The State of Things
We were motivated to go over to Lesvos to help with the refugee crisis that was taking place in Europe. We had seen pictures of refugees coming over to Greece and, what with Greece having its own problem with its economy, we thought we would try to see what we could do to help. Listening to the media, seeing the pictures on TV, on the news and in the papers, we understood that those people needed help and so we set up the Haroon Tariq Jahan Foundation.
We started collecting donations to help us with the aid work and raised a small amount of cash. We went over in October to Greek in order to do a reconnaissance to try to understand what was happening.
Hitting The Ground Running
When we got to Lesvos, it was absolute chaos. From the time we hit the ground at the airport, which, keep in mind, is right by the beach, we saw refugees literally landing on the shore. As soon as we left the airport, we saw people standing outside and assumed that these people were trying to get flights. We didn’t realize then that these people had just landed and were walking down the road, having been directed towards the camps.
I thought it would have been well-organised. It wasn’t.
Some of them were putting out their hands out to us, and I didn’t know what they wanted. I thought, ‘What are they asking for? Why are these people here? They’re only young. Who are they asking for?’ It didn’t make any sense. It took us a while before we realized that they were newly landed refugees.
By this time the refugee crisis had already been going on for a while. I thought it would have been well-organised. It wasn’t. There was no methodical organization or any council who was dealing with a situation there. They had no funding. There was no co-ordination between the agencies or any of the people on the ground – the UNHCR and so on so on.
Greeted With Harrowing Sights
As soon as we landed in Lesvos, we went to the hotel to drop our stuff and went straight out again, heading to the camps.
People say I’m a strong man, and I dealt with this and dealt with that but, I kid you not, what I saw there in the camp broke my heart. I actually went up to the fence on the Afghan side of the Moria Camp and I put my hands on the fence and looked in and there were roughly five hundred to a thousand people sat with dry faces, refugees who hadn’t eaten or drank anything for three days, women, children and men of all ages.
I exploded into tears. I literally broke down. I turned away from the fence, ran behind our van and cried. And I cried loudly. I was so shocked because everybody who was sat there turned to look at me as soon as I grabbed the fence and looked in. It was a harrowing sight to see their faces. And I thought to myself, ‘I can’t do this in front of these people. I need to go away and compose myself.’
People say I’m a strong man, and I dealt with this and dealt with that but, I kid you not, what I saw there in the camp broke my heart.
Within a few minutes I came back and we spoke to the police, the riot police who were patrolling the crowd. I asked one of the officers if and how we could help. He told me the people in the camps had had neither food nor water for three days.
Immediately we jumped back in the van, our lads and volunteers, went to Lidl with the cash that we had and filled the van up to the top until the wheels were touching the arches. Getting back to the camp, we told the police to let us into the camp. We promised we’d talk to the people, we’d keep everything under control and we’d deliver everything we bought. They agreed and so we found a refugee who could speak English to translate for us, asking him to tell people to stay where they are, that they’d all get fed. We gave the refugees water, a croissant, and either an apple or a banana.
Overwhelmed And In Jeopardy
The refugees were being kept in the camps until they were processed in through another area. They were waiting to have their fingerprints taken and being given their documents before they were allowed to move on. Some refugees were having to wait three days, maybe four, or five or even longer.
People were climbing over the barbed wire fence, jumping in only to be struck by the police and thrown back out.
We went to Skala Sikaminea in the north of the island where all the refugees land. Every day up to five to six thousand people were landing. You would have literally thousands of people coming in on dinghies and, you know, these dinghies aren’t designed to carry that many people.
Sixty people would be in a boat, including women, children and babies. They’d have completed a seven-hour journey from Turkey to Lesvos in which, should the weather change, their lives would have been in great jeopardy.
At the time, there was no organisation. There were riots every night and we volunteers were the ones controlling the riots. The police would stay at a safe distance inside the fenced area and wouldn’t come out and, even if they did come out, they’d simply use gas and leave everyone affected – the riot police, crowds, even the volunteers. They’d try to maintain calm but people were climbing over the barbed wire fence, jumping in only to be struck by the police and thrown back out. This went on for the ten or twelve days that we were initially there, conducting the reconnaissance.