Shared stories vol. 2: a simple gesture (Nikolaj)

Nikolaj thought about volunteering in December 2015 and joined us in October 2017. Thank you for sharing, Nikolaj.

"A night at a UNHRC temporary refugee camp. A refugee touches my soul."

Oct 5: We rotate boat crew and I'm not on tonight, so I join the land crew to be on call for the night. The land crew helps refugees get settled in the "Stage 2" camp, a temporary UNHCR camp in Skala Sikamineas before people get sent to the much bigger Moria camp here on Lesvos.

We get called out shortly after 9 PM to help set up the camp for the people arriving on the next boat picked up by Frontex. I help get blankets and sleeping bags ready whilst others are putting down sleeping mats and making hot food and drinks. The mats are thin, unpadded carpets bearing the UN crest and the sleeping bags are flimsy. The blankets are much better and should provide some warmth in the large, unheated tent that is at the centre of the camp. Next to the camp are a number of plastic temporary building housing supplies, washrooms, and more. There is a tall metal mesh fence all around the camp, and one of the flood lights is flickering off and on, adding a slightly surreal atmosphere.

As refugees come in, I hand them a blanket and sleeping bag each. There are 30 of them, including a number of families with kids. People are young, they are old, and they come from places like Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan or further afield. They all look like they could be your neighbours back home in Canada ... except they are refugees. Many have wet pants, some are barefoot or are wearing only socks and are hobbling over the crushed gravel in the camp. Some are clearly distraught and I try to welcome them with a smile as I hand them their things. We've been asked to be cheerful and smile, but it's an unnecessary request: it's hard not to feel a deep sense of empathy for other human beings so clearly in distress. Parents ask their children to say "thank you" and at some point a little boy just walks from person to person and repeats "thank you" over and over again.

Once we have everyone in the main tent where they will sleep for the night, we pick out those who need dry clothes the most, such as the little boy who is clearly hypothermic when I hand him his blanket and sleeping bag. I point him out to another volunteer who approaches his parents to take care of him first.

After blanket and sleeping bag duty, I end up helping a family and a couple find dry shoes and pants. They know only a few words of English and I know no Arabic or other languages they speak, so we make it work by gesturing with hand signals. It's incredible how quickly you can build a rapport with someone even if you don't share a language and all you need to talk about is shoes and pants. We use our fingers to indicate sizes and once I know what fits them, I walk over to the clothing store stocked with donated clothes, ask for what they need, and then take it back to them.

I can tell people are relaxing as we are helping them get more comfortable. The dry shoes and pants after their dangerous boat ride are clearly a relief. At some point, another volunteer and I lug a big barrel of hot, sugared tea from the kitchen to the tent. Later, some hot food in styrofoam cups is also handed out. If I had apprehensions about working here tonight, they vanish as I spend more time with people. Everyone is willing to help, including the refugees who often translate for each other. There is even a camp cat called "Boo" cozying up to people who are taking turns to hold her.

The pants for one of the women I am helping don't fit, so I try to figure out with her what she needs. She gestures something bigger and I try to mimic her gesture to show I understand. At first, I gesture something bigger somewhat carelessly and then worry that I am indicating to her that I think she is fat. I quickly change my tune and gesture something just a tiny bit bigger with my fingers when my blasted brain finally kicks in. She catches on and we both share a smile.

We are wrapping things up outside for these latest arrivals when the father of the family I had helped earlier comes back out and taps me on the shoulder. I first think he needs a bit more help and I turn towards him, but he only looks at me, takes my arm and places a handful of pistachios into my hand. We share a moment together looking at each other. Lost for words, I thank him somehow. Then he's gone.

It's a simple gesture, but it completely caught me off guard. I still don't fully comprehend what happened in that moment. All I know is that his gesture touched me profoundly. I lack the words. For someone to share what little they have felt undeserved. In me, gratitude and shame, in equal measure. Shame for what I have and for going home to a comfortable bed whilst he ended up sleeping on a thin mat with his family in an unheated tent, on his way to the overcrowded Moria camp in the morning. There was nothing remarkable in what I did that another human being wouldn't have done.

Afterwards, I walk around Skala harbour with my soul on fire, thinking about what just happened. I know I will remember this night.

Meanwhile, there's another black boat exactly like the one we beached before, tied up in the same spot in the harbour. No two days here are alike, except the crisis continues.


Press release: Turkish Coast Guard attacks refugee boat in Greek waters

On the morning of November 10th,  the Turkish Coast Guard harassed and allegedly fired shots and injured refugees, while being in Greek waters. When the Hellenic Coast Guard arrived on the scene, 17 refugees jumped out of the dinghy and swam towards the Hellenic Coast Guard. The Turkish Coast Guards loaded the remaining people who could not swim, mainly women and children, on their boat and returned them to Turkey. Mochara assisted the Hellenic Coast Guard in transferring refugees.

At 3.47am, Refugee Rescue boat ‘Mo Chara’ received a request by the Hellenic coastguard to assist in transitioning people to the port of Skala Sykamineas. Upon arrival, Mochara was informed that 17 people had been taken on board from the water and were likely hypothermic. Hellenic coastguard given out emergency blankets, but everybody was distressed and in shock.

Once people made safely to Skala port, they were met by on-shore landing teams, including Lighthouse Relief and Refugee Rescue. Two unaccompanied minors and five people requesting medical attention were identified amongst the arrivals.

Several people told that the original vessel had had up to 37 people on board. Allegedly the Turkish Coast Guard was shooting in the air and threatening the dinghy by shooting into the water. They also allegedly rammed the boat. The Hellenic Coast Guard intervened at that point as the Turkish Coat Guard and the refugee boat were in Greek waters.

According to reports by the arrivals, the Hellenic Coast Guard requested the Turkish authorities to stop firing and assured the people on the boat that they were now in Greek waters. At that point, 17 people jumped from their dinghy into the water and swam to the Hellenic coast guard vessel for safety. According to accounts told to our lifeguard, Richie Heard the Turkish Coast Guard tried to apprehend refugees by using some sort of stick to reach them. In consequence one man suffered a head wound and was later treated at the temporary camp stage 2 in Skala.

Tragically all those who were not able to swim to the Hellenic Coast Guard were loaded onto the Turkish Guard vessel and were brought back to Turkey. Those that made the crossing recount that whole families were separated this way.

These reports demonstrate several clear violations of international maritime law by the Turkish coast guard. Namely, Article 98 (1) of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) calls for every state to assist any person in distress at sea, and the Guidelines on the Treatment of Persons Rescued at Sea (2004) calls for governments to provide safety to people recovered in their search and rescue territory (Resolution MSC.167 (78), para. 2.5).

This report adds to a long list of human rights violations and so-called push backs by the Turkish Coast Guard. We urge the UN Refugee Agency to fully investigate this incident and other similar incidents where people were taken back to Turkey even though they had reached Greek waters.

As shown the EU-Turkey Deal still threatens lives every day. Now it the time to put pressure on authorities that undermine their international obligations and needlessly put lives at risk. This abdication of responsibility by the EU and its member states has no basis in international law.
 

Shared stories vol. I: What am I doing here? (Nikolaj)

Nikolaj first thought about volunteering in December 2015. Now in September 2017 he stayed with us for a couple of weeks to support our boat crew. Thank you, Nikolaj for allowing us to share your experiences.

Nikolaj's diary

September 2017: I'm sitting in our small Nanaimo airport waiting for the first of several flights that will finally take me to Lesbos myself. I've been up for several hours, but it's still dark out. I am deploying with Refugee Rescue for two weeks. It's been two years since the pictures of Alan Kurdi went around the world, and things in many ways are just as dire on these islands as they were before:

"In Lesbos, the island on the frontline of the human drama in 2015, the main camp at Moria is currently at twice its holding capacity with 4,825 people registered. ... The latest surge is placing growing strain on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands where reception centres in Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos are vastly overstretched." (Read the whole article here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/29/surge-in-migration-to-greece-fuels-misery-in-refugee-camps

To which the corollary is: What are we doing here? Do these human beings not deserve dignity and our help, rather than being stockpiled in ill-equipped camps, their lives in limbo? Why do we still need to rely on NGOs to help save lives at sea? It's not nearly enough. We need more, much more. And we're undoubtedly on the wrong side of history.

"The NATO warship looking for refugees and the chapel offering refuge."

I've been with Refugee Rescue on Lesvos exactly a week now and whoever said that it would be like nothing you've ever experienced was right.

Oct 1: Got my vessel orientation, SOPs, and gear sorted today. First SAR patrol tomorrow at 6 AM.

Trying to shake off jet lag after arriving from the west coast of Canada, I went for a morning run to the landmark simply known as "The Chapel," about 3.5 km due west from Skala. There's HCG, NATO, and Frontex all patrolling up and down the coast, 24x7.

The Mo Chara crew operates out of Skala Sikamineas on the north shore of Lesvos. Of the 4500+ refugees who arrived in Greece in September 2017, 2300 came to this northern stretch of coast on Lesvos alone. Almost a thousand (out of 2300) were children, many unaccompanied.

In reality, no one ends up at the chapel. Refugees are helped to shore by volunteers like the Refugee Rescue crew or by government vessels and then brought up to the "Stage 2" UNHRC temporary camp with the help of the land crew provided by organizations like Refugee4Refugees and Lighthouse Relief.

"Area familiarization run and first SAR patrol"

Oct 2: First time out on the boat, we went looking for early morning arrivals at 6:00 AM just before dawn.

Refugees tend to arrive either between 10 PM and midnight or early in the morning at the moment, and we look for arrivals that might need help. Many boats land at Korakas lighthouse, which is easily visible, but not very accessible, and refugees can end up stuck on the rocks, exposed to the weather. The past few days have been rough, with high winds and big waves.

We went east from Skala, past the spotters at Korakas lighthouse and towards Palios Harbour, then turned around and went west all the way to the lookout for the spotters next to Efthalou Beach and the hot springs.

From the Mo Chara, there's evidence of refugee arrivals everywhere. The beaches are covered with life jackets, discarded boats, and other debris. Many of the life jackets are fake, sold to desperate people. There is a life jacket graveyard on Lesvos with thousands upon thousands of these, each worn by a human being looking to escape war, abuse, or oppression. On SAR patrols, you quickly learn to ignore those that clearly have been there for a while.

I've been here all of 24 hours and I already know that I will be back. The group of volunteers that has sprung up here and the sense of community draws you in like you've finally arrived and found your tribe.

"A long run, an encounter with a harbinger of many deaths to come, and a first encounter with refugees at night. Then we beach a boat."

Oct 3: I've been here two days and feel like I haven't pulled my weight, yet, but that feeling is about to change.

Trying to shake off the tail end of jet lag, I run west to the RRS lookout near Molyvos in the morning, about 17k on a dirt road from Skala and back. Lesvos is achingly beautiful with olive trees everywhere and scenic views of the Turkish coast across the strait. I run past the cats and dogs in town, past the end of the paved road and then on a dirt road that runs all the way to Molyvos. Near the far end of my run, I explore a rusty shipwreck we saw the day before and the lookout. Just as the day before, you find evidence of refugee arrivals everywhere, with discarded life jackets dotting the landscape.

The rusty ship wreck was a harbinger of many deaths to come. This vessel shipwrecked early on in the refugee crisis, and a number of people drowned. It was these early deaths that prompted groups like Refugee Rescue to form and bring in volunteer SAR crew. Atlantic Pacific brought a boat down at the same time. Without them, there would often be no help for people in desperate circumstances who get dumped on a shore cold and wet, with nothing more than they can carry.

RR lookout is one of two lookouts used to spot incoming boats with refugees. Refugee Rescue needs more spotters that work in shifts during peak hours during the day and night to find boats and relay their position. If you want to help, get in touch with Refugee Rescue. (Seriously, want to become a spotter? We need more of you.)

At night, a Frontex boat comes into Skala as we are about to leave on a night SAR patrol, with 30-40 refugees on board and a black dinghy in tow (one of three that landed yesterday). We delay our departure and stand by to help. I end up filming the process of getting the new arrivals off the boat for Refugee Rescue with a helmet-mounted GoPro some 12 feet away from the Frontex boat. Surprisingly civilized, but slightly surreal. Suddenly, this is no longer something you read about in the paper. Men are separated out and sit near the bow. Women and children sit on the back deck. There are armed maritime policemen guarding them as the landing of the refugees unfolds.

Skala is a little slice of heaven that turns into a refugee processing centre at the flip of a switch. Volunteers set up a landing station with a lit path towards the buses to take people to the Stage 2 camp, a doctor from IsraAID examines the refugees on the Frontex boat and determines who needs help quickly, and then the refugees disembark down the lit path. It takes a while and there is a lot of waiting initially, but as soon as the last refugee has walked to the bus, the switch gets flipped back and Skala turns back into a sleepy fishing village.

There are little signs of humanity showing through the cracks. An armed policeman with a shaved head on the back deck makes faces to cheer up a child cradled by its mother. A little boy really needs to pee and is taken to the side of the quay by another policeman. The policeman holds his hand as they climb off the boat and walk to make sure he is safe, speaking in a reassuring voice. A refugee with a bad limp takes a wrong turn from the lit path and stumbles towards the bus to take him away. I put my arm under his and walk with him, until another volunteer from the land crew takes over.

Afterwards, we go for our SAR patrol, have an interesting encounter with an unlit border patrol boat stalking us, and at the end of our patrol we take the inflatable boat the refugees arrived in and beach it near the To Kyma hotel for disposal. It was quite the evening and we are all beat after four hours on the boat.

One big difference to our RCM-SAR SOPs: RNLI-trained SAR crew is not afraid to get wet, and they have rescue swimmers. When we beached the boat, we put two people in it, ran it up to speed towards the shore, and then let it run aground. Afterwards, the crew we put into the inflatable boat simply swam back out and we retrieved them safely.


Please think about contributing to our cause to help us to continue our life-saving work on and around Lesvos:

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Documentary on Refugee Rescue to air on October 30, 2017

Why would a musician leave Northern Ireland, fundraise to purchase a boat and set up an organisation with friends to rescue people on the Mediterranean Sea? “The crossing”, a documentary that airs on October 30 at 10.40 pm follows the path of Joby Fox and Jude Bennett, the founders of Refugee Rescue. The documentary is directed by Sam and Ben Jones. They followed the work of Refugee Rescue for some time and we are looking forward to the product of their work.

“I recall Sam calling us at the start of the crisis and asking us where we were going to be at a certain time and date and whether they could film us. I remember just saying: I have no idea. How would we know that?”, recounts Joby Fox, founder of Refugee Rescue.

During this time, there were countless calls and questions at all hours. Often these media requests did little but increase the stress of our volunteers on the ground. Sam Jones and his crew were persistent, but also respectful and patient. “We said, as long as you don’t get in the way, you can follow us. My god, they worked for it!” recalls Joby Fox.

While Joby, Jude and the crew at that time will be featured in the documentary, Refugee Rescue truly lives through the spirit, energy, time and resources that all our volunteers and supporters have dedicated to our cause. “I recall one of our earliest volunteers giving out cookies to traumatized people after a landing. It is these small gestures of kindness that make a difference”, says Joby Fox.

We thank Sam and Ben Jones and their team for their efforts to pain the full picture of our organization. As Joby says: “To me they will always be part of Refugee Rescue”. We encourage all our supporters and followers to tune in tonight BBC 1 NI, North and watch “The crossing” at 10.40 pm. You can also watch it on October 31st, 2017 on BBC 2 Northern Ireland at 22.00.

You can now also watch the documentary in the bbc library until November 30th. Check it out now: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cf9ct

Joby Fox, founder of Refugee Rescue. 

Joby Fox, founder of Refugee Rescue. 

UPDATE: Surge in arrivals and improved cooperation with authorities for the time being

Refugees are still arriving on Lesvos every day. Lesvos remains the main point of landing for people crossing from Turkey. UNCHR statistics show that while considerably less people arrived in the early months of this year, the opposite is true for the months of May, June and July. During these months 37% more people arrived than during the same period last year, most of them women and children.

We wanted to share this video to remind you and everybody who sees this that cooperation is possible. It is our primary goal to avoid shipwreck and make crossing the Aegean Sea safer and our work remains as important as ever. Cooperation between authorities and NGOs is possible and should be a key component in achieving our goal.

Increasingly we have been helping when people land on rocks and parts of the island that remains inaccessible for the Coast Guard and its boats. We often assist to transfer people from bigger boats straight to the coast to help them reach safe land faster.

Over half of the people arriving are women and children. We often witness boats that have more children than adults on board. On August 18th, such a boat landed in Korakas, with 7 men, 9 women and 17 children on board.

Families often try several times to cross the Aegean Sea as they stopped by Turkish authorities. The potential risk of being stopped by Turkish authorities contributes to the fact that crossing the Mediterranean remains dangerous. In order to avoid being stopped by Turkish authorities, people take high risks when crossing. The EU-Turkey Deal is still risking lives of innocent people fleeing war and violence every day.

We also observe that children are often dehydrated leading to vomiting upon arrival. Many adults that arrive also suffer from pre-existing chronic conditions. Conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure do not only form a risk in themselves, but they furthermore lead to anxieties that often result in panic.

First medical aid and professional search and rescue is more important than ever! We commit to providing those in need with help and work hard to make the Aegean Sea safer.

Here a little glimpse of what this cooperation looks like:

PRESS RELEASE: A dangerous turn in rhetoric against NGOs may cost lives

As the rhetoric within Europe takes a turn towards criminalizing NGOs, rescue teams on the ground, in Lesvos and elsewhere, are facing harsher interference that puts a strain on their life-saving operations. Refugee Rescue has been operating on Lesvos since 2015, always cooperating with other NGOs, rescue organisations, and the Hellenic Coast Guard.

During the past months, the Hellenic Coast Guard and local authorities have made operations increasingly difficult for Refugee Rescue and their SAR boat, “Mo Chara”. This has now reached a point where lives may be at risk.

The Hellenic Coast Guard has threatened fines should Refugee Rescue fail to give 24 hours notice before launching a rescue mission. A 24H report requirement is unworkable, since a refugee boat may appear at any given moment. This has prevented Refugee Rescue performing immediate rescues and has greatly constricted their operation.

Crew on land have been met with threats and demands to leave their posts. These posts are vital for spotting any incoming boats. In one incident, Refugee Rescue volunteers were threatened with a firearm. Previous threats were less brutal, although all threats are a challenge to diplomacy on the island.

After a long period of diplomatic difficulties with the Hellenic Coast Guard, the land crew has now been forced to leave their positions. This is despite compliance and successful collaboration in the past.

The safety of the Refugee Rescue crew has been compromised to such an extent that rescue missions are in danger. These arbitrary conditions, imposed by national and EU-authorities, ultimately put the lives of refugees at risk.

Refugee Rescue is present in Lesvos because refugees keep coming in. The crossing in unsafe and unseaworthy, overloaded vessels can be swamped with water, gasoline, or both. The people who arrive on these boats are heavily traumatized, physically injured, and are often in shock when they reach the shore.

Refugee Rescue is a professional SAR team with the ability to provide medical aid. There is no doubt that NGOs are needed, as, to date, they have saved thousands of lives. Governmental rescue-institutions and most of the larger help-organisations have left Lesvos, which leaves refugees under perilous and life-threatening circumstances.

Refugee Rescue is here to help and ready to cooperate. By remaining in Lesvos, we help ensure compliance with international Search And Rescue standards, as well as international human rights.

For more information, please contact info@refugeerescue.co.uk.

26 refugees rescued safely - relieved and smiling.

This photo sees the shared smiles between Refugee Rescue crew member Isabel and a young boy she helped off the rocks and to safety.

At 04:53 this morning we had a shout that refugees were on a beach around the coast from Skala. Our fantastic crew were 9 minutes from bed to boat. The Mo Chara crew assisted 26 people, amongst them many tiny little children, off the secluded cove they had been smuggled into, around the coast again and into Tsonia harbour.

There, our land crew, along with our partner NGO's, helped these 26 with medical care, water, food and dry clothes.

This was a really nice landing for our crews and for the refugees. We needed it after the darkness of this past week.

Happy smiling people, relieved and safe.

Photo permissions kindly granted.

 

Article from Frontex who was on scene who we cooperated with and they boarded our boat Mo Chara so they could help us get the people to safety:

http://www.amn.pt/Media/Paginas/DetalheNoticia.aspx?nid=1573

Shipreck! At least 16 dead. Refugee Rescue pulls body of teenage girl from sea

Monday 24th April 2017 - a sad day. The crew received an SOS call that there was a shipwreck and bodies in the water. The crew worked hard for hours to find survivors to unfortunately only recovered this teenage girls body. Many souls perished this day but through a miracle 2 survived including a pregnant lady. 

There was little world news reported on this tragic event and if they did they don't mention the humanitarian rescuers that were there finding and taking bodies from the water. We need to remain to prevent anymore deaths at sea. 

http://www.reuters.com/article/us-europe-migrants-idUSKBN17Q0UL

 

Refugee Rescue find 8 kids on rocks, dumped by smugglers in water!

It was 3rd April 2017 at 6:15 in the morning when we saw the fire in the distance.  26 people were on the rocks waiting for help. Smugglers are increasingly dumping desperate families in the waters, reportedly at gunpoint. Refugee Rescue found them cold and wet. The operation took over 3 hours to complete and we called in the help of fellow rescuers Proactiva so we could board all the refugees and bring back to port safely.

What an 'assist shout' is like for Refugee Rescue

Refugees towed by Frontex unnecessarily for 2 hours and people are hypothermic, when we could have helped. Refugee Rescue go to assist a refugee boat. When we get there Frontex (Border Control) have decided to tow them to a far away port rather than safe lands closer due to Golden Dawn (Fascists) tensions in that area. Towing is a dangerous option, particularly in these conditions. We need to be there to help.

 The news report pbs.org/newshour/bb/tensions-rise-in-greek-fishing-village-that-welcomed-migrants/ shows the people landed on the shore, freezing. #stayhuman #togetherwecanhelp #welcomemocharas date with our team on Lesvos....