sister.
 I named him 'the boy who refused to smile'. No amount of chocolates could entice a curve on his lips. He was with his father and two older brothers. There is a story behind those haunted eyes: his mother was raped and killed by ISIS.

Photo below is with the three brothers and my sister Zainub Chohan.

Post 1: Have you ever denied water to a thirsty person? I have. May God forgive me.
January 2016
Yesterday the boats arrived one after the other and the refugees, cold and hungry, began to queue on the fringe of the camp for their refugee paper that is now their new identity. The paper will allow them to pass through European borders. Without them they do not exist in official terms.
The queue is long and the average wait is twelve hours because the UNHCR has to be thorough when they process the refugees; fingerprints, interview etc. 
The camp is run by volunteers. Without them the refugees would have no dry clothes to change into after their sea journey, no food and no water.
When the refugees arrived in the morning and afternoon they were given rice and water by the volunteers. Hours layer, as the sunlight disappeared and the biting cold of the night dug in, the mood changed. 
Babies could be heard crying.
Mothers made an effort to keep their older children closer to them in the darkness of a Greek island hilltop which is the camp. 
People shifted on their feet. 
The Greek police who maintain order suddenly looker sharper. This is a force that keep riot shields on hand to maintain that order.
Just after 6pm the kitchen volunteers arrived with a big drum of hot rice pudding for the refugees. This was part evening meal and part an attempt to provide warmth for the body. 
We distributed it in paper cups and then the water bottles arrived.
As I tore up the plastic covering, another volunteer came running up.
'Don't! Stop! We can't give them the water.'
I looked at her in confusion. 'Why not? The refugees have been standing for hours. They need water.'
'The Afghan line hasn't been given any food. There is nothing left for them and so the water has to be given to the Afghans.'
You see there are two lines in the camp. One is for the Syrians and the other is for the Afghans. 
The Afghan refugees are the Hazara people whom the UN recognise as a persecuted minority. You may have read about the popular Hazara character in Khaled Hussaini's Kite Runner.
'OK,' I agreed.
'Watch the water,' she said. 'I'm going to get a farsi speaking interpreter to explain to the Afghan line that unfortunately there is no more food and we only have water.'
She disappeared and I stood watch over the bottles. Minutes later a child came up and asked for a bottle. I shouldn't have given it but i gave it anyway. Next a man came up. I shook my head and mouthed no. He gazed at me in surprise and I averted my eyes. This was a man who had lost his country and home and I was refusing to give him a bottle of water. 
I kept my gaze away from the people I had only hours earlier greeted with a smile and 'marhaba'. 
They included the widows I had given charity money to and with whom I had shed tears with when we had become overwhelmed with emotion. 
I looked up. It was one of the police officers. 
'Take the water away from here if you are not going to give it.'
'What?' I glanced behind him at the line. Some of the refugees were looking at me. They had realised the water was not for them. 
'Take it away.'
The police officer didn't have to say anymore. I understood the situation. More people would approach, it would get chaotic and even ugly. 
I remembered the volunteer induction talk. 'The police want calm and order. If it gets chaotic they will bring out the riot shields and hit the refugees until they get back into line.'
I waved over some other volunteers and we carried the water away. I had to pass by everyone in the queue and I kept my head down ...even when some of them called out 'baby ...water.'
After distributing the water to the Afghan line, I walked back to the Syrian line to find more volunteers had arrived and were distributing water bottles and cartons of orange juice. 

Its all about the volunteers. Come. Make a difference. 

Post 2: 'I was so scared for my children' 
January 2016 (photo: Zainub and Alaa)

My sister Zainub and I had just got out of bed when her phone beeped. It was the south coast Lesvos whatsap group which notifies volunteers of new boats arriving. 
It is crucial that volunteers meet the boats. The refugees are always soaked from the waist down and in the January cold they need to be given dry clothes and blankets. Hypothermia is a very real risk. 
The message gave the boat's location on the coast and urged nearby volunteers to rush there. The coast volunteers work on shifts throughout the day and night and patrol a given area. 
Zaiunb and I had decided that we would focus on assisting within the camp rather than the coast as we had not hired a car. 
'The boat is 2 minutes away by car,' Zainub said. 'Let's go help. We can get a taxi.'
I nodded. Our hotel was on the coast line. We could be there in minutes. 
Having dressed as fast as we could in jumpers and wellies, we ran down to the hotel reception and asked for a taxi. 
'It's coming,' the lovely Greek receptionist informed us. 
'Thanks.' Two minutes later, as a typical Londoner not used to waiting, I inquired about the taxi. 
The receptionist gave me an odd look. 'It' coming.'
Another two minutes later, hopping from foot to foot I demanded to know where my taxi was. 
The receptionist looked at me in bewilderment and threw her hands in the air in that unique Greek way. 'Itssaaaa cominngggg.'
We all burst out laughing. 
Four minutes later the taxi arrived and we clamoured in, pointing ahead at the coast line. 'Drive!'
The driver looked at me in confusion. Life is not like the movies. Taxi drivers don't just drive just because you demand it. 
'Where?' he asked. 
Zainub studied the boat's location on the whatsap message and identified the hotels running parallel on the coast. 
'Princess apartments. We want princess apartments.'
The driver shrugged and started the car ....slowly.
'Go! Go! Go!' I urged, jumping like a child on the back seat.
I noticed the dirty sideways look he gave me and decided to sit back. It would not help to be kicked out of the car. 
Two minutes later we pulled up on the road close to a group of about 50 refugees and some volunteers.
The doctor from the Netherlands who had given us the volunteer's talk on how to prevent hypothermia was seeing to a woman who had broken her foot on the journey. The doctor was urging her to go to a hospital via an Arabic translator but she point blanked refused to be separated from her five children all under 12. 

I looked around and noticed Scott, a Canadian volunteer walking around with a little girl who looked about 2 years old. She was wrapped in a green blanket which reminded me of Kermit the Frog. I smiled at the little girl but she did not respond. Some of the children refuse to make eye contact after the terror of their journey. 
I asked Scott where her parents were. 
'I found her walking around by herself calling "papa". Her father is in the medical van being seen to. I've been holding her since.'
I took out a Quality Street chocolate from my bag and held it in front of her. Her eyes flickered slightly. I asked Scott if I could hold her to feed the chocolate and he handed her over to me. 
Settling down the ground, I unwrapped the orange cream and then pulled one of her arms out of the blanket. She took it and began to eat it slowly. As the sugar hit her, she met my eyes for the first time and allowed a small curve to her lips. 
Zainub came over and I passed the little girl to her. We began to play peekaboo and the curve turned into a small smile. 
Just then a car pulled up with Tariq Jahan and two of his cousins. They were driving along the coast dropping water bottles for all the refugees. You may remember Tariq from the 2011 riots. He is the father whose son was killed in Birmingham. Tariq is credited with bringing calm to the riots when he spoke on TV about his loss. 
They dropped the water and sped off to the next boat.
Another volunteer, Marian from Germany, walked over to us with the silver foil and a pair of tights. She had run out of children's hats and was improvising. She placed the foil over the little girl's head and secured it with the crotch of the tights. It was vital that the little girl did not lose anymore body heat after spending three hours on the boat (each boat has its own journey time depending on the sea conditions. It should be 1.5 hours but is always more). 
'Where are her parents?' Marian asked. 
'Her father is in the medical van,' I replied. 'Not sure about the mother.'
Marian gave me a concerned look. 'The medical van has left. Four more boats have arrived near the airport and the medics are needed there.'
As we stood under the winter sun, the most awful thoughts flew through my mind. Where was her father? What if he hadn't survived the journey? What if she is now an orphan?
I picked up the little girl and Zainub and I walked through the small crowd to see if we could find out what had happened to him. Suddenly the little girl's face broke out into a huge smile as a man in his thirties hobbled over to us on an injured leg. 
I cannot describe the relief I felt. 
Her name is Alaa and she has a 4 year old sister Suha, and a 6 year old brother Mohammed. They are travelling with their father Yamen who steered the boat when the smugglers jumped ship. 
As we stood around in a small group waiting for the UN coach to take them all to the camp, some of the other refugees jokingly referred to him as 'the Captain'. Yamen laughed with them and then suddenly out of the blue, tears welled up in his eyes. 'I was so scared for my children.'
Alaa, Suha and Mohammed's mother died 3 months ago. She was killed by a sniper in Halib, Syria. Just like that a single bullet snuffed out her life and left three small children motherless. 

I have met so many widows and widowers travelling with their small children. There is no time to grieve for dead husbands and wives and the loss and trauma is buried deep within them.
The only thing that matters to these refugees is safety for their children. 
All we can do as volunteers is help them on their journey with dry clothes, blankets, food and water as they make their way to the European countries offering refuge.

Post 3. Wrapped up for the night in United Nations blankets with bin bags of clothes for mattresses. 
January 2016

These two little cuties were all wrapped up in blankets to spend the night in the cold air. Women and children are allowed to sleep inside the UN's family compound, but I could not persuade their mother to leave the line for registration even though she would not be seen until the next day.

Post 4: This is Saum. 
January 2016

It was raining hard today and at about 11am Saum and his mother came into the volunteer tent to seek shelter. He was wet and cold. We dried him with some tissues, gave him a blanket and placed him on a chair. He happily munched on two digestive biscuits. 
His mother told me her story. Her husband has already reached Germany and she is following him there ...alone ...with three children in towe. 
She talked of the same route that all the refugees mention with excitement in their voices. 
'We will go to Athens on the ferry and then bus and wall to Macedonia and then all the way to Germany.'
She is a woman on her own and I knew she was carrying some money for her trip which she said was enough for the tickets she needed to buy en route. I gave her some money anyway. A woman alone with her three children crossing borders cannot stick to a budget. We all travel with a little extra and so should she.
At 7pm this evening we went to the port to distribute energy bars and water bottles for the refugees boarding the ferry to Athens. We saw her in the queue and she waved to us excitedly. Saum seemed to recognise me too...or maybe it was the Quality Street chocolate I handed him which encouraged the smile. Who knows? 
She hugged me then, thanking me for the money again and again. 
When they all boarded the ferry and we waved goodbye, all the women volunteers I was with felt tearful. It was like saying goodbye to family even though we had only known the refugees for a few hours. It’s weird to feel such emotion for complete strangers but you feel it anyway. The thoughts go through your mind: Will they make it? I hope they make it! Please don't let the Europeans shut the gates! The worst is behind them ...they have reached safety now.


  1. Dear Sufiya,
    These are the moving experiences that need to be shared. Thank you.

  2. Dear Sufiya,
    These are the moving experiences that need to be shared. Thank you.


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