Cyprus Mail
Life & Style

Doing what they can with what they’ve got

By Alix Norman

Every day our news feeds throw up the stories about refugees drowned, missing, hungry and cold. It’s hard to take in, even when we hear it straight from the people on the ground. After a while the statistics become meaningless, we become inured to the stories of death and loss and chaos. But there’s another, little known, side to the mass migration that’s become the biggest movement of people since World War II. There’s the hope, the humanity, and the wonderful moments of true, human connection. Especially in Moria, Lesvos’ main camp and registration point for refugees where Katerina Constantinou has been volunteering for the last month.

“A common language,” she begins, “isn’t essential. When you’re offering underwear to shy women in wet clothes, a raised eyebrow and a shared smile is all you need to convey the utter absurdity of the situation. Or when you’re struggling to get people into line, and one of the refugees stands up to help out, you realise that this is real communication. And connection.”

It’s wonderful to hear about the positive aspects of the current crisis, to know that basic human decency can shine through even in the worst of times. But Kat admits she has made a concerted effort to focus on the moment, because “If you start thinking about the bigger picture, you begin to wonder what you’re doing. In a way, this is a mass migration with no destination. So you have to focus on what you can do right here, and right now, to make things better. And then you start to notice that there are moments of extraordinary beauty…”
Just today, she says, the volunteers bade farewell to a group of young men who had stayed in one of the tents she’d erected. “Before they left, we sat in the sun together, and shared cigarettes. We talked football and took selfies. I can’t tell you how many times they thanked us – they weren’t bitter at all about having risked their lives to get here, or about not knowing what the future holds. They were just grateful for our help, and hopeful for the future they imagined ahead of them”

It was a bright moment amongst the hustle and bustle of what is clearly a hectic workload. Since she arrived Kat has been setting up much-needed all-weather tents donated by British cosmetics company LUSH (who paid for her flight) but most of what she’s been able to contribute has been thanks to public donations. She’s one of several Cypriot volunteers on the island, helping in the registration line, sorting and distributing clothes, and completing a myriad of other tasks, but help has come from “all four corners of the globe”.

“There are hundreds of volunteers from all over the world,” she explains. “Palestine, Iran, Sweden, The Netherlands, England, France, America, Canada and New Zealand; local Greeks as well as volunteers who are refugees themselves. We’re a melting pot of nationalities, and it’s inspiring to see how people have given up their homes and jobs because they believe in the refugees’ self-determination and right to passage. It’s not that people are here crusading, most people can only take a week off work or, at most, a month. What really is great is that everyone’s working together to do whatever they can with whatever they’ve got.”

Doing the most you can with what little you have seems to be the order of the day in Lesvos: “When Adele” – another Cyprus resident who’s volunteering along with Kat – “first picked me up from Mytilene, the temperature had plunged to minus 6 at night. Adele, along with other volunteers, had already begun a programme to recycle life vests into insulation for the UN huts and mattresses and this then developed to the Lush tents as well.

All sorts of initiatives designed to bring cheer to Lesvos’ temporary residents are underway: Drama workshops, permaculture gardens, musical performances. ‘Better Days for Moria’, a completely volunteer-powered group is transforming the area outside the main registration centre, which used to resemble a giant garbage dump of misery, into a place of rest and recuperation. We’ve got a mosque, circus workshops, a children’s play tent and 24-hour medical aid and dry clothes distribution. Some of the volunteers are even offering acupuncture and massage! Everyone pitches in to help in whatever way they can night and day.”

During the small hours, “other volunteers patrol the coast with binoculars, notifying others waiting in boats when they spy a boat approaching. They stay in contact with each other through Whatsapp, using their own roaming data to let each other know where the boats are and when they are expected to arrive so those back at camp can be ready with warm clothes and places to stay. Then they get out there and help: bringing people to the shore and drying them off, contacting UNHCR who are running all the buses so the new arrivals can be taken swiftly to camp.”

Warmth and compassion abound, she says, if you know where to look. And it’s not just the volunteers. Many of the locals have gone above and beyond in their aid efforts: “A team of Lesvos residents are currently creating solar heaters for the huts, for example. And our landlady has been kindness itself.” Then there are the refugees themselves: “Today when we were putting up more tents in the pouring rain a 10-year-old Afghan, three Moroccan youths and an Iranian man insisted on helping too. And countless times when I’ve been trying to get people into line and tempers start to fray, someone who speaks a bit of English will jump in and translate – a young guy getting off one of the buses yesterday came straight up to us and said ‘I speak Farsi and English, can I help?’”

This positive attitude is a strong contrast to the ‘discontent’ and ‘unrest’ we hear of through the media. But for the most part, the refugees have been “patient and thoughtful. You can see the stress they’re under, but in some ways,” she suggests, being in Lesvos is like being part of a big human family. Despite everything,” she concludes, “what I’ll remember when I leave the island is not the mud or the chaos or the heartache. It’s the extraordinary things ordinary people can achieve when they pull together for each other, those unexpected moments of connection and simple beauty. Of humanity.”

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