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I gave faint comfort on the Refugee Crisis frontline

Molyvos Harbour, north Lesvos, Greece — Evening of Wednesday 28 October 2015

As soon as I put down the box of emergency blankets, a man was shoved at me. ‘This man needs help’ said the volunteer as she turned away to help someone else. He was wrapped in a torn emergency blanket. He was tall. His shoulders were bare. He was perhaps 50 years old. And he was sobbing.

At the Starfish volunteer orientation talk just 2 days previously, we were told that the emergency blankets do little if heat is not transferred. That’s all I recalled as I lead that man away from the chaos and sat him down against a wall. So I held that man as tight as I could. I kept my face turned from his to afford him some privacy as he wept.

I will not forget that man

We exchanged no words, that man and I. Another volunteer took him from me, keen to find his name and get him settled elsewhere. As he left my arms for hers, he caught my eye and made an almost indiscernible nod of thanks. I will not forget his dark skin, dark hair, dark eyes and his tears as they fell.

I have no idea if he lost his family that night

On the evening of 28th October 2015, forty people died when the flimsy, two-storied boat they had taken to make the 6km crossing from the Turkish shore to the Greek island of Lesbos fell apart under the weight of the 300 or so people on board. The vessel was full of families: children and elderly relatives. They had paid the traffickers double money ($3000) to take a ‘safe’ boat, promised to have only 40 people on board.

These were ordinary people, just like you and I

Families fleeing war, injustice, fear. Committing themselves to an unknown journey in their search for safety. They’d made it through Turkey, probably viewed the Greek shore with longing, expecting to feel relief from landing in Europe at last.

I gave faint comfort on the refugee crisis front line - by Ruth McAllister Kemp
Only 242 people made it alive. Pulled from the freezing sea by rescuers

Doctors and volunteers did CPR on the harbour side and sent people away in ambulances. A hearse arrived to take bodies away. Naively, I thought it was delivering medical aid, but no.

I crossed the small harbour many, many times that night

Helping anyone I could in any way I could. Another rescued man sat cocooned in heavy, grey blankets; underneath he was bare. A volunteer asked me to help keep him warm. I knelt in front of him and gently drew his feet on to my knees and rubbed them to work up some heat. My thoughts were so over the place I’d forgotten about the sports socks I’d stashed like gold dust in my pocket. Realising the small fortune, I slipped them on to his rigid feet and gently wrapped another blanket under and around his feet and ankles.

I dressed a young boy in an oversized lilac jacket, a girl’s t-shirt and tracksuit bottoms. All the while making thumbs-up signs to his shell-shocked parents as they sat cradling younger infants. On leaving that boy, I took his face in my hands and smiled as kindly as I could.

I ran out of people to help

I couldn’t get more things; the donations storage house up the hill from the harbour had been ransacked by volunteers wanting to move everything down to the people. Boxes of clothes were rifled through again and again as volunteers searched for trousers, tops, jackets and shoes to clothe cold, wet, disorientated, traumatised people plucked from the sea.

After finding my friend Julia to ‘check-in’, all I could do was return to the dimly lit boxes and hold my head-torch aloft to shed much needed light. I stood there for an age, observing the Greek man still searching for clothes using the torch on his phone.

I could do no more. I’d been working from 7am in the Oxy Transit Area picking rubbish, folding blankets, rolling mats, handing out dry clothes and managing the line of women as they pushed in front of the clothing tent. It was 8pm and the harbour seemed calmer. My friend and I left for our hotel, stopping en route for dinner where tourists ate, oblivious to the situation just half a mile away.

We were silent. I cried. We took turns to call home.

no one leaves home until home is a sweaty voice in your ear
run away from me now
i dont know what i’ve become
but i know that anywhere
is safer than here
Excerpt from “Home” by Warsan Shire

For more information on how to volunteer on Lesvos, visit Volunteers’ Coordination Team (Lesbos), Starfish Foundation. For a detailed overview of the work being done by volunteers there, please visit.

This article is an attempt to write from my heart, to remember, to help myself. It is not intended to dissuade people from volunteering. The scale of the crisis on that evening was unprecedented and unusual, though as the winter descends and the weather disintegrates it may become ongoing.

If you are thinking of volunteering to aid the refugee crisis in Greece, particularly Lesbos(Lesvos)/Molyvos(Molivos) and would like to know more, or have any questions, please do get in touch.

November 28, 2015

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