Two weeks in a Lesbos refugee camp

Moria Camp
Moria Camp

I am in a ferry to Turkey from Lesbos. I am crossing the same stretch of sea that thousands of refugees have crossed this year in the opposite direction. My ferry is safe,  with a bar selling hot and cold drinks and a working toilet.  The price of the ticket: 10 euros. I know that at this very moment on the other side,  men,  women and children are getting ready to board rubber dinghies with dodgy engines. They will be risking their lives and will have paid exorbitant amounts of money for the privilege (I’ve heard that the going rate right now is between 800 and 1200 euros per person).

The evening is beautiful,  the sun is setting giving an orange tinge to the sea and the lights of the houses in the shore remind me of the Christmas nativity scene we used to have in our house when I was little.  We used moss and pomice stones to make mountains that always had a wolf perched in the rocks, pieces of mirror for the pond full of ducks and cork houses with fairy lights inside, light shinning out of their little doors and windows.  My brother and I loved moving the three wise men closer to the manger each day until they reached it on the 5 January. It was hard to go to sleep that night as we knew that they would also come to our home and there would be presents waiting for us in the morning.

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It was cold on deck.  I put my hands in my pockets and my fingers instinctively reached for the ‘hombre al agua’* that Ion, one of the lifeguards from Zarautz,  had taken from one of the boats that morning. His gift to me on my last shift on the Lesbos beaches. I squeezed it in my hand and the nativity scene disappeared and was replaced by the smell of the campfire that we lit to encourage the boats full of refugees to come to a safe landing spot.  I looked out at sea expecting to see the flashing light of phones that told us were the boat was and I was swept by anger at the in injustice of it all.

I spent 6 nights in Lesbos looking out at sea for those elusive phone lights,  watching the lifeguards who seemed to have a sixth sense and saw what we didn’t. I would see them look at one another and then it was all go.  We jumped in our cars and speeded down the coastal road to get to the spot before the boat.  Ibai,  Jaime,  Asier and Ion would jump in the water to position the boat for landing.  One of them would get in and stop the engine. With other volunteers,  I would line up to help refugees of the boat.  Children and babies were passed in a chain from volunteer to volunteer until they reached dry ground. We helped women and men,  many unsteady after hours at sea, to disembark. 

Photo : Jonathan Paige
Photo : Jonathan Paige

Each boat was different,  in some people were calm and collected and in others people would be extremely distressed and we could hear their screams before they arrived, their faces full of fear when they finally made it to the beach.

Most of them would be wet and very cold. Thermal blankets and blankets were handed out and, if we were in luck,  dry socks. Liz, my roommate,  a nurse,  tended to those who needed medical assistance. I helped and offered comfort to the most distressed.

Then,  imperceptibly,  the mood would change.  Some refugees would make phonecalls to their loved ones and a little girl would giggle bursting soap bubbles blown by one of the  volunteers. There would be hugs and smiles as they boarded the United Nation buses on their way to the camp for registration.

Making chai
Making chai

At the camp independent volunteers would be able to offer hot tea,  dry clothes,  a tent to sleep in,  a medical tent,  a children’s tent,  some food in the kitchen tent,  information and human warmth.

Liz and I would gather the life jackets for later collection and the wet clothes for washing and reusing and together with the lifeguards would go back to our vantage point by the fire to wait for the next boat.

Ibai, Asier and Ion drying out after being in the water
Ibai, Asier and Ion drying out after being in the water

I met many amazing people in Lesbos,  both volunteers and refugees.  I am humbled by their strength,  resilience and compassion and deeply moved by their personal stories.  I very much hope I can stay in touch with some.

Back in the ferry I remembered the tiny baby,  wrapped in a life jacket, that I held in my arms and I got a lump in my throat.  I haven’t cried yet,  the enormity of their experience is too overwhelming.  I know at some point the tears will come.

 

 

 

*the kill cord, or ‘engine safety cut-out switch’ is. used to stop the engine in the event of the helmsperson being thrown out of their seat.

20 thoughts on “Two weeks in a Lesbos refugee camp”

  1. It’s good to know there are many caring people like you supporting these refugees as they flee from one terror to another on their desperate and hazardous journey. Terrible that our own governments – we, ultimately – have played, and continue to play such a huge part in their peril.

  2. Well done and very commendable. You really are an inspiration but I am not surprised. I remember how you helped after my accident and even brought over Christmas dinner for us when I was immobile. Always look forward to the next blog.

  3. Blanca, that is the most beautiful description of what you experienced. Very very evocative. i can imagine you just can’t take it in, especially when you have just done the same trip, in comfort with something to look forward to. You were meant to be there – to greet them with your love. They will remember that first reaction. Stay safe along the next journey.

  4. Blanca what lovely and moving blog. What a kind and selfless thing you have done in stopping your cycle trip to help the refugees in Lesbos. Here’s hoping that you continue to have a great cycle journey. May your God go with you along the way.

  5. Just because we’re not seeing it on the news every day, it’s easy to forget that this is still happening every day. That brought a tear to my eye…..so sad 🙁

  6. Angels that’s what you guys are! I am so touched by the unselfishness of so many people like you and Liz . Go figure I am sitting comfortably in Miami , and you guys are on the front line. I feel guilty! Thankyou so much for doing this from one human to another!

  7. Blanca, I am so moved by what you write. There is nothing I can say to make the situation less tragic – but you have taken action and improved the lives of some. My heartfelt wishes to you as you travel on through this new year. Xxx

  8. Txuri,gracias por recoedarnos y poner en palabras lo que está pasando cerca de nuestro “mundo guay” . Sigue relatándonos tus vivencias!! Muxu handi- handi bat

  9. I joined the Bicycle Touring Rider’s Forum on Facebook and saw this post. I had read and enjoyed it, but it wasn’t until I explored the ‘A bit about me’ link that I realised it was THE Blanca Fernandez. You were hiding behind the sunglasses but the mention of Emma and Amaia gave the game away! I have shared it on Facebook so Alison and Daniel will see it soon.

    Sounds like a wonderful journey and the character that I remember so well shines through your writing.

    I’m only disappointed that Sheffield does not seem to be on your itinerary, but as you say, you can change your plans … I was made redundant a couple of years ago and did a photography degree. I’m having a large exhibition from September 2016 to January 2017. It’s called Arrivals and it’s about immigration: www/jeremyabrahams.co.uk/arrivals. If you’re back come up to see us and the exhibition and we can cycle the Peak District together.

    Linda will also post something for you.

    Lots of love

    Jeremy

  10. Blanca I’ve met you in a Hostel back in August, in Bratislava. We had one of the best chats I’ve remember in my trip, talking about following dreams and doing what you love, no mater the age or what others think about. Reading your posts make me so happy and proud of you!!
    Keep riding your dreams!

  11. Txuri, !que buen corazón tienes! Dejas a un lado tu viaje para ayudar a los necesitados (refugiados). No hay palabras para calificarte (todo bueno, por supuesto).
    Esperamos tengas mucha-muchisima suerte en lo sucesivo.

    Urte Berri On. Antton eta Karmele

  12. Blanca, thank you for this, reading it I feel like I am immediately back there on the beach. I have been so busy since I left that I haven’t been able to really process or share what I’ve experienced in Lesvos with people who weren’t there. It is cathartic to read your post and feel some relief that it wasn’t just my imagination, those were real people — real children — real volunteers helping. Thank you for the beautiful words!!

  13. Hey Blanca, you are amazing and courageous. This is such an important task, and so wonderful and generous of you to do it. Enjoy the next part of your journey.

    Loads of love

    Kath xxx

  14. Blanca, I am so enormously proud of you. You have made such difference in the lives of very vulnerable people, giving some comfort and hope when they needed it most. Loads and loads of love!

  15. Texto para Blanca
    Aupa Blanca, hace dos dias me comentaron de tu aventura i nos adentramos a buscar tu blog,  lo encontrè y he de decirte que quedè, quedamos, impresionados!, leí todos tus relatos de principio a fin y lo vivi realmente, comparti el enlace con Marian y nuestros hijos Ivan y Núria y realmente te llevamos con nosotros desde entonces.  Me gustaria poder decirte que nos encontraramos en Australia , que voy por camino inverso!!, pero aún no me atrevo!! Y cuando lo pienso, eso, pues solo lo pienso, jaja.
    Haber si a tu vuelta organizamos algo en Donosti
    Suerte, cuidate y besos, ah!, escribe lo que puedas!! que te seguimos

  16. Thank you so much for being there for them Blanca on behalf of someone who struggles with the plight of these people. Donations don’t seem to be enough but it’s something. What an amazing warm smile to be greeted by after such a fearful journey. It’s so inspiring and wonderful to read of your travels. So moving to read of your time helping the refugees. Hugs to you x

  17. When I read this the first time – I couldn’t respond. There were no words….. It was also the same day that many refugees had lost their lives and were being washed up….
    Now I thinking – how can I do something similar…..

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