Starfish Foundation started in Mithymna (Molyvos) as an informal voluntary local group aiming to meet the basic human needs of food, clothing and hygiene for refugees who were arriving by boat at the village harbour or being transported there by the Coast Guard Police who had rescued them at sea.
The Port Authorities of Molyvos were responsible for the initial registration, detention, preservation and transportation of the refugees arriving in the area. By mid-May 2015, as a result of the steadily rising flows and the lack of infrastructure and personnel of the Coast Guard, hundreds of people were crowded in the harbour area waiting to depart on Port and Police buses. During this time Starfish was undertaking the registration of the refugees on behalf of the Port Police.
At this point, Starfish, with the help of locals and tourists, took the initiative and created a reception area for refugees in fields adjacent to the harbour, placing awnings for sun protection and providing basic food, clothing and simple medicines, mats, blankets and sleeping bags for overnight stays. In cooperation with the municipal community of Molyvos, the Starfish team opened the public toilet at the port and undertook its operation and maintenance in order to manage hygiene issues.
In the summer of 2015 there were so many people arriving that the school parking lot became an overflow area. Refugees were forced to stay there for hours, which created a bad impression at the entrance to the village, as well as problems of circulation, cleanliness and hygiene.
In July 2015 it became legal for refugees to be transported by private buses which left from the school parking lot. Starfish organized the loading of the buses, and generally looked after the people who were waiting there. The buses were paid for initially by Médecins Sans Frontières, and subsequently by UNHCR, IRC and in some cases Starfish.
By that time arrivals had reached 1000-1500 people a day in the Molyvos area alone, with the result that there were not enough buses, and sometimes transfers were stopped by order from Mytilene due to the extremely difficult situation at the reception centres. Some refugees decided to walk the 70 kilometres to Mytiline, and Starfish gave hats, water and maps to those people.
In the autumn of 2015 Starfish was the emergency coordinator for arrivals and would be contacted by the Port Police in the case of drownings, to arrange for doctors and ambulances to attend at the port.
It was vitally important to find a solution to stop this terrible situation, and the unacceptable appearance of the entrance to the village. Despite some strong opposition, Starfish managed to negotiate to use the parking lot of the club OXY as a temporary reception and transit camp.
At the same time, in order to manage the responsibility of operating this camp, as well as dealing with its day-to-day financial obligations, Starfish decided to give formal and legal form to its enterprise, and the Starfish Foundation was registered by the Greek Government as a non-profit organization on 9th October 2015.
The informal reception center at OXY operated thanks to the superhuman efforts of hundreds of volunteers from all over the world and, of course, the valuable cooperation of many large and small NGOs and groups active on the island. These groups included: United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Danish Red Cross, Women and Health Alliance International (WAHA), Samaritans Purse, Euro Relief, Movement on the Ground, and Islamic Relief.
On an average day, between 2,000 and 3,000 people passed through OXY, but there was one day when 6,000 people were there. There was also a day in early October 2015 when almost 2,000 people stayed overnight. As well as refugees who arrived in Molyvos, those arriving on the coasts of Eftalou were also transported to OXY by bus, in order to avoid them passing through Eftalou and experiencing negative reactions. It is estimated that in total around 130,000 refugees spent time at OXY, which made it the largest refugee transit camp in the whole of Europe at that time.
The activities of Starfish were honored by UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Gutierrez who visited OXY and gave his congratulations on its operation and infrastructure on 10th October 2015.
Around Christmas 2015 a new transit camp ‘Apanemo’ opened under supervision of the IRC in the Eftalou area, so Starfish closed OXY and helped to restore the area. Over the next few months Starfish offered services to Apanemo, and Starfish volunteers partnered with IRC to distribute clothing there.
In the early part of 2016 Starfish also undertook the following activities:
Starfish also provided assistance for refugees elsewhere in Greece. This included sending trucks containing clothing and sanitary products to camps in Eidomeni, Malakasa and Lavrion on the mainland, and to the island of Chios. Bottled water was sent to Ritsona, and mosquito nets to camps in Larissa and Alexandroupolis. Sanitary products were sent to the “Other Man” in Athens, and clothes to the Piraeus Metropolis and the Society for the Protection of the Immortal Child “The Embrace”, also in Athens.
Following the EU-Turkey agreement in March 2016 and the transformation of the reception center of Moria camp into a closed-door centre, Starfish could no longer offer its services there. Responding to the changed situation, Starfish turned its focus to helping the children of migrant refugees and particularly unaccompanied minors. Actions included providing additional food aid to unaccompanied minors in the Madamados camp, which was run by METAdrasi and Doctors Without Borders (MSF) in cooperation with PRAXIS and Save the Children. That camp housed over 60 minors and Starfish volunteers gave English lessons, organised creative activities, and handed out food to them.
From August 2016 to January 2017 Starfish supported unaccompanied minors in the Moria camp with additional food aid, and the organization Lesvos Solidarity-PIKPA, which hosts vulnerable migrant-refugee groups, by sending a truckload of food supplies three times a month. This support for Lesvos Solidarity-PIKPA continued till June 2017 when it ceased due to a lack of funds.
As conditions changed and the needs in our region fell sharply, Starfish decided to wind back its volunteer program. Between 2015 and mid-2017 more than 1,500 volunteers worked with Starfish, sometimes over 80 each day.
Together with local and foreign volunteers we welcomed and relieved, always within the bounds of human dignity, more than 200,000 people who passed through the village of Molyvos.
During 2017 the Starfish team took part in several capacity-building training courses, which have helped Starfish to become more professional and to improve its business practices.
In the spring of 2017, Starfish created Needs Hub, a platform that aims to improve the flow of aid to where it is needed most on Lesvos, and to improve communication, trust and collaboration between the many organizations working here.
The Needs Hub has been very successful in sourcing food items as well as non-food items including personal toiletries, mobile phones for unaccompanied minors, clothes, shoes, lice spray and baby strollers. In some cases, donors source and deliver items themselves, but most donors will give money with which Starfish can buy the needed goods from local providers. Supporting local businesses in this way is an important principle of Starfish.
Starfish has a particular interest in helping unaccompanied minors. In 2017 Starfish helped 50 unaccompanied minors from the Moria camp and Iliaktida shelters to take part in Changemakers IT training, and supported football games for them. Starfish also provides Iliaktida with mobile phones for the unaccompanied minors living in their accommodation on a regular basis.
In late 2017, the Hammer Forum organization responded to the plea of needed goods that were published on Needs Hub. A member of their organization drove a truck from Germany with wheelchairs, bed sheets, sterilizers, kettles, mattresses and strollers to deliver to Moria camp, Kara Tepe and the shelters run by Iliaktida. Starfish obtained the permission to enter the camps and helped with the delivery.
There is an ongoing need for strollers for refugee families with young children. Starfish, supported by a variety of donors, has been able to buy strollers from local businesses and provide them to families in Moria camp and to Iliaktida. Starfish plans to buy and distribute more strollers throughout 2018.
On 29th December 2017 Starfish assisted the authorities at Moria camp with their Christmas party. Starfish donated chocolate and balloons and spent a wonderful morning wrapping presents to give to the children in Section A.
Starfish contributed refugee clothing to Arabella Dorman’s moving art installation “Suspended” which was on display at St. James Piccadilly Church in London from December 2017 to February 2018 and subsequently moved to Canterbury Cathedral.
Most recently Starfish has been meeting needs identified by RIC Moria. These needs were previously met by international NGOs who have now left Lesvos. For example, Starfish has provided its nine-seater van to take unaccompanied minors to medical appointments in Mytilene which are vital for their asylum applications.
In the future Starfish will continue to provide assistance wherever it is needed, both to refugees and to local communities. This includes administering a program on behalf of the Open Society Institute to provide small grants to local organisations on Lesvos, with the aim of strengthening local communities.