A young girl was walking down the beach littered with starfish, washed up after a terrible storm. When she came to each individual starfish, she would pick it up and throw it back into the sea.
An old man remarked, “Little girl, why are you doing this? You can’t rescue each starfish, you cannot begin to make a difference.” The little girl hesitated, before throwing another starfish back into the sea with all her might.
“Well, I made a difference to that one!” she said, defiantly. The old man paused a moment and then, inspired, joined the little girl in throwing the starfish back into the sea.
– Adapted from The Star Thrower by Loren C. Eiseley
Throughout the summer or 2015, 1,000 – 1,500 refugees were arriving in Molyvos every day.
The Greek island of Lesvos has hosted travellers for centuries, drawn to the stunning scenery, relaxing hot springs and romantic, sleepy atmosphere. From 2010, a new kind of traveller began to arrive: desperate men, women and children, fleeing war, persecution and destruction in their home countries, particularly Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq. Their journeys were long and dangerous, and they desperately needed help.
Starfish Foundation was started by locals to meet the needs of the souls arriving by boat.
Starfish Foundation was started by locals in the village of Molyvos, with the objective of meeting the immediate needs of the souls arriving by boat in their hundreds of thousands. Coordinated by Melinda McRostie, the owner of the local restaurant Captain’s Table, the people of Molyvos worked together to give the refugees dry clothes, hot food and a safe onward passage to the port of Mytilini to continue their journey.
By mid-2015, Starfish had also assumed responsibility for registering arriving refugees, relieving the overstretched Port Authority.
By then, hundreds of refugees were filling the small Molyvos harbour each day, awaiting official transportation across the island to the reception centres in Mytilini. Starfish took action to clear the harbour and to shelter the refugees. The team constructed a reception area outside of the port and provided basic food, clothing, medication, mats, blankets and sleeping bags for those needing to stay overnight. Starfish also opened the public toilet in the port for the continuous use of refugees, managing its operation and maintenance.
In July 2015 it became legal for refugees to be transported across the island by private buses. These buses were initially funded by Médecins Sans Frontières, subsequently by UNHCR, IRC, and in some cases by Starfish. Starfish took responsibility for organising the passengers and taking care of their general well-being while they waited for collection in the local school car park.
Pressures on Lesvos’ processing system meant that hundreds were stranded in the village. Some therefore decided to walk the 70km the port of Mytilini and Starfish provided these people with hats, water and maps.
OXY – a refugee camp in a car park
Starfish secured the use of the car park used by a local club, OXY, to develop a temporary reception and transit camp. This improved conditions for the people remaining in Molyvos, as well as the appearance of the village for the local residents. As well as sheltering and processing the refugees who arrived in Molyvos, arrivals from other villages were also transported to OXY by bus to avoid conflict with local people.
Around 2,000 and 3,000 people passed through OXY each day, however it was often many more – the highest number recorded was 6,000. It is estimated that around 130,000 refugees spent time at OXY, making it the largest refugee transit camp in Europe at that time. The camp was honoured by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, Antonio Gutierrez, who visited OXY and commended its operation and infrastructure.
In autumn 2015, Starfish assumed the position of Emergency Response Coordinator for arrivals in peril. The Port Authority would notify Starfish in the case of sinking vessels or drownings, to arrange for doctors and ambulances to attend the emergency.
With the ever increasing responsibility came the urgent need for greater funding and more resources, which lead to Starfish applying for NGO status. This was granted by the Greek Government on the 9th October 2015.
Operating as an NGO, Starfish was able to secure volunteers from all across the world, as well as support from many NGO groups active on the island. These included:
Starfish could now increase work on Lesvos, collaborating with Reception and Identification in major camps at Moria and Kara Tepe in the provision of food, clothing and volunteers.
Starfish also worked to provide healthcare supplies to the hospital of Mytilene, the Kalloni Medical Centre, the Lesvos Social Clinic and several community clinics on the island.
Starfish initiated programs to support the local communities impacted by the crisis, as well as off-site activities for refugees and began working especially with vulnerable groups, distributing clothes, additional food packages and soccer balls to unaccompanied minors on the Kalloni region.
Starfish was now able to work on a national scale, delivering clothes and sanitary products to several camps across the country such as Eidomeni, Malaksa, Lavrion, and Chios; providing Ritsona with bottled water and sending mosquito nets to Larissa and Alexandroupolis. Starfish also provided non-food aid to other camps including “Other Man” and “The Embrace” in Athens and the Piraeus Metropolis.
The EU-Turkey Agreement of March 2016 stemmed the flow of arrivals to Lesvos and required NGOs to vacate the refugee camps. Starfish adapted to the situation by shifting focus to supporting children and unaccompanied minors. Starfish supplied over 60 unaccompanied minors in the Madamados camp with creative activities and English lessons. Additional food was provided to these children, as well as unaccompanied minors in the Moria camp. Food supplies were also sent trimonthly to the vulnerable groups camp Solidarity-PIPKA, before its closure in 2017.
Between 2015 and mid-2017, more than 1,500 volunteers worked at Starfish, sometimes over 80 each day. Together with local and foreign volunteers, we welcomed, sheltered and processed over 200,000 people who passed through the village of Molyvos, while preserving their human dignity.
Starfish adapted quickly to suit the new situation on Lesvos. During 2017, the team took part in several capacity-building training courses to improve processes and move toward becoming a dedicated NGO for the communities on the island. As a first act of business, Starfish set up the NeedsHub in 2017, a platform designed to facilitate communication, trust and collaboration between the many organisations working on the island.
The NeedsHub was successful in sourcing food and non-food aid items, including toiletries, mobile phones for unaccompanied minors, clothes, shoes, lice spray and baby strollers. The NeedsHub gave businesses, organisations and individuals the opportunity to support refugees on Lesvos in a streamlined, effective manner, ensuring the must urgent wants were filled. The platform worked incredibly well. A stand out moment saw the Hammer Forum Organisation from Germany responding to a NeedsHub request, sending a truck filled with wheelchairs, bed sheets, sterilizers, mattresses and strollers. Monetary aid was used by Starfish to purchase the products required from local merchants. Supporting local people is a cornerstone of Starfish’s work.
Starfish has been particularly dedicated to assisting unaccompanied minors. In 2017, Starfish enabled 50 unaccompanied minors living in the Moria camp and Iliaktida shelters to take part in Changemakers IT Training, as well as arranging football games for them. Mobile phones were also provided for long-term residents. On 27th December 2017, Starfish assisted the authorities at Moria camp with their Christmas party, donating chocolate, balloons and presents for the children residing there.
Outside of the work on Lesvos, Starfish has assisted in building awareness of the situation on the island by supporting projects such as Arabella Dormon’s moving art installation “Suspended”. This moving piece consisted of refugee clothing and possessions suspended in mid-air, as though floating in water. Starfish contributed refugee clothing to the artist, and the piece was displayed at St James Piccadilly Church, London in 2017, followed by Canterbury Cathedral in 2018.
Most recently, Starfish has been meeting needs previously filled by international NGOs that have now left the island. This includes tasks such as ensuring unaccompanied minors are able to attend their medical appointments in Mytilini, for which Starfish purchased a nine-seat van and secured a permanent driver.
Starfish will continue to provide assistance wherever needed, both to refugees and to the local community.