I've been working as part of ActionAid's refugee crisis response team since last year. In that time, I've seen stories of mothers risking everything for their children, harsh winters creating even more dangerous conditions for thousands of refugees and stories of generosity and kindness amongst all the devastation.
But from March 20th everything changed: Europe shut its borders and made a deal with Turkey that suddenly turned the crisis on its head. Where the Greek island of Lesvos was once a place of hope and respite for so many, one of the camps - Kara Tepe - was turned into a place of limbo with people waiting for an outcome, the other - Moria - became a detention centre, where the gates were closed and the army flown in. Ahead of the BBC series World on the Move, I travelled to Lesvos to see first-hand the impact of the EU-Turkey deal and meet some of the women and children affected by it all.
Wednesday: Kara Tepe camp
9am. I meet the ActionAid team in their office in the centre of Lesvos, to go over our women-friendly centre in the Kara Tepe refugee camp. Because of the recent EU-Turkey deal (where Turkey agreed to take back the refugees in Europe in exchange for political and financial rewards), Kara Tepe is no longer the transition place it used to be. Instead, it has become a place of limbo for the many families who still wait for an official answer.
10.30am. We head to Kara Tepe where I’m given a tour of the camp. What strikes me most is how peaceful it is here.
11am. The ActionAid women-friendly centre tends to fill up from 11 onwards. The centre is staffed by ActionAid cultural mediators, who provide support and advice to the women here. It’s heartwarming to see how familiar they are with each other, they hug, laugh, gossip and catch up over tea and coffee while their children play near by.
ActionAid staff are doing everything they can to support the women and children of Kara Tepe during this time of limbo, starting Zumba lessons for the women who want to exercise, offering English and Greek lessons so they can better communicate on the island and convincing the local football team to come play football with the children.
1pm. I walk around the camp to go meet women in their homes. I use the term “home” loosely, as the reality is portacabin-like grey plastic structures, just big enough to stand in, with a few thin mattresses on the floor — though some have made them as homely as possible!
The first woman who invited me into her home is a 58 year old woman from Syria. She came with her son and his wife who is seven months pregnant. She had lived in Homs all her life, running a hair salon for almost 35 years.
She recounted how one morning they left their house and when they came back a bomb had torn it to pieces. She pulled out a video and I watch as she tours around the remnants of her home turned to rubble. “We were lucky” she says, with tears in her eyes.
As we talk she fusses over me like a proud hostess. I’m told to sit on the mattress so she sits on the floor, she insists her daughter-in-law show me her baby scans and we celebrate over the fact they will be soon welcoming a little girl. At one point she takes a bunch of bananas and forces one into my hand, despite my refusal to accept she won’t listen and I leave with a banana in my pocket.
Just met a 58 yo Syrian hairdresser, her son & his pregnant wife. Been through so much but still insisted on giving me a to take with me— Cora Bauer (@corabauer) May 11, 2016
3pm. We head back to the ActionAid facilities where more women have now arrived to speak to our cultural mediators. They speak a range of languages so they are busy helping women fill in their registration forms. They also provide many of them with hygiene kits (a pack containing soaps, sanitary pads, underwear, toothpaste) — small things, but essential to ensure that women here are able to be comfortable.
4pm. I meet Stavros the camp manager, he’s called a “family meeting”. This is where all the aid agencies get together to assess the state of the camp and update each other on any new developments. We are led on another tour of the camp, this time to inspect the toilets, check out the bins and try out the menu at the food distribution centre, a tuna pasta.
Everyone then gets together to sit and discuss any issues that need fixing and give each other updates. An activity board is agreed on, and at the end of each update, Stavros asks us all: what do you need for us to make things better?
7pm. That evening I leave my hotel to get a bite to eat. As I step out onto to roadside I hear some shouting and see the coast guards on the beach opposite dragging something out of the water.
I try to get a better view. It’s a deflated rubber dinghy. Despite the reduction in the number of refugees crossing from Turkey to Greece since the EU-Turkey deal and NATO ships sending many of the boats back, my colleagues tell me there is still at least one journey made a day by boat — mainly at night when it is harder to be seen but also far more dangerous.
Coast guards drag a dinghy from the sea. Despite border closing & NATO ships ppl still crossing for safety in Greece pic.twitter.com/idqVrxahGb— Cora Bauer (@corabauer) May 12, 2016
As they tug the boat out of the water I wonder what happened to the people who had been onboard — hoping that they made it to shore successfully.
Thursday: Moria camp
10.30am. After a meeting run by the Greek authorities and UNHCR, where we are given an update on the number of refugees, issues surrounding food, hygiene and legal protection, I head to Moria camp. Since the EU-Turkey deal, the once-busy refugee centre has been turned into a prison camp.
As we drive up I see high iron fences, barbed wires, police vehicles and men in army uniforms everywhere.
We walk into the camp and there are tents everywhere. Unlike Kara Tepe where the structures were stable, Moria is so overcrowded that most have to sleep in tents. It’s a hot day and many have tried to cover the tents with blankets and foil to avoid overheating. You can’t escape the fact that this is a detention centre. As we walk past the section where unaccompanied minors are kept I see young boys clinging onto gates closed by padlocks.
We walk past two boys pleading with a soldier who is guarding a gate. The language barrier means they don’t understand each other but the soldier is shaking his head no and the boys are pleading. As we walk past our cultural mediator steps in and helps to translate, he explains the boys are just looking to register and the solider happily lets them in. It’s as simple as saying a few words but makes all the difference.
1pm. We head back to Kara Tepe where I go meet a girl who at 25 is only a few years younger than me. She is eight months pregnant and fled from Libya with her boyfriend, hoping to give their baby a better life.
She cries as she tells me the one thing she wants is to not give birth in a refugee centre. She wants a home for her baby, a safe home, that’s all.
2.30pm. Back at the ActionAid women-friendly space and the centre is busy with women and their babies. This time some volunteers have come to give rub-on tattoos and stamps to the children. As our cultural mediator chats with a woman her baby starts crying so I offer to take her over to get a stamp on her hand.
Despite no common language between us, the butterfly and dolphin stamps seem to cheer her up. Though when I let her have a go the stamp with ink goes straight to her face and she ends up with red ink all over her face — I’m not sure how to explain it to her mother…
Made a friend. Tried to play stamps with her. Ink all over her face now. Don’t tell her mum pic.twitter.com/4aVy33F9S6— Cora Bauer (@corabauer) May 12, 2016
4.30pm. As I head back to the airport I reflect on my 48 hours in Lesvos and the people I met. Their stories are different but they all have one thing in common — they are fleeing persecution, civil war and almost certain death. They are not here for anything other than safety for themselves and their families.
Charities like ActionAid are doing incredible things to help make each day better for these people.
But I can’t escape the fact that their future is just still so uncertain. They are all waiting. Waiting for someone to help them. We cannot continue to turn our backs on the people who are asking us for help. The UK and other European countries response so far has been pitiful. We can and we must do more to resettle refugees across Europe.
Meanwhile the people stuck in Lesvos wait, the mothers and babies, the young pregnant women, the families who have been separated, they all wait for us to open our hearts and our borders to them.