Since the spring, my partner, Michael Honegger, and I have helped to provide immediate and direct relief to the refugees arriving by the tens of thousands on the Greek island of Lesbos. By coincidence, Lesbos is the island we have visited twice annually for the last dozen years, and ‘our’ village – Molyvos – on the island’s north coast, has been ‘ground zero’ for the majority of arrivals. Since the first of the year, an estimated 170,000 refugees have passed through the village; and by another count, some 40 percent of them are children.
We never expected our efforts to last as long as they have. Well before now, we assumed the Greek government, foreign governments, UN agencies and/or international NGOs would step in, organize and fund at an appropriate level, the assistance and services demanded by this unprecedented humanitarian crisis. That has not happened, as soberly explained in a Reuters article: Who’s in charge of the migrants arriving in Greece?
Instead of a concerted and organized effort, the international response has been pathetically insufficient, characterized more by self-serving selfies, self-promotional videos and handwringing than actual accomplishments. Granted, the IRC has organized buses, the UNHCR added a few tents, and Medicins Sans Frontiers eventually built toilets, but almost the entire relief effort has been shouldered by a heroic team of local volunteers aided by a host of foreigners who selflessly devote themselves to the effort for a few days to several months. The NGOs that have shown up—and doing the most—are not in the big leagues of relief agencies, but groups as small as A Drop in the Ocean.
It is unexpected and wonderful what people have been willing to do and contribute. Most of the summer, the mounting food bill was footed largely by tourist donations. Providing the simplest sandwich, banana and bottle of water even at wholesale prices adds up to real money for a village, especially in the midsts of a Depression-era crisis.
The money we have raised has gone for a wide variety of uses; such as, on a modest scale, medicines, fixing some plumbing problems, and transport for refugees from the north coast to the island’s capital. We have also supported the long-term volunteers with food stipends.
Most important, though, are the items we have provided directly to the refugees: over 13,000 hats to protect them from the brutal sun, 8000 reusable rain ponchos, and most recently, 1550 thermal (thinsulated-lined) caps for children. With those items alone, we have helped close to 14% of the estimated total refugees coming through the village. In addition, we have provided thousands of people with water and food. Currently, we have been asked for fleece sweatpants for children, and I am looking for a good source and will buy as many pairs as I can.
All of this, of course, has only been possible because people have donated money. As long as we have funds, we will keep doing the same.
It was thought that the number of refugees would decrease in bad winter weather, but not so far. Turkish traffickers have launched overloaded rubber rafts in winds strong enough that regular ferry traffic is stopped; and they have started using larger, wooden boats unseaworthy in their own ways. Children are suffering the worst, of course, so buying insulated caps and sweatpants is now our priority.
In these times, when each day’s bad news seems to best anything from the day before, it is heartwarming and reassuring how many people have wanted to help refugees fleeing their own bad news. Crowdfunders, churches, fundraising parties, individuals—an early Thanksgiving thanks to everyone who has and will help.
If you want to donate, please follow the link to www.timothyjaysmith.com.
Photo by Michael Honegger @ www.michaelhoneggerphotos.com.