Starfish’s founders have provided assistance to refugees in Molyvos over the past five years. Local volunteers simply started helping from out of their homes – handing out clothes, water, and food to refugees who were rescued by the coast guard. Based in the harbor of Molyvos, these activities were initially centered around the provision of emergency relief to shipwreck victims brought in by the coast guard. Caring volunteers provided people with a warm welcome in our harbor camp, which was open from June to October 2015. When arrivals increased dramatically in the summer of 2015, locals were joined by tourists and volunteers from all over the world. Our relief efforts grew in kind, and the decision was made to set up a formal foundation so that we could apply for and receive funding in order to continue our work. Prior to that point, our funding consisted solely of private donations that were given to local supermarkets, which could order the supplies we needed. We have always believed in the importance of supporting the community here on Lesvos, by buying from local shops.
Melinda © Neal McQueen 2015
Our first international volunteers arrived during the early summer of 2015 and stayed with us for longer periods of time. We began training volunteers who joined our team, made a schedule, rented a big warehouse, and became increasingly organized. Our volunteers also traveled to Skala Sikaminias, where hundreds of people were also arriving and help was needed. Our new foundation status enabled us to start receiving funding to continue with our work. In cooperation with volunteers from many other teams, we handed out water and food in the parking lot of Molyvos and started managing busses that transported people who had landed in the north to the registration centers in the south of the island. Meanwhile, Melinda’s phone would not stop ringing!
Distribution of bus tickets and food vouchers in OXY transit camp © Marcus Rhinelander 2015
In September 2015, Starfish opened the transit site OXY, where people arriving on the northern shores of Lesvos were welcomed and provided a safe haven to rest before traveling onward by bus to the southern registration center. In less than four months, over 130,000 refugees passed through OXY, all of whom were provided with food, clothes and blankets by our volunteers. With daily arrivals averaging over 3,000 people (one day even reached 6,000), we were unable to load everyone for transport during daylight hours, and as a result OXY became an overnight camp most of the time. OXY eventually had large tents for people to sleep in, a medical clinic area, clothing distribution tents, a mobile kitchen that served hot food, and a children’s safe play tent. We worked closely with organizations such as UNHCR, the Red Cross, the International Rescue Committee and many others to ensure that Starfish’s transit site met international humanitarian standards. But most importantly, the atmosphere of OXY was so wonderful that that many refugees actually returned to OXY to volunteer after they received their papers in the island’s capitol of Mytilene.
Our most difficult experiences involved receiving the victims of six tragic shipwrecks. One boat carried approximately 300 people, of which at least 70 lost their lives. These disastrous events highlighted the importance of structure and organization. We started regular drills, planned for emergency situations, and developed an atmosphere of emotional care for volunteers and staff alike.
Refugee arrivals in harbour © Marcus Rhinelander 2015
Toward the end of 2015, we were proud to be able to report that our more than 1,500 volunteers helped over 200,000 people passing through Molyvos – more than twenty percent of the total number of migrants who came to Greece in the past year!
By the beginning of 2016, the flood of refugees had diminished to the point that we felt it unnecessary to keep OXY open once an International Rescue Committee (IRC) transit camp became operational. We partnered with the the IRC, managing two clothing tents there. As truly efficient suppliers of clothes, we sent supplies to many other organizations on the island. We also worked in Moria camp during the coldest winter months, partnering with the Danish Refugee Council to ensure that vulnerable people and families had dry and warm places to sleep.
In March 2016, we distributed food packets to about 1,000 people each day who were boarding ferries departing Lesvos for the mainland. Each of these meals (a cheese sandwich, juice, a piece of fruit, and a bottle of water) cost almost two euros. Toward the end of March, an agreement between the EU and Turkey went into effect, dictating that all new arrivals to the island be taken directly to Moria and detained while their asylum applications were being processed. At that time, refugees who had arrived on Lesvos prior to March 20 were transported to camps scattered throughout mainland Greece. We began distributing the same lunch packs at Moria detention center at that point, because of food shortages in the camp.
Percentage of refugees helped by Starfish volunteers © Starfish Foundation 2016
Meanwhile, since the end of March, arrivals on our shores have dwindled. Most volunteers and NGOs have moved to the mainland to lend a hand at the new refugee camps. As April drew to a close, it was announced that refugees who had submitted asylum claims and who had been inside Moria detention center for 25 days or more would be given papers allowing them free movement in and out. Everyone here is coming to grips with the fact that the processing of asylum claims is proceeding very slowly and as a result, Lesvos must attend to the needs of thousands of people awaiting a decision. Since some of these stranded refugees are unaccompanied minors, we have been asked to provide staffing and assistance to help meet the needs of these vulnerable children both in Mytilini town and in a Safe Camp.
Refugee kids drawing in OXY camp © Marcus Rhinelander 2015
The shifting situation since March has required us to be extremely flexible and to think hard about our mission and our future. Our board of directors has discussed in depth whether we should devote ongoing efforts to shift our long term focus to the evolving needs both here and on the mainland. Looking back, when we started providing help to refugees, we were stepping in to address an urgent situation unfolding dramatically on our doorsteps. Now, however, as the situation in northern Lesvos is no longer urgent, we feel that the time has come to return to our initial intent. We have come to the difficult decision that although our wonderful corps of volunteers is international, Starfish is a local NGO with ongoing responsibilities within the surrounding community—and that the time has come to downsize our operations.
We will continue to operate on a much smaller scale, as an organization that focuses mainly on the local community. Meanwhile, we will ensure that all financial donations received until now will be used for their original purpose, and that remaining funds will be distributed wisely in the coming months for the benefit of refugees. We will continue our work in smaller form, as immediate needs arise in our area.
Volunteers loading busses in OXY © Shaan Ali 2015
One of our ongoing projects is to clean the coastline of our beautiful island. Boat wreckage, life jackets, garbage, and discarded possessions are not only washed up on beaches but are also buried under rocks and water, requiring volunteers to cut them apart, extract them, and transport the garbage away from this rugged terrain by foot or by raft.
Another ongoing project is a clothing distribution centre for the local population. Due to the events of the past year, tourism (the basis of our economy) has plummeted and many Lesvos families are experiencing financial hardship. The donated clothing that was inappropriate for distribution to the refugees is being offered to members of the community. We’ve also been given funding for our local projects to distribute food to families in need.
Volunteers in the food tent in OXY © Marcus Rhinelander 2015
Meanwhile, it is springtime here on the island, and we all are able to experience the absolute beauty of our surroundings on a daily basis alongside our work. We take our role here seriously, but we always have and always will take time to smile, gather, and enjoy the spirit of goodwill that defines Starfish. Thanks to all for your support, which made everything we have done possible!