When ActionAid’s emergency response team called, seeking Arabic-speaking women to help refugees in Lesvos, I knew I had to go. I am Palestinian and we know what it means to have to abandon your home. My best friend is a refugee and I felt a connection, so I was instantly motivated to help. I had prepared myself for what I might see, but no one could prepare me for the scale and intensity of the tragedy.
My first day on Lesvos
When I first arrived on Lesvos the first thing I had to help with was crowd control in the refugee camps. It was so chaotic and my colleagues and I were among the few people who could actually speak with the refugees.
The refugee camps didn’t have the numbering system in place yet for registration, so people had to literally queue for days. The lines were so long. Children were wetting themselves because they didn’t want to leave the queue and people were fainting from having to stand for hours. They were so afraid that they might lose their spot and not get registered.
Now, thank God, it’s better. When the refugees arrive they get a number and we, the Arabic and Farsi speakers, translate the announcements and explain to people what they need to do and where they need to go.
ActionAid’s mother and baby centres
I came to Lesvos primarily to help with ActionAid’s mother and baby centres. Here women have a chance to relax for the first time in a long time. They can breastfeed, change their clothes, clean their babies and they can talk to someone about their difficult experiences.
There are so many sad stories told inside our centres, where women feel safe enough to speak openly. I was so moved by one particular woman and her 25-year-old daughter. Maybe because I’m almost 25, I felt I could relate.
The mother was so traumatised that she couldn’t finish her sentences. She would start and stop. She was very upset. She told me their house was burned to the ground along with all their belongings. But what upset her most was that her daughter’s school certificates had gone up in flames too. She was so proud of her daughter's education and these were the only documents that proved her daughter had studied.
She told me that every night they cried themselves to sleep. The woman kept repeating how happy and beautiful her daughter had been before the war, but now she was so depressed.
When I asked her if I could help she said that she wanted to buy a new pair of trousers for her daughter because she had had her period in the camp, with no sanitary protection. I explained that there was a shop nearby selling clothes that were a fair price, but then I realised that she was too afraid to go anywhere on her own. So I offered to go with her. She bought the most beautiful pair of trousers she could find.
My toughest moment
One of the hardest days was when 60 people drowned on their way to Lesvos. The people that arrived in the camps that day had seen death right in front of their eyes. It was really cold and they were shaking, especially the children. They were blue from the cold.
I heard many babies crying during my stay on Lesvos, but the cries of those babies that day were different. You could hear it. You could see it on their faces and in the eyes of their mothers. As if they knew what had happened.
Refugees are forced to board those horrible dinghies and risk their lives. The traffickers trick them into thinking they will have safe passage and then they force them onto rubber dinghies and they separate families, so people arrive very traumatised and upset. I am Palestinian and I have seen many things, but these stories still affect me.
Children old beyond their years
The Syrian refugee children are so affected by the war and this long trip to safety. They look like children and act like children, but when you talk to them you are surprised by their maturity and the terrible experiences they've had. A group of 11-year-old children told me their experience of the war in Syria. They told me that their whole neighbourhood, including the children, were forced to witness an execution. They told me how the war has affected the local economy and how food has become scarce and the prices have hiked up.
Trauma like this is why its so important that refugees have someone to speak with about what they have witnessed.
The future for refugees
Now that the winter is here, I worry even more about how refugees on Lesvos will cope. More needs to be done to help them.
I don’t buy it when people say ‘it's impossible’. There is a solution to this crisis and a way to save all those lives. There has to be.
Photos: Anna Pantelia/Actionaid, George Makkas/Panos Pictures/ActionAid