Greek American answers the call to support refugees in Lesbos

Special CDP Refugee Crisis Fund grantee update from International Rescue Committee Regional Program Coordinator Ashleigh Lovett.

As a Greek American with family roots in Lesbos, I remember reading about the significant number of refugees arriving on the island in Spring 2015, and the deployment of the International Rescue Committee’s (IRC) emergency response team that June. I had previously worked in Jordan on the IRC’s Syria crisis response and have followed the nearly five-year long crisis, and was moved by the risks these already incredibly vulnerable people were now taking to reach safety and a better future in Europe. So even though I had moved back to the U.S. to start a new career, I couldn’t ignore the situation unfolding on the land of my ancestors, and I knew it was time to rejoin the IRC to support this critical response.

Today, as the IRC’s Regional Program Coordinator for the response in Europe, I am fortunate to be able to support our work on Lesbos—and soon mainland Greece—providing arriving refugees with the assistance they need to fulfill some of their most basic needs.

Refugees from Syrian are seen coming from Turkey on a raft, near the shore of Molyvos, northern Lesbos, Greece on Tuesday, October 6th, 2015. Many boats come over-crowded with refugees, with more people than the rafts should handle. (Photo credit/Tara Todras-Whitehill for IRC)

While the IRC’s response continues to evolve in this ever changing context, our programs focus on providing immediate shelter and emergency supplies upon arrival, safe transportation, and protection, information, and water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and services throughout their journey. It’s about providing refugees with the support to meet their immediate needs and maintain their dignity, minimizing risks to their health and safety, linking them with available services, and ensuring they have the critical information about their rights to make informed choices for their future.

As just one part of this response, the IRC constructed and manages Apanemo, a transit site on the northern coast of the island. When refugees first arrive on Lesbos, they are more often than not, wet, hungry and traumatized. Apanemo provides refugees with a warm, safe place to regroup before continuing their journey to southern Lesbos. Many of those refugees who arrive on Lesbos’ northern shores are greeted on the shore by volunteers and taken in IRC minivans to Apanemo, where they get dry clothes, food, emergency supplies (e.g., blankets, ponchos), and receive basic medical and other services as needed before getting safe transportation down to Mytilini for registration – a roughly 40 mile trip they previously made on foot.

I recently spent some time helping out and getting to meet arriving refugees at Apanemo. My job was to give out dry clothes and shoes for women and children, many of whom arrived shivering. It was at times hectic but always fulfilling; and in the rush to get everyone into warm, dry clothes, I always tried to reassure people that everything was going to be OK. Even just interacting with people for a minute or two, I felt I was able to make a connection and deliver the message that they are welcome and that I and many people care about their safety and their future.

Majdy, 15, an Afghani refugee who came from Iran to Turkey and landed by boat during the night, sits next to the water before sunrise with an emergency blanket wrapped around him, at the Skala beach makeshift camp, in Molyvos, northern Lesbos, Greece. “At the Iran border the police shot at me. I was wounded but I was able to run away. I’m by myself here.” Many refugees who arrive during the night from Turkey stay at makeshift camps at places like Skala beach, and then move in the morning to a processing center. (Photo credit/Tara Todras-Whitehill for IRC)

These interactions are just one snapshot of the work that the IRC and partners do in Apanemo and throughout Lesbos every day, and it is critical for the refugees continuing to arrive each day to an uncertain future in Europe. I remember a few days after distributing clothes, I was back in the capital of the island attending a meeting when I walked by a family I’d assisted in Apanemo. They looked warm and happy as they headed to the ferry for Athens, and they recognized me and were smiling and waving. It is moments like this that demonstrate the impact our collective efforts can make in a refugee’s life.

Given the humanitarian crisis unfolding on Greece’s northern borders, the IRC has expanded its response to ensure that refugees who are being prevented from moving across the border have some of the basic services and protections they need. The IRC is also planning to respond in and around the city of Athens where thousands of refugees remain in limbo in less than adequate conditions. There is a lot we don’t know about how the crisis will evolve over the next few weeks and months, but one thing I am sure of is this: my colleagues and I remain committed to delivering the support and services refugees need in this most difficult period.