Thank you to all who donated and helped us to pack and sort donations. This week, 100 boxes of our much needed aid was taken directly to refugees in Greece with Hope and Aid Direct. WBAR trustee Rachel went to Greece to help distribute aid. This is what story about the trip:
‘Ten heroic men and women drove five trucks full of aid from the UK down to Greece, sleeping in the trucks at night in temperatures down to -16 degrees. A group of us volunteers then met them in Thessaloniki to help with unloading, sorting, packing and distributing the aid to where it is needed. There are currently over 57,000 refugees stranded in Greece, at least half of which are women and children (https://www.rescue.org/country/greece). Many of these refugees are sleeping rough, living in tents or in inadequate portacabin style housing.
Our initial plan had been for some of the group and half the trucks to go onto Lesvos, while others stayed on the mainland in the Thessaloniki area. However, the situation is very fluid in Greece, with refugees arriving and being moved frequently. We found that the need in Lesvos at that time was far greater, so we therefore changed our plans and all 5 trucks, plus another truck with volunteers based in Thessaloniki, plus all the Hope and Aid volunteers travelled on to Lesvos by ferry.
We visited Moria detention centre, but the authorities there would not allow us to go in to distribute the aid. At least 3 refugees have died in the previous week in the camp and the refugee’s stories of the place are horrendous. The camp is an ex prison meant for 3000 people, but is currently housing over 5000 people, many in tents. Considering it has been snowing there in recent weeks, it is unimaginable trying to live in those conditions. We went to a small makeshift café outside the camp where we bought tea and talked to the refugees. They told us about the terrible conditions in the camp and how they are often only given undercooked rice for meals. Most of those we spoke to had been stranded in Lesvos for many months and appeared to have a complete lack of hope towards their futures. It was hugely disappointing to have tonnes of aid in a nearby warehouse, yet not be able to deliver it to these people who were clearly greatly in need of it. There are many amazingly committed teams of volunteers who have been working in Lesvos for a long time who are working on this every day.
Due to the recent deaths, there was a lot of movement while we were in Lesvos. A large navy ship in the port offered to allow refugees to stay on board, so 176 men moved from Moria and were sleeping on board the ship instead. We were very privileged to be able to run a ‘Truckshop’ for these men, giving them each a jumper and coat from the ‘shop’ in the truck. We worked with the ‘Truckshop’ volunteers to offer refugees a chance to choose their own clothing from rails, a rare luxury for many of these people who rely solely on donated goods.
We set up on the side of the road, one truck full of rails of warm winter coats and thick jumpers and one truck filled with boxes for restocking. We also set up an area where refugees could wait for their turn and chat with a hot cup of chai made by our volunteers. I helped inside the truck, helping refugees find their size and choose which jacket and jumper they wanted. They were also given a bag on their way out, each with a warm hat, gloves and socks. Everyone was so grateful for what they received, with one man telling us it was the nicest thing anyone had done for him since he had been in Greece. He had been in Lesvos for over 10 months. However, despite their gratitude, as usual, it felt like no-where near enough. Many of the men were wearing flip flops and sandals over their socks, so their feet must have been freezing. Hopefully in the next few days more of our donations will continue to be distributed to those in need.
We also visited and took donations to 200 refugees who are currently housed in a hotel on Lesvos, paid for by the charity Caritas. We spent a very happy couple of hours sitting out in the winter sunshine, playing games and painting the children’s faces. Another visit was to Alexandria camp near Thessaloniki. This camp, run by Refugee Support Greece, is exemplary in the way they have tried to promote dignity in everything they do. We were shown round by a volunteer, who showed us the classroom, the community area, the food shop and even the boutique! Every week each family are given a set number of ‘points’. They can then exchange these ‘points’ for goods in the food shop and boutique, depending on their own needs and wishes. While this may not seem like much, for those relying solely on handouts, being given some choice and dignity makes a huge difference.
West Berkshire Action for Refugees plan to continue to take donations to those most in need. We are planning a trip to Calais and Dunkirk soon, but very specific items only. A list of what is needed will be published soon, so watch this space!