We recently sat down with long-term volunteer and camp manager Omar Al Said, who has been working with refugees on Lesvos Island since before Starfish was born. Omar was very instrumental in creating and managing Starfish’s Camp OXY, which was a crucial waystation for arriving refugees during the four busiest months of the crisis. On its busiest day, OXY saw 6,000 arrivals making their way toward the island’s capital. Omar also managed Starfish operations inside the Moria registration camp for several months, and he continues to train and acclimate new volunteers arriving in Molyvos on a weekly basis. It goes without saying (but we’ll say it anyway!) that Omar is a much-respected leader here at Starfish and we are extremely grateful for his selfless attitude, his gentle manner, and his dedication to helping.
SF: Omar, why did you come to Lesvos and what did you find when you got here?
OAS: There was 50% unemployment for my age group in Spain and I had been doing many things to earn a living. I saw on the Internet that there was a need here on the Greek islands, so I decided to come around March of last year (2015). Lesvos was not getting the majority of arrivals then, but when I looked at the map, I thought Lesvos was the island I’d head for as a refugee because it was closest. It looked big enough to attract a large number of people, and it eventually did.
At the beginning, I was just an individual volunteer, helping. The masses of volunteers and the major NGOs were not here yet. I rented a scooter and spent my days delivering water to the children at Moria and Kara Tepe. After a few weeks of doing that I went to the beach at Eftalou to receive people coming in. I had a tent and a bag of clothes and lived on the last beach at Eftalou. This was a nudist beach, and when a boat arrived some people helped and some didn’t. About a month went by before I went to Molyvos and discovered in fact that other volunteers were there, helping. After I spent a stormy night on the beach in the wind and rain, with waves and no chance to make a fire, I got a message from a Molyvos volunteer that I could have a place to stay. By then it was about the second week of August.
October was the peak of the arrivals for Starfish. By then Melinda had gotten permission to set up OXY and we created the systems to make it possible for thousands of people at a time to have food and shelter and stay safe. There were so many people coming, sleeping on the ground and along the side of the road, very dangerous. At OXY we created the ticketing system to organize getting everyone on the buses. It could take two days, especially after the night arrivals began. At first we had no night arrivals, but after a while that changed and put many people in danger and made a lot of stress. Later at Moria, on behalf of Starfish, I managed one of three levels of the family compound as well as between 50 and 60 RHUs (Refugee Housing Units).
SF: Will you please share a few memorable moments with us of your experiences as a volunteer?
OAS: Toward the positive, I think a lot about when I was carrying kids on my shoulders on the dirt road from the beach at Eftalou. They had just arrived. They were scared, and I was carrying them for hours in the heat, stopping in the shade for them, trying to make that transition a little easier. I think about how sometimes when the refugees arrived on the beach, they would smoke and sing and play the oud and call their families out of happiness and sadness. They were alive. A negative memory was when I had to load 1,000 people into buses by myself in the center of Molyvos because an international NGO that will remain nameless decided the situation was not safe—and stopped working.
SF: What has been the most challenging part of being here to help?
OAS: Most challenging was being alone in the camps at the beginning. I was alone as a volunteer. There was no one: no other volunteers yet, no NGOs, no Better Days for Moria, no police. There would be maybe some tourists coming with cars full of food or clothing. Sometimes people fought. The police would not come. There was one toilet for three thousand people and no water. I felt a lot of frustration and sadness over seeing this world here: how it works, how things are hidden from the media, and because things are hidden, no one cares.
SF: What were the experiences that made you feel more optimistic?
OAS: When things started slowing a bit, sometimes there were more volunteers than refugees, and that made me happy. It was always better to have more people than not! One thing that changed the frustration, that made me happy, was the large number of really, really nice and dedicated Starfish volunteers, even before Starfish was officially Starfish. I still have hope in humanity because of how lucky we were to have all those people who worked nonstop everyday, sometimes in very stressful situations. They were always giving love and showing a smile and making jokes and being efficient, all at the same time.
SF: Do you have any words of wisdom for new volunteers here at Starfish?
OAS: If you come here now, don’t come expecting to see thousands of refugees, because the situation is different. But there are people still on the islands and people trapped in Greece, and there’s still a huge need. Sorting clothes in storage is helping a lot of people. You may not see them, but they are still there, needing these things that we take care of so well. Wherever we are, we’re all sisters and brothers.