Lesbos medisch – Rock Bottom

The past week on Lesbos has been very tense and consisted of many highs and lows. Often you can make a child smile by giving them a popsicle. Sometimes, we see very sick children or mothers that are in need of quick medical attention. These highs and lows can be either small or big, but you know they alternate rapidly. Yesterday, however, the situation here hit absolute rock bottom.

I was enjoying my coffee on my morning off after being on call during the night. A van stopped and the coordinator of another organisation called me in, saying there was an emergency in the harbour. After shouting to the shop owner that I’ll be paying later, I got into the van and we rushed to Molyvos harbour. “A child, that’s all I know”, said a fellow doctor who’s also on the bus. In the harbour, we jumped out and ran to a boat, not knowing who or what we’re looking for. After a quick search, we got called to a boat where the Red Cross were waiting for us. Two children, drowned in the sea, were presented. One critical but stable 12 month old girl, the other a boy 7rs, lifeless: no pulse, no breathing, lungs full of water and an ice cold body. CPR was already performed by RC for 45 minutes but didn’t yield results. Some more was done, but it me and my fellow doctor agreed it was medically pointless. Time of death was noted and I pulled the blanket of the kids face, as I don’t speak the language of this kid’s family.

His father lost it however, starts crying and tried to perform CPR by himself. The situation got uncontrollable with the grieving parents and when the ambulance arrived it took the boy’s body and his 12 month old sister to rush to the hospital. This image haunted me and made me unspeakably sad, I couldn’t perform my other duties and decided to take the day off.

I grieved the whole afternoon. Fellow volunteers comforted me, I called friends at home and had dinner with a local friend to put my mind off the situation in the morning.

Nonetheless, around 17:00 the text messages poured in: A boat of 200 or 300 sank in the sea and more drowned kids were expected in the harbour. As hesitant as I was, not knowing for sure if I could be of any use, I decided to not let it go ignored and rushed to the harbour. This time however, my organisation and several other were there and they were well prepared, well equipped and well trained, totalling five CPR teams ready to go. Just as our team finished preparations, the first boat of the coast guard docked and pulled of three kids that drowned. An hour later, another one arrived with more children and then another one, and another one and so on. We totalled seven successful paediatric CPR’s, in which I participated in three of them, our team (in different combinations with other organisations) in five. All of them were sent in critical condition to the hospital.

One of our doctors went along and reported about situation in the hospital in Mytilini: Understaffed, under equipped, no paediatric intensive care doctors, no paediatric anaesthesiologist and no air bridge was established to Athens. I truly wondering whether what we did was of any point, if at the end children don’t get the medical care they deserved.
Last night, many, many families were torn: parents, children and other relatives went missing in the rough and icy sea, of exploitation by smugglers and of inept politicians. Official reports say three, but I can guarantee that you can multiply that number by at least 10. Every single volunteer I’ve spoken yesterday was shocked, grieving and felt powerless. And the ice cold truth is: the winter hasn’t even begun yet.

So, I got three messages that stuck with me that I’d like to share:
1. Future generations, please take note: This is Europe in 2015, a politically -totally inept- union where border regions are left to their own and where human lives are used as political change in negotiations with neighbouring countries. Local authorities lack knowledge, infrastructure, organisation and planning to effectively give aid for the needing. Not because they don’t want to, but because they can’t. We need a change of thinking and a direction to move towards to.
2. To NOS (Dutch News Organisation): Get your facts straight and don’t show stock videos. It’s misleading and it doesn’t do right to the truth. It was immediately evident that there were more than hundreds of refugees in the harbour, not the 90 you reported last night.
3. Volunteering on Lesbos: You have highs and you have lows. And then, sometimes, a boat sinks and you have lows, lows and more lows, before hitting rock bottom.

Help ons helpen/Help us to help:

Donate: https://bootvluchteling.nl

Door Michel Abdel Malek
Arts Stichting Bootvluchteling
Doctor boat Refugee Foundation

Lesbos – Camp Moria

Since July 2015 Boat Refugee Foundation has established itself in the north of the island of Lesbos. We co-operate closely with the other humanitarian organisation in that area and the logistics of the process in our location have been professionalised further. Our focus is on the arrival of refugees on the coast, in particular the most vulnerable among them: mothers, pregnant woman and children up to the age of 8.

Their arrival here is only step 1 in the Greek part of the journey of a refugee. They will remain in one of the smaller camps (Transit areas Oxy and Skala), before they continue to Camp Moria or Kara Tepe for registration as a refugee and to continue their journey. The living conditions in all camps are dramatic, with Camp Moria as an excess. We regularly receive questions about this, which fall into two categories:
1. Why has Boat Refugee Foundation not yet organized itself (structurally) in Camp Moria?
2. I can contribute to the improvement of the living conditions or the organisation of the registration process in Camp Moria; why won’t you use that to their benefit?

Becoming active in Camp Moria is something which is high on our wishlist. We are fully aware of the great needs in the camp. However, we do not want to get stuck in several ad hoc initiatives, but want to offer help on a structural basis. The lack of organisation and management complicates matters for us in this respect. Even though every initiative has value, we do not want to throw ourselves on a camp with 7.000 – 10.000 refugees with only some tents, sleeping bags or fruit. Consultations with the organisations that are present in Moria already are in full swing and we are working hard on a problem analysis and plan for aid, given the possibilities that we have as a foundation and in line with our mission.

The Greek government – more specifically the police (and Frontex) – are in charge of the registration process the refugees have to undergo. This is a complex administrative process which cannot be executed by another party, not even partially and not even by another Greek organisation; according to Greek law, this is not possible. Which is a shame, but a reality we cannot ignore. Even experts in administration and registration that have offered their services to us will not be able to mean anything in this area.

Apart from the registration process, the Greek police appears to undertake limited activity with regard to the living conditions of the people wanting to undergo this process. Things like lodging, food and hygiene (apart from some form of garbage disposal) are not yet sufficiently organised.
For this reason the government is supported by several parties, of which UNHCR is the most important. They advise the government on how to deal with the practical and humanitarian side of the situation.

We are in close contact with UNHCR and other parties around Moria, to see how we can contribute. For instance, we could deploy medical professionals to help the people living in the camps and are looking for sustainable ways to keep people dry, warm and safe and give them access to food.

When our presence in Moria makes more headway, we will announce it as soon as possible.

Photo: Peter de Jongste

Lesbos – Making Choices

Who do you give a bottle of water, a ride in the van, a banana, dry socks or shoes? With limited supplies, you have to make choices. Some of these are easily made. The vulnerable such as babies, handicapped and the elderly first. Some choices are harder. With over 50 people on a single shabby boat, you may have to leave behind one family and take the other, give clothes to one soaked girl instead of the little boy next to her. Sometimes you make the wrong choices, sometimes the right choices.

It’s not the long hours of work, lack of sleep, dirty conditions or hard work that makes it tough, it’s the choice between one human being and the other that lingers in your head at night. it is making that choice to go to bed at three in the morning while leaving behind hundreds of people wrapped in blankets under the sky.

One such choice I made when handing out water to hundreds of people in the line for the bus under the blazing sun, the choice between who gets a bottle and who doesn’t. I wasn’t handing out tickets to a concert or luxury items, I was simply handing out the first and most basic human need while denying exhausted and dehydrated people a bottle of water. While water is provided in plenty by the Boat Refugee Foundation space in the car and people to hand it out are limited forcing you to make these difficult choices…

Door Peter van Zoeren

Kos – Optimism

Unexpectedly, it was dry this morning.

12 Burmese young men arrived safely in the early morning. They said they were so scared they were going to die, but they miraculously made it through the storm!

Amongst the refugees there is a mood I can only describe as a mix between relief and exuberance. It was real tough, wet, and cold, but now it is morning, the sun’s peaking through the clouds and drying their clothes, and they made it through yet another challenge on their long journey. The air’s filled with a positive vibe, gratitude, smiling faces, and even dancing (see video).

2 More days until the rain will be gone again and there are 2.500 ponchos (thank you thank you sponsors) on the way for the next rainy episode.




KOS – Breaking point

The weather’s changed.

Last night it started raining, really bad. We knew this was going to happen and we’ve been trying to prepare for this, but the major won’t make space available for the refugees to hide inside (a few days ago the refugees were chased out of the shade of the park into the burning sun, so the park by the road would look nice for the election parade), and Kos is a sunny tourist island, so no rain clothes or ponchos available (or only a handful), we’ve been trying to get them over from The Netherlands, but we didn’t succeed in time (it takes a very long time to get mail delivered to Kos, so in getting the ponchos we’re depending on people coming over, who can take them). We tried, we really tried.

Last night it started raining. The rainfall was so heavy that it woke us up at night. And then the thought of what it would be like for the refugees on the streets in their single-wall tents, kept us awake. Then the thunder, which sounded like loud explosions, started. Last night, we already saw the water splashing up on shore (see picture) and the wind pulling the tents. At least the tents were moved off the beach and a few meters away from the water splashing up, but still. We helped to move tents behind a wall, out of the wind, but it all felt like too little. We would go back to our beds between walls and with a roof, they would stay out there during the night.

Even though we never would have thought anyone would dare – or be able to – cross the sea in this weather (even ‘real’ boats were destroyed by the storm; see pictures), 3 people of our team went out into the rain this morning. Just in case. Against all expectations, a boat arrived. 20 People on board. They lost 5 people along the way. One more boat arrived. We have no way of knowing how many people on how many boats made the desperate attempt last night to cross the water in the storm. The only reason we could think of that they would have taken this even bigger than normal risk is that they would have paid the human trafficker beforehand and would lose their money (and chance) if they wouldn’t go that night. After they arrived, for a few moments, the sky cleared and a rainbow seemed to come out of the sea (see picture).

This morning, when we went over with water and fruit, we found most tents destroyed by the wind, refugees crowded together in front of the police station underneath a little roof (the only place to hide for the rain), we went by every single tent to look for people, we found 10 people in a tent made for 3, men only wearing their underwear because all clothes were wet, I saw a man using a small plastic bag to scoop the water out of his tent. We were out there for only 2 hours, but even our underwear was wet (despite the garbage bags we were wearing as improvised ponchos), and we were chilled to the bone. We devoured many rolls of garbage bags, which we turned into ponchos.

The fact that we were wearing the garbage bags as well, made it feel a little less bad that we were giving them garbage bags to wear. Many refugees offered their help (which is always the case, but even more now), or offered us a place in their tent to hide from the rain. But we were out there for only 2 hours and afterwards we would have a few moments to get dry, get warm, and put on dry clothes, before heading out again. But they can’t. Everything they own is wet. The tents are destroyed, soaking wet, or both. They are soaking wet and cold, and there is no way for them to get dry or warm. And this heavy rainfall is expected to continue for 3 days (see picture).

I’ve seen a lot here. Refugee boats arriving, babies of not even a month old being carried of these boats, life vests in the distance of which I wasn’t sure whether there was a body inside or not, talking to lovely, bright, young Syrian men in Turkey who were going to make the boat trip to Kos that night but who we’ve never seen again at this side of the water, a father who is desperately going from island to island trying to find his son because he’s sure that his son survived the sinking of his boat, a man telling the story of how ISIS beheaded his brother, and refugees leaving Kos on a ferry to Athens with so much hope in their eyes, but who still have such a troublesome journey ahead of them.

But today I cried my first tear. Because no matter how hard you try, sometimes you can’t move a mountain.

Door: Frederieke

Kos – Two boats kiss in the morning

What are we looking at?
That’s the main question we ask ourselves multiple times in the early mornings.
When we start, the night’s still pitch black. By now we know the different spots where the boat refugees may get on shore and we drive from spot to spot and back, trying to be everywhere at the same time. We look into the dark sea with our binoculars, shine the flashlight on already abandoned life vests and feel if they’re still wet, and listen whether we can hear voices or the sound of peddles rowing in the water.

This morning the Mediterranean was calmer than we’d seen before, allowing us to see every dot which may or may not be a refugee boat coming from Bodrum. Just when we were following a dot to make sure that if it would turn out to be a refugee boat, we would be there at the beach to welcome the refugees with water, food, and dry clothes after their – often long, tough, and frightening – journey, or to warn the Greek coast guards if the boat seemed to be in trouble, Razan spotted another dot. Again we were trying to make sense of this dot on the sea. Finally, through our binoculars we were able to see people peddling, but they still had a long way to go. I stayed behind to make sure we wouldn’t lose the dot, while the others continued following the other dot.

A bigger dot approached the smaller dot. The Greek coast guard, I suspected. But the big dot passed by the small dot and continued southwards. Then – after what I could have sworn was 30 minutes, but the time stamp of my recordings just told me it was only 5 minutes – the bigger dot turned again. This is when the video starts. In this case, I can tell you what we’re looking at: The Greek coast guard is approaching the refugee boat, the 2 boats kiss, then, I stopped recording to take out the binoculars. I could see each refugee get from their little rubber boat onto the Greek coast guard boat. Even though we see refugees and refugee boats arriving every morning now, I still find it hard to believe my eyes when I see these things happening. This is really happening. And I am standing here at the Kos’ coast watching it happen as it happens.

After all refugees got on board, the bigger dot started towing the smaller dot. I waited long enough to be sure they were going back to the harbour, contacted the others, and started heading there myself, to be there when the people, who were once small movements on a dot, but who are real people, would get to shore safely.

Almost every night there are also small dots that don’t make it.

By: Frederieke


Lesbos – Ali

Dit is Ali. Hij is 3 jaar en hier net aangekomen op Lesbos. De boot had veel water gemaakt en hij kwam drijfnat en koud aan wal.

This is Ali. He is three years old and just arrived on Lesbos. The boat had taken on a lot of water so by the time they arrived he was drenched and freezing.

Dry clothes and an emergency blanket prevented hypothermia. This little boy was so funny and relaxed. He was given a juice pack and was drinking it with cold blue lips. His toy zebra received a few sips every now and then as well. He played with the pebbles on the beach while his mother went into a changing room to put on some dry clothes. I was playing with him and we took turns throwing the pebbles into the water. He kept saying ‘boat’ in Arabic, pointing to boats in the distance. “He has always loved the ocean,” his mother says. He seems oblivious to the fact that he has just survived a very dangerous journey.

But Ali will be sleeping on the streets tonight along with everyone else.

(By Mirjam Borgdorff | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)

Lesbos – This is Adouan

This could be a picture of me and my nephew.
But it’s Adouan. He arrived on Lesbos 15 minutes before taking this picture. By boat. This boat. With three, or maybe even four times the amount of people that are allowed on such a boat, which is 15.

His mother hasn’t really recovered from the shock, but when I walked up to them with dry clothing she immediately handed him to me. Together we removed his wet clothing, gave him a clean diaper and put dry clothes on him. There weren’t any baby sleeping bags left in the car so I gave them extra clothes in case it gets cold tonight.

It turned out that there were two older sisters as well, soaking wet. So I held on to Adouan for a bit longer as their mother dried them off and gave them new clothes. Adouan, in the meantime, pulled my hair gently, smiled at me, removed my glasses, made gurgling noises, laughed loudly, and drooled all over my shirt. An added advantage of holding him closely was that he warmed up quickly.

When all the kids are dressed they continue their journey. The father and mother are still soaked but we ran out of clothing. Note to self: fill the car up even more next time.

I gently caress Adouan one last time and then it’s goodbye, good luck, and take care! And off they go. On their way to Mytilini. It is only another 45 km to this stopover on their undoubtedly still long and tiring journey…

(By Kirsten Alblas | Translated by Selma Rooseboom)

KOS – RIP, dear precious refugees

The alarm clock went off at 05:00, as usual. Dazed we turn it off and jump straight out of bed, worried that we might fall asleep if we stay any longer. Fatigue has started to settle into our daily routine.
Brenda, a new volunteer who arrived here on Kos yesterday, is coming with us to the beach. The winds and currents have changed recently so nowadays we go to the East side of Kos city rather than the West.

As we drive through Kos we see a group of men walking along the side of the road. They must have arrived that morning; why else would anyone be walking there at 05:30. We arrive at the beach and wait. We scan the waters with our binoculars to look for incoming boats. We see none. Then a journalist and a cameraman from Bulgaria approach us and tell us that a group of Afghan men have just arrived. They had been travelling with two boats, one with only men, and one with families and children. When a wave hit the family boat it capsized. The men in the other boat couldn’t help due to the strong currents and were left to watch as the other boat slowly disappeared.

I feel my body tense up and am nauseated. My throat squeezes shut and I am no longer able to talk. I turn around and stare at the water. It takes a little while before realization settles in: we’re standing here, waiting for a boat that will never come. It is too much. I cannot comprehend it.

The sun continues to come up and we stay, wait, and continue to search with our binoculars. I decide to walk a bit along the water’s edge, a moment to pray by myself away from the rest of the group. That’s when the tears come. I let them flow over my cheeks, I let it all out.

After an hour we decide to leave. I’m sitting next to Brenda and am looking out over the water. Suddenly I see something floating. We stop the car and grab our binoculars. It’s an empty inflatable boat. The pain in my body returns as we watch a fisherman’s boat slowly approach it. A man crosses over and then goes back, leaving the empty boat behind. We assume he probably punctured it.

Back at the hotel sleep evades me completely. I’m wide awake and paralyzed with emotions. They day hasn’t even started yet…

RIP, dear precious refugees.

(By Jolanda Kromhout https://vrijspraak.wordpress.com, | Translated by Selma Rooseboom)

Kos – Farewell

This morning, our day started with the distribution of water at the police station. Upon arrival we are immediately surrounded by people who want water as it has been unbearably hot here. Today we included the park that sits behind the police station. What a desolate place this is. People ‘live’ here by sleeping on a piece of cardboard, they don’t even have a tent. They have a very meager outlook on life, you can see it on their faces. They are without hope. We saw a group of men sitting together, cooking a meal that looked pretty good.

Another group of men is sitting playing cards, seemingly oblivious to what is going on around them. A small scuffle starts about a meter away and someone is punched in the face very hard. For a second it seems the situation may escalate, but everyone quickly calms down. It smells bad here. The scent is similar to that which you smell in slums. On one side of the park, MSF has set up their bus to give medical aid. I see a woman suffering from cramps as I approach to give her water. I think she is about to give birth and her contractions have set in.

On the way to the police station we see Rashid (I think that was his name). Rashid is a Syrian refugee that has helped us hand out water for the past few days. He has contributed greatly in making everything run very smoothly because he speaks fluent English and Arabic. Besides that he is always happy and very courageous. At the same, though, he is realistic. Today he came to thank us for our help and let us know that he has finally received his papers and will be travelling to Athens with the ferry. Moved by this I give him a hand and a pat on the shoulder. I am so happy for him and congratulate him. If someone deserves this, he does! At the same time I’m also sad. Where will he end up? Will he be OK? I hope so.

We also say goodbye to Angela and Sam, two English tourists that have been helping us daily. We’ve been through a lot together, so this goodbye was not easy either.

The atmosphere is relaxed today. There were a few confrontations but these were quickly appeased. It’s not easy living in these conditions, in this heat, and with so many cultures.

We spent the afternoon doing mostly practical things: picking out clothes, preparing the bags for the immediate relief of the refugees arriving in boats the next morning, and bringing all the clothing supplies to a central location. Afterwards Nelleke and I went shopping for muesli bars, carrots, juice boxes for the children, razors, and other basic needs. We had a shortage of women’s trousers but were able to fill that need now.

All day I regretted not taking a picture with Rashid. I decided to go to the ferry and look for him before his departure. When I got there I couldn’t believe what I saw. Hundreds of refugees were waiting to cross over to Athens. There was a huge line of people. I found Rashid quite quickly and took a picture with him. After chatting with him for a few minutes I decided to walk down the line to see if I knew any other people. Various people waved at us, they all know who we are. I feel a sadness coming over me. You start to care deeply for these people and hope that things will work out for them. But we cannot control what happens to them, all I can do is hope and pray for them.

I watch until most of the refugees have passed the ‘immigration’ post… on their way to a new future, wherever that may be.

(By Jolanda Kromhout https://vrijspraak.wordpress.com, | Translated by Selma Rooseboom)