Yet another year has passed, and I find myself reflecting- as I sit here, safe and sound, surrounded by close family and friends in a cozy, Christmas decorated house in the south of Norway.
2016 has been a year where everything has passed at an incredible pace. At the start of the year, there were still work to be done along the beaches of Lesvos and Chios – and this was the top priority for A Drop in the Ocean. After only a few months, a Drop in the Ocean had established itself as an important resource on the shores, and manned shifts 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. It was a gloomy and cold winter in Greece, with many boats going down and as a result, we met many people who had lost everything. Our volunteers even experienced receiving children who had not survived the harsh crossing.
The rumors said that Europe was preparing for a stricter policy regime in terms of asylum. It was being said that reuniting with ones families in time would be almost impossible. This resulted in people crossing the ocean from Turkey bringing their whole family, instead of sending the strongest member(s) in advance. We experienced a growing number of women and children aboard the fragile boats crossing the ocean.
At the time, Greece was merely a “transit-country”. Everyone was supposed to travel beyond Greece’s borders. They were en-route to their relatives in Germany, Sweden or the Netherlands. A few wanted to travel to Norway. They had heard Norway was a peaceful and tranquil place. In Norway, the children would be welcomed and they would make friends. In Norway – children could be children. This was not so in Afghanistan, they said. Or in Syria, where they had lost track of who was waging war on whom…
At the start of February, the border control to Former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia (FYROM), by Idomeni, was tightened. They would not let Africans through the gates. After a few days, Afghans were not permitted either. After a few weeks, only Syrians with papers in order were let through. Idomeni became a bottleneck, as it took time verifying who had their papers in order. At the same time, one could hear about one European country after another tightening their borders considerably. The Schengen-agreement and the idea of no border control between the member states were suddenly threatened.
On March 9, the border closed completely, even for Syrians with their papers in order. The last hope of reaching a safe country, with prospects of a dignified future, faded. Idomeni plunged into chaos. A Drop in the Ocean had just startet working there at that time. Many tried to climb the barbed-wire fences. Many were beaten and thrown back into the mud by the border police. Five days after the borders closed, three people drowned in the river separating Greece from the rest of Europe in the north. A pregnant woman, her teen-age sister and a man. They had survived war. They had survived cynical human-traffickers and had survived a treacherous crossing by sea in cold weather. However, they did not survive the river-crossing, one of the last obstacles to a life in freedom.
The European Union was hard at work – trying to find solutions for the ongoing migrations. On March 20, the European Union and Turkey made an agreement that would put an end to the migrations. Turkey would receive large amounts of money to eliminate the human-traffickers’ routes. Greece would return those who despite Turkey’s efforts, managed to cross over to the islands. NATO started patrolling the sea between Greece and Turkey. The European Union said they would send hundreds of caseworkers to Greece to make this agreement work. During the days before March 20, the Greek islands were emptied of migrants. It was important to separate those who had arrived before the agreement, and those who had arrived after. Those who had arrived before were transported by ferries to Athens. Un-official migrant-camps were created, as there was no established camp that could receive such large amounts of people all at once. The two largest un-official camps arose in Idomeni, where people still hoped for a small opening in the barbed-wire fence, and in Piraeus – by the docks where the ferries normally shuttle happy tourists to their vacation destinations in the Greek islands. This became a turning point in a Drop in the Oceans work, as we realized that this was where we were needed the most. One can assume that at the height approx. 18.000 people were living in Idomeni and approx. 5.000 by the docks in Piraeus. We quickly realized that our strength lied in our flexibility and lack of bureaucracy, and in a matter of days, we were at work in both these locations.
New tasks demanded much new learning; however, we could draw many similarities with the work we were used to at the beaches. We still had to be fellow-humans and it was still important to be able to identify needs. Thanks to fantastic coordinators and volunteers, we succeeded and became a party to be trusted, also in the camps.
Something was different, and gave new perspectives – the fact that our encounters with people were not any longer short where we only catered for basic needs, but longer lasting relationships. Now we spent days on end together with them. They became our friends, and their pain became ours.
We soon realized that we wanted to focus on creating result together with the migrants, and not just for them.
At the same time, we continued our work on Chios, where boats were still arriving. In spite of strengthened Turkish patrols and NATO ships, some still managed to cross – often as a result of multiple attempts. Most arrived during the cover of night.
Our contribution in the migrant camps were noticed and we received many questions from new camps that were established. With limited resources and capacity, we had to choose wisely which camps to aid, and we stayed in Chios, the Athens area and the new camps established to house the people from Idomeni where we were already present. At the most, we were present at 9 different camps during early summer 2016.
During the summer both Idomeni and Piraeus were emptied of migrants. In the course of only a few hours everyone had to gather their few belongings and make sure they got on the same bus as their family members or relatives. The next day the bulldozers moved in and eradicated whatever was left. Toys, distribution-containers with clothes, medical equipment – everything was destroyed.
A Drop in the Ocean has continued its work in the migrant camps throughout the fall. It has been a fall characterized by frustration amongst the people who cannot get any further. We have, nearly on a weekly basis, had to carry out controlled evacuations of the volunteers working in the camps. The situation reached a low point this fall when fascists attacked innocent women and children in the camp in Chios. The following days were tough for those who did not feel safe, even as they were asleep in their own tents.
At present time there are 62.000 migrants in Greece. New migrants arrive on a daily basis. It is not uncommon for those who arrive to have tried 14-15 times before making it! They keep trying even though they know that nearly 5.000 people have drowned or are missing after trying to cross the Mediterranean this year! THAT illustrates something about the hopelessness of the situation the migrants face. They have no prospects for a dignified life where they are, yet they come knowing that Europe does whatever possible to keep them out.
A shining beacon in an otherwise cold and gloomy Europe are the many volunteers who dedicate themselves to the work for people that have had to flee. Through a Drop in the Ocean, almost 2000 volunteer travels have been carried out in 2016. Our volunteers come from more than 33 different countries! Many volunteers travel several times, proof that this is work that matters and help is provided directly to those who need it.
I am extremely proud and thankful for each and every one of you who spend your time and resources in order to make an effort in this way. You inspire each other and also us in the administration to keep working. You bring new attitudes back home, and one of the most important issues might be that you use your first-hand knowledge and experience of migrant situations, to change the dangerous and xenophobic tendencies we see in Europe and the world at large.
I would also like to thank all of you who contribute to the administration of a Drop in the Ocean. Some contribute a lot, some contribute a little bit – but what we have managed together is awesome!
To care about the individuals and their needs has always been important to a Drop in the Ocean. There has been several cases in 2016 that the organization has followed closely. In January, we got to know a young Syrian mother – “Aisha” – who still was in Turkey. A month earlier, she had made an attempt of crossing over to Greece with her 3-year-old daughter – «Sara». Their goal was set for Sweden where her husband and son were waiting. The boat capsized and in the chaos, “Sara” was picked up by human traffickers. When “Aisha” was saved and transported to shore, the human traffickers demanded a ransom in order for her to get her daughter back. Even though she managed to get the money, she never saw her daughter again. To follow her desperate battle, to see how the local police authorities did not prioritize her case was painful, and we tried to support her as best we could. To follow her choice to travel on to Sweden when the search for «Sara» in Turkey left no results was heartbreaking.
Luckily, we have also been involved in cases that have turned out good. In February, we were contacted by a “Drop” who had been contacted by a couple with 4 children, from Mosul – Iraq. The youngest was only a few days old. They had been able to escape Mosul after only two attempts, and had been working in Turkey for almost two years in order to save enough money for the journey across the ocean. As the people are entering the boat on the Turkish side, the police showed up and the smugglers paniced and push the boat from the shore. Two of the four children were in the boat – alone. Mother, father and two siblings were left standing to witness the two girls aged 4 and 7 disappear – heading towards Kos. A drop in the Ocean was at the time not present on Kos, but we still had contacts and managed to alert them of the imminent arrival of a boat with two small, lonely girls on board. This led to the boat being met and the girls were taken care of. The following day we had volunteers en-route to Kos and they helped looking after the girls until their parents finally – after 5 days – were successful in making the crossing. The family was met by Drops also in Piraeus and yesterday we received the happy news that the family received their permanent permission to live in Germany.
In February we met Abeer – a Syrian mother of four who had been in contact with someone in the Drop-network before she made her journey to Lesvos. Her goal was set for Norway. When she arrived in northern Greece, the borders were still open, but Abeer was asked to aid one of the medical aid-organizations with translations. She agreed, but whilst she was working, the borders closed. Her prospects for reaching Norway, and her hope of being reunited with her daughters vanished into thin air. She contacted us and asked if she could be of any service while she was waiting. Abeer has been one of our fantastic drops on Chios and in Sounio until she finally made it to Norway in the end of August. She has been granted asylum in Norway, and has been working as a volunteer at our main office while she is waiting to be reunited with her daughters. Many “Drops” have become very found of Abeer, and to me personally, she is like a new member of the family.
We have many stories of individuals where our volunteers have made an important difference, but it would fill a book to write about all of them. Our message, that we would like to bring into the New Year, is to LOVE MORE AND JUDGE LESS. The people who are led to flee bring their stories with them, a life with knowledge and experiences, just like you and I. Meet and greet them in the same way as you would have wanted to be met!
Doing something really matters, and together we can accomplish a lot! During the first whole year in the history of the organisation, we have proven so!
I wish you all a very happy new year and I look forward to even more Drops joining the team in the coming year. I hope 2017 will bring more peace and compassion.
HAPPY NEW YEAR TO ALL OF YOU!
Warm wishes from Trude Jacobsen, Secretary General Dråpen i Havet / A Drop in the Ocean