Today I held the tiniest little jumper I have ever seen. That’s when it hit me: this mountain (and I mean serious mountain) of donated clothes was all destined to be worn by real people. Wet, cold, exhausted and often sick people. People who risk their lives to seek asylum. Even tiny little people, like the baby who will someday soon be tucked into this exact jumper. A jumper that will be pulled out of a night-shift car and wrapped around to keep her warm on her way from the cold, wet beach over to one of the island’s refugee camps. Perhaps held by her parents, perhaps separated from her family on the way, or perhaps even orphaned.
The warehouses here bulge full of donated goods. The state of most is so abundant that Lesvos tends to be in much greater need of people to sort and organise the donations than of the donated goods themselves. There are, of course, things still greatly needed. Shoes are in high demand, as are tracksuit trousers that are easy to get on to a cold and wet arriving refugee. As it turns out, other types of trousers aren’t easy to slip onto a cold and drenched person – practical considerations that aren’t often thought of when people are gathering clothes and donations to send over.
Spending a day in a warehouse sorting donations is a great way to get a feel for the enormity of it all. I organised an endless supply warm and practical clothes – many designer labels, some brand new, into boxes. I felt some anger well up at how many people see refugees coming and judge them on their clothes, assuming they are abusing the system as they can obviously afford nice clothes. What possible hardship could they be suffering? If they are, then Why don’t they buy cheaper clothes and spend their money on their suffering families? Questions I have heard before, in one form or another, and never fail to wind me up.
I spent part of today cutting open life jackets as part of an amazing project to salvage the parts. Some very resourceful and creative people are using the stuffing as insulation for camp tents, the straps to hold structural frames together and the fabric is being sewn into bags. They were all fakes. Life jackets stuffed with packing foam that actually absorbs water – made and sold cheaply to refugees who’ve often never seen water in their lives, let alone learnt to swim. The contrast was apparent between the ingenuity of the project with the wretchedness of knowing how intentionally people were providing these unseaworthy jackets.
Driving down the main coastal road from Mytilini you get an incredible view of the mountainous Turkish coastline where the refugees are departing from. It’s so close. Only 10km away, yet it takes up to 10 hours for refugees to cross due to bad weather, dodgy engines, not enough fuel or overcrowded boats capsizing midway. The people who do finally make it across are wet, frightened and often separated from their families.
In the early hours of tomorrow morning, 4am to be precise, I will go out to the beach to meet arriving boats for the first time as part of a medics team. I am expecting a long night, with my shift finishing at 10 in the morning. I have been told to expect to get wet & end up somewhat in the ocean, to expect large numbers of hypothermic cases and completely overwhelmed and exhausted people arriving. I am also expecting a large number of boats to arrive tonight due to previous nights bad weather. I am feeling both excited and nervous. Certainly pleased to get out on the front line, back under pressure where I am in my element, although nervous around the unexpected. I’m sure once the first night is through and I am into the swing of things the nerves will disappear.