According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), 856,723 refugees entered Greece by sea in 2015. This number is expected to increase in 2016. Indeed, it already has. Last January, Greece saw only 1,694 refugees arrive by boat. This January that number increased by nearly 3500%.
Numerous NGOs (Non-Government Organizations) have mobilized in Greece to address this crisis and provide assistance.
However, it is not enough.
These are the ways you can help:
1- Donate Money Directly to an NGO Working with Refugees
Though I only worked on the north shore of Lesvos for a little over a week, I can vouch for these three organizations:
ProActiva Open Arms
More commonly known as “The Spanish Lifeguards,” these first responders scan the waters separating Lesvos and Turkey for the boats and dinghies carrying refugees. They then met them in Greek waters and escort them to a safe landing beach. Once near shore, a second team enters the water, steadies the boat, and assists passengers off, often carrying young children and elderly. If the boats are in distress, the Spanish Lifeguards rescue them and sometimes tow them to shore.
ProActiva Open Arms currently operates two teams on Lesvos. They are putting together a team for the Greek island of Chios and need money for a boat and team for Samos. Donations are used to pay for the lifeguards’ room and board (they don’t receive a salary and volunteer in two-week shifts) as well as the expenses of the building, maintaining, and operating their boats and jetskis.
Click here to go to ProActiva Open Arms‘ website.
The Lighthouse camp is based on the beach a short walk west of Skala Sikamineas and is one of the NGOs providing Stage 1 care. This is where I worked during my time on Lesvos. Their volunteers are an eclectic mix (my favorite) of people of many ages and nationalities. For instance, during my time at Lighthouse, there were French-speaking Swiss college students as well as a 60-something New Yorker.
Medical volunteers with Lighthouse assess and treat refugees for medical distress (most recently, and commonly, hypothermia), as well as broken bones, chemical burns, common colds, and sore throats. Non-medical volunteers provide dry, clean clothing, hot tea and soup, fresh fruit and snacks, and a place to recover from their perilous sea journey before they are sent on to Stage 2 and the registration camps. Lighthouse Relief also mans the Korakas Lighthouse in overnight shifts, scanning for boats and assisting any refugees who happen to land on its rocky and treacherous shores.
Lighthouse currently has plans to install WiFi at the camp. This addition will streamline communications between the various NGOs based on the northern shore, as well as provide easy access for refugees wanting to contact loved ones to inform them of their safe arrival. I’ve seen first hand, too, the need for access to Google translate as sometimes in the changing tent, the language barriers between volunteers and refugees is an issue.
Lighthouse is also constantly updating and upgrading its camp. Money donated to this group will directly benefit refugees. Click here to donate to Lighthouse Relief. (Note: 1 Euro is approximately $1.10 US)
Dirty Girls of Lesvos
Founded by Alison Terry-Evans, The Dirty Girls are the Reduce, Reuse, Recycle environmentalists of Lesvos. Dirty Girls’ expenses pay for the services of a commercial laundry as well as employing 10 locals to collect wet clothes, wash and dry them, and redistribute them to camps and NGOs across the island. Volunteers collect wet, discarded clothes from Stage 1 organizations such as Lighthouse Relief. They then organize them, pin sock pairs together, and raise awareness for this cause. To support the Dirty Girls of Lesvos and 10 Greek workers, donate here.
If your donations need to be deductible for tax purposes, Sea of Solidarity has 501(c)(3) status and helps fund several NGOs based in Skala Sikamineas.
They will earmark donations and distribute them as you intend. For instance, if you want to fund Lighthouse Relief’s WiFi project, Sea of Solidarity will see that your money will go to that cause.
2- If You Can’t Be a Troop on the Ground, Fund One
Many people think that donations of clothing, food, medical supplies, etc. are needed. While this can sometimes be the case, the truth is that Lesvos is actually overwhelmed with these items. There are numerous warehouses all over the island that are full of donations that have yet to be unpacked, sorted, and distributed.
What the Greek islands such as Lesvos need are boots on the ground: volunteer boots.
The more people who can come and stay, the better.
Who will fill all those donated medical gloves? The skilled hands of medical volunteers.
Who will dice the carrots and caramelize the onions for the hot soup served to refugees nearly as soon as they come off the dinghies and boats? Cooking volunteers of many ages and from around the world.
Who will clean up the beaches after the chaos of a boat landing? Volunteers who have some down time between boat sightings and landings.
Who will pick up the donations currently stored in warehouses across the island and deliver them to where they are most needed? Volunteer drivers.
But it’s not always easy to travel to Europe and be a volunteer on the ground. It can be expensive, it’s time-consuming, and, at times, emotionally draining. But if you can go, go. If you can’t, please consider funding someone who’s vitally needed and who only lacks the funds to accomplish the desire to go and help.
As a volunteer troop on the ground, I fundraised for donated supplies. For a return trip, I will need to raise money for not only my travel and accommodation expenses, but also those for my older daughter, Samara, who would like to help, too.
To help us help them, please click here. If you know us in real life and would like to contribute more directly, please message me on Facebook.
A special thanks to those who enabled me to buy and bring needed supplies to refugees during my January 2016 trip to Lesvos- Pauline Adams, Toni Bell, Katie Gutafsson, Claire Lawrence, Natalie O’Meara, Pam Parker, Cat Sparks, Suzi Steffen, and Elisa Woodby.
3- Share your Refugee Story and Theirs
As an American, I knew I’d have at least one refugee ancestor. In fact, I have many. Two who struck me are my Huguenot ancestors. In 1685, Louis XIV issued the Edict of Fontainebleau which ended the religious tolerance extended to my Huguenot ancestors and their fellow French Protestants. This edict made it difficult for my ancestors and so they left- first for The Netherlands and later to Williamsburg, Virginia.
Their churches were destroyed. Their Protestant schools closed. Prominent Huguenots were forced to quarter dragoons.
They weren’t, however, starved. Or conscripted into armies. Or bombed. Or tortured. Or killed.
Just watch this video to see the heart felt anguish of a Syrian refugee.
My Huguenot ancestors left France for religious reasons, but it pales in comparison to why the refugees crossing the Aegean Sea are fleeing their home countries.
As a nation of immigrants, essentially refugees of all sorts from religious to economic to political and more, Americans should be among the best to sympathize with the plight of the Middle Eastern refugees. Too often, however, we are mired in political rhetoric and abject fear of the “other.” But if we all looked to our past- to our very own families- and found at least one ancestor who sought refuge in America, told that story to others, and then said, “Today’s refugees are fleeing their home countries from far worse,” perhaps we can change the hateful narrative into a compassionate and productive one.