My Time in Leros, and What Needs to be Done

By Bilal Mahmood / @bilal_labour

My wife and I spent our Christmas break on the Greek Island of Leros. We volunteered at a UN refugee camp hosting refugees from various parts of the middle east. At a time where European leaders are faced with a growing hostility and fear about taking in refugees, I wanted to share my experiences of the people I met, to show what a modern day refugee looks like and argue for the UK doing more to help.

Leros is similar to Kos and Lesvos, but has not gained as much media attention. That means there are fewer resources. Every week, thousands of refugees arrive from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Maghreb. They’ve paid smugglers thousands of dollars to cross dangerous territory, risking disease, rape and torture for chance to risk their lives in the Mediterranean Sea. As we saw last week, many fail and pay with their lives. If they survive the boat trip in the dead of night to the solitary outpost of Farmakinisi Greece, they wait days to be picked up and brought to Leros. Volunteers immediately feed, dry, clothe and house them. I use those terms loosely: the camp is based in an abandoned insane asylum, the food provided consists of undercooked rice and hard bread, the clothes are provided to refugees out of a building that contains live fungus and asbestos. At night we heard the stories of who they are and where they came from. This is what we learnt.

Strikingly, they’re just like us. A large section of those who make the journey often have some funds to pay for the travel can either speak English or French, held a vocation of some kind and have family around the world. The first thing they do is look for decent Wifi connections and the nearest place to buy a sim card. They want to log in and tell their loved ones they’re OK for the first time in months or perhaps distract their kids with YouTube clips of TV shows and catch up on the footy score. They left a life we’d recognize, in many cases within minutes and with nothing more than the clothes on their backs. This hit me in particular, with many of the refugees sharing my first name, some even looking like me, and with many other volunteers who didn’t know me assuming I was one of them. That was awkward at first, but it made me think how we are all one economic disaster or war away from being refugees, and how our experience would not be so different to the millions of people on their way to Europe.

Despite the limited facilities, the capacity for human optimism and kindness was enormous. At the campfire at night, we would hear stories from people who lost their whole lives and families in an instant. They ranged from wives whose husbands were killed leaving five young children, a PE teacher who helps young children in the camp learn football to take his mind of the death of his brothers, the man who cooked lentils for a camp of six hundred just to feel useful again after watching Assad and rebels destroy his businesses in rocket fire. The horrors that many of them saw will be with them forever, but the enduring sense of the people at camp was a desire to settle and rebuild. On the day before we left, a twelve day-old baby arrived at camp. It was without a family, naked and covered in sea-salt. That meant it was in the water and arrived to safety through the kindness of strangers. The optimism of the refugees was matched only by the hospitality and warmth of the Greeks. Leros is a summer holiday destination in the middle of an economic crisis. With the little they have, they welcome visiting refugees, supply food to the camp and make them feel welcome. I often wonder what the reaction of the likes of UKIP and others would be were we to take more refugees here in the UK.

Most importantly, our time in Leros showed me what still needs to be done. Food is a massive problem in the camp. Different agencies around the camp manage core elements such as infrastructure (UNCHR) and medical aid (Praxis/MSF), but food was provided by a group of self-organized volunteers. Funding is from a network of donations, and with local volunteer groups providing temporary funding. But there’s no long-term consistent solution to the food problem. It requires an established, experienced organization spearheading this in Leros, who can work with local food suppliers to set up a reliable food programme.

I’m proud to be British, but was disappointed on learning that none of the people I talked to wanted to come to Britain. They find it a hostile place, unreachable and with few opportunities for them. When I hear about the decline of British industries and the need for a skilled workforce, I remember looking around the camp filled with civil and electrical engineers, teachers and nurses and thinking that the UK is missing out. I asked some if our decision to bomb ISIS targets in Syria had anything to do with their decision to avoid Britain: none knew about the our recent national debate, and no one I talked to seemed to care either way of our actions in a home they’ve abandoned. They were more concerned about what was next for them and their family. It brought home to me that the internal debate we’ve been having about bombs and air strikes was a debate about ourselves in the world, and its impact to Syrian people caught in the cross was an unintended consequence either way.

There will of course be problems of integration. All those who arrive and settle must make a positive contribution to the country they settle, and abide by the ideals of tolerance, openness and freedom. It is vital the left support this, because we know that the overwhelming majority of those who come here are good, honest families who want a stable life for their families. We should advocate the positive integration of all refugees, because that is the best defence against those who wish to paint them all with the same brush. But more importantly, we should pressure our government to realocate 3000 unaccompamied refugee children who are in the EU to Briatin in addition to the resettlement of choldren under Vulnerable Persons Relocation Scheme. The Government also need to provide a robust timetable of meeting their own target for the resettlement of 20,000 refugees as a matter of urgency and in particular how they will address the plight of so many in camps such as in Calais and Leros.

Over the coming months, we will no doubt be faced with the usual lazy arguments of the Right: they aren’t welcome; they’re dangerous; they’re all the same. My experience in Leros has taught me that most of them are just like us and we should regret the fact that more of them can’t consider Britain a home.


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