Meet the women and children struggling to survive on Lesvos | ActionAid UK

Sonya Ruparel

International Humanitarian Team

As ActionAid responds to the refugee crisis, Sonya from our humanitarian team reports from the Greek island of Lesvos, where thousands of refugees are arriving every day by boat. Many of them are women, children and babies.

Hend fled Syria with her two young children; they were traumatised by the journey from Turkey to Greece
Hend fled Syria with her two young children; they were traumatised by the journey to Greece

Life for refugees here on Lesvos, even if they are only here for one night, is hard. I’ve met refugees arriving here from many different places, but the vast majority of them are from Syria and Afghanistan. 

Many of them are pregnant women, mothers with very young children and babies, and disabled people. A baby was born on the north of the island three days ago. I can only imagine how terrifying that must have been for the mother.

On Sunday I spoke to Hend, who had fled Syria with her two children; 4-year-old Fatima, and Abdul Rahman, 18 months, and some of her wider family.

Making the treacherous journey from Syria to Lesvos

Hend had been living in Syria, where her town had been bombed, and no one had been able to work.  So the family left Syria 3 weeks ago, and their journey had taken them to the Turkish coast, which you can see clearly from Lesvos. In any other context you might call the distance from Turkey to Lesvos a short hop, but when you are in an overcrowded dinghy with 50 other people, it’s a dangerous, life-threatening crossing.

Hend was traumatised by the crossing from Turkey. Everyone had to get on and off the dinghy four times, because it kept sinking. On their fifth attempt they finally managed to cross safely. She was terrified for her children, and kept them hugged closely to her the whole way and talking to them all the way over to reassure them.

I asked Hend where they were going next, and she didn’t know. Many of the refugees here are in a similar position. They’re waiting on the island at temporary transit centres, not knowing how long they will be there. They just want to be somewhere safe where they can get on with their lives, and recover from this trauma.

What happens at the transit centres?

When refugees arrive at the transit centres there is little there for them. There are occasional food and water distributions but at the moment these are uncoordinated and sporadic. There are few shelters that offer any privacy or dignity. One of the transit centres is sited in an old military base, so it’s surrounded by high walls and barbed wire, which makes it look more like a prison than anything else.

Once refugees receive their papers, they head to the port, where it costs €60 (or £45) to get a ferry to mainland Greece. Some don’t have money to buy basics, or their ticket off the island.

Local communities are stepping up to support refugees

For an island that has been overwhelmed with a constant flow of people, the local community has stepped up in many ways to help. There are volunteer groups of locals and tourists helping people get onto buses and handing out food and water. 

Since I’ve been here, I’ve seen restaurants welcoming people, hotels allowing people to use their facilities, and some vendors have even reduced their prices for basics to support people’s immediate needs. 

It’s been very hard to be here, and to see the conditions that babies, pregnant mothers and toddlers have to stay in. These women have no idea where life will take them, how they will be treated when they are able to set down roots, or what future lies ahead for their children.

Family from Syria is waiting in Kara Tepe, Lesbos to be processed by the authorities

What do refugees on Lesvos need?

When people arrive on Lesvos their main need is information – they want to know where they are, how long it takes to get to the registration points, how to get there safely, and where to access immediate services like medical facilities, shops, currency exchange.

What is ActionAid doing to help refugees on Lesvos?

ActionAid will help recently-arrived refugees on Lesvos get the information they need for the next stage of their journey.

  • We are setting up areas in the transit centres where women can have some dignity and safety, where they can change their clothes, breastfeed, share their concerns and requests, and stay informed.
  • We’ll provide basic items such as food, water, hygiene kits and items to keep women and children warm during the colder days and nights to come.
  • We’ll be putting posters with essential information and maps along the beaches where the dinghies arrive to help people get their bearings and know how far they have to travel around the island.

What you can do to help

Want to help refugees on Lesvos? Please donate to our appeal. It takes just two minutes, and it could make all the difference to a family who has lost everything.