A group of four young women are embarking on a mission to help refugees who make their way to Lesvos, Greece, as they land on the shores of Europe. The volunteers, who include Global Voices author Faten Bushehri, are raising funds online to provide daily humanitarian supplies to refugees as well as help other volunteers to make refugee camps winter-proof.
We caught up with Faten as she plots for this trip with questions many of you may have in mind.
Global Voices (GV): Who is going on this trip? Who are you and what other work have you done in this field? How long will you be there for and what do you want to do?
Faten Bushehri: We are a group of volunteers. It started with three German women and one Bahraini, then it grew to include two more German men.
We are two teams of three going separately. We are overlapping our travels to maximize our help there. Annabella, Henning and I are going from the 16th to the 23rd of November from Amsterdam. Leonie, Babette and Flo are flying to Lesvos from Hamburg on the 20th of November until the 4th of December.
Faten is a freelance journalist and native Arabic speaker who has been working with refugees in Amsterdam for the past six weeks as a volunteer and has helped establish the group Refugees Welcome Amsterdam.
Others in the group include the founding member Annabella Stieren, also a freelance journalist and documentary filmmaker, as well as Leonie Stieren, a student of rescue engineering, specializing and working in the area of disaster relief and management. The fourth member is Babette Tabel, a media and communication management student, who wants to do whatever she can to help out.
Faten: It is difficult to plan exactly where help is needed there. We have two projects we plan to join and help out. One is joining a team at one of the five camps in Lesvos to turn it winter-proof. Moria camp is one of the main and largest camps where the line of people is 2 kilometers long waiting to get registered. People stand in line for days and need daily supplies of food, water and dry clothes.
We will also work in Molyvos, the north shore where most boats carrying refugees arrive, offering our help and providing supplies and translation assistance.
The situation changes on a daily basis and volunteers are ready to jump in wherever help is needed most. That is what we are ready for while we move between camps and the Molyvos.
GV: Why did you embark on this mission?
Leonie and Babette: As the refugee’s crisis burst forth every helping hand was clearly needed, even in Germany. We share the belief that every human is sharing the same planet and should have the opportunity to live in peace. Borders shouldn’t be an obstacle to their chance of safety. We would like other people to do just the same for us, if we would every experience a similar situation in Germany. We couldn’t live with ourselves doing nothing, while children are drowning in the sea, families are without shelter after their horrible and inhuman journey.
Annabella: I can't sit and do nothing about it. It hits close to home because before my grandparents passed way, they used to tell me stories about how they immigrated to Germany back in the day. Today, these people need help and we can help them, why not do it. The question is not why are we doing this, it is more like why are we not doing more.
Faten: Both Bella and I went through a life changing experience after spending so much time with refugees in Amsterdam and listening to their horrifying stories.
For me, it is important because it hits close to home as well. Growing up in a family that strongly believes in human rights and helping people it is really difficult for me to not put all my efforts to help people in need. Right now the crisis in Lesvos is getting worse, there are cries for help from volunteers on the ground who need more people to lend hands and provide supplies especially that the winter is approaching. The island is not winter proof and prepared to accommodate all these people.
Children are drowning, pregnant women have miscarriages, people are tired and getting sick from the weather. They are just hoping to survive and make it through this process to hopefully reach the greener grass on the other side. We take things for granted everyday, and don't realize some times we could do little things that can change someones life or add positivity to their future.
After spending weeks with Syrian refugees in Amsterdam Central Station and at the camps, we have made close friends that are now part of our lives. For us, the refugee crisis is no longer a number of people, the crisis has a face now. It is Waseem, Alaa, and Majd. It is a Syrian family that I got to know on a personal level and spent time with, the three little children, Malak, Jowdat and Suad, who I took to the zoo. They are people who are fleeing war because they have no other choice. That in itself is enough to make me get on a plane and do what I can to help.
GV: How are you collecting the money and what will you do with it?
Faten: Bella and I have started a fundraiser campaign on Gofundme to collect donations.
All four of us have used our connections, social media and families to spread the word and encourage people to help us.
Money goes directly into buying supplies for arriving refugees, and that is usually food, water, rescue blankets, fleece jackets, tents, a lot of socks, baby food and children's underwear. This changes daily based on the number of refugees and based on what other volunteers brings. What is left of the money will probably go into buying some winter-proof supplies for the camps.
GV: Tell us some more about your work with refugees in Amsterdam. Who has been running this mission and what have you done so far?
Faten: Refugees Welcome Amsterdam started with two Moroccan Dutch guys who proposed the idea, and showed up at Central. We heard about it, and then there were 10 to 15 of us coordinating logistics and connecting with officials. This mission is completely voluntary and is not an official NGO or organization. It is a bunch of people who want to help and showed up at central station with a good attitude.
There is not one person responsible for running the group, but more like a group of people who were responsible for different tasks, and then delegated it to other people as more volunteers showed up, and so on.
We are the first help for refugees who arrive. We check the train schedules everyday and split in teams to go on platforms and find refugees there, then guide them to the corner we have set up at the station where they can get food, water, toys for kids, some basic clothes, and sim cards.
In the beginning, we co-ordinated with the Red Cross, who provided free buses to take refugees to the camps. We co-ordinate with the police to bring people to us if they find them. We co-ordinate with the municipality to stay updated on changing rules, or if camps are full, and we adapt accordingly. We used our connections and networks to provide and get donations, in the form of clothes, or food. We also are working with a shelter for people who arrive late and need a place to sleep the night before they catch a bus or a train to the camp the next morning.
We visit different camps to check on the people we have met at central stations, and each one of us performs a different role, like talking to the media, building connections, getting donations, in charge of the Facebook group, responding to inquiries, organizing and sorting clothes. Others are in charge of delegating tasks, and ensuring each shift is covered by enough numbers of volunteers. We don't offer legal advice though and we are just there to comfort people when they arrive.
GV: Why should we help refugees and how do our contributions make a difference?
Faten: Every tiny step can make a difference, even a little gesture and lead to a day full of happiness. Refugees experienced things, we can't even imagine. They generally can't be blamed for anything that has happened in their country. Nobody deserves the life they had to live.
But what is more important is that immigration is a global crisis that affects all of us and all countries on different levels, and it is a shared responsibility to help facilitate the process so that everyone can live in peace and with at least the minimum needs and rights secured.
Not many people have the opportunity to go to Lesvos or volunteer at a camp, the easiest way is to donate money so those who can physically be there can take the money directly into the hands of those who need it, in the form of clothes, food, and medical supplies.
If we secure water and winter proof clothes we can prevent many from getting sick, we can minimize hunger and pain, and donations in general can assist medical teams in rescuing people from drowning. That is the change, not to mention the emotional and mental support that can help someone to get through a tough experience. All volunteers and teams in Lesvos are good at collaborating and coordinating, and all money goes into what is needed to cover all areas. Wherever the money is needed, it goes.
GV: How did you prepare for this trip and how can others be involved? How difficult or easy is it to follow in your footsteps?
Faten: Two of our good friends also from Refugees Welcome Amsterdam decided to go, and they started planning their trip. We tried to follow up on their plans and how they are doing it. Bella and I decided to go spontaneously and took advice from them as well as people on the ground. It is not difficult to plan logistics, and accommodation for example, but mentally and emotionally, no matter how prepared you are, you don't know what to expect. We are also getting a first aid and trauma crash course before we leave to be able to assist on the spot when needed.
There is a huge Facebook group for everyone who wants to volunteer it includes all teams and organizations and essential contacts in Lesvos. There are documents that provide all info that anyone needs, in terms of where to go, what hotels to stay at, how to rent a car, where help is wanted, what things to pack, and what things to buy for refugees, etc.
People who plan to volunteer also join to ask questions and get answers from those who have already gone through the experience.
GV: What role does social media play in helping refugees and highlighting their plight? Is what is being shared on social media helpful or will it just desensitize people and let them turn away from this evolving story since it has been dragging on for a while?
Leonie and Babette: Generally the social media platforms do help a lot in raising awareness for the refugee issue. Furthermore, it gives minorities the opportunity to share their thoughts and opinions anonymously. Even demonstrations can be the outcome of a social media movement, as we can clearly see in the Arab Spring. Also, refugees can plan their flee via social media. Reports from other refugees help to coordinate and plan their own escape. In addition to this, social media does lead to a bigger international, in this case even global, attention and actions.
We think that social media does not desensitize people. Normally media platforms only deal with such stories for a short time. After that a new event is being discussed. This leads to people forgetting about other crisis. As the refugee situation is being discussed for quite a long time now, people have time to deal with this topic and finally take some actions to help and make a change.
GV: International organisations, with more power and resources, are on the ground helping refugees. Why should we trust individuals working on this? How do we know where the money you collect will go?
Faten: People who are willing to help should be faced with trust. We ourselves will document our whole trip with photos and will publish them on social media platforms. We are even thinking about doing a blog on our journey. Friends have offered to join us and shoot the entire journey, and we are in the process of talking about that. We are offering to provide material, footage, images and interviews with people to interested media outlets for broadcast.
GV: Where can we follow you and the work you will do?
The team has so far collected 3,600 euros out of the 5,000 euros they intend to raise for the trip over the week. You can help them reach their target, and contribute to helping refugees in Lesvos here.