Because I am a Parent…

On the 21st January 2013 my life changed forever, it was the day I found out I was going to be a parent. It was the day my life changed beyond recognition, because from that day onward I saw the world through a new lens.10995645_10153437914868254_4131390891692960791_n

Most of the time that lens is filled with joy and magic, the day he came into the world, every first we experienced, watching him explore his surroundings.

But it also gave me a burden something no one prepared me for, the empathy you feel for parents who are suffering, a pain I had never experienced for children I don’t know who I see suffering. This came to a head the day I saw the young Syrian boy in the arms of the Turkish police officer after drowning in the sea trying to cross to Europe – I couldn’t get his lifeless body out of my head and I felt like I had to do something. I asked my mum why is this affecting me so much and her response was simple “because you are a mother now”.

From that day on my parenting style shifted, i’ve always followed a gentle parenting approach but I became a little less worried about him getting into bad habits of sleeping in our bed and when he needed his face stroked to sleep, I obliged because the thought of not being able to keep him safe and secure was just too unbearable.

Tonight i’ve been home from Lesvos for 10 nights and tonight was the night my heart broke for every single parent who is currently seeking a safer place to live and bring their children up. Because tonight I lay stroking my sons face and he wrapped his arms around my neck and cuddled me and then placed my hand back on his cheek with his comforter nudging me to stroke his face. As he gently fell into a safe slumber it hit me, we are so lucky he is safe and I am able to give him the security he needs and then I thought back to every horrifying situation I witnessed between Slovenia and Lesvos, I thought of every image i’ve seen other volunteers post of families, children and people on their journey to find their own safety and security. I closed his bedroom door and I silently sobbed, the kind of sobbing that you can’t control, the one where your heart is heavy and it hurts, it hurts so much.

I cried for the families forced to leave their beloved homes because they are persecuted, unsafe, not allowed to live the life they want to live – war. It is incomprehensible for people like us to really imagine what this is like.

What has puzzled me and even after all the time i’ve spent with refugees is how do the parents cope? If you had one bag and 3 children what would you put in it? I can’t go to my in-laws without a car full of things I deem essential for a weekend. How many nappies can you realistically carry? milk? sterilizing equipment? changes of clothes? what if your baby is weaning age? What do you feed them? how do you amuse them and keep them quiet when you’re being smuggled out of a country? How do you explain to them there is no food? So many questons…and i’m not entirely sure I ever really answered the question of how do they cope I only managed a glimpse of their life.

12294776_10153690372476425_1337425728829199265_nI spent a lot of my time at Moria in the women and children’s tent, the tent was basically two large camping tents side by side roped off to create a queue. One side was filled with boxes marked womens tops, children’s outerwear etc. and the other had a bit of everything and some make shift drawers and a little more space. It looked like chaos and it was, you can’t make a decent system out of boxes that have unknown quantities of varying quality items.

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This tent gave me some of the biggest highs of my trip, knowing how many people we helped made it worth it. My favourite memory is of a little girl she came with a family of children who were all soaked through, I lifted her up and sat her on the chair she was special because she had a twinkle in her eye, she wasn’t withdrawn and quiet like so many of the children I saw, she was cheeky. As we stripped her down we rifled through one of my favourite bags it was a bag full of really well labelled clothes, each bag had 3 or 4 outfits for that size child. I pulled out a top, jumper, some legging and a coat, I replaced her socks and she proudly showed me her pink nail polish – we didn’t need to speak the same language for me to communicate how impressed I was – she was so happy, as I chucked her wet clothes to one side and started to pull the clothes we didn’t need back into some order my hand landed on denim and pink ra ra skirt – my first thought was why on earth would someone donate something so impractical and then I looked up – I could see the sparkle in her eye, I gestured to the skirt and she nodded energetically. I stood her up on the stall and we slipped the skirt over her layers of clothes – it fitted perfectly and she clapped and the queue of women and children waiting clapped – she was so happy – my heart melted.

Sadly a lot of the time I spent in the tent wasn’t like this – a lot of the time was spent being frustrated that there wasn’t enough women’s coats, or enough shoes to fit the women. Disappointed faces when I offered up Western style jeans and hoodies, not tops that covered the ladies more appropriately. I will never forget the larger Arabic women who I think might have been from Northern Africa who were soaked through but many of the clothes we could lay our hands on didn’t fit, my heart sank when we cobbled clothes together for them but they still had to put their drenched robes back on over the top – knowing they would be freezing cold.

I will never forget the two sisters from Afghanistan who were very tall and when we invited them into the tent to have some privacy to rummage and change they had nothing under their trenchcoats apart from bras, I don’t know whether they were advised to take their wet clothes off and they’d get more but they were frozen through. They were so desperate to pick clothes that would protect their dignity as they were travelling with their older sister and her daughter and no men. They’d made friends with another family who were looking out for them but they were so vulnerable and so terrified, I remember pulling out some of the really nice vests i’d found and gave them to them. We layered them up but they insisted on keeping their wet coats because of their length. I wish i’d gotten their details because i’d love to know if they are ok and whether they have made it to their intended destination.

But the family that are etched in my mind forever is the family of women who had 5 children with them all of them drenched and when they arrived at the tent chaos ensued. Everyone of the children all under 5 was soaked through, everyone had soiled themselves and had been in these dirty nappies a long time. But what was remarkable to me as a mother was that not one of them cried. They were frozen in fear. It was the one moment when I really didn’t think I knew what to do, to cope, where to start. It was night and it was cold and it was raining we couldn’t just strip the kids off and then dig about for clothes – through an interpreter we agreed one mum would come into the tent with 2 kids at a time and get them sorted. They needed everything – I wasn’t prepared for the sores they had on the little bums from being in soiled nappies. Luckily one of the things I stocked up on was the good bum cream from the UK we also had pacifiers and other bits and bobs in our car. I ran out and brought it all back, one of the mum’s was begging for a pacifier I was able to give her two brand new ones. We handed over the cream, for most of the children a clean nappy and some cream was enough but one little boy was screaming – he was clearly in pain, he was so sore and there was nothing we could do. We explained there was a medical tent the mother seemed to understand and continued to work through the wet children. The last child was almost missed he was sat so quietly he was petrified and I remember thinking – what must he have just been through to be stunned into silence. In that time when I stood helplessly offering up a pair of shoes or a coat I just kept thinking about my own son, how much I missed him and how lucky we are to have the life we have and not this.

The silence of these children was in direct contrast with the noise in a Greek coffee shop the following day, screaming children everywhere, chatting, talking, laughing, cooing, hanging out with their parents on a Saturday morning for brunch. The sound you’d expect to hear from children and sound so sorely missing from these little lives.

 

At least in the clothing tent, I felt like I was making a difference. Managing the registration line was a lot more desperate, in the line you would see a lot more of the families who are just waiting in line under the elements. As night drew in a number of us would look for the vulnerable cases to bring into the building, but once it was full those families not so lucky would be left to find a pop up tent.

One night we lined up the next group of numbers, by this point we had started carrying backpacks with a few essential items, I noticed a child with no socks – I went over to pass on some socks and realised the child was wet through, two of the other children were wet through too, it transpired the children had been in their wet clothes from when the boat landed in the early hours of the morning, by my recollection about 14hrs. We handed out what we had and then a couple of us ran down the hill to get some more clothes, a doctor was called and blankets were sent for. Some of the children had high temperatures, the family was pushed through as an emergency and i’d expect they would have been taken care of inside. But it rattled me – these poor parents had sat with their children in wet clothes because they thought they had no choice. They didn’t know there was a tent where they could have got dry clean clothes for their children, what an earth must that feel like as a parent. They didn’t have bags of clean clothes they could switch their kids into.

We heard so many stories of how boats that were overloaded capsized, or bags were thrown over, so what small belongings some of these parents had were lost to the sea. And now they are fully reliant on handouts and hope. Quite honestly I’m ashamed to say I wouldn’t cope…i’ve tried to think are these parents more able to cope because what they’ve already left behind was so hard this is just another step on a long hard journey. Or is it a case of coping because you have to because you do anything for your children.

And so it brings me full circle to the day I chose to get involved and try and make a difference. I’d seen the news and then I had to get my son ready for nursery, choose which coat he’d put on and which pair of shoes.

But I decided I could do something I could make a difference. I have one of the most important jobs in the world – I am a parent and it’s my responsibility to try and make this world we live in a little better for everyone.

 

Images courtesy of Marina Hickman and Linda C. Fredriksen

 

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5 days in Lesvos – The Situation

When I came home from our first trip to Slovenia I was an emotional wreck, all I wanted to do was cry. I wrote a blog to try and work through all the emotions I had. I’ve been home from Lesvos for a little over 24hrs and I feel numb.

I’ve spent the journey home and today trying to work out how I feel, i’ve been trying to think through the best way to tell the story of Moria to share with you an honest account of my experience. But quite honestly i’m struggling with the words…

I think it will take some time to tell all of the stories from Moria but first I think it would be helpful to set the scene, explain a little about the process and how volunteers like us are able to make an impact to the refugees, so this blog will share with you what i’m calling the situation.

Lesvos

Our first day was spent understanding the geography of the Island, we were staying in the North, it is where a lot of the boats arrive from Turkey, it is here that the distance is the shortest, but it is still incredibly dangerous. The shoreline is very rocky and isolated. This is one of the first areas volunteers are having a big impact, there are volunteers at lookout points with binoculars and others ready to jump into rescue boats to guide boats in or to pick up boats that have already started to sink.

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Over and over we heard from refugees about how these boats were overloaded with people and boats with motors that didn’t work properly. We met men, women and children who had been in boats that had capsized, families whose children had been underwater for long periods of time, in the confusion and panic babies had been used as floats.

As we drove along the coast we could see the debris of the past days arrivals, the rubber from the boats, the discarded life jackets, clothes and shoes.

 

Once they land they then need to make their way to a transit camp, we saw a UNHCR camp that is being built at the bottom of the winding road, we were told it will be open in a few weeks, a number of tents will have heating and supplies so they can get out of wet clothes, rest before making their way to registration. For now though they make their way to Skala or Oxy. We stopped at Oxy for some time to see if we could offer any assistance, it was a quiet day they were cleaning up and getting ready for the next influx. They try to give people dry clothing, blankets and food whilst they wait for the transit buses. Here they are sorted into Syrian Women and Children, Syrian single men, Afghan, Iraq, Pakistan etc. etc. The registration camps are in the South it is about 1hrs 20mins drive. Syrian families head to Kara Tepe, Syrian, Moroccan and other African nation men to one side of Moria and all the other go to the Afghan Hill side of Moria.

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When the buses arrive on the Afghan hill side everyone has to walk up the hill to the gate and get a ticket, with the date and a number.

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Further up the hill they are invited in to be registered in batches. How long they have to wait depends on how many people are on shift, when we first arrived this was fairly quick, only slowed down by the sheer volume of people.

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On our last day it was incredibly slow, with no explanation.  Everyone is at the mercy of the authorities.

On the Afghan side, the large presence of volunteers has meant that the refugees are getting better care than they were. The conditions are still filthy, the hill has no proper drainage where people use the hill as a toilet this then flows down when it rains.

 

But there is a kitchen tent, serving chai and noodle broth, distributing water, crackers and sometimes fruit. There is a clothing tent for men and a separate one for women and children, there are never enough shoes but the volunteers try their best to make sure everyone who is wet can get something dry to wear. There is a medical tent and whilst we were there a children’s art tent was created, much needed and much appreciated by the families. Gravel was laid on the mud whilst we were there meaning that it is less muddy when it rains and a tent was being put up which will offer better shelter for supplies and medical help. Another community tent was erected and a  UK team of volunteers were boarding the floor to make it weather proof.

Once the refugees have their ticket they are then left to their own devices to figure out how to spend their time at Moria. Pop up tents were distributed a few nights before we arrived, as people vacate them, new refugees move in. There are some tents at the bottom of the registration hill including some container type shelters, there are some toilets and showers there too. These shelters are mostly reserved for families volunteers are able to assign families to these shelters, unfortunately this can be a difficult process as you have to open each one up and hope you find an empty one especially when you have the expectant family following you.

Finally there is some accommodation in the prison, this is managed by a couple of NGO’s and it is a complete mystery to me how this space is managed. No one on the outside is clearly informed about how much space there is and who can be let in –  it is guesswork. On the days we could get through the gap in the fence we would head to the entrance and ask if there is room, depending on who was on the door really depends on whether your vulnerable case would get inside.

Throughout the day different groups of volunteers distribute food and water, at about 8pm one group arrives with a hot meal.

On the Syrian side things varied drastically, when I first arrived I’d heard rumours that the process on the Syrian side was very quick they didn’t stay around very long and were first tracked on our final day we found this not to be the case and the Syrian side was in a serious mess. Firstly families should be able to go to Kara Tepe but for some reason families were falling through the cracks and would end up in Moria. Moroccans and other African nations were also being processed on the Syrian side, unfortunately for some reason the authorities had slowed  the process right down. They don’t have a ticketing system so people are forced to stay in line. There are two stages, queue outside of the “cage” and the queue inside the “cage” on Monday some of the people inside the cage had been in there for 6hrs + the challenge is there is no toilet, no access to food or water and as it got colder they had no access to blankets. Once they are processed they are free to then head to the port.

Once they have they’re papers all refugees can take a bus for a couple of euros or a taxi for 10 Euros to the port. They then need to purchase a ferry ticket which will take them to Athens. There is a night ferry and one at 7am. A lot of families who have funds will head to the port to find some accommodation and get a shower and some sleep. Others can choose to fly to Thessaloniki where they then head to the Macedonia border to start the route north through the Balkans.

Over the coming days and weeks I will share more of the people’s stories so that you can better understand who the people are we met. I hope this gives you a clear understanding of the situation in Lesvos and how the system works and please feel free to ask any questions i’m more than happy to try my best to answer them.

Using technology to make a difference

I’ve worked in the world of business collaboration for coming up 6 years. The holy grail of success is being able to answer the big question “what is in it for me” or WIIFM for short. People like me write strategies, join tweetups, attend conferences and share ideas about how we can tackle this question for executives, middle managers, remote workers etc.

In the last few weeks i’ve witnessed the most unbelievable collaboration and sharing of information, the levels of engagement a community manager like me can only dream of and the WIIFM is simple – humanity, saving lives, because I have to, because I can, because if we don’t who will?

I’ve been overwhelmed by the innovation that is taking place on a daily basis, the continuous improvement approach and the ability the volunteers have to organise themselves around skills, knowledge and strengths rather than a structure or hierarchy.

Whilst my blog was in draft Mashable published this article How entrepreneurs and aid groups are helping refugees with digital tools if you haven’t got time to read the article in full it is a summary of this wonderful low bandwidth information portal for refugees http://refugeeinfo.eu/

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Another example is refugeemap.com an interactive mapping platform using Google tools that provides details on where refugees are traveling and what needs they have – the map is able to assist volunteers in best ways to provide aid and volunteer. I have personal experience of this map, I used it when planning our trip to Slovenia in October, the network of people updating it were able to help me find Brezice and Rigonce. You can read more about refugeemap.com here.

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On facebook there are a number of co-ordination groups for refugee hot spots, we’ve joined Volunteers Co-ordination (Lesvos) group  it is a great source of information and collaboration for people on the ground. The group was getting flooded with questions about best flight deals, where can I stay?, does anyone want to share a car? etc. Through self selection some members split off the activity into a different group, they’ve created essential information for volunteers in google docs and sheets. And another group Information Point for Lesvos Volunteer  leaving the co-ordination group to focus on people in Lesvos reacting to the needs on the ground, this all happened in 3 days.

There are similar groups popping up throughout the Greek hotspots and along the Balkans route refugees take. These groups are filled with ideas on how to do things better, work with NGO’s, authorities, links to supermarkets who will do deliveries, lift sharing, accommodation tips, the situation, the facts and kindness.

WhatsApp is being used for on the spot translation services with refugees who have special medical needs putting them in touch with a native speaker. Google translate comes in handy on a daily basis, I’ve recently been using it to decipher the refugee situation in Finland for research (a sentence I never thought i’d find myself writing).

5kWe can not forget that most of this is possible because volunteers are taking to sites to crowd source funds, like gofundme.com. We also have first hand of this tool, our own GoFundMe site has already received £5k in donations. Grass roots groups are making the impossible seem possible.

In time the refugee crisis across Europe, will be analysed, it will make history books and i’m certain it will be a turning point for how we see the world today. Underpinning the entire movement will be the part technology played in telling the story, helping the refugees on their journey and providing people who want to help a digital guidebook to make a difference.

No one has sat in a boardroom thinking up these plans or visions, there is no big social media marketing budget, it is quite simply people helping people to make a difference. Thankfully we have the technology to help us make this difference faster and in full view of the whole world.

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Personally i’m in awe of some of the innvoation, collaboration I see daily and I can only hope that I am able to play a small part in making a little difference.

56 hours and 2000 miles Kim’s account of the Words and Warmth Relief Run

Until this week I had never been to Slovenia, until this week I’d met very few people from Syria. But all that changed over the space of 56 hrs.

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The route we travelled

I’ve struggled with how best to share my experience with you, I wondered what it is you’d like to know? I’ve wrestled with how I can do the situation and the people I met justice so bear with me it is going to be long – there is a lot to share but also note everything i’ve written is my truth and my opinion, if it isn’t I’ve included a link so you know it is someone else’s truth or something that has been shared with me. Finally I want to flag that I don’t have a whole lot of photos, the time I spent in Brezice was so short I didn’t get to collect some stories from people on their journey, this is a regret I have, because I believe if I’d done a better job of getting to know some of these people and putting names to the faces I’d be more successful in helping you to see the true story of what is happening across Europe. But the limited time we spent on the field was spent dropping aid off and distributing food was the ONLY priority in the moment.

Co-ordinating the collection and filling the van certainly was the easy bit, but I’ve learnt that not everything “we” think is an essential item in our life is essential to someone who’s life belongings have to be carried across Europe. I think deep down I knew this before we left, I was mentally making judgments about what to leave behind as space was limited, but I feel I have a much better understanding of this now and it is important to co-ordinate locally on the ground so you are able to send what is needed not more rubbish for the volunteers to clean up.

Choosing our final destination was constantly a moving target, for good reason but nevertheless when you’ve driven 800 miles and you’re still not sure where your headed your anxiety levels are running high. We knew the Austrian border was a hot spot, by the time refugees are in Germany they are being settled into camps and their basic needs are being taken care of. Munich was tapped into Google maps – it was in the general direction of where we needed to head and we happened to have two amazingly generous colleagues there who offered to feed us. Aaran and Rosie – THANK YOU SO SO MUCH!

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After re-fuelling our final destination for Sunday was Strazburg, we arrived around 2am and bedded down with a plan to visit the train station there (we knew it was a location where refugees had been travelling through) first thing. We weren’t expecting them to need our help and had Spielfeld as our final destination. We’d read about it through our channels and knew it was the entry point for many refugees making the journey from Croatia into Slovenia, it was especially under strain since Hungary closed their border. As we clicked through the km’s I started to get a knot in my stomach, I was starting to imagine what I might see, was I prepared, would I be able to cope? Would I be able to keep my British stiff upper lip? Mentally I was giving myself a pep talk – since becoming a mum my emotions run a lot higher, so high I’d planned this whole trip…

Gillian must have been feeling it too because she gave Joe and I a pep talk and we all gave ourselves a bit of a mental boost. As we arrived in Spielfeld we were confronted with a road block, the police didn’t want to let us through, we had no documentation. We managed to charm them and they let us pass – as we drew closer we could see the tents and as we pulled up and jumped out of the van we were face to face with a large group of people sitting on the floor outside of the tent. The first thing that struck me was how calm it was, it was very orderly and the people I could see were waiting patiently. I’m not sure what I was expecting but you can’t help think about the media you see, where there is lots of shouting and anger, what was in front of me couldn’t have been further from that.

This camp had a process, the tents were filled with people who I guess were staying longer. The people outside on the floor were queueing for toilets, some sort of registration and then they were boarding buses.

The Red Cross, had a tent set up, we were not allowed in it. It was made very clear our aid and our time wasn’t welcome. I felt deflated, I also felt desperate and it was already lunchtime I figured this was our best shot at being able to help. Whilst we waited I spotted a toddler and a young boy they ran out of the tent, quickly followed by their mother. The children were smiling, perhaps living in chaos is their normal? As we stood around someone told us about more refugees on the other side of the border in Slovenia, we later learned this camp was called Sentilj.

The field before the Slovenian camp Šentilj
The field before the Slovenian camp Slovenija

We made a call at this point to get back on the road, we were wasting time…we stopped at the border to buy the vignette to be able to use the roads in Slovenia. There were police looking down into the valley – my curiosity got the better of me and I wish it hadn’t because this was my first experience of heart wrenching frustration. The police were clearly telling someone to go away and mocking them, it was a man holding a toddler at a guess I’d say Williams’s age 2. I quizzed the police, who is he? What is he doing? I knew the answers, I could see people in the distance and I could hear the hum of a lot of a very large gathering. I chatted to the police for a couple of minutes and then headed over to take a picture, but then I stopped and I couldn’t help but ask the man, “do you need water?” I knew we had 6 bottles in the van. He pointed at the child and shouted back “nesquick” I said no problem, he reached for his trouser pocket and gestured to get money out, I shook my head and said “please don’t worry”. As I turned around the police man was there, he wasn’t friendly now and told me to move on. He said you cannot give him anything – I saw red – WTAF I can’t give that man some milk for his child. But in the back of my mind I knew why there were just 4 police officers and as soon as that man had his milk others would try and by others I mean thousands. I was in agony, my heart hurt – I was angry – this seems so unfair and then the anger turned to guilt, I stupidly gave that man some hope that I’d help him and then I let too him down. And then I felt stupid – what was I thinking, who am I to think I could help in this insanely crazy situation that I really know so little about. I felt humiliated.

The messages on social media kept referencing Brezice as a hot spot, there were worrying reports about people sleeping in fields and not having access to food and water for days. I had wanted to head there for a while, but the distance had felt just too far, by this point we were desperate – we had nothing to lose so we tapped in the address and headed out into the Slovenian countryside.

As we drove I tried to prepare myself for what we’d be faced with, footage like this gave me some insight:

I read reports about camps being burnt down, people not getting access to food for days it sounded pretty desperate. I am not going to lie I was a little concerned for my safety and sadly I had some prejudices formulate, maybe they’re all fighting because they are different tribes and they’re forced together, how ungrateful of them to burn down tents. I read about them discarding items of clothing and comments like well they can’t need support that badly if they throw stuff away. I read comments like they’re parasites, locusts. Maybe they were right maybe in my bid to something good I’d naively got it all wrong. We managed to make contact with a guy called Charlie, he had an American accent and was on the ground he told me to call him when we got to Brezice and gave me the address of a hostel and volunteers were using it as an unofficial HQ. My mood lifted, it sounded organised and there was hope…

When we arrived things didn’t look good, we were told access to the camp was limited they could only get in at set times of the day to distribute water and food. What was in our van wasn’t going to be allowed in, our money was needed for supplies but we couldn’t go and pick anything up as the van was full to burst. I sat on the steps of the hostel and said to Gillian, “in the spirit of being honest I’m feeling deflated” in truth I was feeling stupid. We’d brought the wrong stuff – we didn’t have enough blankets, we should have bought more adult clothes.

Charlie gave us some details of the other camp Rigonce – there was a kitchen set up there and also some volunteers distributing food – it was worth a shot. We managed to get onto the field the police were very accommodating, as we arrived we were seeing the back of a group of refugees leaving. There was a lot of military including their tanks, there were a number of volunteers cleaning up and passing people food as they walked by.

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We tracked down a volunteer who looked like he was in charge – he agreed we could unload the van. As we started to unpack, we tried to add our stuff to what was already organised and grouped into clothes, shoes etc. There were a few people congregated close to some camping tents. As we continued to unload a few came over, their English was limited but through some pointing we could work out what they needed, a mother fitted out her two boys with some clean dry clothes, they chose jeans, jumpers and coats. Neither had socks on – I found a new pack they were knee high and gave them to the mother – I pointed at their feet “keep warm I said “ she gratefully took them and smiled. A man came over holding a baby – I wasn’t prepared, it looked maybe a month old, they were pointing and asking for something – I didn’t understand – I again felt stupid. The man had 3 other men with him – a young Swedish man came over he spoke Arabic and was trying to translate, they wanted to change the baby’s clothes, and we picked out some items that were suitable. I asked if they wanted a baby carrier – they didn’t understand, I pulled one out and showed them – they looked confused – I asked the translator to explain it will help to keep the baby warm. I put it on to show them how it would work, it was a Mei Tai a beautiful carrier but lots of material flapping about. They still looked confused, I knew this wasn’t going to work – I had a quick rummage and remembered there was a buckle carrier – it was in packaging and bingo it had a dad on the front holding the baby…their eyes lit up, there was lots of nodding and smiling. They walked back to the tents.

Another man come over to me – he gestured to a very elderly lady in a wheelchair and pointed at his hands – I started rooting through our bags to find the hats, scarves and gloves bag we fitted her with some gloves – success another happy customer.

Another man came over to me, he gestured at some shoes in his hands he was asking permission to take them – I gestured back they were for him, I nodded enthusiastically. He opened his rucksack and took out another pair of shoes he handed them to me – he wanted to swap, I gestured back you can keep them he shook his head energetically, he wanted to trade. It sunk in they probably didn’t fit but also he didn’t want to take more than he needed. I took them and placed them back on the tarp with the other shoes. He thanked me and went on his way.

Joe did a stellar job of emptying the van, the Swedish guy came over and helped us shift the bags around. I’m so glad we vac packed so much of the stuff as it meant it was keeping everything dry as the dew was starting to settle. The light was fading we needed to get a move on.

Just as we were about to move on I saw the man I’d given the carrier to, he was starting to figure out the baby carrier and was struggling, I offered to help. We fitted and adjusted and got the baby comfortable and then I remembered this amazing snowsuit someone had donated with mitts and feet. I rummaged through to find it and also pulled out a growbag, my first baby carrier had a clip on blanket so I thought we could improvise. As I walking away I suddenly panicked and searched for the translator – in our bid to keep the baby warm I hadn’t considered they could over heat the baby. We had a dialogue back and forth they thanked me again and we parted ways…I wish I had taken their names I wonder where they are now – I hope that baby has a better life ahead.

As we headed back to Brezice to find Aldi and Lidl we drove past the group we’d seen exit…they were being held in a muddy farmers field ready to be marched onto Dobova. When we talked to some volunteers later that evening they told us about how the conditions at both camps had been pretty bad. The night before the fire service had come along and extinguished all the fires, in doing this they left the camp sodden and wet – leaving nowhere for people to bed down for the night. When you see media footage of tents and belongings being burnt – it isn’t through ungratefulness it is because – it is cold, the tents are filled with rubbish and faeces and if they burn they keep a hundred people warm rather than just five people.

We returned to the hostel and waited, the volunteers had an arrangement with the local bakery to buy fresh bread and it wouldn’t be ready until 9pm. Sitting in the lobby watching the volunteers was fascinating – and eye opening they had many stories to share, about what had been happening over the last few days – I can’t do them justice so I recommend these links:

Andrea’s Stories:

https://www.facebook.com/andrea.schwaiger.5/posts/975569882481100?pnref=story

https://www.facebook.com/andrea.schwaiger.5/posts/975155875855834?pnref=story

https://www.facebook.com/andrea.schwaiger.5/posts/975066445864777?pnref=story

Petra’s Story:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1667708433501425/permalink/1669246303347638/?pnref=story

https://www.facebook.com/groups/1667708433501425/permalink/1669504486655153/

The volunteers looked exhausted, some had worked around the clock for a number of days, most had arrived when conditions in the camp were much worse. Things had got better because they were all working together, in partnership with some of the aid agencies and the police.

We’d driven by the opening to the camp four times backwards and forwards to the shops and Regonce as we approached at night the huge light and smoke was evident, my stomach knotted it felt like I was arriving at a battle scene or the apocalypse. I’m not going to lie I was scared. Gillian had arrived before Joe and I as we’d gone to get the bread – she approached wearing a mask and gloves. She guided the van in and started telling us the plan, we had to tuck the van out of sight, there were concerns that if they saw the amount of food we had there could be a riot. There were buses at the entrance and riot police everywhere. The volunteers were starting to organise themselves.

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I could see people pushed up against a fence waiting – I was advised this was the group who’d been in the camp for 2 days without food. They’d been a bit of a riot earlier in the day because some men were angered when another group arrived and they thought they were getting fed. I had heard rumours of pepper spray. I didn’t have time to worry because how dare I be the one standing doing nothing, I’m fresh compared to the other volunteers I needed to muck in.

The plan was simple guide people out of the camp through the barriers where we hand them their food, this way everyone gets fed and we are able to identify the children for special food and attention if needed. The first people who passed showed immense gratitude, a brief thank you before their eyes focused on the prize – the awaiting buses. Every now and then there would be panic, in the push to get out, children were separated from their parents, the volunteers had this covered there was a waiting area for people to be re-united. A lot of families were released first children carried over the barriers. The process was slow if we got a back log we had to wait, let the queue go down. In the quiet periods the team kept making the food bags, filling boxes of a cheese slice, 2 slices of bread and a tin of fish.

A man with a black and white Keffiyeh stood out to me, at first I thought he was a trouble maker he seemed to be at the front all the time and was doing a lot of shouting and talking to the police. But within a few hours I realised he was the self-appointed leader of this group, he was helping to organise people, he was identifying those most in need who needed to come to the front of the queue. And he was telling the group to quieten down, be peaceful don’t push.

Sometime around midnight it became apparent there wasn’t going to be any more buses for a while. Women and children were moved into a different pen where we were advised by the police that we could feed them over the fence. This seemed like a really bad idea to me, the fence was covered in barbed wire and these were children we were trying to feed. I said no – those that know me know I can be assertive but I am also incredibly scared by international authorities, but I knew this was wrong, to my surprise the policeman agreed and said “OK you go in there then” and pointed to the penned area. I was intimidated by this recommendation, these people are starving I am one person, with a few other volunteers…I am ashamed to write this because the reality couldn’t be further from the truth, some of the mothers who walked by didn’t have a spare hand they held their child in one their procession in another, it was my job to prop their food in the crook of their arm or under their chin, I’d meet their grateful eyes and look away because I felt ashamed it was all I had to give them.

12191505_10208241299129679_9221643981004640179_nOnce a large chunk of the women and children were fed, we started to stand around waiting. The gentleman wearing the Keffiyeh came up to me and said “we need to feed these people, they are starving and they are getting angry…” I didn’t tell him there were no buses but I think he knew and he knew we needed a new plan. I certainly wasn’t in charge so I asked around and checked with the more experienced volunteers – what do we do? If we start passing food at the exit point people would get crushed. The police agreed to let us spread out across the fence and we took the boxes and handed the food out until it was all gone. There was no riot or pushing there was no fighting or shoving, everyone waited with their hand out for us. One man had his hand out I offered him the package he shook his head and showed me he already had some, he asked for a banana for his baby – I’ve not been able to get his face out of my mind because he was one of so many who didn’t want more than their fair share, he was showing solidarity amongst his fellow traveller. I write this with fondness because it was one of those life changing moments – where I am able to remember that amongst the suffering and indecency there is so much hope and kindness. But then I quickly feel sad because I’m not sure hand on heart I would behave with such decency.

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Once the crowd died down, we realised we’d reached everyone and that we should probably stop. It wasn’t clear who or what food was coming tomorrow and perhaps we needed to think about those on the other side of the camp who hadn’t been fed tonight who’d need food in the morning. With a heavy heart we all started to pack the food away, everyone was starting to sense no buses were coming and they started reaching through the fence for the cardboard boxes, to lie on or start fires ready to brave the cold night.

As we left the camp, I was overwhelmed with guilt, guilt that I was leaving them there in the cold under the stars and guilt because I knew the volunteers who were there would have to do it all again tomorrow as they had yesterday. 12188985_10207432830115171_2931090756875408357_n

We had a 24hrs drive ahead of us so it wasn’t an option to stay but it doesn’t stop that feeling – how can I do more, what next?

For me the what next? is to tell more stories of our experience I’ve written an essay here and yet I could tell you so much more. The journey home provided lots of time to think and plot and plan.

So what next is quite simple, another collection drive this time for Lesbos and focused on very specific items learning from our experience and another trip leaving the UK around about the 26th Nov, this time we will fly somewhere and have a better plan in place for where we can help. We’re going to set up a proper trust so we can make sure the donations can receive gift aid. We’ve launched a blog: https://wordsandwarmthblog.wordpress.com/

What can you do?

Share our story, if you want to spread the positive stories this group is a great example of humanising the people on their journey. Donate cash to our cause so we can do more good when we go again in November or donate more items to package up and send to Lesbos.

Finally – if you want to learn more or become more informed please read accounts of the situation in Europe from people like as they are more informed and able to tell the truth rather than the propaganda our media like to share:

https://www.facebook.com/HumansOfTheRefuge

https://www.facebook.com/RefugEase

https://www.facebook.com/theworldwidetribe

Kim’s Why…

A number of people have asked me why I am doing this trip…there are two reasons, one “because I can” I am very fortunate to work for a company (https://www.facebook.com/pearsonplc) that allows me to donate 4 days to volunteer so that’s been used up today and 3 days next week.

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And of course I have a very supportive husband, he’s been roped in to help with the sorting and packing and will look after our 2 year old over the 3 days i’m gone.

And two because when I saw the pictures of Aylan Kurdi in the arms of a police officer it moved me, I couldn’t get his lifeless body out of my head, I then went through the motions of getting my son ready for nursery and whilst I zipped up his jacket, I started to think about the children arriving on the continent in t-shirts and shorts, no shoes or just a pair of sandals – Europe is not a warm place to be in Winter and they have nothing…something inside me snapped and I felt like I needed to do something.

truckGillian and I set the wheels in motion to start planning our trip, we set up our https://www.gofundme.com/qa3f3vv4 page (there is still time to donate) and the obligatory facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/wordsandwarmthreliefrun). My mind shifted to my wedding and pending honeymoon but the challenges these people faced remained at the forefront of my mind, except now it was getting even colder and the numbers seemed to be getting more and more, whilst support and guidance from the various European governments was weaning.

If you want to understand why this has become something I had to do then please watch this short video from Save the Children.

This video is a stark reminder, it could be anyone of us in this situation. And the people who are fleeing Syria and other war torn countries in their thousands, millions with their children, their elderly parents/grandparents are fleeing something so terrifying – jumping on a boat in the dead of night and believing God will see them to safety is their only option for a future, yet that isn’t where the struggle ends. They’re now persecuted along the path they take through Europe, treated like animals and if they’re lucky they get to pay to be in what is essentially a prison under the guise of a refugee camp.

What Gillian Seely, Joe and I are doing is something so very very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things but we hope it will help a few hundred people and give them some warmth, some hope and some strength to go on the journey.

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Some wonderful ladies have helped us immensely by co-ordinating collections, sorting and packing of donations. Mirus-IT have donated their van and so many of you donated through my sons nursery and directly at our house today – for this we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

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To those of you who have donated cash through https://www.gofundme.com/qa3f3vv4 please be assured your money will go directly to those that need it most along our journey. We have the means to find out the hot spots that need aid and will use the network of volunteers and support to guide us to make an informed decision on where to go. Please follow our page to keep up to date with our journey and please share our page.

Guide to Volunteering Along the Refugee Route Through Europe

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BRIEF MANUAL FOR VOLUNTEERS

Many thanks go to the czech bunch: their original version is the main source of information for this one, we added just few details:

What to take with you:

Reflective vest. It is the informal uniform of the volunteer.

Flashlight (headlamp)+ extra batteries

Hygiene/ protective equipment. Disposable latex gloves, work gloves, hand disinfection (antibacterial gel is not enough), wet wipes, garbage bags, … Protect yourself and refugees from the spread of diseases! Earplugs (for sleeping).

Good shoes, some hiking ones probably, long sleeves and raincoat.

Telecommunications. Phone roaming. Package for roaming data is very useful. Car charger/ battery replacement ….

 Mac Gyver knife, duct tape…

Documents. Travel insurance.

Before the departure

Clarify priorities

For some volunteers, the motivation is not the help itself only, but also the good feeling. There is nothing wrong with this, but it is important to realise what really helps and what only fulfills the self-satisfaction.

Let the world know

Give your phone number to some of the coordinators on the spot, check what is new and where help is needed at the moment. This will change all the time so it is important to remain flexible.

On the spot

If the place is already functioning system, become a part of it. Communicate and coordinate with everyone is a must.

Peace and friendliness. Most of the time, we are helping to save only health, not lives. Hysteria or spreading alarm does not help at all. It is always necessary to coordinate with others. Moderation, calmness and ability to respect other people is a must.

Include refugees. Refugees who speak English (not a few) work well as interpreters. It is easy to get someone to help you with the work (maintain the row of people, collecting garbage). With the involvement of refugees into the labor, provide them protective equipment – gloves, garbage bags. Helpers should have better access to food/ water or other privileges.

Police, Red Cross, representatives of authorities. Build a friendly and equal relationship with them, although it is not always easy. Talk to them – we basically have common goal. On the other hand it is also good to verify that they behave correctly. Sometimes our mere presence is enough to improve the attitude of police. If they demand some information, send them to the present coordinator.

Humanity. Smile and say hello to refugees when you go around. This is important for everyone.

Media. You can always refuse the media requests for interviews Once you speak with the media, think in advance clear and simple information in short sentences to make them possibly twist your testimony or rip it off the context. Avoid the drama, do not ever spread the unconfirmed information. If journalists are interested in broader themes behind the plane of your experience, send them to present coordinators.

Share the information via social media.

Other important things

Off the beaten track. Do not focus on established camps or big ones only. Try to respond to the sudden change or calls to particular places via social media.

 Food. Bring nutritious stuff in your pocket and do not forget to eat something time to time. The same with water.

You need a car. The situation is rapidly evolving and the need to deliver on time where it is needed. You will also need to bring your own water, food, etc.

Money. Buy most of the things on the spot, it is even often cheaper and it can be sometime problematic to transport material across borders.

Collaborate. If the place has some volunteers/ organizations ask them the current status and agree on coordination. Do not try to start “doing something” as quickly as possible. In areas with an already launched process, uncoordinated volunteers can make more trouble than help. Make contacts in the other groups, share information with them.

Distributing things. If possible, do not distribute “the wild way”. Organize rows or go from the less crowded part of the camp (ussually the back) in couples (one carrying the food, the other serving) and serve first kids and women. If people tend not to respect that, use short sentences explaining again. Sentences like “one hand-one sandwich” work pretty well. Do not bring too many portions of food or clothes among the people at once. It is ineffective for disturbing. Coordinate with police when to serve the food or clothes/ blankets and how safely.

System. System helps to constitute the safety of the crowd and prevent riots.

Safety. The background of the volunteers, storage, and distribution please should be kept from the crowd. Use tents or car as a shield…when coming to distribute or solve something among the people, always have a clear escape plan in case something goes wrong.

Please feel free to download and share.

 Volunteer Manual – GB

Words and Warmth Relief Effort Two Days to go…

A number of people have asked me why I am doing this trip…there are two reasons, one “because I can” I am very fortunate to work for a company (https://www.facebook.com/pearsonplc) that allows me to donate 4 days to volunteer so that’s been used up today and 3 days next week.

IMG_8615

And of course I have a very supportive husband, he’s been roped in to help with the sorting and packing and will look after our 2 year old over the 3 days i’m gone.

And two because when I saw the pictures of Aylan Kurdi in the arms of a police officer it moved me, I couldn’t get his lifeless body out of my head, I then went through the motions of getting my son ready for nursery and whilst I zipped up his jacket, I started to think about the children arriving on the continent in t-shirts and shorts, no shoes or just a pair of sandals – Europe is not a warm place to be in Winter and they have nothing…something inside me snapped and I felt like I needed to do something.

truckGillian and I set the wheels in motion to start planning our trip, we set up our https://www.gofundme.com/qa3f3vv4 page (there is still time to donate) and the obligatory facebook page(https://www.facebook.com/wordsandwarmthreliefrun). My mind shifted to my wedding and pending honeymoon but the challenges these people faced remained at the forefront of my mind, except now it was getting even colder and the numbers seemed to be getting more and more, whilst support and guidance from the various European governments was weaning.

If you want to understand why this has become something I had to do then please watch this short video from Save the Children.

This video is a stark reminder, it could be anyone of us in this situation. And the people who are fleeing Syria and other war torn countries in their thousands, millions with their children, their elderly parents/grandparents are fleeing something so terrifying – jumping on a boat in the dead of night and believing God will see them to safety is their only option for a future, yet that isn’t where the struggle ends. They’re now persecuted along the path they take through Europe, treated like animals and if they’re lucky they get to pay to be in what is essentially a prison under the guise of a refugee camp.

What Gillian Seely, Joe and I are doing is something so very very small and insignificant in the grand scheme of things but we hope it will help a few hundred people and give them some warmth, some hope and some strength to go on the journey.

IMG_8591 IMG_8602IMG_8606

Some wonderful ladies have helped us immensely by co-ordinating collections, sorting and packing of donations. Mirus-IT have donated their van and so many of you donated through my sons nursery and directly at our house today – for this we thank you from the bottom of our hearts.

IMG_8601

To those of you who have donated cash through https://www.gofundme.com/qa3f3vv4 please be assured your money will go directly to those that need it most along our journey. We have the means to find out the hot spots that need aid and will use the network of volunteers and support to guide us to make an informed decision on where to go. Please follow our page to keep up to date with our journey and please share our page.

Refugee Relief Run October 2015

truck

A colleague and I  are making use of our volunteering days at Pearson by driving to Austria with supplies for the refugees.

We’re leaving on Saturday 24th October to drive a van-load of children’s clothing and supplies to refugees at a camp in Traiskirchen, Austria! We have raised nearly £2,000 and are collecting physical donations as well. If you happen to be in the Milton Keynes area and you have any children’s clothing to donate, we will be collecting on Friday 23rd October, https://www.facebook.com/events/766988366781010/

Anyone who wants to make cash donations, please do so at bit.ly/wwrrr . Cash donations will be used to buy supplies locally (hygiene items and additional clothing/blankets for women & children). Your donations are greatly appreciated.

Winter is coming, and many families with children will benefit from anything you are able to give. We are excited to be able to make this trip, thanks to Pearson’s volunteer day policy, you can follow our journey here: https://www.facebook.com/wordsandwarmthreliefrun