A guest post by Mark and Jolee Zola:
The world's worst refugee crisis since World War II is being played out all over Europe today and it so happens that our dear friend Shellie Corman has spent the last few days helping to provide aid relief to refugees on the Greek island of Kastellorizo, about a mile off the southern coast of Turkey. Luckless Greece, battered first by economic crisis and now dealing with an unprecedented number of desperate refugees, mostly from Syria, is the usual first stop for refugees heading to Europe. We want to share with readers just three days of Shellie's experiences, in her own words, providing aid relief on the front lines.
February 28, Sunday
Arrived yesterday morning on the boat on a clear calm day. Everything was so calm and quiet it was hard to believe that 2 weeks earlier there were 900 refugees on this island of 250 residents. I heard that a few of the previous days' arrivals were around, but there were very few. I spent most of the day in the clothing distribution center organizing the donations that had arrived from different places (Athens, Rhodos, Kaş, etc.). Tons of socks, gloves, pants, jackets, underwear etc. all put on different shelves and hanging racks according to size and gender.
There were a few members of MSF (Doctors Without Borders) that met with us to discuss needs and also how to deal with the local population and their attitudes towards the refugees. They will call a town meeting. The generosity seems to be waning. They have closed the hall that was being used for sleeping and generally feel that the more they provide for the refugees, the more they will encourage new arrivals. The MSF team knows well that the refugees will keep coming regardless. . . .
We went to bed. At about 2:30 am, there was a knock on the door from one of the volunteers. A group of 14 had arrived, they were wet and needed dry clothes so we all got up and went to the center. They were there waiting for us. Mostly women and children ranging in age from 2-12. They were so calm and sweet and we chose full sets of outfits for all of them, gave pampers, juice and even aspirin to the teenage girl in agony with a toothache. They had to sleep outside since the sleeping hall had been closed by the municipality. They were given blankets and sleeping bags and left in an old market area to sleep on the cold concrete floor.
This morning we woke and learned that during the night, 150 new refugees arrived. They are at the coast guard station being processed. There are rumors that the boat that normally arrives on Monday, tomorrow, will not allow refugees to board in order to get to Athens. Athens is now overrun with people who can no longer cross the border to Macedonia from northern Greece. There seems to be a complete bottleneck at each step of their journey. Thousands of people blocked and stuck at various borders. Syrians being separated from other nationalities, such as Afghans, Pakistanis, Africans, etc. Some countries have agreed to take Syrians, but no one else. It is a complete disaster for humanity and it is easy to understand both sides.
February 29, Monday
Yesterday we met with quite a few of the arrivals. They are a varied mix of people ranging from very well educated and English-speaking to extremely low income rural people who seem to be in very poor health and must be low on funds. There are a few disabled people, even in wheelchairs. How can they possibly expect to make this long, arduous journey? A boy with a limp, the mother with a limp, no shoes when they arrived. The refugees with some money can stay in hotels and guest houses, eat in restaurants, buy the boat and train tickets, etc. The others, . . . I am not sure what they do. They have to rely on aid along the way, I suppose.
We spent 2 hours giving clothes, shoes, jackets, gloves, hats, underwear, etc. to a very poor group. Two women and a total of 13 kids ranging in age from 12 to a few months old. At one point at least 9 of them were HOWLING in unison and it took great fortitude to keep on trying different jackets and shoes. We managed it and all drank a few glasses of wine as a reward to ourselves for managing to get them ready for their journey. But today, when the boat arrived for Athens, they realized they didn't have enough for the tickets so they are stuck here for now. It was a bit heartbreaking to see all the hundreds of refugees board the ferry thinking they were going to Athens. We heard that due to the backup in Athens, none of them are being given permission to go there. They are sold full price tickets to Athens, but forced to get off the boats and put into camps on Rhodos. Everyone is making money all along what is called the Balkan road. There is a huge backup at the Macedonian border with Greece. The situation there is rapidly deteriorating and I don't know what these poor people making it to this tiny Greek island are going to face as they make their way to what they believe is a better life.
As I see things, the world will look back on this period as a dark time in history.
March 1, 5:25 am, Tuesday
It is 5:25 am. We were woken up at 3:30 am and told that the clothing distribution center was on fire. We all ran to see what was happening, although from the window of our room we could see the flames. When we arrived there was a small group of refugees and locals standing in front of the building watching the fire, which had by then completely burned out the center. The large palm trees behind had caught fire, and there were a few people with a small hose and a few buckets. A futile effort to quell the flames. No firetruck, no military, no police. After the building was completely destroyed, maybe an hour after the fire started, we finally saw a fire truck. It was obvious that they waited until the building was completely destroyed and the home behind was in danger of being burned to intervene. This is an act of violence and a clear message by some of the locals to let all of us and the refugees know that we are not welcome.
This followed a night in which our faith in humanity was a bit restored. The family of 15 that was left here due to the fact that they couldn't pay for tickets was fed a big pot of pasta, made by an Albanian living on the island. They came to Damian's restaurant and all sat quietly waiting for their food. They ate and left but left behind 2 of the small boys who stayed behind, played gently with the cats, and helped when we began cleaning up. Lovely children with a shitty world out there to deal with.
No money for the boat to Athens. Stuck here. Two mothers and thirteen kids.
Resigned to the situation. No money, no way to move on.
The refugees were sold tickets to Athens but weren't told that they will be forced off the boat at Rhodos. The ones given permission to move on to Athens will once again have to buy a ticket. Everyone making money off these people along their journey.