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Team member Oz involved in search and rescue mission in Lesbos

Our amazing team member Oz sent us this heartbreaking update from Lesbos –

It’s pitch black here on the shores of Lesvos, I thought the arrivals were done. 10 minutes ago we heard piercing screams as a boat load of Afghan refugees crashed into the jagged rocks. I just pulled a baby no older than 18 months off a sinking rubber dinghy as it continuously collided with sharp rocks, I have never been so terrified in all my life. Everyone looks like they made it out ok, some of the kids have broken limbs but no one has been reported drowned yet. I can’t believe what I’m witnessing here, it just defies all sense of reason

One of the projects we have help to fund provides lights on some of the beaches, so that the refugee boats aren’t landing on rocks in the dark. We will bring you more information on this soon!


We would not be able to do our work without your support and kindness. Please click through on these links if you would like to find out more about our work or make a donation. Thank you!

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Lliana’s front page article in Huffington Post about the situation in Lesbos

Lliana’s piece on the refugee crisis in Lesbos appeared on the front page of the Huffington Post. You can view the original on the Huffington Post here

Life in Lesbos: “The Children’s Feet Are Rotting – You Guys Have One Month and Then All These People Will Be Dead”

“There are thousands of children here and their feet are literally rotting, they can’t keep dry, they have high fevers and they’re standing in the pouring rain for days on end. You have one month guys, and then all these people will be dead”.

Those were the final words of Dr Linda on the phone, a doctor that our volunteer organisations (Help Refugees and CalAid) had asked to fly out to Lesbos in response to an emergency cry for help from an overwhelmed volunteer on the ground.

The weight of those words and the responsibility that comes with them felt crippling. But why are we, a film maker, a radio presenter, and a music assistant being tasked with this responsibility? Shouldn’t, as we had presumed, the large charities and governments be taking the charge of care for the precious lives arriving on Europe shores?

Another call came in – this time from volunteers in Serbia – the refugees are burning plastic bags to keep warm, they have nothing else, they are freezing to death, and the fumes from the bags are slowly poisoning them, please send help.

Then another – this time from volunteers on Lesbos trying to find out how to order body bags en masse… will they have to resort this? Time will tell, but certainly people there have already started to die.

We wished we could pick up the phone and call someone… who? A charity? An emergency team? The government? The army? How could we sit by and watch whilst these people die, and the handfuls of volunteers struggle and suffer too. But who is there to call? The charities are acting slowly, they have protocols to follow, political considerations, red tape, hierarchy and procedures. Our government’s policy is not to help in Europe, and only to send aid to places like Syria, Lebanon in Jordan. So… it’s left to everyday people, untrained, unprepared, and overwhelmed, to deal with this crisis.

Everyday people like us… a small group of friends who nine weeks ago decided to raise a little bit of cash, get a car load of goods and drive it to Calais. We’d heard from friends who’d been there some of the terrible stories of war and persecution, we knew that numbers were growing, that more children were coming everyday, and that conditions were dire. Our plan was to do our bit, pat ourselves on the back, and then go back to our lives feeling that we’d done something good for our fellow mankind.

Here we are, nine weeks later, registered as a small charity (Help Refugees), more deeply involved than ever in this refugee crisis, and with no signs of returning any time soon.

The reason is simple, because trust me, none of us set out to do this (our group are a bunch of TV producers, music managers, radio broadcasters and documentary film makers)… but we couldn’t walk away, because in so many instances there simply aren’t enough people helping. We expected to meet the large charities in huge numbers on the ground taking charge of things, or for government presence to be strong, or for the UN to be there in force. It’s just not happening. So our team, and ordinary volunteers like us, have been forced to step in. Unconstrained by red tape, political considerations and bureaucracy and the slow decision making processes of large corporations, we can act fast. And we have had to. So far our teams have visited and delivered aid and other assistance to Kos, Lesbos, Calais, Serbia, Greece, Macedonia. But it isn’t even close to enough. We are just a few, we are untrained, and whilst there are handfuls of incredible volunteers and small groups doing what they can (and struggling and becoming traumatised in the process), people (children, women and men) are literally dying.

We can’t ignore their cries for help. The volunteer I mentioned earlier in Lesbos called Merel Greaves, (now ill herself with a high fever) shared some incredibly disturbing reports on the situation in Moria (a refugee camp in Lesbos), with thousands arriving every day, and very little visible support or help from large charities or governments.

“The situation in Moria is utterly catastrophic. We need organisations to come. There is just a handful of us volunteers in Moria, there are no organisations except for a once a day food distribution which is nowhere near enough. I’ve had people holding half dead babies up to me the whole day and we have nowhere to send them. All the NGOs are inside and doctors only rarely come out. Tomorrow will be a disaster, there are no dry clothes for anyone, no shelter, there are children sleeping in bin bags, no food, no blankets, no diapers for babies. No access to drinking water for the people at the back of the line, people will sleep in the wet and cold tonight in the open air, half the people will wake up sick, some will die, I’m sure of it. We urgently need medics on the ground, some sort of sheltering and dry clothes. Please please please help. We are just a few volunteers by ourselves without resources but people are looking at us to help and we can do nothing… we are a handful of volunteers who do not even belong to an organisation with no resources to give the thousands of ill and dying and drenched people waiting out there. The rain has not stopped, it has been relentless and never ending, draining every single and last person to the bone. There are no shelters for people to hide, there is not enough food for everybody: No water. No clean clothes for the babies. No doctors. The rain, the rain.

We, the volunteers in Moria, are completely desperate. I am completely desperate. The situation is inhuman, it is not possible that this is happening to people in Europe. Yet it is happening, my god it’s happening and people are dying out there, people are collapsing in my arms and dozens of babies will die of hypothermia over the next few days.

Staff from UNHCR come to ask us for help (I’ve only ever seen two staff on the ground from UNHCR – those two are amazing and do what they can as individuals) but where the hell is the money? They ask us to help them clean the trash of a few shelters down the road… we went in by the gate but we get side tracked, sucked in by the horrors around and the people asking for help… For hours we plead with police to let through sick babies, the passed out woman, the leg injuries. Sometimes they let us go in, sometimes not. So many people want my help… a girl no older than eight falls on her knees in front of me and folds her hands together and in hysterics says ‘please help, please help’. A passed out woman in dragged in, babies drenched in their blankets. These are the scenes I can see before my eyes like a horror film I can’t switch off.

Every single person is drenched to the bone, all their clothes, their shoes stuck in the knee-high river of mud. Inside the gates we help the families who are about to register, every single person is shivering and pretty much every single person is in need of medical attention. The woman from UNHCR grabs me, ‘they are about to open the gates for the next group’ I take one look at the gate and see the squashed people pushed up against it, sounds of crying and screaming: I know already exactly what will happen when we open the gate. The riot police remove the bolts and open it. Hordes of people run in, we make gestures to walk slowly but it’s no use, she pulls me aside to step away from the crowd. But what unfolds in the next few seconds we knew already: people are getting trampled on, piled on top of each other when they all try to push in. She grabs my arm, ‘we have to pull out the babies!’, we run in and with all my might I tug at the people stuck at the bottom, it’s no use, I see a child and pull her arms. Then, a strange smell and a quick sensation: teargas. It burns my eyes, my throat, my face, people scream and run away from the gas. I have to let go of the child and run also, it is unbearable. We run behind the bus, a little boy with a red coat is waiting for me. ‘Sister!’ He shouts, he takes my hand and we run together, away from the gas. We stop, I bend over and spit. A little girl comes over to me and cries, I pick her up and we sit on a roll of fencing wire in the corner. Her family gathers around us, I hug the girl tight, stroke her face and all together we weep for the deep misery that is so unnecessary. After 15 minutes I know I have to go back in to help. I leave them behind.

For the rest of the night we try to dress the drenched babies that are coming in with the clothes from the van. I’ve never seen such feet and hands, completely white and shrivelled up. Again nothing fits and there are no jackets or shoes. But we try our best. I’ve come to realise you cannot do anything but make the situation for one individual a little better for a very short period. God knows what more they’ll have to endure. I feel such anger also, how out of control is the situation when you have volunteers who have no experience or training working with the UNHCR to try and fight the shitstorm?”

Merel is angry, she is also very sick herself now, but she can’t walk away. How can we? How can anyone of us sit by and allow all this to happen? On European shores? To human beings escaping war? No matter what your political views, no matter the eventual fate of these people, surely our duty now is to keep them alive? To use the huge resources and experience we have here in Europe to care for these people, these children. Volunteers like Merel can’t do this alone, it needs much larger presence from the huge, experienced organisations. It needs immediate government action. Lesbos is just one of so many examples, and the longer we leave things the worse things will be.

Please write to your MPs, call your local news teams, and use your voices. Together we can make them listen.

 

Image: p-GRC0161 by International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies and Stephen Ryan on Flickr

Greece: Lesbos, 21 August 2015. These girls are from Afghanistan. Together with their parents, they are awaiting registration outside the First Reception Centre on Lesbos. They pass the time by playing music, using their hands and anything that can make a sound. Each day, thousands arrive on Greek shores seeking safety, security and a future. Hundreds of people have been arriving on the island of Lesbos. The Red Cross is providing assistance to those passing through Lesbos before they carry on with their journey. 

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Dawn’s Huffington Post article – ‘My Trip to the Jungle’

You can read the original on the Huffington Post here

My Trip to the Jungle

I’m sorry it’s taken me so long to write this. If I’m honest I didn’t know where to start. Sometimes, with an experience as emotive as my trip to Calais maybe it’s best to sit on it for a week and see what bits stays in your mind, those will be the most important things to write about. Nine days on and I’m left with images so vivid that it feels like yesterday I was there. Knowing how close it is to me, to all of us here in the UK, it’s impossible to forget the squalor that is being ignored by so many people.

During my six hours in ‘the Jungle’, the refugee camp just 37 minutes from Dover, I experienced surges of extreme emotion. From arriving and getting stuck in, feeling useful and proud of the difference our campaign made; to anger so charged I had to hold myself back from arguing with a French policeman; to a sadness so deep I was left sobbing uncontrollably in a field.

It took Lliana Bird and I just over two hours to get to Calais. That’s how long it takes me to get to Bristol to see my sister and nephews. It’s so close, and even though I knew that, it still shocked me. I had expected to drive through military-style security gates to get in, but there was nothing. Rather, after passing numerous people stomping along a motorway to the tunnel entrance we were driving away from, the camp just appears. A sea of tents, mountains of rubbish. You drive down, you take a left, you park the car, you are in. It’s completely open for anyone to get right into the heart of it. But then, I guess that’s kind of the idea.

I was nervous to arrive at the ‘Jungle’. I’ve spent the last month practically begging the public to help a situation that I hadn’t seen with my own eyes. The responsibility of that was quite overwhelming, and faced with the possibility that I might not feel the way I presumed I would when I arrived caused me real worry. I was scared I would be frightened, threatened, even appalled. That the huge amount of sympathy I’d felt throughout our online campaign wouldn’t be so strong when faced with the reality of the situation. That I’d see something that might change my mind.

As we parked, Josie was there to great us. She was kneeling down, chatting to a young boy on a bike. The two of them were smiling and hugging. This was not the first thing I expected to see. I had expected herds of young men in hoodies, who would come up to the car to ask me what I had for them. I’d expected to see drama instantly. What kind of drama, I’m not sure. But I didn’t expect the first thing I heard to be “Hey, this is my friend”, which is what Josie said when Lliana wound down the window. The little boy smiled and waved. He was so sweet, so happy. We gave him a box of Jaffa Cakes and he was so grateful. As we parked up and headed into the camp, we promised we would find him later. I meant it too, I wanted one of those cuddles.

As I got out the car those nerves came back. I’d been warned that I might find the amount of men intimidating, so I was prepared for that, but I didn’t feel it. Not at all. After chatting to that gorgeous kid on the bike for a few minutes, Lliana and Josie and I headed in.

Our first destination was the new Family Field that had been created that day. A field, just next to the main entrance of the main camp, where all families could stay. It had been created by volunteers and, L’Auberge Des Migrants (the primary charity on the ground there) in a bid to keep families and children safe. Volunteers were busy building wooden shelters, mothers were feeding their babies. It felt like a community that had been there for a long time. Of course some of them had been, and some had just arrived. One young mother came and lead me by the arm to her shelter, she urged me to look inside. A small baby was asleep in a pile of sleeping bags, she told me that five of them lived in there. And that it got cold at night. She wasn’t complaining. In fact, she was happy not to have to be in a tent.

Across the field I saw Philli, one of our team who’s moved to Calais to work alongside the local French charity, L’Auberge Des Migrants, and coordinate the building of shelters. She was on the phone to someone at the warehouse telling them what was urgently needed – she smiled and waved. Another happy face, just getting on with it. I felt strange, I wanted to keep saying things like “this is great”, “that’s brilliant”, “how amazing” in reference to the amount of volunteers, and to the wooden shelters that were being built in front of us. But I couldn’t say that, because none of it was great, brilliant or amazing. It was all completely shit. Even the wooden huts would provide little shelter when the weather turns. Downpour will wipe out the field. Beds will be drenched in mud, the air so cold the children wont sleep, the conditions so hideous the parents will fear for their families lives. I was impressed by the positivity and the drive, but all I could think was how the fuck these people will survive the winter? Already the main road through the camp is thick mud with puddles too deep to walk through. Despite the attempts to build shelter, it will all be futile when the rain comes. But that is the best they’re going to get.

Monday is Ladies Day. The make-shift Catholic church temporarily becomes a women-only space so they can get clothes, underwear, cosmetics and sanitary protection. We wandered a few minutes through the site to reach it, now I could really see the situation. It felt like the Thursday after Glastonbury, everyone still there. Wired, dirty, no idea how to get home. It was bleak, but active. It was obvious to all that I was a volunteer so numerous people approached me for help. One man, around 30, softly spoken, Syrian, put his hand on my shoulder and asked me for pants. Lliana asked him to clarify, “underwear, or trousers?” It was trousers that he needed, and I could see how demoralized he felt asking me for them. We directed him to a queue where men were queuing for clothes. He looked so happy at the thought of clean trousers. The refugees were pleased to see us, they know we are helping and they are very grateful.

At the church, boxes of supplies were laid out and women were taking what they need. There were all nationalities: Sudanese, Eritrean, Syrian to name a few. One women came and asked us for mascara. She said she was going for a meeting in Paris, and wanted to look good. Josie and I looked in the boxes but couldn’t see any, so when Danni (another one of our team) said she had an old one in the car, Josie ran back to get it. And that’s how the day largely worked, walking up to people who didn’t have shoes on, or whose trousers looked filthy, asking them what they needed, seeing where they lived, then one of the volunteers heading back to the warehouse to get it for them. We are literally handing out the supplies you sent to the people who need them the most. Sure, mascara is hardly a necessity, but I understood it. Many of these people fled from good lives in bad situations. They have standards, they are not poor, they have not lost all their self-respect. They want to feel good about themselves, in little ways.

As Ladies Day drew to an end there was unrest just outside of the church. Around six French police in riot gear had shown up. Behind them a swarm of volunteers and refugees filming them on their phones. If there was to be trouble then it would be on camera, no one innocent was getting the blame for anything they didn’t do. Days before, the French police has sprayed a group of women with tear gas as they hung by the side of the road. The unprovoked attack had caused great unrest in the camp. The French police and their brutal approach to all of this has been one of the main reasons the refugees don’t want to seek asylum in France. They treat them like shit. It’s quite simple.

We left the church and continued to walk the camp. Tent after tent crammed in. Some on higher ground, some at path level that would be swamped from just a spot of gentle rain. Some tents were so small I presumed they were for supplies, only to be horrified to realise they often housed multiple adults. I stopped and chatted to people as I walked. “How are you? Where are you from? How long have you been here?” Quickly I understood this was not a just Syrian camp, but multiple nationalities were there, and for multiple reasons.

Lliana and I looked up and saw three men lighting a fire under a piece of tarpaulin; they waved at us so we walked up a tiny slope to meet them. They offered us tea and got the fire going to make sure we were warm. They were so welcoming, so kind. Rain had started, and the temperature seemed to have dropped dramatically. They had little fire wood but used what they had to make us comfortable. I asked them where they were from, one man’s English was better than the others’ so he explained to me who he was. He was from Iraq, he’d been in Calais for five months but previously to that he was in a Greek prison for nine (simply for “not having the right papers” when he arrived in Greece). His wife and daughter are in London. His wife works for a major retailer at Westfield in Shepherds Bush, his daughter is nearly two. He hasn’t seen either of them for a year and a half. The British government isn’t allowing him into the country. You might think that’s OK, and that he should go back to Iraq and that his wife and daughter should meet him there? That him and his family are not our problem and that we should look after our own people before helping anyone else? But you see, he would be shot dead if he stepped foot inside of Iraq. Why? Because he drove a crane for the British Army in the Iraq war, and now we wont even let him get to his family. He IS our problem. We literally got him into this mess.

As soon as I heard his story I understood better than ever that there is no one kind of refugee in this horrific humanitarian crisis. There are all colours, all creeds and all sorts of different stories. We have to stop generalising, and acting like ‘they’ are all the same. That they are all from the same place, reaching for the same thing. Other than just ‘a better life’ the incentives vary so much. I want this man to be reunited with his family. He was a good man, and seeing him cowering under a single piece of tarpaulin in that way was hard to cope with. Lliana remembered a box back in the warehouse that had donated smart phones in it. Later on she went and got one for him, that night he was going to see his daughter’s face for the first time in months.

There are more men than women in Calais. Some sent ahead of their families to get to the UK, some trying to reach their families who are already there. Some young and fit, some middle aged and weak. But no elderly. None that I saw. Were they too weak to attempt the journey, or did they just not make it? Maybe a mixture of both. The journey to Calais is brutal. Many packed, cheek-to-cheek, in the back of lorries for days on end. No food, no water, no breaks. Like a soul-destroying rush hour that would drive us all to despair. Your relatively short commute should feel like a breeze tomorrow, when imagining the endless mission these desperate people have been on.

A man hobbles up to us on crutches. He made friends with Josie the day before. He threw his arm around her, and she was so happy to see him. He told her his legs were getting better, he’ll be well enough to “try again soon”. When he stumbled off Josie confirmed my worst fear, both his legs broke a few weeks ago when he jumped on to a moving train in an attempt to get to England. This was the moment my day turned. The reality. As if the lights in a TV studio zoomed onto the camp. This is the most intense sudden death round I could ever imagine.

I started to ask everyone I spoke to how they planned to get to Britain. “Jump”. “We jump”. “I will jump until I make it” were the answers I kept getting. The week before a teenage boy died doing just that. In the last two years hundreds have died attempting the same. The danger is no distraction from the prospect of a new life at the other end.

As you walk down the main strip, taking a thin path down the side in some parts as rain has swamped the main pathway, little businesses have been created. A symbol of the intentions of so many of the refugees. And no, this is not a case of the strongest getting to the donations first, then making the weaker pay for them. Many of the refugees have money, back home they had houses, businesses, cars. They fled war and constant threat of danger. They now use their money to pay motorists to take them to supermarkets, where they buy stock for their shops and cafes and sell them to the other members of the camp. It was oddly thrilling to see such enterprise. A society forming. Behind the counters of these little wooden huts, proprietors smiled at us and waved hello. Surrounded by such dehumanising conditions, it was a relief to see such pride.

Further around the camp we come across a crew of Irish volunteers busily erecting a large wooden shelter. “It’s the new women’s centre,” they told us. I watched as they happily hammered away, in awe of the many volunteers who had shown up to help. With no sign of any of the major charities, the grassroots organisations and individuals who have stepped away from their own lives to help the refugees in Calais are literally changing, improving, and possibly even saving, lives.

Further along our way we encounter a group of Eritrean men standing in a smoldering heap of rubble. A nightclub they had built burned down… no one knew exactly how it had happened. Two people had been inside, one now in the on-site hospital recovering from burns. The men were downbeat and shocked, although I got the impression this was an attack and they knew who had done it. A stark indication that violence, gangs and crime will only increase as the situation becomes more desperate. An unfortunate, but natural progression of human nature. Rumours of women prostituting themselves up on the road are also circulating. The women might not be safe for long.

The guys who had lost their nightclub (a wooden shack with a tarpaulin roof, not the glamorous party house that was reported by certain small-minded journalists) had also lost a place to sleep. So Josie, and another member of our group Tanya, headed back to the warehouse to get it for them, along with sleeping bags and other essentials. They were grateful to us, and we felt safe because we knew they needed what we had. But did we feel that we were walking away from the prospect of a revenge plot from them? Yes. And there wasn’t much we could do about that.

As the day drew to a close, the temperature dropped further and the rain kept falling. We headed back to the family field to say our goodbyes. Tanya and Danni were driving home with me, Josie and Lliana were staying a few days. I’d felt pretty strong all day, pragmatic, useful. But then I heard the shriek of a baby cry. A pang for my own eight-month boy was pulling me home like a leash around my neck. I turned to see a little girl, her head poking out a tent where I was told five people lived. She looked at me and screamed. Just a child crying, it’s nothing new. But the prospect of her future hit me hard. Would that child really be there, quivering in that tent through a brutal winter? Or would she be strapped to her fathers back as he tried to jump onto a moving train? Maybe one of those options, maybe none. But one thing was for sure, her future is unknown and frightening.

I left with mosquito bites like golf balls on my legs that drove me mad for days. The sanitation is bad and is attracting bugs, and soon disease, I am sure. Inspiring as it was to see the building of so many shelters that will absolutely give these people the best chance they have over the coming months, the situation still felt hopeless.

This is a massive problem and it’s only getting worse. There were 400 refugees in Calais in April, now there are over 5,000 and it’s growing every day. Whether you believe the refugees should be allowed into the UK or not, can we all agree that we should help them survive in the gruesome situation they are in?

I hope that’s how you feel. Don’t be the bad guys in the history books. Here’s how you can help:

Donate here.

Spread the word, you have a voice. Not enough people understand how awful this is, and if you can’t do anything else, you can help us help more people understand.

#HELPREFUGEES

 

Image: Dawn’s Huffington Post article – ‘My Trip to the Jungle’

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The Guardian Features #HelpCalais: ‘How a hashtag grew into a social movement to support refugees’

From the Guardian

#HelpCalais: how a hashtag grew into a social movement to support refugees

It started with a few tweets and some celebrity sparkle dust – but £50,000, 713 tents and 776 pairs of shoes later the campaign is looking to expand

What’s it all about?

A group of eight people, including radio DJ Lliana Bird and writer and television presenter Dawn O’Porter, got together to raise money and collect goods to help refugees in Calais, Kos and on the Macedonian border. Following an overwhelming public response to their call for help, the campaign has become a trans-european project, seeking to provide temporary shelter, clothing and support to refugees making the journey to western Europe.

Please click here to read more!

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Founder Lliana talks to Ch5 News about the Refugee Crisis

Watch Lliana talk to Channel 5 News about the refugees crisis.

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