Refugees arrive in boats on European shores. Ben White/ CAFOD. Flickr. Some rights reserved.I stand alone on the warm, dark beach under a vast, starry sky. Gazing into the black ocean, I wait to see which of the distant lights emerging from the darkness are boats full of people. It is my first night shift doing night watch for refugee arrivals on the island of Kos.
Not long after 1am, I hear the sounds of people; their shouts cut through the night at the waterfront. I go towards the noise, trying to be quiet so as not to startle anyone. I begin to see silhouettes and phones lighting the ground, highlighting legs and feet stumbling out of the water and over rocks. When I’m near the group, I say, “Hello, is everyone OK?”
Big startled eyes turn towards me. “Yes, yes” surprised answers reply. As a man hauls a little girl out of the boat, I get into the water and grab her rucksack. I see several more small children landing on the beach as adults pull them out one by one. I take one little boy’s hands in mine, and his wild eyes gaze back at me. He is soaked to the bone, silently shivering.
On the shore the families are counting each other, parents fiercely holding on to their children. I double-check everyone is OK. They seem confused that I might want to help them, but clearly want to be helped. I establish they are from Syria, and are all wet and cold. I don’t have supplies with me; all the blankets and other items are at the port.
I say to them “Follow me. We will get blankets now, and food, water and dry clothes in the morning”. I’m not sure they understand everything, but they see I am trying to help. With that, we begin to walk towards the sparsely lit suburban sea front. It’s a 3km trek to the port, and these are the refugees’ first steps on European shores.
When we hit the road, almost immediately figures step out of the bushes by the beach ahead of us, maybe 30 altogether. They look Pakistani, some Middle Eastern and some Africans. I continue towards them, as before asking if everyone is OK. There is an old couple with the other group, from Afghanistan I learn, who look very frail and tired. I try to check they are all right, though I cannot do much to help them. The elderly gentleman with his wise, weatherworn face signals me not to fuss. He seems both proud and embarrassed that he might need help, so I give them their space. Asking them to also follow, we all traipse in a growing line snaking towards the port, with several more groups of refugees joining from the sea front as we go.
At the port, where there are other volunteers on duty, blankets are distributed, and the few clothes we have here are given to the most vulnerable, leaving many still wet. I take what clothes I have out of my own rucksack and give them to the young women. The refugees settle down in what space there is between the other tents and sleeping bodies, finding their home for the night.
At this point, we swap night shift duties to keep everyone fresh. I’m alone again. Within 15 minutes, the coast guard’s huge industrial ship comes into the harbour, pulling three boats behind it. Suddenly there are dozens figures walking cautiously towards me in the dark.
Leaping up, I shout: “Everyone OK? Where from?”
“Pakistan”, they answer.
What can I do with 80 plus refugees freshly arrived in Europe? I can see no children or elderly that might be vulnerable with them, so addressing the vast crowd, I say “Warm clothes, food, water in morning. Now, you can rest here”. I see this may often be the only realistic mantra of the nightshift, as the masses of new people arrive to this tiny island nightly. For now, at least, everyone is clearly relieved to have arrived in Europe, alive and safe. With that, the large crowd finds space wherever they can amongst the others already squeezed along the port front.
I decided to come to the island of Kos on a bit of a whim, after what was unfolding in Europe began to sink in: vast immigration and neglect of refugees to the point of widespread abuse. Through some Greek friends, I managed to contact a small initiative working with refugees on Kos called Kos Solidarity. They told me they would happily have me come to volunteer with them. So I started a GoGetFunding campaign and I booked my flights, along with two weeks holiday.
As it dawned on me the enormity of what I was stepping to: the frontline of the refugee crisis in Europe, I had a few days of real nervousness. As well as worrying about the incredible hardships and injustices I would witness, I was also questioning my actual worth there. Was I really going to Kos to address my own discomfort at the suffering, ultimately a self-gratifying reason, without actually being able to help? From what I was told by Kos Solidarity, however, was that more help was desperately needed. Even if we didn’t do a perfect job, we could do something together. It would be better than nothing and certainly better than the absence of support offered by our governments.
After a short, broken late morning sleep after the nightshift on Kos, some other volunteers and I wandered down the harbour. The feeling is very different during the day. You can clearly see the masses of foreign faces squatting on the beach in makeshift living quarters. Every walk of life seems represented here, from barefoot men to women in shiny sunglasses with the latest smart phones.
Walking towards the tents, we made basic conversation with some people to try to get an understanding of what is going on this morning and how everyone is. We ended up sitting with an extended family from Syria, two couples, a sister, and eight children between them. They were hanging around their encampment of tents under an old stone bridge. I squeezed in beside them and a snotty little girl smelling of sea salt with gorgeous eyes parked herself on my knee, playing with the bracelets on my wrist. Through basic hand gestures, they quickly portrayed that they were hungry and that they needed nappies.
It seemed the right thing to do to get food for these people right now. We went to the local bakery and bought dozens of pastries. We brought these back to the family’s tent, where we planned to split them up and distribute them. Within a few minutes however we had a crowd around us, and several young men were barging in to get their share. We were quickly overwhelmed, despite trying to take control of the situation. The food was gone quickly: These people really were hungry. I made a note to myself to give out food and items with the support of other volunteers in the future to avoid people panicking and pushing.
With nothing else to give the Syrian family, I headed down to the port. There were lots of faces; watching me, watching the ocean, many minds occupied with bigger things. Saying “Hi” to several guys, surprised “Hi”s were returned. Some hand shaking and polite exchanges were had with a group of giggly, trendy-looking young men from Iraq. Basic broken conversation was punctuated with smiles, and stories of where they wanted to go in Europe. One of the young Iraqis, maybe 16 years old, shyly curled around from the back, saying, “Sister, shoes”. I looked down; he was bare footed. His friend joined in, saying, “T-shirt, T-shirt”. I could see his shirt was soaked in sea salt. With attentive eyes, they silently waited for me to help somehow. I had to tell them, “T-shirt and shoes later”. I had been told there was a clothes distribution around noon. This seemed to satisfy them, as they politely retreated saying nothing. I hoped that they understood.
A Syrian guy with green eyes, long eyelashes and a shawl wrapped round his head to protect him from the sun approached me from behind saying “Phone, need battery, need call Syria”. Unsure of what to do, I decided to take him to a nearby café and bought him a coffee so he could charge his phone there. He seemed very restless and tormented in some way. After a while he went and sat under a tree by himself. You could see he wasn’t in a good way, clearly all that was on his mind was to contact his family left behind in Syria.
It quickly became clear to me that phones are very important to people here. They are the only means to let their families know they are safe and well and vice versa. Contacting home can be a troubling or joyous thing. Later that day, a tall young man from Iran with a ceaseless white smile, wrote a personal message on paper in Farsi to be sent via whatsapp to his brother in Iran. He was so happy to be able to tell him that he had arrived in Europe safely.
Back at the port, I saw some young sharp-looking Pakistani lads had found a white leather chair washed up on the beach. Swivelling around on it on the sea front, one was receiving a massage from his friend. I joined in with a head massage. “How do you know Pakistani massage?” one shouted. “I don’t” I shouted back, “this is a traditional Scottish welcome greeting”. This got them laughing.
Boredom seems to be a problem here, so making people smile can go miles. Here, most of the people spend so much of their time waiting; for the next boat; for papers; for the next meal. So any opportunity to mess about and smile is worth grabbing. A football emerged from somewhere later on that day, and instead of joining in, I spent my time shouting at the lads who only had a tiny stripe of pavement to play on “not on the road!” and “not at the police station!” which was met with mad rushes in Bangladeshi to curse their friends and giggles.
That night a volunteer asked a group of 14 Pakistani men if they wanted to go out for food. We all went to a café on the sea front, and he ordered pizza and drinks for everyone. The guys were visibly delighted at the gesture. I sat with five men between 20 and 50 years old, some with no English and some with no teeth, all smiling broadly. We talked about their homes left behind and their hopes for Europe. They spoke much about their families: the children, the parents, the wives and the villages left behind in countries far away. You could see how simply being in this restaurant, they felt more human and more equal to us, they spoke directly and confidently. As the beers began to flow, so the laughter also began, ensuing for the rest of the night.
One of the hardest things I have found in Kos has been telling people what they still have to face on their journey as they make their way across Europe. Many ask what is the best way to go to Germany, or Sweden, or Norway? With Europe’s recent back and forth in the closing of several key internal borders, clear directions for the best way westwards is essential for migrants without papers. The conversation would generally go, “Hungary bad: big fences, refugee camps, bad police, racist. Bulgaria, Romania and Poland route very bad: bad roads, long journey, very, very cold in winter and very racist. Croatia slowly closes border. Croatia not perfect, but best way. Go fast to get through. But very important, go on roads, or train tracks if no roads. There are bombs (mines) in the forests”.
Telling people who have escaped war, fled persecution and terrorist groups and just survived a deadly sea crossing that this is what they will face in Europe: evading states who oppose and abuse refugees and mines, is painful beyond words. You can see their hearts sink, and the fear they had finally put behind them silently rising again.
The dynamics on Kos between both the groups of temporary migrants: tourists and refugees, is also intriguing to watch. I’m not sure if the refugees are more confused by the tourists wearing whatever new bare-all fashion is in and often looking confused and unimpressed when they walk past or the tourists are more confused at the refugees camping the island. I’ve noticed though, as well, that tourists have a great way to ignore the elephant in the room, and the real people and situation in front of them. Most of the refugees here are, however, used to being on the move, and living on the fringes of society, so they expect people to not acknowledge them, let alone be friendly towards them.
Of course many tourists do want to help. I sat with an Iranian guy, while a British couple asked me about the situation. They did not know how to address him and so they didn’t. This, of course, made it very awkward. It is like the tourists have forgotten people are only people and nothing to be scared of. We are all the same. For most refugees, these are their first steps in Europe, and my god, they have a lot to get used to.
The fate of most of the people I meet in Kos once they leave I don’t know. I have, however, had several phone calls from people I met here, telling me where they have made it to in Europe and where they are going. It makes me so happy to hear the voices of people I met after they have managed to make it to Europe.
I received a photo in an email of a family from Pakistan who had finally made it to Germany, a mother, a father and their baby who was only 21 days old when it came off the boat in the night. The relief I felt for them was beyond words. Quite a few lads have called me on their way through Europe, such as a young Syrian who called me when I was at work. I had to dodge out of my office to the work kitchen, and look online to quietly give him directions for the best route from Croatia to Munich.
I am very happy to get these calls. I am happy because I know that they are not now in stuck in refugee camps and are going where they want to go. I am also just happy to hear their voices, the voices of such courageous people who have often escaped war and persecution, trekked across counties, been trafficked by people smugglers, survived a perilous sea crossing at night, to make it to Europe. I have had the absolute honour to have been able to help. A connection and supportive love is sparked with each face you meet on that island.
With most of the refugees, however, I don’t know what has happened. There are too many to know about them all. I can only hope they are safe and not stuck with the masses at border camps, having to face police, surviving in the rain, sleeping in forests, or worse, herded against their will into refugee camps.
As there have been hundreds of thousands entering Europe in the last few months, who knows what has happened to all of these individuals seeking refuge after leaving Kos? I can only hope that they have managed to find some safety, security and dignity within the countries of Europe.