Lesbos – Two fingers in the air

It wasn’t long ago that I was standing with two fingers in the air. Without doubt, and with the euphoria of recently completing my degree, I swore to God that I would obey the Nightingale’s Pledge. As I stood there, I imagined walking through the hospital in my white uniform, giving people the best care possible. This summer I swapped that white uniform for a summer outfit from the Boat Refugee Foundation to parade around on Lesbos. Nursing is the same everywhere. Right?

Friday night, my wife Martine and I went to Sykiminia to help 500 people prepare for the evening. We brought baby milk and a suitcase with equipment such as a glucose meter and a blood pressure meter. When we get to the camp we go in search of an English speaking refugee to help translate for us. We see babies with fevers, children that are vomiting, exhausted pregnant women, and old ladies with sprained ankles.

When I’m on my knees, placing a leg splint, a boy comes over to me. The translator says he has a wound, and when I ask him to show me, he removes a bandage that had been covering an infected gunshot wound. What has this eighteen year old boy been through? Fleeing Syria, running away from danger, and making a dangerous journey across the sea in an overcrowded boat. That should be no one’s life.

Two fingers in the air, their eyes showing the euphoria of recently surviving the crossing. That is what many refugees look like on the selfies they make on the beach. I have never seen euphoria disappear so quickly as when they start the 50 km walk in the sweltering heat of the Greece sun, or when they have to sleep outside or the hard ground.

At 01:30, Martin and I get in the car to go back to the hotel, completely exhausted. After driving 50 meters, we see a new family and I don’t stop the car, I’m drained! Or am I? What did I swear, when I held those two fingers in the air? Exactly! I look at Martine, put the car in reverse, and call out the window, “Any medical care needed?”

(By Christian van der Spek | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)

Kos – Handing out toiletries

After handing out 1,500 bottles of water , dozens of men surrounded her. I could see something interesting was going to happen, so I joined the crowd. They started off by learning a few English words with the help of a translator in the crowd. Amazing how these men are hoping their dreams will come true in a country where they don’t even speak the language. She then continued about cultural practices, like how you never ask a woman how old she is in our culture. The men listened attentively to the translator, who was speaking with such conviction that the crowd kept getting larger. He spoke like a preacher when translating our words, seemingly in much more detail than what we said. We saw a chance to spread even more information so the impromptu session turned into an educational moment which included health and personal hygiene.

The following topics were addressed: Always say ‘please’, be polite. So instead of ‘give me water’, say ‘give me water, please.’ Don’t throw your trash on the ground, but put it in the available containers that are nearby. Clean up your mess and keep the area clean. This is better for your health. Keep your nails short. When we hand out items, don’t rush to snatch everything up but stand in line and wait your turn. We promised to come back that afternoon with soap, toothbrushes, toothpaste, and razors, if they keep to these agreements.

So we quickly went and bought 500 tubes of toothpaste and the same amount in soap, toothbrushes and razors. We made toiletry sets from ziplock bags in the dining room of the hotel.

When we came back at 17:30, we were pleasantly surprised by the 3 queues that had been formed to receive the toiletries. A good translator was once again present. After happily receiving their items, the men dispersed in all directions once again.

To end the day we cleaned up the area with several willing volunteers. We filled dozens of trash bags together. I hope some of these lessons and practices will linger on.

Lesbos – It’s a holy mountain, that Moria

It’s a holy mountain, that Moria. A mountain where temples were built during biblical times and whose waters reflected the magical beauty of the movie stars from the Lord of the Rings. But on Moria on Lesbos, not much of that can be found.

Yes it is a mountain, but that’s where the comparison ends. Children play amongst the trash. Tents and other makeshift shelters are built all over the place. It smells everywhere and it is uncomfortably hot. Even before entering the camp we feel the urge to turn around and leave. This Moria has nothing magical. This is not Moria. This is Mordor, or hell.

A young man is wandering through the chaos, searching for something. He had gotten lost from his friends during the journey and is hoping to find them here at the camp. But he doesn’t know where to search. He joins us as we’re equally lost, horrified and astonished. There are people lying around everywhere: lots of Afghans, but also Pakistanis, Somalis, and Eritreans. Some of them have a dark, gauzy cloth hung up above them for a bit of shade, others lay unprotected under a tree. They tell us that theft is a huge problem, especially at night. When the scarce food supplies are handed out, fights almost always break out. All those nationalities together, how will this work peacefully?

Somewhere in a corner some boys have invented a game using the embers from extinguished fires. We walk along a ridge and slide down some loose gravel. A boy of maybe 8 years old shows us how he can turn a stick on his fingers. A mother retreats into her tent to breastfeed her baby. A group of children gets into an argument and some older boys try to calm things down. Another group runs past us and retreats into the toilets. When we go look in there, all sorts of insects and vermin can be seen. The air pungent and clearly unhealthy.

We walk up a steep concrete path. A bus from Doctors of the World comes down. It moves very slowly and carefully inches past the tents which have been set up on the concrete. Our young companion lets out a cry, “there are my friends!” And there they are, under a tree: a man, a woman, and two small children. They look very tidy, as if they don’t belong there, like they’re resting at a stop along their journey with their bags still on their backs.

We join them. How was your trip? Did you have a long walk or was there a bus to take you? Do you have a tent already? Where do you want to go? The young woman answers our questions in perfect English. We compliment her and her sons, who snuggle up closer to their mother. She puts her arm around them. “Do you have food?” we ask. The answer she gives stuns us, “the money is gone.”

This Mordor, this hell, is unforgiving. “The money is gone.” It means no tent, no food, no ticket to leave the island, no dreams, no life. “The money is gone” means “staying prisoner in this hell”. As she says it, she turns her head away and wipes at her eyes. Her sons clutch onto her. We want to help, but realize how much we stand out and are being watched by all these people who also have nothing. Giving something could be dangerous, even more so for them. We sit with them in silence for a while. Then René briefly pats her on her hand. It is against all cultural rules, but it felt right, as if it was the only thing we could offer in this situation. When we’re in the car I ask him, “Did you give her something?” He nods. I didn’t see it. I hope no one else did either…

(By Alfard Menninga | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)


Kos – Beautiful people

Last night we drove to the coast to see if any boats would arrive. Nothing happened however. We did see the coast guard patrolling the area. Turkey is ridiculously close, the sea of lights that is Bodrum. There was too much wind and therefore heavy waves. This morning the large ferry came into the harbor, leaving quickly with thousands of refugees on board.

But many still remain. It is a bizarre mix of two worlds. There are two types of tourists here in the touristic center of Kos city. You have the ‘normal’ tourists who are standing around like one would do around a train wreck, and then there are the refugees, mostly Syrians, and often times families. We saw a 12-day old baby, born in Kobani. And then there are the Pakistanis, Afghans and Bengalis, mostly young men with a single dream, to reach Germany! Lastly there are Saudis, sheik-like people, and Africans.

This morning we continued to carry out our routine of handing out water to the people waiting in the hot sun at the police station. This evening we handed out toiletries (toothpaste, toothbrushes, soap, shampoo, etc.) to the Pakistanis, who were in dire need of these items. We also treated a burn wound and a broken toe.

We met with Doctors without Borders (MSF) this afternoon. They asked if Pieter would join them as a doctor and Hillien as a lactation expert.

And finally, what beautiful people.
2 examples:
1. A mother who is on vacation with her two daughters, and another Dutch girl, have helped every single day with handing out items. Tomorrow they return to their homes with special memories. The coming days a Dutch woman and an Irish couple will also be helping out, they were moved by what they saw us do. Other people heading here on vacation have offered to bring a suitcase with supplies.

2. We had dinner at an Armenian Greek restaurant. He asks us, “what are you paying for the water bottles?” Well, €5 for 24 bottles. That is much too expensive, he said indignantly. “I’ll sell them to you for €3.50, the purchase price.” This obviously saves a lot of money when we’re buying over 1,000 bottles each day. “It is a present from me for the refugees.” This makes us very happy. The Greek are truly beautiful people!

We talk to a lot of Greeks about their thoughts regarding the refugee crisis and politics. This shows the other side of things. Which is very understandable. It is a difficult situation for them. Some places are complete messes. Tents are everywhere. People are sleeping on the sidewalks on pieces of cardboard. The penetrating smell of urine is sometimes unbearable, and the women have to use the toilets in restaurants. Shopkeepers and other business owners are suffering a loss of income.

The problem is too big for the Greeks to handle alone. Europe must start taking responsibility. In spite of everything, refugees remain people, in need of humanitarian help.

We are thankful that we can be here and help out.

Update: this morning we were offered water for only €1.27!

Lesbos – Does my daughter have a future?

You’re four years old. And on your third escape attempt from Iraq, you finally made it to Lesbos with your mother. During the first attempt your boat sank. And the second time you were sent back by the coast guard. Now your home is a piece of cardboard under a tree in the camp Kara Tepe. Last night your mother kept you warm under her jacket. Your father? He ran away 6 months after you were born because he couldn’t accept the fact that you had a deformed hand. Now it’s just you and your mother.

Your mother cries while telling your story to two friendly men from the Netherlands. She is so worried. She has no idea where you will be sleeping tomorrow or if you will have food to eat. She heard that there are doctors in Germany that could operate on your hand. But she has little hope to ever arrive there travelling by herself.

She feels lonely and despondent.

Beaming, you pose for the picture…

(By Annerieke Berg | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)

(Photo’s by René Berg)