Tuesday, 8 December 2015

When is a boot, not a boot?

I’m honoured to count among my friends Halina, a fellow transplanted Brit who made Greece her home. She’s a constant fount of wit, wisdom, optimism, dirty jokes, humanity and compassion. Not one for empty words, she puts herself on the line to do something real when she sees a need. Here’s what she wrote recently after returning from a stint volunteering with a group of ladies on the island of Lesvos trying to help the waves of refugees fleeing desperate conditions back home. It’s straight from the heart and well worth reading all the way through.
While I was in Lesvos, my first experience helping with an incoming boat of refugees at Skala Sikaminea was in torrential rain. Sixty men, women and children scrambled to shore soaked to the skin and shivering uncontrollably from the cold, but every one of them grateful to have made it across that short but sometimes treacherous piece of water that separated them from the life they were forced to leave behind and what they hope will be the beginnings of a better future.
There was an urgent need to get these people out of their drenched clothes and into something dry, particularly the children and babies who, cold and bewildered by what was happening, clung tightly to their parents.
There was chaos all around me. What to do first? Before I could answer that question I was confronted by a distressed young father holding a baby girl around 12-18 months old in his arms. The young mother was suffering from shock and had been taken to the medical tent for attention. I took the baby out of his arms and told him in sign language that I would take care of her pointing to the tent distributing dry clothes. He nodded and turned back to the medical tent to go to the baby's mother. The baby wasn't so sure though and started to cry as soon as she left her father's arms, but thankfully a local man with lollipops appeared and waved this magic treat which appeased the baby long enough for me to carry her the short distance to the clothes distribution tent where a couple of volunteers were scrambling among the shelves trying to find appropriate clothes and sizes for those waiting in the queue and rain.
The shivering baby had resumed her crying and was getting heavier and heavier in my arms as her clothes took in more and more water. Finally I managed to get the attention of one of the volunteers and held up the baby so she could see roughly the size of clothes I needed. After three attempts she managed to find a thin top, leggings and socks which were a couple of sizes too big but better than nothing. I took them telling myself I would go back later for something warmer to put on top, all the time talking as soothingly as I could to the baby who had lost all interest in the lollipop in her cold, shaking hand but was still clinging to it fiercely.
The father appeared and I pointed to a changing tent to let him know I would be there and pointed to his own clothes to let him know he should get dry clothes himself. Once in the dark tent I laid the baby down on a floor mat and proceeded to undress her. By this time my own fingers were wet and cold which didn't help in unzipping and peeling off the baby's jacket which had swelled with water. Renewed cries broke out when her stiff arms had to be maneuvered from tight sleeves and her drenched sweater refused to go over her head. I had to tug and pry it off her head as it clung to her hair and ears knowing that I had no choice but to ignore her screams of protest.
At this point I have to admit I was very close to tears myself. But then I noticed one of my teammates was also in the tent changing another baby (which turned out to be the sibling of mine) having an equally difficult time and I took courage in the fact that I was not the only one feeling totally inadequate. Finally, the top half of the baby's clothes were removed and the dry top put on (no towels to dry baby first). Now for the bottom half starting with her boots that had two buckles and a zip to be negotiated with freezing, wet fingers. Then trousers, tights, underwear were peeled off to reveal, horrors, a wringing wet diaper (how long since I last changed one of those?) and no clean one in sight. Covering the protesting baby with a blanket I rushed to the clothes tent, grabbed two diapers and an extra pair of socks.
Back to the tent and with the diaper successfully negotiated, I put on the rest of the clothes and thrust one of the boots to my teammate who had finished changing her baby asking her to find me a pair of shoes that size. The father was back changing into his dry clothes (together with several other men – had I gone into the men's changing tent in my haste to change the baby? Whatever, no-one cared). Leggings and socks on, I again covered the baby and went in search of a warm jacket. Back again with a jacket and rain poncho, the baby was finally dressed and warm enough to have stopped shivering and crying and to be handed back to the father.
I then went to help a young boy I had seen at the clothes tent who needed a warm top to put over the thin shirt he was wearing in the pouring rain. He was still shivering so I hugged him to me while we waited. After two attempts we finally managed to find a top and jacket in his size and topped it off with a rainproof poncho to keep him dry.
The chaos previously around me had subsided and I thought I could relax when felt a tug on my sleeve and turned to see a distressed woman mumbling 'baby, baby'. She had lost her child in the fray. Again with sign language, I managed to learn it was a 4-year old girl. We went around all the changing tents but no sign. The mother was getting more and more agitated so I found one of the more seasoned volunteers who said there were some unaccompanied children in the other receiving centre further along the beach and he kindly volunteered to take her there. (I saw her later and, thankfully, her child had been found).
Most of the refugees had by now changed into dry clothes and had started the walk to the transit camp outside the village where they could rest for an hour or two before boarding the buses to the registration camps in the south.
Thankfully the rain had finally stopped and after a welcome cup of hot tea, I helped clean up the beach and waited with my teammate who had volunteered to drive a mini-bus to transport a few of the more vulnerable refugees to the transit camp, including the young family we had helped. The young mother had come around a bit but was still in shock and would hopefully be allowed to stay in the transit camp overnight with her husband and children. As non-Syrians, their next stop would be the camp at Moria which is pitiful in spite of the good work being done there by the NGOs and volunteers. 
The next day when I was helping the Dirty Girls Of Lesvos Island to sort the wet clothes discarded by the refugees to be washed, dried and reused for clothes' distribution, I came across one of the boots I had taken off the baby. There was no sign of the other boot, so I couldn't resist taking it with me as a reminder of that baby and that day.
The young family were from Afghanistan and had walked carrying their bags and two nursing babies for four days without food to get to Turkey and onto a boat. They still have a tough journey ahead and I can only hope they find that better life for themselves and their children.
Thank you, Halina, for letting me share your moving account and for putting your heart into everything you do. For more about efforts to help refugees arriving in Lesvos, check out https://www.facebook.com/lighthouserelief

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for including me in your blog as guest writer Mandi. The trip to Lesvos as a volunteer was truly an experience I will always remember especially that young family and their babies who I will always wonder about.