Becky van Eijk (21) stayed at the Greek island Lesvos as a volunteer to help refugees. After the IBCoM student returned to her studies, she reflects on her time on the island and tells us her personal experience.

“This one guy, he travelled from Syria to Istanbul with his guitar and tattoo gun,” laughs IBCoM student Becky van Eijk (21). “He’s a metalhead with long, long hair and shaved sides, I mean, he just stood out like a sore thumb,” she says of one of the friends she made whilst volunteering on the Greek Island of Lesvos. “We sat around playing music with him and everything. We’re still in touch on Facebook and I said when I go back to Lesvos in the Summer, I’ll be bringing his guitar and tattoo gun over from Istanbul for him.”

Due to its close proximity to the Turkish coastline, the Greek island of Lesvos has received an overwhelming majority of the countless refugees fleeing conflict-ridden nations such as Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq in search of a better life in Europe. So far in 2016, the island has already recorded over 88,000 arrivals.

refugees pikpa lesvos
Refugees gathering at camp Pikpa. Image credit: Pikpa Facebook page

Even though the EU-Turkey deal officially came into force on March 20th, refugees continue to pay vast sums to people-smugglers in order to make the potentially deadly trip across the small stretch of the Aegean separating Turkey from the EU. Up until recently, those who made it across safely to Lesvos were greeted by self-organised and self-funded volunteers like Becky.

From Rotterdam to Istanbul to Lesvos

‘There are certain areas here in Istanbul that you will see families with suitcases on the streets.’

Becky about Istanbul

It was during her exchange semester as part of the ESHCC’s IBCoM program that the 21 year old Dutch/Venezuelean student decided to head to Lesvos. Living and studying in Istanbul, Becky saw first-hand the enormity of the crisis.

“There are certain areas here in Istanbul that you will see families with suitcases on the streets. Seeing this, and that I was now much closer to it in Turkey, I really had no excuse not to do my part anymore.” Through Facebook, Becky got in touch with a woman who ran the ‘Help Syrians in Istanbul’ Facebook group. Her journey began here, she got involved and “started doing some volunteering in the city itself on the streets handing out aid.”

Pre-conceived notions

For Becky, the decision to head to Lesvos and volunteer came somewhat unexpectedly. Planning a trip to Athens to visit friends, she thought about stopping off for a few days to help volunteers on the island, just as she had been doing in Istanbul. Whilst in the midst of planning however, she received a phone call from friends overseas – a young Afghan refugee was desperately looking for a place to stay in Istanbul. Could she help?

Keen to help, she offered him a bed in her home. Becky recounts the shock she experienced as she learned that what she had expected upon meeting him was entirely different to the reality presenting itself on her doorstep. “He spoke perfect English, he had been studying just like me, and was just your average young person,” she explains. “For me this really brought the human element into the crisis. Before meeting him, all I really knew was what was in the media – statistics, news of another boat capsizing and forty people having died – it’s very dehumanizing. To actually meet one of these people hugely changed this for me,” she says. After this experience, the original plan to head to Athens began to focus more on the stopover in Lesvos, and after fundraising over 1000 euro to purchase supplies for those on the island, she went to Lesvos for what would become a life-changing experience.

Wild car-chases down the coast

lesvos (4)
Volunteers and refugees together on Lesvos. Becky is second from the right.

Reflecting on her time on the island, Becky talks about the different volunteer projects and groups she worked with. “On the days which we had volunteer shifts to receive boats there was quite bad weather, so most of the time there were no boats coming in,” Becky explains. “We stood as a big group on top of a cliff, which gives a big overview of where the boats are coming in. From there, you’d spot a boat, and we’d then go on a wild car-chase down the coast to try and get to the right spot where it would land.”

“The two boats which came in during our shift though, they came more into the harbour than onto the shore, so the Greek Authorities were there to help them.” But, as Becky continued to explain, just because the Greek Authorities were present to assist, wouldn’t necessarily mean the refugees would receive the best care. “I’ve heard a lot of bad things about the Greek Authorities there though. For example, when they’re there they won’t let independent volunteers go in to help people get warm, get food or anything, instead they just take them and put them straight onto the bus. They won’t let any of the volunteers get close.”

To Moria

This, Becky believes, is problematic. Once a boat arrives, the people on-board are usually met by volunteers with water, food and foil blankets. Hypothermia is a very real threat with the crossings being made in winter, “and it’s important to have people in the group who are able to recognise the signs of hypothermia, and know what to do,” she adds.

Prior to the EU-Turkey deal, buses would arrive shortly after a boat had landed to transport the refugees to the island’s registration centre at the time, known as Moria. The camp at Moria was originally the island’s detention centre, though prior to the new agreement, it was where refugees had to register their arrival, before making their onwards journey to Athens and beyond. Since March 20th Moria has reverted to its original purpose as a detention centre, under Greek Military control where new arrivals are detained before their deportation back to Turkey.

Toxic land

“After arriving at Moria, everyone would get a number. Refugees were at the time, registered based on the day which they arrived, with about a five day lag. So the whole process took anywhere from five days to over a week.” She says, explaining the process whilst she was volunteering on the island. “In Moria there was the ‘inside’ and the ‘outside’. The inside was what is again being used as the detention centre, and the outside is actually private land.”

With the huge influx in numbers arriving at Lesvos in the past year, the ‘inside’ of the Moria camp struggled to cope, and people found themselves having to wait on the outside, without any facilities. “It belongs to an olive farmer, but the land has become toxic now. Smaller NGO’s had started paying him for his land, so that they could build some infrastructure there. There was a tea tent, an arts therapy tent for the children and distribution points on the outside. The inside however, that belonged to the municipality, so the NGO’s really had their hands tied – they couldn’t change anything and it was really bad,” said Becky.

Doors on toilets

It wasn’t just the mud and poor accommodation on the inside which was the problem though. “The bathrooms for the women for example, there were no doors to the stalls and the windows were just covered with green mesh. You could look inside; you could see everything. So where the refugees are the most vulnerable – going to the bathroom – they couldn’t even have their privacy there. They [NGO’s] wanted to change things – anything. We were told they were rejoicing about being able to put doors on the women’s toilets. It was a huge deal for them.”

Following the EU-Turkey deal however, the ‘outside’ of the Moria camp has now been cleared, with only a few volunteers remaining to clean up the site. The tea tent, kitchens and arts-therapy tents are gone, as are the people. With Moria now operating as a detention facility, many of the volunteers and their projects who were active have moved on too.

Moria and Pikpa are located at the southern end of Lesvos, near the majority of landing sites of boat refugees.

A day in the life on Lesvos

Volunteers would seldom have a definite routine whilst on Lesvos, due to the ever-changing nature of the situation on the island. An average day for a volunteer on the island though, according to Becky, looked something like this:

4am: Wake up, head to Pikpa to collect supplies for the beach. Go down to the beach to relieve other volunteers who had been there overnight.

10am: Head back to Pikpa for the daily volunteer meeting and Breakfast. Discuss what needs to be done that day and allocate tasks amongst the available volunteers.

Around 2 or 3pm: Communal lunch

Until 6pm: Completing remaining tasks, working on creative projects and free-time to play with children etc.

6pm: Distribution chain in the kitchen to pack hot meals for delivery to Moria.

Evening: Deliver and distribute food in the Moria camp, and depending on whether you had an early morning boat shift or not, you would likely then takeover the evening shift, watching for arrivals until 2am.

Pikpa Camp

lesvos (1)
A view of Pikpa. Volunteer’s all worked to keep the camp tidy. A children’s play area is in the background.

Aside from helping out at Moria, Becky spent time at the Pikpa camp, which houses the more vulnerable refugees. At Pikpa, she sorted clothing donations, helped in the kitchen and worked on creative projects. “We had a huge shed filled with used life vests which we don’t know what to do with. We made bags out of them and I made a prototype of a book we could sell too. Basically, making the bags and book covers and all of that, the idea behind it was to look for ways to create things which could bring money back to the organisation.”

“We also used the old flotation tyres, cutting them up and weaving them into mats for the bathrooms. It’s a lot of little things like that which actually make a really big difference. But of course it’s also about just chilling with the refugees, making them feel at home,” says Becky, adding that “they want and crave normal human interaction as well, so just hanging out and playing cards with people, playing ping pong, talking, making music – it’s these things which will make a difference.”

Everyone wants to be a hero

Very few of the large NGO’s one would have expected to be active in Lesvos were present. The majority of the work and support provided was undertaken by independent volunteers like Becky. Volunteers would co-ordinate their arrival through Facebook groups, and once on the island look for projects to get involved with, or create their own. Reflecting on her time on the island, Becky says that volunteers will continue to be needed elsewhere if no longer in Lesvos.

lesvos (5)
Working on building the stone paths in the ‘outside’ Moria camp to make the muddy paths safer.

“A lot of people went there because they wanted to receive the boats, they wanted to be the hero of the day,” Becky explains, voicing her frustration of some attitudes she encountered. “Actually what was more needed was people to sort the clothes, build roads in the [outside] Moria camp and so on. At one point during our boat shift for example, we realised there was way too many people. We had to ask ourselves, are we even going to be of any help here? Realising probably not, we decided to go and do something else, something more useful.”

Being flexible is key, she says. “There’s no one saying, ok so you do that, and you do this. It’s more about going there, seeing a problem which needs to be fixed, and making that your own project. For example, we built roads in Moria camp, no one told us to do that, we just saw it desperately needed to be done. We created walkways so even if it’s getting muddy, it’s not so deep anymore that people are slipping – it’s a lot more stable.”

Silly pictures

lesvos (3)

This initiative led to one of her most memorable experiences on Lesvos. “Within ten minutes we had a group of young male refugees who came over to help us. Even though there was a huge language barrier, and obvious cultural differences, we managed to do something great together. Afterwards we were taking silly pictures, hanging out, laughing and talking. It really made me see that aside from any religious differences, cultural differences and so on, we’re all human beings and we all crave the same things. We all crave safety, we desire it and we need it! Having this interaction with these supposedly dangerous young refugee males, the way they are painted in the media in Europe, it really opened my eyes to the human element behind this crisis. For most of us, our knowledge on the situation comes purely through the news articles we’re exposed to; about another boat, another statistic, we lose the human side of this crisis, of what’s really going on.”

EU-Turkey deal

After spending time in both Istanbul and Lesvos, Becky has witnessed first-hand both sides of the current crisis, and indeed the new arrangements with Turkey, that turned Moria into a detention centre for refugees. “For me, it seems Europe is scared – Europe has no idea how to handle this capacity of people. They’ve hired Turkey as their watchdog, and are using money, EU visas and possible inclusion in the EU as a bone, overall it’s to keep the migrants out. They’re giving a lot of money, but what effort are they really putting in? The very mathematics of it all is dehumanizing, you take one back and we’ll take another. Also, what about the people on the islands, or those now trapped at the Greek border, sleeping in mud with nothing?” Obviously frustrated by the situation, she turns her attention back to Moria. “The volunteers in Moria fundraised and used the money from their own pockets to help. Now the registration centre is a detention centre again, they can’t even get in to give supplies – tents, blankets or even food.”