Thursday, 11 February 2016 17:30

A Low-Cost Trip to Europe.

Written by Rosa Vroom
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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

Old woman walks next to a closed road. Behind the scene a truck is collecting lifejackets left on the shore.

It's Christmas in Lesvos, а Greek island 9 kilometers off the Turkish coast. It's too cold to stay outside. The sea is quiet. Not many boats are expected, but volunteers keep their walkie-talkies on. The tent of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) is active, the lighthouse illuminates the coast and at the dirt road surrounding Eftalou beaches there are two American volunteers stopping the cars: 'Volunteers of Lesvos, Welcome to Christmas Eve Services!'

Since Lesvos is part of the route of asylum seekers in Europe, thousands of volunteers have also been arriving at the Greek shores. Spanish firefighters, Israeli lifeguards, Norwegian doctors and nurses, etc., some of them under the umbrella of an NGO, others on their own. Organising themselves just by arrival order, their aid has been providing materials needed for the rescue along the beaches of the North and South of the island. Among these materials, aluminium foil and piles of firewood to beat the cold of the migrants that have just arrived.

A week before the Greek government asked NGOs to register, one of the employers of 'Europe Car' in Mitilini listed 120 organizations at the North of the island. While some organisations are concerned about a possible impact on summer tourism, this local states that for the first time in his life he has rented a car to an American tourist. 'Before, people didn't even know where this island was'.

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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

One of the first things migrants do when they arrive to the island is to call their families.

In the American Christmas Eve tent, the Gospel Ceremony is taught in five different languages, including Greek and Arabic. The songs are sung with an accent from Southern USA and the pastor talks about his experience as a volunteer in Kabul. Solidarity has no borders on this island.

Lesvos has been one of the most dramatic international scenes of the refugee crisis. UNHCR estimates that more than 518,000 migrants have taken this route. Although the migration flow has decreased in general, and media pressure with it, the daily average still remains over 1,000 immigrants in January. NGOs continue working and volunteers take turns in their tasks. 'Some volunteers have been living on the island for months, others have left after a while, but there are always new volunteers coming' says an Australian that works with the Starfish Foundation.

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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

Asylum seekers waiting for a warm meal provided by NGOs.

The rescue starts  the moment the boat with migrants crosses the imaginary sea border of the EU. The Greek coastguard supported by international aid ensures a safe landing on the shores. However, sometimes incidents occur, mentions Paul from Greenpeace. In an agreement with Doctors Without Borders, this Greenpeace employee monitors the border from the highest point of Lesvos. 'Some of the boats run out of oil in the neutral territory. In that case neither the Turkish police nor we can help. Simply we wait until they reach one border or the other'.

On the coast cars gather to receive them. Among them, the cars of volunteers, photographers, journalists, tourists and scavengers who, so criticised by everyone, dismantle the most valuable parts of the boat, especially the engine.
There are many people, specialised or not, that empathise with the arrival of the boats. As elsewhere in the Balkans, Lesvos was a destination for Albanian refugees fleeing from the multiple conflicts in the peninsula. For many of the volunteers it is a way to explain the solidarity of the island locals. 'Many of those who help really don’t have anything'. says a Dutch volunteer from the Starfish Foundation. ‘'But they help as much as they can'. However, some local people are there to recycle valuable things.

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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

A Dutch volunteer interacts with a boy that has just arrived to Lesvos. 

Sometimes the migrants are very euphoric when they arrive, explains a Czech volunteer who has come independently to Lesvos. 'The other day an Afghan offered to sacrifice a lamb to celebrate his arrival'- he describes enthusiastically- 'But the Swiss volunteer who had taken it as an house pet didn't like the idea'.

However, volunteers also spend a lot of time to calm people that get anxious at the arrival. Among the most common causes: hypothermia, exhaustion and lack of food. People with open war wounds are also arriving. 'One day I will never forget was when we received a family, like many others after it, carrying four children who had burns on their hands and legs', describes Ángel Luis, another volunteer from Starfish Foundation .'They came from Aleppo, escaping from Assad’s bombs'.

This volunteer, son of a Syrian father and Spanish mother, has been working on this island  several months. 'I came at the beginning of August and started working at a parking in Molyvos. It was the only place where we could really help, with a table made of four boxes and a board from the floor of one of the boats. We distributed food, water, juice, milk and provided medical care, even without any medical training, because there were literally no doctors back then.'

As for many other volunteers, Ángel believes the aid is not that needed anymore at the shores. 'Today I came for this' says a Danish tourist pulling aluminium foil from his pocket, 'but I will not need it'. In December volunteers started taking turns bringing food, blankets and medical assistance at Moria Refugee Camp.

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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

Family leaving Moria refugee camp. 

A week before Al Jazeera condemned the situation at Moria Refugee Camp, a French volunteer commented, 'What I have seen in Moria shocked me and my girlfriend. There are hundreds of migrants sleeping outdoors in waiting for the papers'. Remi and his girlfriend Elisabeth are traveling from France to China by bicycle. After visiting Athens they decided to invest their free time in Lesvos. 'We'll stay here all the time they need us' assures Remi.

Greek government has opened two different camps for registration of immigrants, a step necessary to continue their journey to Germany, Switzerland, Denmark or other countries. At one of them Syrian migrants are registered, at the other one, the so called Moria Camp, all the other nationalities. Hundreds of people from different countries, often without sharing a common language, gather in an open air field: Afghans, Iranians, Congolese , Eritreans, Iraqis, Moroccans, Algerians.,etc. A few months earlier there were a large number of Maghreb migrants trying to reach Europe using the same route.

'I've been here six days already' explains Ramin, an asylum seeker from Afghanistan, 'sleeping in a tent with other colleagues I met on this trip'. Although he doesn't feel very well at Moria, he knows that the worst part has finished. He's 18 years old and he considers that the most important thing that media should do is discourage young people like him to trust smugglers. 'They lie all the time, they tell you you're going to be safe, but that's not true. We travelled in vans, 150 kilometres per hour, through Pakistan, Iran and Turkey and if you fall off the wagon, they do not care, do not care about your life.' He is still afraid, he doesn't want to be photographed and he maintains his Facebook profile closed so that nobody finds him.

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Photo courtesy of Rosa Vroom

Fifteen years old Afghan asylum seeker. He travels with his uncle that is 22 years old and hopes to get to Denmark.

Ramin has already obtained his documents. He has 100 dollars left from the 2,000 he had to spend in order to reach Greece. From Lesvos to Athens he travels for the modest price of 49 euros. A low-cost trip compared with the $10,000 migrants are asked for getting into Germany from Afghanistan. But money doesn't matter anymore. Now he will be able to upload his picture on Facebook and maybe add as friends some of the volunteers he has met on the rest of trip.




Rosa Vroom is a freelance multimedia Journalist from Spain. She focuses her work on social and environmental topics in Bulgaria, Spain and the Netherlands. Her own equipment, language and communication skills in addition to her perseverance have brought her also to Nepal and Paraguay. Portfolio online at http://rosavroom.com/

Last modified on Thursday, 18 February 2016 16:47

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