On August 17th 2015 a boat of refugees landed on our Greek island.
In response many people collected together different items they thought would help and took them up to Rhodes town. That included me, many locals and a few other expats.
That was when I met up with Rachel and later with Hedda. The meeting of 3 expat women that resulted in Helping Hands of Rhodes being founded. We came together as we all simply saw a group of men, women and children who needed our help.
It’s not been an easy or simple process, after all this is Greece. We are still in the middle of the worst financial in living memory. The country is bankrupt, the people demoralised and unemployment at over 50% for the under 25’s.
In the midst of all that came the largest movement of people ever. According to UNHCR in June there were nearly 60 million people displaced around the world.
The scale of the crisis took everyone in Europe by surprise. 2 months later, throughout the islands, there is still very little sign of the major aid agencies. They are so overwhelmed on Kos, Lesbos and in Athens that they are barely present anywhere else.
The local authorities have no money or resources and have been left to fend for themselves. On most of the smaller islands there’s simply 1 or 2 policemen. This island is larger but there is only 1 person at the refugee centre working who is paid by the municipality.
As a result, throughout the islands groups like ours have come together and started up local NGO’s.
The beginning of Helping Hands of Rhodes:
I imagine it’s not a simple process to set up a charity anywhere. There are several websites including official ones with help and advice in the UK. This, however, is Greece.
We first got together outside the refugee centre in a cafe. There were about a dozen people present mainly local Greeks and a small number of expats.
That initial meeting was not a good one, even though the mayor turned up. What I did learn then was that there were several people with their own agendas.
Over the next few weeks those became more obvious. They would only turn up at the centre if the press were there to take a picture or interview. One local group brought along some food that consisted of boxes of crackers and tins of tuna. There was only a small group of refugees in the centre at the time and they were all due to leave. Just for the camera crew they were given half a dozen of each to take on their ferry ride to Athens. Of course that group only stayed the amount of time it took to record everything for the local news. The next day there wasn’t enough food for lunch.
Others were more interested in painting themselves as a Mother Theresa figures. Constantly posting on social media about the good work they were doing. Often asking for donations that weren’t needed. This type never spoke to those in charge to find out what was needed. They thought they knew better. They refused to work with others. They thought they were the only ones who could help. Though they were never there on a regular basis and couldn’t be relied on.
The different factions volunteering keep falling out. It’s a little like watching Russia and the US deciding how to sort out Syria. Each knows better than the other and often don’t talk to each other. They end up opposing each other and making matters worse. When the only thing that matters is the welfare of the refugees.
It’s all been very much like a Greek tragedy. Then there’s us. As expats I’m sure that some would have immediately dismissed us as meddling women. Luckily we have Rachel who speaks Greek fluently so we’re not as naive as they first thought. Steadily over time they have come to trust us as we’ve simply asked what can we do to help?
The first few weeks:
It really did start after that first coffee shop meeting, the three of us met again several times over the next 2 weeks. The Facebook page took off, Hedda was interviewed in a local paper in Sweden. We had people wanting to make donations and even a logo.
To begin with Rachel and Hedda stored the donated items in their homes. Soon though someone stepped forward and offered us some space in basement.
Those were busy early weeks: Our first volunteers came; a group of local ladies got together to collect donations around the island for us, our Driving Angels. The airlines began allowing extra baggage for refugees and many tourists brought whole suitcases of donations.
At this point our transport was Rachel’s moped and my Fiat Panda. There were at times over 30 suitcases to pick up.
Friends from Gallery Photography gave up their time and expertise and took some promotional pictures for our site.
Then the Farmakonisi survivors arrived and we all came to understand the horrific reality of the journey the refugees undertake.
We all had moments where our lives had to take precedent over the charity. My husband was home and of course I wanted to spend time with him, then my mother became very ill. I had to step back for a short time.
All new enterprises have their growing pains and we had ours. We were starting to outgrow the cellar and the owners really wanted us out.
Each little hiccup has led to some of the most amazing coincidences. Just as we were being informed that we had to move out of the cellar we were offered a house.
When the Farmakonisi survivors arrived the women needed veils, theirs had been lost at sea. That’s when Pamela arrived from the US Virgin islands with abayas donated from the muslim community on her small island.
Another time a group with lots of young children arrived in the centre, that day Rille who was visiting the island on holiday contacted us to shop for donations and we were able to give them all strollers to help on their journey.
As the work took off Hedda’s personal life was taking her away more, she then left the island for home in Sweden. That’s when Louise stepped forward to help us out a little more and become our number 3.
We have now had 14 volunteers come from around Europe and the US. Without them we would not have achieved anywhere near as much as we have.
Donations have come from all over Europe, either in suitcases, by mail or courier. Though in good Greek style things are still being worked out officially.
It seems there’s no hope we can set up as a Greek charity. You can’t open a bank account here in the name of a charity until you’ve got all the paperwork from the authorities. That would take months and require a good judge, if not it could take years. If we did manage to get charity status at the moment no-one can open a Greek account because of the capital controls in place.
The way forward is for us to become a UK registered charity. The processed has started, the constitution is being written. An account will be open soon. At last we’ll be able to accept financial contributions.
Yesterday there were 2 landings on the island, one in the early hours of the morning the other mid-morning. The weather is starting to turn and there’s been a little rain tonight. The last few days have been a little quieter, it’s been a chance for everyone involved to get on top of things.
Most mornings we’re in at 7.30 serving breakfast.
Then we clean up a little; as soon as we pick up a broom, bin bag and pair of gloves we find the refugees joining in and helping us. The centre isn’t clean or sanitary. There are no showers and just 2 portable toilets.
The buildings have been abandoned for years and are falling apart. Most people who come in for the first time are shocked.
There’s been a little improvement made by the authorities. A little white paint. A tin roof for shade. Some plastic on the windows and a concrete step to stop the rainwater pouring in.
Each small improvement makes a difference. Electricity was eventually put in (don’t look too closely at the wiring!) At least now the centre can run more than one fridge. The generator wasn’t up to much.
We first saw the UNHCR when the Farmakonisi group came and at the same time 5 tents arrived. They stand out at the back of the property white against the crumbling buildings. They’ve not been put up well and have no ground sheets, but at least it’s some shade.
The UN is one woman here. She has given sleeping mats, blankets and high energy biscuits but she’s just one person. All she can do is advise them on their rights in Greece.
For sleeping there’s lots of donated mattresses, sheets and blankets but with so many people having slept on them they’re not that clean anymore. There is no cleaning crew.
We are lucky that the numbers here are small. Since that day in August there have been 2 or 3 boats landing every night. With 100 – 300 people a day passing through the centre. The authorities have been excellent at getting them processed with most having their papers and on their way in a couple of days.
Once the cleaning is done we find out the numbers leaving that day and any needs they have. Then it’s back to our HQ to sort donations, pack backpacks and get anything that is needed at camp.
We usually head back at 1pm to serve lunch and then hand out the backpacks to those leaving that day. Play with the children, just chat to the adults and show that we care. It’s those moments of interaction that are so precious. Seeing a child laugh, playing football or just hugging someone.
I say that’s a normal day, but there’s no such thing. We never really know what will happen from one day to the next. There have been times when there were nearly 1000 people in the centre. Times when we didn’t know where the food was coming from. And times when we weren’t allowed into the centre at all, while the authorities decided how to run things.
The summer season is coming to an end here. We will soon have Louise with us more as she finishes work. The hotels are closing down along with the kitchens where most of the food donations have come from.
In the last week we’ve seen more local expats coming to volunteer with us. A small group who we hope will stay with us for some time, it would be great to have a permanent group locally based.
Rachel is due to leave for the winter season in Lapland in November. At the same time the weather is turning and we are hoping that fewer refugees will risk the crossing. We are hoping the numbers will reduce dramatically until spring and fairer seas. Hoping but at the same time aware that there may be no let up this winter.
In the future we want to get more involved in helping people locally.
Much of what is donated is unsuitable for refugees who are embarking on the journey across Europe. From high heeled shoes, little handbags, glittery dresses and roller skates.
These we section off, some will go to the local children’s home, some to the Red Cross, some to the local animal charities. Some to raise money for food in the centre.
Helping Hands Today:
At the moment Rachel and me get 1 day off a week. My little Fiat Panda has lots more kilometres on the clock and will be due a service soon. We both need to spend more time off and the moped doesn’t work in the rain.
Louise joins us when she can so we are now a 2 moped charity at times. We did look into buying an old van, but in Greece you have to run business to own a vehicle like that. For now our transportation is the Fiat, moped and occasionally a volunteer with a car or another moped, it’s a very Greek charity.
Our friends, families and animals need us and we feel guilty for not spending the time with them. At the same time we know they are also proud of what we are doing and understand why we feel the need to this.
This is also the most rewarding experience either of us has ever had. The volunteers we’ve met have been amazing, having faith in us as a charity. Many have booked flights and come over to work with us. They had no idea who we were or what they would encounter. They will be our friends for years to come.
The refugees here are the same mix you’d see in any community. Families, young and old. They all arrive here and the majority are simply so happy to have made it this far. The help we give is small but makes a real difference.
Occasionally the island also sees tragedy. When the boats capsize and life is lost the survivors are brought here. This island has the only mortuary in the Dodecanese and the only place where Muslims can be buried.
It’s heartbreaking to see a parent who’s lost a child or child who’s lost a parent. The most recent group came from the sinking near Kastellorizo. Last night we provided them with food, clothes, hugged them and listen to their stories. The UNHCR will help them liaise with the local authorities to organise the funerals.
Today we are busy, the two groups from yesterday are still in the centre. The first group have had a change of clothes and backpacks. The second group had some clothes yesterday. Today we will try and find shoes that fit and clothes in the right size from all the donations we’ve been given. Before they leave they will get their backpacks.
Mid-morning today we learnt another group had landed Ialyssos we will expect them at the centre eventually. Now I feel guilty that I’m not there today but our volunteers are helping. The centre is an hours drive from our house and with thunder storms overhead it’s not safe for me to make the trip.
Food is starting to become difficult to find. As the hotels and restaurants close down it will be harder to get large donations cooked and delivered. The authorities don’t have the finances to pay.
Mr Mantikos who runs things on a daily basis just sits in hope. Hoping the paperwork will be completed quickly. Hoping food will arrive at lunchtime. Hoping the ferry will run and there will be space for them all. The ferry schedules are now running on a winter timetable so the refugees have to stay a little longer than the summer arrivals.
We hope we can continue to help him and all the others who are trying to bring a little dignity to the refugees as they make their way across our islands.
Now I must go and finish writing that constitution!