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The Weekend Neos Kosmos : 17 October 2015
DIGITAL.NEOSKOSMOS.COM THE WEEKEND NEOS KOSMOS | SATURDAY 17 OCTOBER 2015 25 GREECE Report on Lesvos in crisis Volunteer nurse Helen Zahos gives a firsthand account of the refugees’ hardships and the trying time for the island ZOE THOMAÚDOU When PM Alexis Tsipras and Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann paid a visit to the refugee camps of Lesvos last week, they only caught a glimpse of the dire situation. "It was sheer chaos. The refugees are not informed about where to go or what is happening and they are beyond exhausted,” Helen Zahos tells Neos Kosmos. "The numbers of refugees is so big that the local police are overwhelmed and put under extreme pressure." The Queenslander flew to Greece to join Medecins du Monde, one of the NGOs providing humanitarian aid on the island, one of the main entry points to Europe with the biggest influx of refugees. Through an online campaign launched prior to her departure, she managed to raise $20,000 for supplies and medical equipment. On Sunday 4 October, she recalls the arrivals reaching 3,500, as the Turkish coast guard was not working on the day. The refugees hike up the mountain for 10 kilometres to an area where buses are parked to transport them to Mytilini, the capital of the island, to be registered. Even though buses are scheduled to run 24/7, that is not always the case. Many people can afford to pay for a room to spend the night, but hotels are unwilling to accept those who are not yet registered. This leaves them with no other alternative but to cover the 65 kilometres to Mytilini on foot, in order to kick start the registration process as soon as possible. Driving refugees from the beach to the centre has been banned by authorities, and any residents or holidaymakers trying to help are exposing themselves to threats and the possibility of being accused of people smuggling under a recently-passed law. "Last night we encountered many people by the road settling in to sleep on the ground, so with the assistance from another NGO we sourced and delivered 500 blankets to the most vulnerable populations, babies, children, women and the elderly," Zahos says of a night when the buses had stopped operating. While the stream of refugees continues well into the autumn months, bad weather conditions aren't making daily life any easier. "I encountered an angry local president of a village who was frustrated that fires were being lit too close to trees and residential houses. "I spent half an hour working with the fire service explaining to people they should not light fires near houses or trees," she says. According to Zahos, lack of communication due to language barriers is often the cause of safety issues. She says it is necessary that instructions are delivered to people in their native tongue upon arrival at the shores. "They are so frightened that they panic and jump overboard, with kids losing balance and falling into the water. "When Greek coast guard officers speak to them in English, they don't understand, so having interpreters who speak Arabic and Farsi is invaluable. Correct communication has saved lives," she explains. Meanwhile, Zahos describes the response from the locals as overwhelming. "A group of women cook food and I also met an amazing person who was running up and down from his house with towels to dry the children and give them clothes. "Another man, who looked quite poor, came up to me with a blanket and said 'please take this, it is all I have to give, it is old but clean and someone here will need it tonight, it is so cold'. "I feel proud to see that there are so many local Greeks helping out and showing such genuine enthusiasm," Zahos says. Sailing between hope and despair, thousands of refugees escape their war-torn countries, each one with their own personal story compiling a mosaic of human struggle for survival. Among others, the nurse met a 20-year-old woman who had set out on the perilous journey to Europe with her uncle and two children after her husband died during a bombing. Another woman had studied in Lebanon and was working as a medical interpreter in Damascus, before being forced to flee with her six-year-old son, leaving her husband behind. Upon her arrival on Les- vos, she was 20-weeks pregnant and had to walk for 20 hours into the mountain and At Mytilini Port, the refugees have to wait up to two days until the next boat leaves. PHOTO: GIANNIS DOUKAKIS. Mytilini Port. This young family is fortunate to have enough money for some food, while they camp next to the boat. PHOTO: GIANNIS DOUKAKIS. tripped over so many times that she asked to be examined by doctors, concerned about her baby's health. "She told me in confidence how she was lying to eve- ryone saying she was here with her brothers, so that they wouldn't know she was alone as she was so scared of being hurt," Zahos recalls. "We get to hear tragic sto- ries. On days when things run smoothly and tensions are not high, people look so much happier; but still you can see the fear in their eyes." Helen Zahos with two young refugees. At Moria refugee camp where people are waiting to be called up for the registration process. A young child exhausted after the trek.
10 October 2015
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