Day 3 started with a slightly early morning volunteer meeting down at the harbour where we signed up for some volunteer shifts with a fantastic organization- Starfish. The meeting was led by a lovely young alternative-looking (her hair was the coolest shade of pink!), British woman named Trace and it was really nice to meet some of the other people from this amazing organization that we had met directly and indirectly throughout the past few days. The meeting was held at the Starfish organization’s home base, The Captain’s Table (a restaurant on the harbour in Molyvos- the north shore of Lesvos), and it was extremely eye-opening and informational. I don’t remember if I did, but Trace if you are reading this, thank you for taking the time to explain everything to us; it was very helpful! Here is where we also met a few other volunteers who we would be working with for the next few days. Emily from Canada (the hardass), Ana from Portugal (who we had met at our hotel Akti prior), Calvin from California (the humanitarian photographer, like many including our French fry Brice), and Adam from New York (on a humanitarian holiday). We did not contact Starfish ahead of time; if you are on the island, there are organizations like Starfish that have volunteer meetings every morning where they welcome you with open arms to do whatever is needed after providing you with specific information about their organization and how they are providing aid to the refugees. What became very clear to me in this meeting is that the most important thing in volunteering here is showing up, and showing up to work! Because they are always limited in volunteers (short), many of the volunteers are working very long hours, sometimes double shifts, every day. At least they did have a shift system going, which was nice to try to plan our day and/or night. After a two-hour informational meeting, we signed up for a few shifts including that night and for the weekend to come. The volunteer shifts were broken up into 7am-3pm, 3pm-11pm, and 11pm-7am; the overnight shift. We signed up for the overnight shift for that night at Oxy.
Once we were finished with the sitting and listening part, we packed up a bunch of donations in our car, delivered them to the Starfish storage space, dropped Calvin off for a much needed nap before his night shift (he had just arrived from California on no sleep), and then we headed to Oxy for a small training/intro on what we would be doing later- mainly working in the clothing tents.
Oxy is a transit stop, however (& as much as they try to avoid it), Oxy is somewhat of a small camp where people must wait for a bus to pick them up to go to a camp to go through the registration process. What happens is when people get off the boats on the beach, they walk to the nearest bus stop and then they are transported to Oxy. It is named Oxy because that is the name of the nearest, largest building, which just so happens to be a nightclub, however it is closed for the time being. When we arrived at Oxy around 12pm, it was fairly busy, with a line to the women’s and children’s clothing tent already beginning to form (the men’s clothing tent did not have enough donations to be open at this time). We snuck inside the tent and found ourselves among cardboard boxes of stacked donations which were somewhat organized by tops, bottoms, shoes, winter wear, and feminine products- but there was still a lot of organizing to do. The thing with the clothing tents is that the donations stay organized for about 30 seconds and then… good luck! Since there is urgency with people (especially children) being wet or cold and without proper attire, there really is no good time to organize while people are waiting, so a system must be created to attempt to be effective in doling out what people NEED.
The key word here, is NEED. Because there are thousands of refugees arriving daily, the donations go fast. Therefore, we were told that only people who are soaking wet or don’t have shoes will get donations. It was a struggle to figure out an effective system when giving out donations because sometimes it was more efficient to bring the women into the tent with their child(ren) for sizing, but then when you do that they begin shopping for themselves (not all, but most of the time). This became very frustrating with language barriers in trying to explain that they don’t just get a change of clothes just because… those donations are reserved for emergency basis. Many parents and children became frustrated with us as we tried to be patient with them and also rush them in and out so we could attend to the next people. Some people we made wait at the door or window of the tent as we searched for their sizes in limited light under the shelter of the enclosed tent. This proved to be a flawed system because we had some women and children waiting wet, out in the cold while others were inside, essentially wasting time, picking out “just the right color”, or “just the right size” which of course did not exist for anyone. The clothing tents were still in the early stages of organization at this point, so there was not a developed “efficient method” or best way of doing things. We really did our best, and learned as we went (as most everyone on the island experienced in volunteering). God bless you Brice, thank you for being the assertive bouncer at the door of the tent. I think Katie and I would have just let everyone in, turned on some music and had a clothing tent party. Also, Brice has an amazing memory for faces, I might add. As people tried to trick us by coming back multiple times with different children with different missing items or supposedly “wet” clothes; Brice was amazing, thank you Brice.
Another thing with the clothing tents… how do you tell someone that smells like piss or other bodily fluids that they can’t have a whole new outfit because most of them is dry? How do you stay calm with children who don’t understand that the blue boots are all we have and even if they are a size too big at least they will be warm? How do you communicate to ppl whose language you don’t speak to tell them we are doing our best & this is not a yard sale? If your clothes are dry & your shoes & socks are good, then you are OK for now- Oxy is after all, a transit stop, and there are actual camps that people
are bussed to which also have clothing tents (although I am not sure the conditions there). We did that job for 4 hours, I didn’t think the line would ever end but more volunteers showed up so our car full could go home and rest before going back for the night shift.
Oxy was extremely quiet/empty when we came back around 10:30pm & I think we were all grateful for that. We sorted A LOT of clothes with our new friends Ann and Kunal (another fellow Californian), but at least there was light which was more than I could say for the day before at another location. Volunteering the overnight shift was a nice but cold experience, the wind is not forgiving in the dark & many men slept outside in the open wrapped up in blankets. The whole place was trashed with wet clothes, cigarette butts, food wrappers, banana peels, used diapers, damp cardboard boxes, used foil thermal blankets, half drank water bottles, dirty shoes and so much more. While I was picking up trash in the middle of the night I saw eyes staring at me from the dark shadow of a tent it scared me! Then I saw it was a guy in his 20s and he was thanking me for picking up trash (in arabic) and gave me some fruit he was eating. He was from Iraq and he asked me for some gloves & ended up helping the volunteers clean up the whole camp at all hours of the night! He told me he was the captain of the boat he took to get here & that his boat capsized & they had to be rescued by the coastguard. I don’t know what happened to everyone on his boat, I assume they made it safe but I taught him how to count to 40.
Another younger guy, from Iran woke up in the middle of the night & told us about the smugglers that loaded his boat with 25+ ppl & pushed them out to sea from Turkey. He said their boat engine died& when they called the guy who sold them the boat to say they were in trouble, the man told him to start rowing. He also gave them a fake number to call the police to come save them. We ended our night by sleeping on the ground in the clothing tent, very cold. I did not sleep I just laid there shaking & thinking to myself how blessed I am that I have more than I want and everything I need.
Every individual that I have met that has made the journey here has moved me in different ways. I want to save them all, I want to wrap them up in my jacket to give them warmth, I want to help them live with dignity even in their worst conditions, even if it means looking 5 more minutes for a shirt that doesn’t have sparkles on it for a little boy so he won’t get made fun of. We are out of shoes & socks & clothes for men so these are important donations whether it be actual items, or monetary donations which help purchase items on the ground here in Lesvos, and in turn help the Greek economy which is also struggling a great deal right now.
We ended our night shift by opening the men’s clothing tent very briefly around 7am and we were only able to help a handful of men get shoes and a few shirts to keep warm but after 10 minutes the doors were closed again. The women’s and children’s clothing tent was very organized thanks to our overnight sorting efforts, but we knew it wouldn’t last long, and we didn’t stick around as the morning shift volunteers jumped right in while the first arrivals of the morning began to come around. The small sense of accomplishment I felt (I cannot speak for Brice and Katie), as we walked away leaving Oxy in a better condition than it was when we arrived (even if only for a few hours) was still very fulfilling. You don’t need to be a superhero to volunteer, sometimes the most meaningful tasks are the most tedious, and that was what I took away from day 3. Bless you, sandwich makers, clothes sorters, food and bus ticket makers, translators, toilet scrubbers, trash picker-uppers, socializers, sympathizers and everyone in between and beyond. Working in the clothing tent at Oxy was just as vital an experience as helping people off the boats on the beach. Every little job counts, every little volunteer counts. Everyone can make a difference individually and collectively, everyone and anyone. As exhausted as I was, eating breakfast on the way home to get some rest from day 3, I couldn’t wait to wake up and get back to Oxy to see what the rest of day 4 had in store for us.
Lesvos in the News, October 30th 2015