Moved by the plight of Syrian refugees arriving to the Greek island of Kos two members decided to take direct action writes Bronagh McCrystal.
Gardaí Damian McCarthy and Ray Wims decided to travel to the Greek Island of Kos to help refugees as they were profoundly moved, like all Irish people, by the pictures of Aylan Kurdi, the two-year-old Syrian boy washed up on a beach after a failed attempt to reach Kos.
They initiated a fundraising campaign prior to leaving but all of their travel and costs were funded by themselves with support from their families. All donations converted directly into food, water, medicines or clothing that could be provided.
Wims said, “Every night, the people who arrive by dangerous boat to Kos are humanity stripped; stripped of their homes, their jobs, their families, their educations and their hopes and dreams. Many of the refugees we helped told us how they paid €2,500 per person to smugglers to make the short journey across the Aegean Sea in dangerous dinghies under nightfall, six to 12 miles depending on the crossing, from Asia to the EU via Kos. In a surprisingly kind gesture by the smugglers, babies travel free.”
It is believed that over 400,000 refugees have arrived in Greece on unseaworthy, overcrowded dinghies so far this year. For refugees arriving in Greece, this is merely the beginning of their journey. If they choose to leave Greece then they face days of ‘illegal’ travel through Serbia and Macedonia, and possible tear gas and beatings on the Hungarian border while on their quest to reach Germany. But this is considered better than what so many have left behind.
Talking with some of these refugees, Wims and McCarthy listened to horrific tales about torture, bombing, forced conscription, the murder of innocent civilians and family members being disappeared. There were many hair-raising stories of smugglers who had beaten and abused pregnant women too scared to get in the overcrowded boats; life jackets being filled with plastic rather than foam and the organ trade offering to buy kidneys.
Amidst the thousands of people who arrived by dinghy, a Syrian man was asked why he had left his country. He replied, visibly emotional, wordlessly, by showing them the scars on his young son’s body. He then voluntarily went on to tell them how he had a good life in Syria; a successful business, a home and a car. He took out his mobile phone to show them pictures of his home before and after it was bombed and then most shockingly, pictures of some of his children, before and after they were murdered. Nine of this Syrian man’s family were murdered in Syria.
Each night that McCarthy and Wims were in Kos they, along with a small number of volunteers from Sweden and the Netherlands, had been spotting boats, pulling refugees and their children out of the water, feeding, clothing and sheltering the refugees and their families.
McCarthy said, “At the beach in the early hours of the morning when dawn breaks you get a clear picture; you experience the shouting, the crying and the sense of panic. You are overcome by what’s happening in front of your eyes but you have to put on your happy face, go to each family and provide whatever support you can. Having experienced it however within 24 hours the refugees are transformed when they get help, assistance, support and food.”
Up to 15 dinghies landed every night, containing between 10 to 60 people each; men, women and children, some as young as one week old. The majority of them land in and around the beaches surrounding Kos, where a very small number of volunteer spotters try to ensure that each boat lands safely and people arriving are met with emergency blankets, water, fruit and a change of clothes if required. The Greek coastguard tirelessly works to pick up boats which are sinking or have capsized and these refugees are dropped off in the port.
The majority of boats are not intercepted and these refugees with their children then make the journey, up to 10km, by foot to the Port in Kos where they register with the Red Cross. There, a group of six volunteers from Sweden work day and night providing clothes, food and water, medical attention if necessary and basic accommodation is organised for families with children. The male refugees are provided with a sleeping blanket and tent, if available to sleep at the port or in a park at the rear of the police station which has become known as ‘the jungle.’
There is no international charity working in Kos, hence many of the refugees and their children were literally starving. Official records show that refugees were being provided with a meal each day but in reality this was not happening.
In their short time there, McCarthy and Wims managed to acquire the use of a kitchen and restaurant in an Irish bar and were able to source cooks and chefs from among the Syrian refugees and ultimately they started providing breakfast and a wholesome sit down hot dinner to over 300 refugees and their children every night. Many of the refugees helped by cleaning, offering translation skills and sometimes even medical advice. They were keen to give back to people who have helped them and could not thank them enough for the assistance they were able to provide them.
McCarthy said, “These people are stripped of all their dignity and self-respect. After a few days we had three Syrian refugees who were chefs cooking in the kitchen. It was more than providing food – it helped restore their dignity too. To see the difference we were making kept us going out there.”
Before they left the island they negotiated that the restaurant would remain open to provide a dinner for each refugee and it will be funded by an American Aid agency Mercy Corps.
Wims said, “Much more needs to be done. Donations and volunteering are fantastic, but we need to change public opinion towards refugees and pressurise our EU governments to do more to help; to offer more people fleeing war a place to live to help them raise their families in safety and to contribute to the societies they join. It’s our moral obligation to do whatever we can to ease their suffering. Winter is coming and many more refugees will start to die at sea and on the road if more is not done.
“This refugee crisis gives us an opportunity to drastically change the course of people’s lives for the better. Damien and I were so lucky that we are given this chance to show how much we are prepared to give to ensure people have a better, safer life. Every volunteer makes a difference. It would be hard for us not to return. We are following the restaurant project very closely to make sure that it continues.”
PHOTOS BY MARK CONDREN
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