Monday, March 20, 2017

Kos Part 4

I was so lucky to meet Carrie and Charmaine on that second time in Kos. They were, as I learned later,  excellent company, both being funny, smart, brave and with the kindest hearts in the world. But when I met them, there was a much more prosaic reason for me to like them-  they both had cars. A car meant that the entire island was accessible-  they could go anywhere along the coast to local beaches, where the boats often landed.

And that was what I wanted-  to be where the boats came ashore. I wanted to be able to help people as they struggled out of the dark water. Lacking a car, the best I could manage was to walk to the Quay for the Midnight shift to help those who had already landed and made the trek into town.

There was only one thing to do. I was desperate to get into one of those cars.
I immediately set about convincing Charmaine and Carrie that I was their new BFF.
Lucky for me they were both generous women, happy to have me along.

Because they had both been on Kos for a while, they knew that the boats with families and children were most likely to arrive at dawn. So they got up while it was still dark and drove along the coast to the likely spots.  In a pathetic attempt to ingratiate myself, I offered to be the one who set  the alarm, at 4a.m. to get everyone up. It felt like the middle of the night.

Once I'd moved to the other hotel it made sense that I go with Carrie. My job was to wake her. Sounds easy, doesn't it? Ha! This woman had sleeping down to a fine art. But when she did finally open a bleary eye, she was like the wind and I had to get out of her way as she shot out of bed, shoved herself into her clothes and rocketed out the door grabbing her ciggies and dragging her fingers through her short hair as she went. She didn't mess around.
World's Best Emergency Nurse Carrie Davies

Once in the car, the speed limit was ignored (please don't worry, the roads were empty) until we skidded to a halt outside the only coffee bar open that early. Carrie would wait in the car, parked firmly in the no parking zone, and puffing on her first cigarette of the day while I would buy as many cups of coffee as I could carry. Then we'd race out of town on the empty roads to meet Charmaine at a spot where the boats would sometimes come ashore, or at least we could see them and drive to where they were headed. We had to be there before the sun came up or we would never be able to spot the boats in time.

 Sometimes there were no boats, but those days were rare. One of the most memorable landings was on a day when the wind was strong and the currents had changed. As the day dawned we could see the by now familiar lozenge shape of a boat emerging from the fading night. But as we watched  it get closer we realised it was being blown way off course.  We knew the people in the boat were helpless to stop the drift. Although the boats left Turkey equipped with a motor, too often the motor was so small it would only be effective on a dinghy and certainly not a packed boat and against a strong current. And as I found out later, the unscrupulous smugglers would sometimes fill a motor designed to run on 50-50 petrol and oil, with only petrol, because petrol is cheaper. So the motor conked out half way across. Then the boats were at the mercy of the sea.

Carrie had powerful binoculars and as she tracked them our anxiety levels steadily rose. It became increasingly obvious that they weren't going to make the shore, but were instead being blown way down the coast and possibly away from Kos to the hundreds of islands beyond. Some of those islands where uninhabited. It was shaping up to be a disaster.

Carrie phoned the Greek coastguard and told them what was happening, but the currents that day were wild, they were already involved with two other boats and they couldn't help.

By this time the rubber boat was close enough that we could see it was packed. We could see individuals. They were so close- and so far. We jumped in the cars and drove further along the coast trying to keep up with it. But everywhere we stopped they just drifted on by.

Eventually we reached the end of the road and could see no sign of them.

We looked anxiously for a long time, until we sadly realised there was nothing we could do. So we slowly started driving back, pulling into coves and beaches to see if we could find anyone.

And finally, some 10 kilometres from Kos Town, we saw people struggling up the bank to the road. We had found them. There were 56 of people, about half of them children.
It was such a happy moment for everyone. The refugee women hugged us and a few tears were shed, theirs and ours.

Both Carrie and Charmaine had packed their cars with dry clothing, snacks and drinks. We handed everything out and I noticed that the men resolutely refused everything until all the women and children had been fed.

Next we had to decide how to get everyone into Kos so they could register. By this time another car had pulled in and the drivers offered to help. But even so, it was obvious it would be several trips to get everyone into town.
With only 3 cars and 56 people, it took a bit of organising to get the Syrian families into Kos, 10 kilometresaway.  
The men were adamant they would not leave the women. They decided they would all walk rather than be split up.

We knew they had a long way to go and tried to deter them.  Finally I came up with a solution that was acceptable. Some of us volunteers would stay with the people on the road, so they were reassured the drivers wouldn't abandon the ones left behind. Each car would then take a man and some women and children so that at no point either end of the journey was anyone left alone.

This was important.  The refugee journey is perilous and everyone involved in it knows. And while we meant them no harm, they were not to know if we were to be trusted. So while this method of getting everyone into town took a couple of hours, it worked- and it was a pleasant enough wait. We had blankets on the ground and finally these exhausted people were able to rest.

There were boats landing every day. On another day there was one with a badly crippled man whose friends carried him. Sometimes it was just men and sometimes families. All of them were exhausted and haggard looking, always. I learned later that before they left Turkey they were not allowed any food or water, for at least 24 hours. That went for the children too. And before they got into the boats, they had to scramble up a mountain and hide in the undergrowth all day while they waited for whatever flimsy thing they were travelling in. Most of them could not swim. I can only imagine the nightmare of that journey and be so thankful that I have never had to do anything like it.

I will never forget those early mornings in Kos. The memory will stay with me for life.
Watching the horizon, looking for boats and waiting for dawn.

In the pastel stillness, as we waited, it was as if we were the only people in the world. The strange combination of circumstances -
          The life and death nature of the journey those brave souls were making as they silently slipped        over the water towards us.
         The isolation of the empty beach.
         The knowledge that before this crystal pure dawning day was over, we might witness something terrible.
         The waiting.

All these factors created a strange intimacy.
It became so easy and natural to share things we would normally only tell a trusted friend known for years.

The sun would slowly come up and the dark shoreline turn to fire. And we would wait and watch the horizon and drink coffee.
And talk.

And so it was that Carrie and Charmaine became two of the dearest friends I have.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Return to Kos. Part 3

I think I slept for a week when I got home from that first week in Kos. I was exhausted but - and I know this sounds contradictory- in that week I discovered I had a lot more energy than I ever imagined.  And despite being tired I felt years younger.

I couldn't wait to return. I think I booked my return ticket before I unpacked my suitcase! I decided to go for 10 days this time.  I now understood what was needed and I scoured charity shops for clothing bargains, men's shirts and trousers, women's long sleeved tops and dresses, winter coats, scarves and gloves - and shoes. Lots of shoes. I washed all the clothing. The sale rack in Primark yielded some lovely children's clothes for £1 each as they cleared out the end of summer goods. Poundland was a rich source for bags of razor blades. I had to stop myself when I found I'd filled two suitcases and hadn't allowed any room for my own clothes.

As word went round that I was going back, people were beginning to ask me how they could help, so I opened an on line account to gather funds to take with me. I was amazed at the generosity shown and soon had a good amount to take with me.

The day of departure finally arrived. There was no sign of the travel nerves that had plagued me for the last 3 years. This time, getting on that plane was just the easiest thing to do.

I had been on Facebook again looking for other people going to Kos, and met Julie and Janice, at Gatwick, on their first trip.
I had also seen posts from two women who had already been there. After reading their posts about their time so far on the islands, I thought they looked a bit terrifyingly good; Carrie and Charmaine.

Carrie was an emergency nurse from Wales. She answered my Facebook questions in a brisk and saltily humorous manner. I immediately liked her.

Charmaine, on the other hand, seemed rather intimidating. This Canadian woman had rescued people from the sea round the islands, gone to Athens to follow the refugee route on buses and trains from there onwards into the Balkans. She was now back in Kos. Surely she must be a serious 6' tall Amazon with a steely glint to her eye and the stamina of the Energiser rabbit. I didn't think we would have much common ground. For one thing, I'd never be able to keep up with her.

I met Carrie in Athens airport, where we all got the same plane to Kos. She was just as I had imagined her to be, friendly and straight forward. When we arrived in Kos she left with a friend who met her there, Lilian, and told us she would be staying at a hotel where she was getting a special volunteer rate of only 18 euros a night, organised for her by Lilian. The hotel sounded rather nice. It had just been refurbished and had power showers, heating and sea views from the individual balconies. I do like a sea view. And I really like heating and a power shower.

However, Julie, Janice and I were destined for the Hotel Oscar, which was offering an even better rate of 10 euros a night, again for volunteers. These generous rates were offered because it was out of season, and the hotels were happy to help both volunteers and refugees, while filling unoccupied rooms and keeping staff busy.

Ah, how to describe Hotel Oscar!  It was the Grand Old Dame of Kos, a big hotel, taking up a large part of the city block, and was obviously once a glamourous and sophisticated venue. The marbled and mirrored lobby was still quite magnificent, and everywhere was spotlessly clean. But age had taken its toll.  The elevators no longer worked. The paint was chipped and curled. The plumbing was fitful and the electrics had a mind of their own.
But. It was only 10 euros a night.
We checked in.

After the struggle up the stairs with all my luggage, I was rewarded with a magnificent view across Kos and I sat on the balcony of my top floor room happily watching a fabulous sunset burn its way across the horizon. I actually had two rooms; a bedroom and a lounge with a small kitchen. Just as well I did, as only one door locked. The other door only closed if seriously slammed shut, causing lumps of plaster to fall from round the frame. There were gaps where I could actually see out into the hallway. It didn't feel very secure.

But at 10 euros a night- I was staying.

After checking into our rooms Julie, Janice and I had agreed to meet and find somewhere to eat. As we walked along the corridor, joking about the state of the hotel, a door flew open and a tiny blonde hurricane shot into the corridor, excitedly saying 'I hear English voices!'

It was Charmaine. She was nothing like I'd imagined. She was warm and friendly and completely delighted to have some English speaking company.

Sadly, none of us stayed long at the Oscar. After two days of jamming furniture against the disintegrating door frame and shivering under the cold shower, when I plugged in my charger and a blue flame shot out I decided it was time to leave. It would be worth an extra 8 euros a day for a warm shower alone.

Stealthily, and it must be said, a little guiltily, I said goodbye to the lovely women who ran the front desk and decamped to the same hotel as Carrie. Charmaine followed a day later and Janice and Julie left a few days after that.

This was the beginning of my second time in Kos.

Friday, January 27, 2017

The journey begins Part 2. I meet the refugees.

Everyone who volunteers is told the experience will 'change your life'. But what does that mean? Really, I didn't think much about it. Perhaps I should have. Because that year of working with refugees has changed my whole life. It's been so much more than just a trip to Greece.

Despite what it says on my birth certificate, I don't consider myself old; but then again I'm not exactly young either. For the past couple of years, I'd become aware of nasty little aches and pains; I heard myself make those 'oof' noises when getting up from a deep chair; and the lattice of wrinkles - my 'face lace' I call it-  the mirror was depressing. There's not much to be done about those things. But the thing I really feared was what I called 'hardening of the mental arteries'.  I didn't want to start thinking 'old'. My reactions to the refugee in Verona had shown me what was happening- I was becoming an old fart.

And it wasn't just that. I was increasingly reluctant to move out of my comfort zone. Travel held special terrors for me and crippling panic attacks had actually prevented me from going on two long haul trips and many, many local ones. I'd tried everything to overcome the sweating, trembling, heart-thudding panic- CBT(cognitive behaviour therapy), deep breathing and drugs- but nothing worked. If you've experienced something similar, you will know how debilitating and thoroughly unpleasant it is. I felt trapped.

And yet once the idea of helping in Greece had taken root, I knew I had to go. It was a deeper and more insistent pull than anything I have ever known.

The panicked side of my mind watched in stunned amazement while the other side calmly booked tickets.

 I nervously blew the dust off my suitcase, terrified and wondering what on earth I was doing; and then methodically packed.

Two days before I was due to leave I took a bad tumble that resulted in a permanently scarred knee Even that didn't stop me. I had to go.

And in the end-  helped and encouraged by lovely friends, I overcame that awful travel anxiety. I was hot and shaky and horribly scared when I arrived at Gatwick airport- but I went. I was on my way. I didn't know it then, but the change had begun.

So, having said all that, lets get back to those wet refugees on Kos.

In all the rain that first day I didn't meet anyone properly. When water is sluicing down your neck and off your nose, and your hair dripping in your eyes, a friendly chat is not really a priority. The deluge continued the next day and my landlady, feeling sorry for me, kindly offered me an umbrella. I had found another store which stocked garbage bags and I returned to the waterfront hopeful that maybe this time I wouldn't get quite as wet.

The bags were highly desirable and I was mobbed.  As the crowd jostled me it became a struggle to control the umbrella while tearing the bags off the roll. When a brown hand reached out and seized the umbrella, I was indignant.  Here I was trying to help people and this man wanted to steal the only thing that was keeping me dry.

But as I turned to yell at him, I found myself looking into a warm smile. He did that head waggle thing that East Indians do, and said in broken English 'No no, I not stealing. I hold for you'. And so he did. He patiently held the umbrella over me until the last roll was finished. Then he handed me back the umbrella, said Thank you, kissed my hand and disappeared into the rain.

He was the first refugee I really met in Kos and he was from Pakistan.

Not everyone pitching up on the Greek shores were Syrians, and as I gradually found out, there were also Iraqis, Kurds, Iranians, Pakistanis, a few Africans- even some poor lost souls from Tibet; they all washed up on those rocky beaches.

At the end of that second day, as a group of us stood waving good bye to people leaving on the night ferry to Athens, the question of the midnight shift came up. The midnight shift was when volunteers would go to the shore with dry clothing and food and stay until dawn to meet boats coming from Turkey. But the stormy weather continued. A screaming wind whipped up huge waves and tossed everything on it like toys. Even the departure of the huge ferry was in doubt. So that nights shore patrol was cancelled.  We all went home while the storm screamed and snarled around Kos, because surely it was unthinkable that any of the rubber boats would leave Bodrum on a night like this. It would be lethal.

But we were wrong.

Unbelievably, two boats were mercilessly pushed out into that dark and furious night. One boat was never seen again. It just disappeared. The other boat carrying 26 young men also sank but closer to Kos. Those brave lads swam nearly a mile to save their lives. They were literally half dead when they crawled out of the water.

I heard about it when I arrived at the shore the next day. The rain had finally stopped and I was out delivering hot meals along the front. I found six of the new arrivals, passed out behind the ruins of a tent, their faces were literally grey with exhaustion. I couldn't wake them. I wanted to leave food for them, but how to do it? I couldn't reach where they were unless I stepped over their sleeping bodies, but I was reluctant to try; I mean, what if I tripped and fell on them? As I stood dithering, another young man, also a refugee, understood my dilemma. More agile than me, he easily managed to leave the meals in their foil containers where  they would find them when they finally awoke. Then I got another surprise. He wouldn't take anything for himself. He just wanted to help them. And through all my dealings with refugees, over and over again, I have seen people in desperate need themselves, selflessly help someone worse off than them without expecting anything in return.

I went back to meet those young men - boys, really- the next day. They had lost everything except their lives in that terrible storm. Some of them had friends on the other boat that was never seen again. One of them spoke enough English to tell me his story. He was from Pakistan. He was just 17 years old. His father had been killed and his sister was his only living relative. All told me with no trace of self pity. Another thing I learned about refugees. Not a lot of whining.

I went to see him and his two friends every day until they left for Athens and was always greeted with huge, warm smiles. They seemed so young and alone. Thanks to the generosity of friends who had given me money for this trip, I made sure that they had coats, a change of clothes, socks and underwear,  a back pack each- and some Euros in their pockets for the next stage of their journey.

Meanwhile the rest of Kos was a mess of destroyed tents and bedraggled people. The tents weren't made for two days of torrential rain; they were designed for festivals and most of them had collapsed in the storm and people were struggling to erect the them again. Every surface was festooned with steaming clothes and blankets.

I spent the rest of that week helping out wherever I could. I joined Kos Solidarity, a local organisation of people who had banded together, committed to helping refugees. Their warehouse was a disused, crumbling warehouse, with trailing electrical cords, jerry rigged lighting and a seemingly endless supply of broken boxes and bags full of donated clothing that had been sent from all over Europe. I helped sort some of the clothing - amazed by what some people thought was suitable for refugees walking hundreds of miles- 4" heeled diamante encrusted boots, anyone?- and after washing my hands most thoroughly, started making sandwiches. Hundreds of sandwiches.

Every day after that followed the same pattern. I was there as an independent volunteer so I could help wherever I liked. Sometimes I went to Kos Solidarity and other times I visited the hotel Oscar where the owners had kindly given Oscar (no relation to the hotel) and sorted more donations.

 Several nights I went down to the shore for the midnight shift. A group of volunteers gathered bags of dry clothing, blankets and food, to hand to newly landed refugees as they made their way to the police station to register in the middle of the night.  Most of the arrivals had wet shoes and many had lost everything they owned in the world, washed away into the sea. All of them were hungry and thirsty. I found out afterwards that they weren't allowed any refreshments for hours before the boats left Turkey. Most of them, including children, had nothing- no food or water- for over 24 hours.

I didn't last very long on the midnight shift; I think 3 a.m. was the best I did, and I only went three times. The others managed go every night and stay until the dawn. I have no idea how. There wasn't enough coffee on the island for me! But I was pleased I tried. At home, I'd be yawning at the tv by 11p.m.

 Almost every night I went to the port to see the ferry leave for Athens.  Once their paperwork was complete, every refugee had to leave for Athens for the next leg of their journey. Most of the volunteers would go to the port, to hand out clothing and shoes to the people leaving that night, but perhaps even more importantly, to wave good bye. It was inevitable that you would get to know some of the refugees a little bit better and in those circumstances, a bond formed very quickly. So when they left, at least they would leave knowing somebody cared about them.

 By now I had realised the enormity of the journey they were on, the courage they needed and the nightmare they faced.

I didn't sleep properly at all that week. My brain buzzed like it had a short circuit; adrenalin I suppose.  But also I was surprised by how much I had been able to do, physically. I had a lot more energy than I'd had for years.

 I met some incredible people, both refugees and other volunteers, like Ian, who had changed his life around from being a drug addicted criminal to running a successful business,  his life  devoted to helping others (you can read about this in his book 'The Biggest Issue' by Ian Rayner, available on Amazon I believe).

 Then there was Autumn, who eventually took early retirement and returned to the islands to set up essential services for pregnant women and babies.

And Oscar, who was so moved by the plight of the refugees that he had given up his job in London and come to Kos convinced that somehow he would survive. He was right, and after a long period where his only support was his savings and the generosity of others like the hotel Oscar, he went on to work for Mercy Corps, one of the very few big organisations who came to Kos to help.

These people, and others, amazed me. I was left wondering what had happened to the woman I used to be, who was once a free spirit who believed all things were possible. Where had she gone? And could I find her again? Did I even want to? It would be a long time until I got the answers to those questions.

 By the end of that week, I was sorry to leave and was already plotting my return. The journey would continue.
After the storm.

The donations at Kos Solidarity warehouse.

Last night dinner for fellow volunteers, paid for with a generous contribution . 

The first family I met, from Iraq. The wife is a Doctor of Tropical diseases and the husband a teacher.

The lad on the left is the 17 yr old who had lost his father and family. 

Monday, January 9, 2017

The journey begins. Part 1

After meeting the Syrian refugee in Verona I paid more attention to the news. One night Channel 4 broadcast a filmed report from the Greek Dodecanese islands. I watched local people help traumatised men, women and children as they stumbled out of flimsy boats crashing onto the stony shore.  Exhausted adults were helped to their feet; dry clothing was handed out; and scared and crying children were cuddled while their parents recovered. The kindness shown was beautiful. There were no aid organisations to be seen; the locals were on their own.

The rubber boats had left the Turkish shore, just seven or so kilometres away, always at night, pushed into the black water by greedy smugglers who packed too many people into each boat. Sometimes, one man said grimly, too often, the boats didn't make it to the other shore. Then only body bags -and a brave heart- were required.

My own not-so-brave heart tugged at me. I wanted to help. But would I, at my age and lacking any training, be a liability? I thought about it. The people on the screen were of all ages, some of them clearly older than I was, and their only qualification, compassion. Maybe I could be useful.

Where to start? Who to ask? I had no idea. And so I did what any confused person with a laptop does- I  Googled. Google led me to Facebook. I typed Refugees and Volunteers in the search bar and several groups flagged up immediately. Most of them were for aid going to Calais, but I started asking about Greece and eventually I connected with Autumn, a lovely midwife from Bristol who also wanted to go to the Greek islands.

And so it was that a month later, in September, and despite having to overcome the dreadful travel anxiety that had held me back too many times before, I found myself leaving Gatwick airport in an orange glow- yes, I was on Easyjet.

Autumn and I had agreed to go to the island Kos. It's a small island and it's easy to get around without a car. It seemed like a good place to start.

I still wasn't sure how much help I would really be; and I wondered if I'd actually like doing it- but I figured if worse came to worse, and I hated it, well, hey, at least I'd be on a Greek island in late summer. That couldn't be bad, could it?

Turned out it could. The next morning when I opened the summery white curtains I was greeted not with dancing rays of golden sunshine as I expected, but pelting, cold unforgiving rain. Buckets of it. I had packed a lightweight summer mac. The rain merely laughed and went straight through it. I was soaked to the skin in 5 minutes.

Wondering quite what I had done, I paddled through ankle deep water to the waterfront which was the where the refugees were camped. I passed groups of damp, forlorn ill-dressed people huddled in every place that offered any shelter at all. They were refugees.

I wondered what I should do. How could I help in this deluge? How on earth would I find Autumn? We had loosely agreed to meet at the waterfront. Would she even be here? The rain was coming down so hard, it was bouncing back up again and causing a mist.

And then as I stood there dripping and wondering, an apparition appeared in the watery gloom. A woman clad in sensible waterproofs cycled up and stopped in front of me. Pushing back her sturdy rain hat she peered at me over misted glasses, smiled and said "Maggie?'

By some miracle, it was Autumn.

"Lovely to meet you!" she chirped. "Come on, there's lots to do!"

And with over 1000 stranded people getting soaked, indeed there was. For the rest of that morning, we distributed as much dry clothing as we could find in the Kos Solidarity warehouse, food, drinks and anything else that would help.

At lunchtime I gratefully splashed back to my hotel room where at least I could get warm and dry for an hour.

By the time I returned to the waterfront there wasn't a raincoat or umbrella to be had on the whole island so I stopped at a grocery store and bought every single roll of bin liners on the shelves. I recalled that when I worked on the fairgrounds in the US, we used bin liners as makeshift raincoats, by tearing three holes- one at the top for your head and one each side for the arms. They're not pretty, but they work. And for 10 minutes or so while I handed them out to the soggy souls at the shore, I was the most popular person on the island; possibly even Greece. I soon became known as the Bin Bag Lady.

Having apparently lost what little sense I have, I went out again in the evening. Every day people left Kos on the ferry for Athens, where they would submit their claims for refugee status and wait for interviews.

Volunteers would gather at the port to see them off and hand out shoes, bags, coats- anything that would make that twelve hour journey better. That night, only three volunteers turned up. I was given a box of dry shoes and told to guard it with my life (shoes, I learned, are always at a premium). I sheltered under a flimsy plastic sunshade as the rain continued to thunder down, while another volunteer cycled off into the dark night to ask who needed shoes. He'd return with a list of sizes, and I would rummage in the box to find them. Then he cycled off to deliver them. He did this over and over again until the box was empty. He preferred to get soaked so the people going on that ferry could at least leave with dry feet.

 The volunteer on the bike was- the rather fabulous Oscar, and I'll tell you more about him in the next post.

Autumn and Oscar. Two lovely people who have since become my good friends, I hope for life.

* if you'd like to read an account of the first two days that I wrote at the time, and see some photos,  just scroll down until you reach the posts titled
1. Kos the rain
2. Kos photos.
There are not a lot of photos because I couldn't let my camera get wet, so I had to leave it in the hotel after my first venture out. Most of the photos were taken after the rain finally finished.

Monday, January 2, 2017

First things first.

When I created this blog, about a million years ago, my idea was that it would be light-hearted and amusing; frivolous, you could say, and you would not offend me. It was mostly concerned with trips I had taken, hobbies I enjoyed, that sort of thing. I didn't think of it as a journey but I suppose it was. If I had to characterise it as such, I would have said it was a rollicking day trip to Blackpool complete with sunburn, funny hats and a trip to the pub.  My readers and I were companions on a merry ramble.

But in 2015 the jolly jaunt changed direction rather dramatically when I became involved in helping refugees, in what I know realise is the greatest migration of people ever recorded in the history of our world.

Let me explain. In the summer of 2015 I really wasn't aware of any crisis.  I now find that fact to be so shocking that I wonder at my own ignorance. But in my own defence, and I suspect that of many other people, there wasn't a lot of news coverage of the war in Syria and the subsequent flood of people running for their lives.

How did I become involved? What changed? Well, the saying goes that the longest journey starts but with a single step and for me that step was taken when I met my first refugee, a man, in Verona, on one of my trips.

I must be completely honest with you about that meeting- there's no point in a journal that's less than truthful-  because I'm not too proud of my reaction when I met him.

I'll tell you what happened.

I used to visit Verona for a few weeks every year to see opera at the Arena. It was a highlight in my year. Hotels in Verona during the opera season are wildly expensive, so to keep costs down I would rent an apartment where I could make my own meals. Every day I would go to the local, rather posh, bakery and buy rolls for lunch; and every day a big, healthy-looking man stood quietly begging at the bakery door.

The first time I saw him I was irritated, especially when he asked me for money. After all, by European standards I'm not wealthy and I was only buying rolls because I couldn't afford lunch in a fancy restaurant. So why was this apparently capable man asking me for a hand out?

As the days passed, and he persisted asking, my sense of indignation grew, until I became really quite annoyed.

To show my displeasure I would scowl at him and brush rudely past, probably tutting as I went.

But I never paused to ask him why he was begging.

Someone kinder and more thoughtful did that.

On my last full day the woman in front of me dropped 2 euros in his outstretched hand and as she did, she asked him why he needed money. His quiet answer, in perfect English, stopped me cold.

He was, he told her, from Aleppo, where he had been a University lecturer. But Aleppo had become too dangerous, he said. He had to leave his mother, his wife and their children behind while he came to Europe to make a safer life for them. He had survived crossing the Mediterranean in a perilously flimsy boat; journeyed all the way through Italy and France; somehow smuggled himself into the UK where he had got himself a job as a short order cook so he could save and pay for his family to join him. But his 'luck' had run out and he'd been sent back to Italy under the Dublin Agreement * to seek asylum.  He was not allowed to work in Italy and in order to go forward with his asylum claim, he needed a lawyer. His only option was to beg every day and send some money home to feed his family, anything else going towards paying, one day, a lawyer.

When he finished speaking I was so ashamed. I had never imagined such a heart breaking story. And then I realised that in my outrage at being begged I had joined that dreadful group of individuals who,  huffing and puffing with moral indignation, write anonymous letters to the papers complaining about beggars and rough sleepers spoiling their towns. They sign those letters  'Disgusted' from Tunbridge Wells, or some such. They are jeeringly referred to as NIMBYs **

I have always viewed such people with distaste: and yet- here I had apparently become one.

It was a humiliating realisation for me.

I was leaving Verona the next day and in the morning I was up early, hoping to catch some photos of the beautiful city as it awoke. I saw the man again, this time he was near the bus stop. I asked if he would mind talking to me, to tell me more. He described, with the patience of someone who has repeated their story many, many times, about the destruction and horror that was happening in Syria. He told me how much he missed his family and how he feared for them, wondering if he would ever see them again. Without rancour, he told me how he had been reduced from having a nice life, with a respected and interesting career in the University, to being a beggar, his family left in the ruins of what was once home.

I asked how he managed these days. He indicated the backpack that was stashed near him. In there he had, he said, a change of clothes and a cell phone. Of those meagre possessions the cell phone was the most treasured because he could stay in contact with his family.

At night he slept in a corner of a local church. He kept himself and his clothes clean at a sink in a courtyard. People- kind people- gave him food. The staff at the bakery, having heard his story, were happy to let him ask for money at their door. He had a timetable, and every day, during the day, he would move to two other locations where he would beg, always with the permission of the residents.

When I  said goodbye to this gentle, softly spoken and educated man, I also said goodbye to the person I had unthinkingly become.

I didn't decide then and there that I must help refugees- that was to come later- but meeting him, I now realise, was the very first step into this new journey, and without that meeting, none of what followed would ever have happened.

That was the beginning. Please come with me on the next step of the journey.

*Dublin Agreement- simply put, refugees must apply for asylum in the first European country they arrive in; in this case, it was Italy

** NIMBY- Not In My Back Yard.

Friday, January 1, 2016


It's the first day of the new year, and it seems to me, that's a good day as any to return to my poor neglected blog.
After the last post I wrote, from Kos, in September, I got home and realised that after what I'd seen, and the people I'd met, my life was never going to be the same again.

Everyone says that the experience of helping refugees is one that alters your life. I had no idea how profound the change was going to be, because it doesn't stop when you set your feet back on the tarmac at Gatwick; that's when it starts. And I'll talk about that in another post, another day.

Since then, I've been back to Kos for 10 days and in January, I'll be going to Greece again; this time I have no idea how long I will be there. It's a one-way ticket.

People have been incredibly supportive, with donations of clothing and cash, and also with words of encouragement. And that support has a value way beyond what you might think.
Thank you.
Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Not only could I not do it without you, given my travel anxiety, I probably wouldn't even get there in the first place if it wasn't for the thoughtful encouragement of friends and partners, helping push me out of the door!

Volunteering is hard work and you do see and hear some truly terrible things. I think anyone reading here probably knows that. Some of my friends have wondered how anyone can do it. The answer is possibly in my post today, about another aspect of the volunteering experience.

It's the sheer joy.
Last night as the clock slowly ticked it's way round to Midnight, my Facebook page, e-mail and my phone, like everyone's I suppose, lit up with wishes for a Happy New Year. Many were from old friends.
But also, mixed in, there were wishes from new friends, people who are refugees; messages saying Thanks for help and saying where they are now and what their lives are like (most are still on their journey). Messages saying that they will never forget the help given them, and that there is a place in their hearts forever. Pledges made that I am now and forever part of their family.

This is not just my experience. Every volunteer who has got to know a refugee a bit better will have been receiving the same messages last night and I'll bet they were as much of a mess as I was/am, (coz I still get a lump in my throat now, just thinking about it).
Let me tell you, I spent the evening on an emotional roller coaster, tears welling up over and over again. Buy shares in Kleenex for heaven's sake, you'll clean up I promise.

And that's the thing of it.
It's the love.
I never expected the love.

No way on earth would I have been so blessed with as much love as I was last night, if I hadn't met these incredibly brave and determined people, who even while they know their  lives have changed forever, will never forget the tiny bit of help we were able to give them.

So for those who wonder why I and the other volunteers show up to sort old clothes,  hand out food and prowl dark shores looking for people struggling out of the chilly water- that's the reason.

It's the joy and the love.

Friday, September 25, 2015

Journey to Kos

Every day, during the day, several local voluntary organisations show up  with food, water and fruit, and sometimes with sleeping bags and tents. So the  people who are already here are well looked after, all things considered.
But the only organisation who show up to look after the newcomers when they land at night is Kos Solidarity, and that's the group I've thrown my hat in with.
The boats have to leave the Turkish coast after dark, so the coastguard don't see them. In a boat with a motor, it's a 25 minute trip. But it's expensive. 2500 Euros per person ( I think that's about £2000 or $3000 but my brain is fried so feel free to check the math).
The other boats- the rotted wooden ones ones that fall apart or the rubber dinghies- that take up to 6 hours to arrive- if they do at all. And when the occupants stagger ashore they then have to walk to the Police station to register. Depending where they land, that can be 5-6 kilometres (3 miles).
Imagine that. Risking your life on a dark deep sea and then when you scramble ashore- a nice little hike to complete the evening.
So every night several volunteers meet near the Police Station with bottles of water, food, warm clothing - and a smile.
Because you can never tell when the boats will land, the graveyard shift behind at Midnight and ends when no-one can stay awake.
I did it for the first time last night. I only lasted 'til 3.30, but the others stayed 'til 6 am. Tonight I'll do it again. It probably sounds hard to do- but let me say, apart from the boredom of standing around, it's really not.
The supplies.

The Kos Solidarity van

Volunteers and the supplies

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Kos. The rain.

The weather here has worsened. it's bucketing down in biblical proportions. the drain lids are popping up and the streets are like rivers. I've been walking in ankle deep water. Those poor bastards…they are really only festival tents. quite few had collapsed by this afternoon. most of them were soaking inside. tonight that's where they will sleep.
i got my second soaking for the day. I stayed down at the port for about 5 hours helping but then so wet and cold i came back to my room. i've met enough other volunteers now to form a bit of a plan. Today I bought loads of bin liners to hand out as makeshift raincoats. they are so grateful. One guy held my umbrella while I tore ten off the roll and then kissed my hand and thanked me. I bought some little lollies for the kids. 

What happens is; they get those awful flimsy boats from Bodrum and have to sail at night so the authorities don't see them. Must be terrifying. When they land, anywhere of about a 3 mile stretch, many of the boats collapse and they have to swim for it. Then they lose everything, and the death rate is quite high. They  are then required to walk to the police station to register. Nobody is allowed to help them, give them a lift, because if they do, they (the person who helps) are then classed as people smugglers; they have to get there themselves. They then have to go at midnight to this place out on the port for papers. If and when they get them, they have so many days (i think it's 3) to catch a boat to Athens. So many of them do not even have shoes or any money (lost when the boats sink). I met 2 young men today completely sunk in despair. they have lost their families. I just wanted to hold them.

Tomorrow the weather is forecast to be just as foul. Let's hope they are wrong. I'll go to the Kos Solidarity warehouse and sort things for the day or whatever they want me to do.

At night, when the ferry leaves for Athens, volunteers from Kos Solidarity find out who is leaving for Athens. They make sure they have shoes and dry clothing. It's a bit of a scrum for everything. I did that part tonight and will go again tomorrow. Please God they don't send any boats from Bodrum tonight, it would be suicide. But every day the volunteers go and meet those boats when they land.

It is all disorganised, with different local aid groups showing up randomly.

the young man staring at the water?well, i'll never know. but given everything i've seen and heard today, and the fact that he had so little- makes me think he has lost someone in the waters. so many of them have. 
it's all dire. but makes me thankful i came.  

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

Kos Photos

Some of the voluntary help arrives with hot food. None of the big aid agencies to be seen anywhere, this is all local people. 

This is what remains of most of the boats that they come from Bodrum. 

I watched him for a while. He just stared at the water for a long time. I 'll never know why, but given what happens too often, I could guess and be likely right.

Just a few of the tents and a man in flip flops and a blanket.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

Boscombe art.

Here's some of the sculptures from around Boscombe. I think they're great!

Down by the pier

On Sea Road

Outside Urban Reef hotel

Friday, January 23, 2015


Oh Lord, what have I done?
I was not going to make any more jam- ever- and then I unearthed an old jar of marmalade from deep in the cupboard. It has gone dark brown with age. But undeterred by its sombre appearance and the date on the label, (2010), I decided to live dangerously, carried on and ate some for breakfast.
Two days later, I'm still here and now I want some more. You can only get these oranges (Seville) in Jan/Feb. They are very bitter, totally inedible unless saturated with sugar. But oh! What a treat they are when cooked.

At the market, I spied a pile of them, glowing in the gloom that is January in England. The wind howled and flecks of icy rain whipped my face as I made my purchase. I couldn't wait to get back home, in the warm. As the woman measured out my treasure, I felt so sorry for her having to stand there in the cold all day. She is always cheerful and works so hard. In a mad moment, I hear myself asking " Would you like a jar of marmalade?"
 Her face lit up.
" I'd love one! I'll tell you what," she said, "I'll throw a couple of extra oranges in for mine!"
Whereupon she hurled what looked like half the pile into the bag and happily handed it to me.
Well. I don't know if you know this but to make jam, for every pound of fruit, you add 1lb of sugar. But for marmalade, because the fruit is so bitter, it's 2lbs. And she had given me 4lbs of fruit!
So, after staggering home with the oranges, I had to make another trip to get more sugar. I took a backpack.
And jars! Where am I going to find enough jars? Argh!!
That was yesterday. Today, I've just made the first batch. Only 2 more to go!

It's Marmageddon.

Monday, December 8, 2014

Seville; The Flamenco museum

I'm getting a bit behind with this, since it's about 2 months since I was in Seville! But never mind, better late than never (I seem to have been saying that my whole life…)
Flamenco is the rhythm in the beating  heart of Seville; in the music, the art, the poetry and everywhere around.

Friday, November 28, 2014


We arrived by train- into Sevilla's beautiful main station. I couldn't get a wide enough angle to show the clean lines and beautiful symmetry of this well designed venue, but it really is efficient and a pleasant place to be in; not something you can say for every railway station!

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Cordoba; La Mezquita

Cordoba is a lovely city- but the main reason we went was to see La Mezquita.  It's one of the most amazing buildings I have ever seen, and I've wanted to see it first-hand ever since I knew it existed. Once a Mosque, the partly demolished when the Moors left Spain and the Catholics built a cathedral inside- and the destruction halted by King  Philip, who (smart man) realised what a thing of beauty the original building presented.

The courtyard.

The outside walls.

An original door to the Mosque.