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.

Frederieke

Video:

https://www.facebook.com/hulpactiebootvluchtelingen/videos/1470045733325469/

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

https://www.facebook.com/hulpactiebootvluchtelingen/videos/1467466783583364/

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)

Kos – The resilience of children

Today was an exciting and busy day. RTL 4 was here with a presenter and camera crew to follow us and see what the refugee situation is like at the moment. It should be a very impressive piece and will air Monday night on RTL Late Night so be sure to tune in! We had a full day planned so they could witness the various things we do here.

The alarm clock went off at 05:00. Although the Turkish coast is officially ‘closed’ we want to see if any refugees will arrive. At 05:15 Joke comes into our room. We had received a phone call about a group of Afghans that had just arrived in the harbor, and our help was needed. We jumped in the cars and headed over to see how we could help.

Then the film crew calls, they are already at the harbor and they don’t know what to do. The boat had been leaking so everyone was wet and the coast guard had even saved a child from the water. Thankfully it had all ended well. We tell him to try to reassure the refugees and that we were on our way.

When we arrive we have to move fast. A group of 20 Afghan men, women, children and babies is standing on the quay, shivering from the cold. We grab our clothing and start with the children. We quickly remove the wet clothing and put new clothes on them, sometimes in somewhat ridiculous combinations but no one cares at this point. We try to find the right size flip flops for everyone, but this doesn’t always work out (see the pictures!). When we’re done with the children we turn towards the women and men. In the meantime, we hand out water and give everyone something to eat, all whilst the cameras are filming. The stories of the refugees are told to the camera crew and translated by one of our volunteers, Maryam. Wijnand is interviewed as well. The rest of us continue doing what we came for.

After about half an hour, the refugees start to relax and we chat with them. They had tried to make the voyage 4 times already and only today had they finally been successful. They had been rowing for 7 hours to get to Kos. They’re all very tired, but happy to have made it. The children start to run around and are laughing about the outfits they are wearing. They seem to be doing well, and we are once again surprised by the resilience of children. As soon as they’re in dry clothes, have a bit of food and water, they feel safe and can go back to being children, admiring the boats in the harbor.

The camera crew leaves for Bodrum, Turkey, in order to witness the other side of the journey. In the end they don’t come back to Kos. They had filmed a lot of material the previous day and had more than enough for the broadcast.

We go back home, recover slightly, and are thankful that everything went well this time and that we were able to help. We recharge ourselves and prepare for the next activity that morning, handing out water. We do this every day at the police station, at 11:30. In one and a half hours we hand out 1,500 bottles. The people there know us and ask for help with the police, a ticket to Athens, medical care, food, shampoo, etc. At the same time a couple from Amsterdam walks up to us. They were so shocked by what they had encountered when they came to Kos for vacation that they collected money amongst their friends. They handed us a donation of 600 euros! I was incredibly touched by their generosity and could not express my gratitude enough. They even had nutritional bars with them, bags of rice, and clothing. What a heart of gold!

After handing out water we walked towards to the Afghan camp. We spent the rest of the day there handing out water, apples, oranges, flip flops, children’s shoes, etc. When we arrived a group of Afghans that had just arrived that morning on the other side of Kos city, walked into the camp. An old man suddenly collapses. People rush in to help and my sister Nelleke, who is a nurse, is quickly at his side. The man is a heart patient, and also suffers from diabetes. The heat and high blood sugar had done a number on him. He and his wife were lovingly taken care of by the people in the camp. A heartwarming scene. Thankfully he improved greatly after taking medicine. We ended our day at the camp by handing out special bags with extra fruit and vegetables for pregnant women. We had to laugh very hard when suddenly a lot of women claimed to be two months pregnant. The men laughed about it with us when we congratulated them and everyone understood that we wouldn’t be falling for that.

In the afternoon we went to our favorite place near the hospital where a small group of Syrians reside that we have gotten to know very well. When they see us, they know we’ll have a good time. Today we handed out water, fruit, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap, shampoo, and razors for the men. It is great to see the joy on their faces! We stay for a little while to chat, play and dance with the children. The little girl in the picture with her father had danced happily while we clapped. A small boy gave me a huge hug. He was a child again for that moment.

And thus ended our day. We are thankful that we were able to do so much for the refugees today. At the same time, much remains to be done. We heard tonight that the blankets will not arrive any time soon. The Red Cross has made a request, but we know from experience that it will take a while for the finances to come through. We’ve decided to try to organize it ourselves and seek out fleece blankets. The people have been complaining about the cold at night. And it’s true. The mornings are a lot cooler now and you can tell that autumn is coming.

We ended the day with a minute silence at 20:00, to commemorate those refugees that did not make it, and in solidarity with those in the Netherlands also partaking in this activity.

Tomorrow we’ll sleep in a little bit, we’re all very tired. Unless the phone goes at 05:00. Then we pack our things and go…

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

Kos – A pat on the back from Timmermans

A huge crowd had gathered in front of the Kos town hall. Police and media were also present in large numbers. And for good reason, a senior delegation from the Greek government was visiting Kos with the vice president of European Commission, Frans Timmermans, and the EU-commissioner for Migration, Dimitri Avramopoulos. The goal was to discuss the refugee situation with the local authorities.

I had heard about the meeting yesterday during the weekly meeting of all involved aid agencies, from the UN to the Greek aid organization Solidarity, and from the Red Cross to our own boat refugee foundation. Some of them had received written invitations for the meeting with Timmermans, others had not. UN representative Roberto insisted that I go to town hall and try to get into the meeting.

So there I am at the gates. Would I be able to get in with only our blue foundation t-shirt as my credentials? But in no time, I’m walking into the council chamber after passing a few minor obstacles. The meeting wih Timmermans, Avramopoulus, several Greek ministers, the mayor of Kos, and other local authorities is still in full swing. Wearing the foundation’s outfit, amongst suits and ties, I am given the seat of honor, where the chairman of the council usually sits. I am a witness on this “day of truth”, as Timmermans calls it.

Europe is once again called upon to share the responsibility for the influx of migrants fairly. Extra European funds will be made available for Greece to help accommodate the refugees. The local authority of Kos is applauded for their work so far, but at the same time, they are asked to get ready for more work. And then it’s time for “my moment of truth” when Timmermans passes my seat during a short break and we shake hands.

The next meeting starts quickly. Fine, that’s what I have come for. It is now the turn of the NGOs to have their say, and the stories of the miseries of Kos city are told and heard by all. Halfway through the chairman intervenes as Timmermans is on a tight schedule and the meeting has to end. Unfortunate, as I had prepared a short speech. But then Timmermans acknowledges the efforts of the workers in the field and turns to me whilst naming our foundation specifically. That made my day.

And so ends the “day of truth”, and the reality of what we deal with on a daily basis becomes apparent again as soon as I step outside. A Syrian family walks by on the quay, in search of hope for tomorrow. Tourists embark on boats for a tour of the beautiful blue sea.

(By Wijnand Versteeg | Translation by Selma Rooseboom)

Kos – Change is coming

This morning the team split up into two groups. Three people went to the beach to wait for possible boats while the other three stayed in bed. This way we can conserve our energy a bit. No boats arrived at the beach this morning but a bit further down a group of Pakistani had arrived late at night and spent the night on the beach. In the morning they had started making their way to the police station. We stopped to give them water and food and afterwards they continued on their journey.

After loading up 1,500 bottles of water we headed towards the police station. We couldn’t believe what we saw. The inner court yard of the police station is usually filled a chaotic mess of waiting people every day. Today, however, a team from the UN was there to organize the process. A few people were let in while the rest had to wait outside. The paperwork went much faster than before, which was desperately needed. They even placed toilets and showers outside! We heard that they’re placing 10 toilets and showers in the Syrian camp as well. As soon as the water has been connected they’ll be able to use them.

The mood was very relaxed this morning. The refugees saw the changes as well and were hopeful. The police seemed stress-free as well and for the first time I was able to compliment them, thank them, and even joke around with them. We were able to hand out water and talk to the people. I saw the man that had started the fight yesterday and we talked to each other for a while. He even insisted on taking a picture with me (read yesterday’s blog to understand the irony of this).

A group of high-ranking Greek officials have contacted us and I am meeting them this afternoon for several meetings. You would think they would want to talk to the Red Cross, the UN, or MSF rather than a small organization like us, but they chose us because we give the people our care and attention and take the time to talk to them. The officials had seen how we work and wanted to hear from us what was and still is needed. I thought this was quite the compliment for our foundation. These officials are engaged with their island and what is happening, and we have shared many ideas with each other. The visit of Frans Timmermans has set things in motion and we’re very happy about that. You can see that the mood amongst the refugees was completely different today.

Until this afternoon. We decided to hand out flip-flops that we had received, along with oranges and carrots (which we do regularly to provide vitamins and is greatly appreciated). We were working with a large group and trying to create some order in the chaos. We even managed to form queues as normally we’re besieged when handing out items. It took a while and we finally started handing out things. At a certain point, a Syrian yelled something at a group of Pakistanis, causing the mood to darken and irritations to spring up. We tried to calm the situation down but this person seemed hell-bent on escalating the situation further. He left, but came back with a group of people with sticks. At this point we decided to leave immediately. We couldn’t work from a safe situation and that was unacceptable. We hadn’t experience this before and could do nothing other than leave.

Eventually, a few of us went to a smaller location and were able to hand out items in a peaceful setting. The people there were very happy with the shoes and flip-flops for their feet, and the oranges.

Tonight we’ll discuss our plan for tomorrow. It will be an important day that I can’t tell you about quite yet, so find out more tomorrow night!

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