Life and Lesvos

Alex Capper

Europe’s refugee crisis has been splattered across newspaper headlines and television bulletins. In the past 18 months, more than one million migrants have moved into the EU from Turkey, Syria, Pakistan and other parts of the Middle East. From Australia, this seems like a distant and faraway problem.

Sure, with an election coming up, our politicians are always talking about it and every other post in my news feed is always talking about it.

But talk is cheap.

If I actually wanted to make a difference, where would I turn?

I can’t be the only one stumped wondering, what can we do to actually help?

There has to be something more on offer than a gold coin donation and a Facebook share.

Would you be willing to put your life on hold and go over and help on the front line?

Well that’s exactly what Katie O’Neill did. Katie, a 22-year-old university student, spent 3 months volunteering in Turkey, mainland Greece and Lesvos helping in refugee camps.

Katie was on university exchange in The Netherlands when she heard about the situation in Lesvos while herself and her friend Mikahla were helping out at a refugee shelter in Amsterdam.

They contacted Better Days for Moria (BDFM), an NGO based in Lesvos, and received their instructions.

‘Travel to Lesvos, head to Moria Refugee Camp, ask for a man named Kai, see you soon.’

A brief dossier at best, but that was the easy part. The hard part for Katie was convincing her parents that this was a good idea.

Katie heard all the questions.

Why are you doing it?

Do you need to do it?

I think you should come home and study.

The Australian Government has said it was take thousands of Syrian refugees...

Can’t you just help them from home?

‘They were leaning towards 'don’t do it' but their reasons somewhat convinced me to do it more. I almost needed to prove that the media representation is a very specific narrative, and one that can be easily distorted,’ Katie explains.

For Katie, Lesvos and Turkey offered an entirely different experience. With Australia’s announcement that they would accept intake of 12,000 Syrian refugees, no one knew when, if or how this would actually eventuate. Nor would the numbers residing in Melbourne be substantial once this quota was divided among all the cities and regional towns. All in all, Katie assumed her access to helping assisting refugees in Australia would be restricted, or at least, not needed as imminently.

Or as Katie quipped;

‘I can do that when I get back home but for now I’m in Europe and I’m on the doorstop here. I have the time and the geographical proximity, plus the physical, mental and financial means.'

With that Katie’s parents relented, but Katie is quick to defend her parents’ reservations about her decision, claiming that they were always supportive.

‘They were on the same side of the issue, they were just more concerned about my safety,’ Katie says, ‘they know why I did it, but there’s only so much people can understand from where they are.’

Once Katie arrived at BDFM, Katie was part of an extensive volunteer network, made up of 50 different nationalities. The camp worked to provide 24-hour hospitality and medical services for the refugees and assisted with the registration process.

Ayesha Keller, one of the directors of BDFM, asserts that the NGO’s primary focus is to put refugees first and tailor their services to refugee needs. Despite operating in an unstable political situation, refugees and volunteers worked exceptionally well together.

‘We had a strong feeling of solidarity between all the volunteers and refugees having to deal with these uncertain and unpredictable changes,’ Ayesha said.

Through her work, Katie gained first hand experience of the devastation of the ‘refugee crisis’.

In Piraeus Port, in Athens, Katie heard of a woman with stage 3 cervical cancer sleeping in a camping tent with the concrete as her mattress. All the while being surrounded by infants who were beginning their lives at an overcrowded port.

During her experience, Katie faced ethical dilemmas on a daily basis. Katie elaborated on a time when a 50-year-old man, a professional engineer and a father, asked for her for shoes. Shoes were a scarcity and Katie had to decline as his shoes weren’t damaged enough and needed to be saved for others who would need them more.

‘His whole life was together a couple matter of months ago and now he’s here, asking me, some 22 year old privileged white girl, for shoes and I have this unjustified and undeserved ability to go ‘No your shoes aren’t broken enough, you can’t have new shoes,'’ Katie says.

For Katie, this sense of privilege and position of power made her feel uncomfortable, angry and defeated. When it came down to making calls on who was able to receive the limited supplies, volunteers had to think of that next refugee that gets off the next boat who may be worse off.

‘It’s a matter of asking who, of two people whose lives are heart-wrenchingly in tatters, is more deserving of a pair of shoes. Who am I to make that call?’

A photo posted by 👾 (@katieoneill11) on

Staying in an apartment outside of the camps, Katie hitchhiked around Lesvos and gauged the impact of the refugees on the local community. With the refugee crisis hitting the island with brutal speed in September 2015, Lesvos lacked any volunteer presence until BDFM and other NGOs arrived in October and November. As a result, the people of Lesvos were exceptionally welcoming to the volunteers. So much so that Katie admitted she felt safer in Lesvos than she sometimes does in Australia.

Katie added that the people of Lesvos that she encountered were openhearted to the refugees on the island.

‘When they’re at your doorstep and you see these people and you see that they’re families and they’re children, they’re human by that stage. You don’t have time to perceive it as something that it’s not and dehumanise it and politicise it.’

Volunteers at BDFM also tried to help as many refugees get registered as possible for settlement in Europe.

The hot words for refugee registration:

Fleeing war and Germany.

If refugees didn’t put those words in their application, they were rejected.

Volunteers made sure the message got out.  

Source:  BDFM Facebook

Source: BDFM Facebook

For Katie however, the volunteers' authority with the refugees grew increasingly and uncomfortably influential. The EU-Turkey Deal signed on March 20 decreed that Greece would no longer be taking any refugees and all refugees received after this date would be deported back to Turkey.

For BDFM, the deal changed everything.

‘The registration centre became a detention centre and freedom of movement was taken away from the refugees and they could no longer access our services,’ said Ayesha.

Over that weekend, Greek Police, complete with Riot Squad and armoured buses, stationed near the BDFM camp. Their increased presence told volunteers that their intervention in BDFM’s camp was a matter of when, not if. Volunteers had to constantly inform the camp’s residents that the choice was theirs to make. 

Refugees could either go inside to register, attempt to claim asylum and face the real risk of being arrested and deported. Or they could wait it out at the camp, which meant awaiting the inevitable intervention and potential use of force.

It was left largely in the volunteers’ hands to decide if the local police could be trusted throughout their dealings and to advise refugees on their best options going forward. Volunteers essentially controlled the fate of hundreds of refugees, leaving Katie stunned.

‘Who the fuck am I to be making these decisions? How did I get given this kind of power to determine these people’s lives?’ Katie asked.  

All the refugees voluntarily chose to go inside the Centre, for they did not want to put the volunteers at risk of harm in the case of the Riot Squad moving in. Katie praised the refugees as strong, intelligent people who made the peaceful decision.

For the volunteers, the ordeal was demotivating and mentally exhausting as all their hard work had been undone swiftly, rendering everyone involved helpless.

Within a few days the camp was deserted and after some time spent waiting for change that would never come, BDFM packed up and went to the mainland. Katie headed to Turkey, which has the world’s fifth largest refugee population, to work with ReVi, a refugee service group.

A photo posted by 👾 (@katieoneill11) on

The experience over that weekend exacerbated immense feelings of guilt for Katie, a feeling that lingers with her to this day.

‘I still feel guilty. I felt guilty when I finished a shift and I got to go home to a bed,’ Katie says, ‘I feel a sense of selfishness in knowing that at times, the amount I received from this work was greater than the impact I had.'

Katie sought new ways to bring light to the refugee situation for her friends back home. Katie drew inspiration from BDFM, who were organised through social media platforms such as Facebook and Whatsapp to raise awareness, coordinate volunteers and attract funding.

From this, Katie turned to social media platforms, Instagram and Facebook, to raise awareness. Through Facebook alone, Katie and Mikhala raised $4500 for the cause.

Additionally, Katie posted a series of blog entries detailing her first hand experiences with unfiltered and honest accounts.

Katie also took to Instagram to document her travels through posting powerful images in a visual series titled ‘Clothesline Crisis’. Katie noted how these images sparked conversations among her friends, conversation that she is hopes may not have happened otherwise.

Katie was even spotlighted by 60 Minutes for her work in Lesvos.

‘When my friends ask questions that they deem to be ‘stupid’, I’m not holding them accountable in any way, the information and understanding is only granted to those people who actively seek it out for our mainstream media outlets are largely silent on the magnitude of the situation unfolding and even then you can find the wrong news report’ Katie says.

The proactive work by the NGOs and young Australians has earned high praise from one of Australia’s foremost refugee rights leaders. Kon Karapanagiotidis, CEO of the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre, believes the work of Katie and her fellow volunteers deserves to be commended.

‘It’s an incredibly positive and powerful thing for Australians to go over and to contribute’ Karapanagiotidis said.

Karapanagiotidis said Australia must commit to providing solutions for refugees.

‘We can’t sit and take a blind eye. We’re part of a global community. Karapanagiotidis said.

‘Refugees want to be part of the Australian community. They share a profound amount in common with us, which fundamentally is safety for family, opportunity and a hope for a better life.’

Looking forward, Katie is excited to complete her degree in Law and International Relations and expand her capacities in helping refugees in a legal context.

‘I need to do this for the people I met, the amount of people who would love to be in my position. All the kids who were dreamed of merely going to school and the adults who wished to go to university' Katie says.

'It's the people I met through this work who are the true heroes of these stories, and it is their bravery, strength, hope and kindness that are under-appreciated.’ 

A photo posted by 👾 (@katieoneill11) on

As Katie and I sit around a lush inner city café, I can’t help but wonder if Katie questions if she made any impact.

Did she really change anything?

‘In the long term, probably not, that’s what I’ve struggled with when since I’ve come back. I know that my impact was miniscule in terms of how much needs to be done, and I know the challenges facing the world can’t be saved solved right now, or even soon, for there are so many flaws,’ Katie admits.

But I refuse to believe that Katie and other volunteers like her didn’t make a difference. Between November 2015 and March 2016, BDFM helped over 200,000 refugees and served 500,000 meals and 700,000 cups of tea.

That impact can’t go unnoticed.

Katie told me that a quote that helped her through her time in Turkey, Greece and Lesvos.

‘You can’t change the world, but you can change someone’s world.’

In the grand scheme of things, maybe there isn’t much that any one of us can do to help refugees. But people everywhere can still make a difference, no matter how big or small we perceive it to be.

‘People tell me that while I can’t change so many of their problems, they will always remember that time they were in Lesvos and there was that girl who was smiling and willing to help,' Katie says. 

Young people like Katie and the volunteers at BDFM are making a real difference in the world and that’s something worth sharing.

Alex Capper, once affectionally called by Ross & John of 3AW as the '7 foot fucker', loves the Essendon Football Club, stalking reddit and dabbing. He thinks he can speak French, but he can't.