Volunteer Alec Butterworth spent three weeks working on the Isle of Lesvos in a refugee camp staffed by Christians. Here he describes a sadly all too familiar story of desperation, brutality and squalor from the camps on Europe’s doorstep.
The Isle of Lesvos, off Greece, marks the frontline of Europe’s refugee crisis. I spent three weeks working at a camp on the island; one of the first set up to cater for the thousands of refugees escaping conflict in search of a better life.
Originally only meant to hold 350 refugees, the camp was drastically over-capacity, on some days dealing with more than 3000 people. Whilst I was there we were chronically understaffed and under resourced; there were usually only around 7-12 volunteers for several thousand refugees in the camp.
On Lesvos, the days are hot but the nights are bitterly cold. Volunteers spend their waking hours feeding, clothing and caring for people, and doing construction around the camp. The hours were long, with little food or sleep. We spent a lot of time picking up rubbish ranging from bottles and bags, to human waste or used sanitary items. The inescapable smell of shit and trash would cling to your nostrils.
It wasn’t just our camp; other camps were also bursting with refugees. I even witnessed riot police throwing tear gas over barbed wire fences at crowding refugees. The situation on the island is pretty grim. There were nights when fights would break out and even end in stabbings. I was trampled underfoot by people running to find warmth as it began to rain.
Living in the camp has a numbing effect. You would hear daily stories of people and babies drowning on the crossing, and subsequently have to deal with their loved ones as they wept for their loss. People were desperate, and the cold nights would only amplify their desperation. Babies and young children screamed the whole night, their skin blue as they shook from the cold; men would huddle in groups to keep warm.
The crossing is neither far, nor generally that dangerous, but boats are over-crowded and the vast majority of travelling refugees can’t swim. Smugglers charge thousands of euros for one seat, but bad weather conditions means it costs half – the cheaper the crossing, the greater the risk. The boats only have enough fuel for one-way, if at all; I met people who had to paddle with their hands after their fuel ran out. The boats are so tiny that they cannot turn back for anyone. One woman slipped and dropped her four year old child into the water. The boat could not turn back, so she was forced to watch helplessly, as her child disappeared under the waves.
People would arrive at our camp with bullets in them. One lady started giving birth and had to be rushed to hospital. And then there was the emotional pain. People arrive in Europe having seen their loved ones die and everything they know destroyed. I sat with a Kurdish man who told me he had been fighting against ISIS. He had fled after they beheaded his family, whilst forcing him to watch.
This war in Syria is affecting everyone, of all ages: I met old aged pensioners and twelve-day old babies. Above all, desperation engulfs everything, like a black hole. However, as well as these horrific stories, there were stories of hope, of people helping each other. Our camp was run and staffed by Christians and people would come past from other camps and comment on the fact that we would hug the refugees. There was, despite everything, a peace and love hanging over our camp. People from the U.N would comment on the care for the individual refugees at our camp and even the love for the fellow worker.
I do not believe God intended this malice, but that He has the capacity to create beauty from ashes. After many tears and a lot of reflection, I still believe that God is good. He provides hope where there is none, and will lead everything to a good end. I want to challenge you to do your part – this crisis is going to change Europe forever. Above all, we need to stop making rash decisions out of fear. There are people in need on our doorstep and it’s time for us to rise to the challenge and love them.
It’s taking me time to settle back home in France, but above all, I feel honoured to have gone.