RTE Radio’s Valerie Cox has been reporting back to Today with Sean O’Rourke on the situation on the Greek island of Kos. Here she shares her personal view and experiences as a guest blogger.
Brian and I were fed up listening to so much talk, so little leadership that we decided to see what we could do for the refugees arriving on the Greek island of Kos. It is only a tiny contribution but, on the hot, sticky, hungry, dirty, poor refugee strip on Kos, it is helping. Family and friends gave us clothes, baby slings and money, Sudocrem gave us tubs of baby cream which have proved a real hit!
The first thing to be said is that there is absolutely no organisation here, no-one is taking charge. The Hellenic Red Cross is saving the day by providing emergency packs for the refugees who arrive each morning, exhausted and wet as they collapse and sleep on the ground around the Police station. There are a number of local volunteer groups doing great work but it is totally ad hoc.
On Tuesday last there was a meeting of Church and State but the big question was ‘How to salvage the 2016 tourist season’? Yes, this island badly needs tourism, there is a five-month season and they survive on that for the rest of the year. But they have only lost 2.1% of the air traffic to the end of August.
But what is needed now is for the authorities to get stuck in and create a camp for these refugees so that mothers and babies don’t have to sleep on the beach or on sheets of cardboard at the side of the road. They need toilets, showers, running water, a focal point for volunteers to bring supplies. But the island of Kos is just hoping they’ll stop coming, that they won’t be dependent on the goodwill of volunteers.
Among the people who gathered exhausted at the police station today, waiting to be registered and fingerprinted was a grandfather wringing out his wet socks, his feet covered in sores, a young cancer patient who was listless and hungry. A mother hugged and reassured her small son who was deaf and blind and confused by his surroundings. We had dry clothes for her two boys.
Abdul from Pakistan was smiling. Finally he had been given his papers and was preparing to take the ferry to Athens. Abdul is a sociology graduate and was a schoolteacher in Peshwar. He said he fell foul of the authorities when he wrote a paper on Family planning and had to flee for his life.
Then we took a group of thirty Syrians, an extended family, to a cafe in the harbour. They hadn’t had a hot meal in a week and were setting off for Athens. I couldn’t believe the change as they turned this simple meal into a party, kids laughing and joking, parents smiling. They had slept on the beach, eaten on the ground but now a little bit of dignity was restored.
Then the matter of clothes for their onward journey! Four of the mothers, one pregnant, had fallen into the sea and been rescued. No change of clothes as the trafficker had thrown their luggage overboard to fit more people in. Their burkas were encrusted with salt. We went shopping with 20 Syrians, an experience in itself, swapping flip flops and bare feet for sturdy boots, perfect for the long journey ahead of them. I don’t think they all really grasp the hardship ahead, one woman was keen on a pair of sparkly sandals for the journey!
The refugees here comes from Syria, Eritrea, Bangladesh, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The only similarity is the conditions under which they live, mostly in small tents around the walls of Kos Castle or on the beach itself, their earthly possessions in plastic bags at the back of their tent. They are not begging or asking anyone for anything. The tourists pass by, walking, on bicycles and in taxis.
We have been concentrating on helping the family groups. One Syrian woman with a small baby was overjoyed when we gave her one of the wonderful Baby Slings we were given to bring out by Sinead O’Rourke and her Sling Collection Group. These were beautifully wrapped and each contained a sweet treat for the recipient and a note saying ‘With love from Ireland’.
Then there was the man from Pakistan who had recently had an eye operation. He was supposed to keep the sun off it but had broken his sunglasses. So I gave him mine, a bit girly, but he wasn’t bothered!
After 24 hours here we felt we had been run over and flattened by a steamroller! Seeing the reality of whole families existing in sheer poverty, getting by with almost nothing makes us realise how very lucky we are in our lives, especially when many of these people formerly lived the life we lead still.
These people are desperate. One couple arrived from Aleppo with five small children including a new baby. They had nothing. It was heartbreaking and just one of the reasons we are so glad we came. Very few of the refugees speak English, we don’t speak Arabic, but somehow we understand one another!