The scale and the horror of the refugee crisis in Europe is enough to make anyone want to spend even a small amount of time volunteering. But it can often be hard to wade through the sheer volume of information out there about the various organisations who give small, but often essential, amounts of help to individuals and families making the dangerous journey across continents.
So if you want to help in some way, but don’t know where to start and have questions like — how do I find the right organisation, how do I get there and do it in an affordable way? — I hope the following will help.
I spent the past two weeks in Skala Sykamineas, a small village on the north coast of the island of Lesbos, volunteering with Refugee Rescue. Here’s what I learned and how I went about choosing this organisation.
In a previous life I worked on refugee policy in the UK Parliament. This work had taken me to some of the world’s most devastating places — including large refugee camps and women’s refuges in Eastern Democratic Republic of Congo and informal camps in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley — to raise awareness about the situations and influence UK government policy.
Despite these worthy yet lofty aims, I always felt a disconnect from the individuals and organisations that were doing so much to help people on the ground. So, last year I spent a couple of long-weekend volunteering in Calais with Refugee Community Kitchen and Help Refugee UK/L’Auberge. Without the time to commit longer, I had always wanted to go back.
Reading Patrick Kingsley’s book The New Odyssey, which covers reportage of various refugee routes to Europe and in particular one man’s journey, piqued my interest in Greece and the Balkan route. This route has gained particular political salience due to the hostility of governments in central Europe to the movement of refugees and the Hungarian government’s decision to close its borders — a consequence of which includes people stuck in limbo all the way from Greece to Serbia.
Lesbos is one of Europe’s front lines in this crisis — often the first place people set foot in Europe and the beginning of a long and arduous (physical and legal) journey on this continent. It has become famous for all the wrong reasons. There is serious overcrowding in the main Moria camp, which by most accounts has become a veritable hell hole — with a lack of secure accommodation, open sewage, conflict between different groups of refugees, a reported presence of ISIS, and rising incidence of sexual violence against women.
What did I do?
I arrived at an unprecedentedly busy time on the north coast. Both weekends I was there, boats with large numbers of people landed. Our small staging camp on the north coast had a capacity of 120 people; but on my second weekend there we had 229 people arrive within an hour, closely followed by another 55 people.
As a member of the land crew, my main responsibilities included supporting the team at the camp when people arrived, distributing dry clothes and making sure that women and children in particular were looked after. On the occasions that people had to remain overnight we would help with food distributions, make big vats of tea and generally provide a presence in the camp.
We also did shifts boat spotting — essentially looking out for any dinghies or other boats coming across and notifying the appropriate authorities. Not only was this ensuring the safety of any boats crossing the narrow straight between Turkey and Greece, but also it also served to monitor and help uphold international maritime and human rights law.
Refugee Rescue also has a sea crew and works closely with Lighthouse Relief. Lighthouse, in addition to the tasks outlined above, support on landings, do overnight spotting shifts, and at present run an ECO project which involves cleaning up beaches, removing life jackets and dinghies, and up-cycling the materials.
What was it like?
It was tough work with long “on-call’ shifts both during the day and at night. Levels of activity are variable and can be a little like a roller coaster — depending on whether boats had landed or not.
Emotionally it can be tough as well. I was surprised by the numbers still arriving and the countries from which they came. While I was fascinated by the stories people told me about their lives and journeys, it also is hard to imagine the circumstances under which people would put themselves and their children at risk and in flimsy boats to reach Europe — and then only be able to provide them with very limited help.
Despite this, it was extremely fulfilling to be able to support two organisations attempting to provide some security and a friendly face to people who most likely will have experienced significant levels of trauma. It was also heartening to see so many organisations working together, despite navigating the difficulty of overlapping jurisdictions and responsibilities, and trying to do their best to respond to events.
During my stay there were reports of the emerging humanitarian crisis in Idlib, which saw 30,000 flee the city, so it is likely that the numbers of people reaching Greece will remain high for the foreseeable future.
So you want to volunteer — what next?
If you would like to volunteer in Lesbos, there are a number of organisations seeking volunteers all year round. October and November are particularly tough months for organisations as volunteers start to go home from their summer holidays in the middle of September.
I found out about Refugee Rescue through an organisations called IndiGo Volunteers. IndiGo is an amazing organisation that helps pair volunteers with organisations that need support. They are totally free for both the volunteer and the organisation, and have an entire team dedicated to matching volunteers with organisations in Greece and Serbia. The team at IndiGo gave me a number of options, from organisations that worked on food distribution to those that support women and children.
It is also possible to arrange your own volunteering experience directly without the help of IndiGO. The Information point for Lesvos Volunteers Facebook group is a wealth of information for anyone wanting to volunteer on the island. You can post directly in search of opportunities, and their handy guide provides a good overview of what to expect, what to bring and lists of organisations you can contact. Be aware that some organisations may charge an administration fee for processing your application to volunteer or will ask for a suggested donation to cover their expenses and accommodation, which can range from a one-off of as little as few euros all the way up to an astounding €600. Most organisations also ask for a minimum of 10 days to two weeks commitment.
If you’re unsure what type of organisation you’d like to work with, most organisations in Lesbos will undertake a number of activities beyond their core activities. They will likely also support other NGOs and do shifts boat spotting.
Logistics — how to get there & where to stay?
I flew to Mytilene from London Heathrow via Athens. It is also possible to get an overnight ferry from Athens to Mytilene. The flights tend to arrive and depart early in the morning. You can then get the local bus from the airport to the town’s main bus station for about €2.
If you are staying in Mytilene, then most places are reachable by foot. However if you are going to Skala Sykamineas you will need to go to the KTEL Bus station. Route information is available here. Buses depart for Skala Sykamineas at 1pm every afternoon and cost €6.40.
Alternatively a taxi into town from the airport costs around €10 and approximately €50 to Skala Sykamineas.
Most volunteers will have to source their own accommodation (which can be found for around €10 in most places). The Lesvos Volunteers accommodation sharing Facebook Group can help you connect with other volunteers, who are mainly based in Mytilene. In Skala Sykamineas it’s advised to book accommodation for your first few days then try to find cheaper accommodation or another volunteer with whom to share once there. Maria’s, Aphrodite’s, Ana’s or Goji’s are all good options in Skala.
Refugee Rescue and many of the other organisation on the island are in great need for volunteers in October and November.
*This post originally appeared on Medium here*