Greece’s Lesvos has turned from a place of hope to a place of despair, say Cowichan residents Rhoda Taylor and Pat Partridge.
Taylor and Partridge spent two weeks working on the Greek island over Easter, helping desperate refugees from the Middle East war zone. They’ll be sharing their story in a talk entitled The Lesvos Connection on Monday, April 18 at the Duncan United Church, starting at 7 p.m.
As refugees continue to flow into Greece and beyond by taking the risky Aegean Sea route from Turkey, they face additional challenges due to the implementation of a European Union agreement with Turkey. It’s had a devastating impact on refugees on Lesvos, the pair said.
Taylor and Patridge, who work at the health unit in Duncan and have been friends for 30 years, left Canada on March 18, arriving in Greece the following day.
Taylor said she had been asked about going to the island; it happened to fit in with her holidays and she decided to do it.
“I thought, why not? I can’t do everything but I can do this. The door opened and I stepped through it,” she said.
She then asked her friend Partridge if she was up for an adventure. “I said, sure, where are we going?” Partridge remembered. “We arrived the night the economic agreement was implemented.”
That meant that refugees who were already there had to go to the mainland of Greece and the two women were equipped to offer some assistance immediately.
They had taken some cash and 35 infant carriers that had been donated by people from the Valley and Victoria.
They arrived with the right kind of help at exactly the right moment.
“The people who had been forced off the island had to pay their own way and many of them did not have the money. If they didn’t have that they risked being arrested. We were able to provide money for the ferry trip and food on the ferry,” Taylor said.
“We also had these carriers and within 15-20 minutes they were gone. We were fortunate because in our work at the health unit we know how to use them; we could show them how to put them on.”
Taylor said a surprise came when they saw what some men did with the big wraps.
“They took them to carry the three- and four-year-olds. They expected to be walking for hundreds of kilometres and they tied them on and carried the children on their hips.”
But that was the end for the open camp.
“People who arrived after that were incarcerated,” she said.
Support services from outside groups were withdrawn, too, which made the plight of the refugees even greater.
“They were lining up for hours for food and being held in the detention centre. Although I understand you can’t do it anymore, we were actually able to provide them with supplies through the fence,”
Patridge said. “We gave food to a family with a new baby, we handed out sunscreen, lip balm and information, too.”
What both women found was that the refugees were “incredibly gracious and patient”.
Taylor said it was emotional to see people leaving the area.
“They came by the volunteers, they wanted to thank us, to shake our hands and especially to say don’t worry.
“They were so concerned that we would worry about them,” Taylor said.
Partidge said the Greek military and police were surprisingly gentle and patient with the refugees.
“Partly because we were little old ladies, we were able to have conversations with them, too. They didn’t necessarily agree with what was being done.”
Another problem was that the Greek government, faced with trying to deal with the refugees, has very little money of its own to spare because of the financial crisis in the country.
What also emerged from their trip was that no one there expects to see any improvement in the refugee situation until the war stops.
“These are desperate people who feel they have no options. Some of the worst injuries we saw took place in supposedly safe countries, too. The Greek police thought that until the conditions change where the people came from, they would continue to come to the island and to try to come to Europe,” Taylor said.
After returning to Cowichan, the women learned the camp has become overcrowded to a degree that’s hard to imagine.
“There is no more indoor accommodation; they are sleeping on cement. They don’t have basic hygiene; it’s getting increasingly hot. We even saw profound sunburns in small children when we were there, which broke my heart,” Taylor said.
One of the hardest things to see was the unescorted young boys sent away from their homes in a desperate attempt to safeguard them. Mothers and grandmothers had frequently sold their jewelry to find the money to get these boys away from the threat of recruitment by ISIS, especially boys who were tall or mature-looking for their ages.
When some of these boys are deported from Greece, which doesn’t happen often, they are individually escorted, not because they are violent but because they are very likely to try to commit suicide, Taylor said.
The event on Monday in Duncan should be an eye-opener for Valley residents.
“We brought home some of the fake life jackets. The refugees were sold life jackets that wouldn’t work. We’ll have some on Monday so people can experience that,” Taylor said.
Partridge said it was heartbreaking to see it. “They sold water wings for children and those little swim rings for infants. Those aren’t life jackets. That’s not going to work in the Aegean Sea.”
The two women will have lots of information, but no photos to share.
“We don’t have a lot of pictures because it’s not actually safe for the refugees and it’s not ethical either. But we want people to be aware of the impact. We want people to be aware of the ways they can help, offer support.
“There are a lot of small NGOs that have no overhead. We also have a family over there we are really concerned about; he was a translator with the American military in Iraq. They have a six-week old baby; it’s an intolerable situation. On Monday, it’s not a fundraiser but we’ll share everything we know,” Taylor said.
Admission to the event is free.