It’s a truth universally acknowledged that he greatest things often have the humblest beginnings. Earlier this year, if you had said the word ‘Oxy’ to anyone on Lesvos, they would have immediately thought of the nightclub replete with stunning views, perched on a windy cliff between the villages of Molyvos and Petra. But everything changed in mid September 2015 …
The numbers of refugees fleeing war had steadily increased throughout the year, but in August and September of this year, they exploded into hundreds of thousands. Refugees were having to walk the 65 kilometres from the northern beaches to Mytilini, with the hot sun beating down on their backs. The village of Molyvos was simply overwhelmed with the amount of desperate men, women and children passing through the village. A solution needed to be found, and urgently. Starfish had wanted to open a transit area for refugees for some time, but it was difficult to find a site that was appropriate for refugees and the local community. At last, in September this year, the owner of Oxy proposed to let Starfish use the car park of the nightclub: to take care of traumatised people running for their lives. What was once an arena for friends meeting to go out and dance became a place of welcome for thousands of people looking for a safe home.
So off went the Starfish team to try and turn a bleak, uneven space into a safe refuge. First up were the tarpaulins; a handful of volunteers scrambled up a short rocky cliff to try and safely rope the tarps up to create shelter from the sun and respite from the rain that would surely come. In collaboration with the teams working on the beaches, a waiting point was created at Eftalou beach, so refugees could be taken straight to Oxy and kept safe from the hot sun and anticipated rain. They had time to rest after their perilous journey to Europe on overcrowded dinghies. We were given two medium sized tents which provided much needed privacy for women and children. We handed out fruit, water and cheese sandwiches to help keep people hydrated and their stomachs full. We coordinated and loaded busses run by UNHCR, IRC and later Save the Children, so no one had to walk to Mytilini to register anymore. Soon, a medical tent was set up by the team of WAHA, bringing daytime medical care to our rapidly expanding transit camp.
As more and more refugees arrived Starfish adapted our processes, grew and re-organised for more efficiency and a better reception. UNHCR gave us a big tent where people could rest and several of the smaller houses for storage and to distribute tickets for the bus, food, and clothes. We devised a complex ticketing system – each new arrival was steered towards the ticket tent where they were given a colour ticket with a symbol to ensure that those who arrived first were first to leave. We provided everyone with a food ticket to ensure that everybody ate before seconds were served. We created dedicated clothing tents so that refugees did not have to wear soaking wet jumpers, trousers and shirts and could change into something warm and dry. As time went on, we handed out information booklets in Farsi and Arabic explaining to the refugees where they were, what happened next and other, general information about their onward journey in Greece. All of these systems we created left us in good stead for Oxy’s busiest day in late October where approximately 6,000 refugees passed through the camp in a 24 hour period. Around 30 volunteers ensured that every single person ate, drank and had shelter, that those who needed it received medical care, and that no one walked to the island’s capital.
Oxy had a more recent re-design in early November – we made OXY winter proof! The ground was levelled and bulldozed to make it safer. UNHCR gave us another big tent where we could store more items. We made a kid’s area where upset children were soothed by colouring books and toys. We put their art up on our walls. We re-designed our bus loading area to make it more organised and efficient. We made tables and chairs and shelves so we could store things better and have more places for tired people to sit and rest awhile. We ensured that all refugees who left for the registration camps with blankets or sleeping bags, vital items to keep them warm on their voyage into Europe. From Holland, we were sent a beautiful kitchen container in which the Swedish team from We Act started preparing filling and nutritious bean and vegetable stews for all who wanted them. With the temperatures dropping, cheese sandwiches simply were not cutting the mustard anymore! We even had the fantastic “Clowns Without Borders” come and visit us on several occasions, entertaining little kids and big kids alike with their colourful and crazy escapades.
Oxy is a transit area, but on quieter days, it’s also a place of hope, laughter and conversations about what the future holds. Lives have been saved, stories have been shared, disasters were averted and lifelong friendships were made on this bit of dusty earth. Starfish estimate that around 200,000 refugees have passed through this former car park, so that’s 200,000 people who before Oxy would have had to walk to Mytilini without food, water or shelter. We feel incredibly proud of what we have achieved and how much of a difference we have made to so many people. One of Starfish’s main aims is to give refugees the best possible welcome to Europe and Oxy has been the perfect vehicle to achieve that.
But all good things must come to and end … Oxy closed at the end of 2015 as the new IRC camp opened near to Eftalou. It was a sad day when the last busload of refugees left for Mytilini and our transit area returned to being a car park once more. But we can be happy that for the four busiest months of the refugee crisis, Oxy was the main port of call for all those arriving in Lesvos. And of course, the Starfish team will continue to help out where they are needed. We’ll continue to take care of shipwreck victims in the harbour of Molyvos, and will distribute clothes and items in other areas of the island, as well as getting involved with projects in Moria, the registration camp near to Mytilini
Who says nightclubs can’t make a positive contribution to the community! Thank you, Oxy, for helping us to help desperate people in their time of need. Starfish salutes you!