In early February, I traveled to Lesvos, Greece to volunteer with Home for All, a non-profit organization that feeds the refugees seeking asylum on the island. I first heard about this program while attending the Doterra Conference in London last year.  How Doterra got involved there is a story in and of itself, but you have to appreciate a company with no vested financial interest on the island, that goes out of their way to help. When doTERRA put out a call for volunteers to travel to Lesvos, a friend and I jumped at the opportunity.

Backstory

In 2015 like many others, I was horrified by the media images and personal stories that emerged as the refugee crisis unfold.  The sheer number of families fleeing their countries on unstable boats, with small children in tow, caught the attention of not only myself but others around the world. I broke down when the news featured a little boy washed up on shore, lifeless. He was the same age as my son at that time. I could no longer sit idly by, I had to do something. I heard  about an organization collecting baby carriers for the refugees. According to organizers on the ground, many children were arriving and the sheer volume of people created long waits in line, which can be particularly difficult for women and infants. Providing baby carriers would help the moms better manage their little ones. Since I was blessed with a supportive group of expat moms here in Switzerland, I quickly organized a hefty collection of baby carriers to donate. It felt good to be doing something. 

Fast forward to 2017 during a Doterra business trip to Amsterdam, Because We Carry, the organization that collected the baby carriers was also there talking about the life changing events of that effort.  Because We Carry started out as a group of aromatherapists, yoga instructors and moms from Holland, organizing the baby carrier collection because they too wanted to do something. But when they arrived in Lesvos with their van loads of baby carriers, they were appalled by the conditions and saw there were even greater needs.  Yes the carriers were helpful and much appreciated, but it quickly became apparent that there was a full blown humanitarian crisis going on that baby carriers alone weren’t going to solve. The situation in Lesvos was tragic.

Photo credit courtesy of Damian Lemański / photographer damianlemanski.com

There are two main refugee centers in Lesvos – Kara Tepe, home to approximately 1,200 refugee, run by the island of Lesvos. Kara Tepe is known for a better quality of life for the refugees because it is better managed, not overcrowded and goes to great lengths to make the refugee center feel more like a community.  Then there is Moria Refugee Center, located within a military compound, controlled and managed by the Greek military. Designed to house 2,000 people, it currently holds over 6,000 refugees. In total there are over 7,500 refugees on the island of Lesvos alone and over 67,000 in all of Greece. Although the numbers of refugees has gone down slightly since 2015 – 2016 in large part due to an agreement the European Union (EU) made with Turkey to reduce the flow of immigrants, there are still refugees fleeing their countries every day and arriving in Greece in need of the very basics of life.   

I got the opportunity to provide some of these basic needs while volunteering for Home for All. Home for All was started by two angels on the island – Katerina and Nikos.  They were just every day residents of Lesvos, running a restaurant that served delicious Greek food to the locals. In addition, Nikos was a fisherman, running a fish store next to the restaurant. One day, during his normal routine of selling fish in town, Nikos saw a group of people that had landed on shore. After literally giving them the clothes off his back, he rushed back to his wife, Katerina, who was cooking at the restaurant. They quickly put together parcels of food to take to these refugees. When they returned to the spot they first discovered the refugees, they were nowhere to be found. They had been arrested and were being housed in the local jail and weren’t allowed visitors. While they returned to their favorite spot to contemplate what was going on, another boat load of refugees landed on shore. This time that lucky group of refugees were greeted with food.

Over the next several months, Nikos and Katerina continued to help the refugees as much as possible in between running the restaurant and fish shop. They eventually converted their for profit restaurant, into a charitable nonprofit restaurant called Home for All, that serves warm meals to the refugees, free of charge. Currently, they transport groups of refugees every day to their restaurant for lunch and dinner (except Mondays). The restaurant, called Home 1, is not huge, 6 to 8 tables put together, that can serve about 20 – 30 people at a time. But it is a place the refugees look forward to coming to. A place they get a warm sit down meal served with a smile and a sense of dignity, something they don’t get at Moria.

Nikos and Katerina are the backbone of Home for All. Nikos quit fishing, as he tired of pulling dead bodies out the water. They are the most humble of people, giving so much of themselves and asking for nothing in return except to give the refugees a sense of dignity and a place to feel at Home. They have taken in several refugees, providing them work in the restaurant and a bit of freedom from the horrors of Moria. They are the epitome of selfless and caring.

Logistics

There were a few hurdles to jump over before actually getting down to Lesvos.  I would be taking a week off work, during which my husband would also have to take time off to care for our children. Thankfully my husband supported my efforts and we enlisted the support of our social network (aka extended family) that stepped in to watch the kids during my volunteer week. Next, I had to raise enough money to not just cover my living expenses but to support Home For All and their efforts to assist the refugees on Lesvos. I was so excited to have reached half my fundraising goal in the first 24 hours thanks to very generous donations by friends and family. I was even more grateful when one of my customers offered to hold a Zumba fundraiser the day before we left for Lesvos, with all proceeds going toward Home For All. This event alone more than doubled my original fundraising goal I had set for myself. I am fortunate to have such generous friends, family and customers in my life.

The Sunday following the wildly successful Zumba fundraiser, Lesley and I flew to Lesvos. We arrived a bit late that evening due to a travel hiccup in Athens, but we were picked up by none other than Nikos himself, a true hero in our book.  He is about as humble and kind as they come and after meeting Katerina his wife, we knew we were in the presence of saints. That evening we also met our housemates and volunteers for the week, Kirsty (another kind Scot) and Arja, super powerhouse den mom from Holland. We immediately felt right at home.

Turns out Mondays are the one day off every week for the volunteers.  Although there is plenty of work to be done, Katerina and Nikos stick to the one day off rule to make sure the volunteers don’t get burned out.  The emotional and physical toll can be overwhelming. So we spent our first full day in Lesvos touring Mytilene, the capital port city of Lesvos.

On Tuesday, the Home for All van that transports the refugees from Moria camp had broken down, so we were unable to bring refugees to the restaurant. We were of course disappointed, but scarce resources make this kind of disappointment far too common. Instead, we sorted clothing donations in the warehouse until almost dark. For dinner we had two groups of refugees, from Somalia, Afghanistan and Iran. The group included about six children ages 1 year to 13 years old. I was nervous at first about interacting with them but that was quickly dissipated by their warm smiles. One Afghani mom bathed her two smallest children in the sink of the restaurant bathroom. I would have done the same given the opportunity, as the sanitary conditions at Moria are a disgusting. There was singing, traditional dancing and game playing until late at night. Before I knew it, our first official day of volunteering was done and I was exhausted, physically and emotionally. I don’t know why but I expected the refugees to be solemn and forlorn given the conditions they were living in. But the exact opposite was true, they were happy, dancing and smiling, grateful to have the opportunity to avoid the life of war and poverty and the subpar living conditions, if only for a couple of hours.

The next day, a large group of men from Burkina Faso came for lunch. As a whole they were quite gregarious and outgoing, but one shy young man sat outside and looked quite depressed. He opened up to one of the volunteers about how back in his home country, his family had a nice farm and one day ‘they’ came and murdered his entire family. He knew they would come for him next so he had to flee. He’d been turned down for asylum status once already which means he’d been in Moria for at least a year.  If you are turned down twice, you are sent back to your home country, which would likely mean certain death for him. He was grateful for a warm meal and kept putting his hand over his heart as a sign of thanks. I saw and heard stories like this every day.

Photo credit courtesy of Damian Lemański / photographer damianlemanski.com

In between cleaning up the restaurant, setting the tables and serving the food, we spent our remaining time sorting and organizing the clothing donations. When groups of refugees came for lunch or dinner, they filled out a form with their age, clothing and shoe size. After the food was served, we would prepare parcels of clothes and shoes for each of them to take back to the camp. We made sure to give the little kids a toy to take back as well. 

The week we were there Nikos received approval to start bringing food into Moria camp for the groups that desperately needed better nutrition – diabetics, nursing and pregnant moms, and families with children with special needs.  This was something Nikos had been organizing for a long time. The food being served at Moria is not fit for stray animals on the street let alone human beings. At the camp they are fed twice a day and have to stand in line for hours at a time for not very nutritious food.

I was honored and a little nervous to go along for the first delivery, it would be my first time inside Moria camp. From the outside, It looks and feels like a huge prison, with long rows of barbed wire and a heavily watched entrance gate. Yet the refugees are free to come and go as they please.  We were escorted to Section C, an area of the camp where those with extra needs are housed. That day we delivered about twelve parcels of the food and left quite quickly. What I saw was heartbreaking.

Moria Refugee Center

Moria Refugee Center is inhumane.  Electricity is sporadic, sometimes one to two hours a day and sometimes not at all.  The women are afraid to go to the bathroom at night for fear of being raped, or fear of leaving their children alone. Sex trafficking, prostitution and ethnic fighting is a common occurrence. But these aren’t criminals, at least the majority weren’t before they arrived. These are people trying to survive in the most horrible conditions.  When you squeeze that many desperate and traumatized people into such a small and overcrowded environment without basic human needs, the end results are not very surprising.

The food is horrible, sanitary conditions awful, and the air quality is pungent to say the least.  Health care is hard to come by, let alone mental health care which is in high demand. Add to that the fact that you have several different religious and cultural groups being housed in this environment and you have created a recipe for an unprecedented crisis. Many said they left their war torn countries only to take refuge in a place that is barely an improvement. Some are going back since there is no future for them in Greece. And more arrive almost every day. That is the ‘lucky’ ones make it to Lesvos. The rest make it to other islands or worse are arrested by the Turkish Coast Guard. Then there are the ones who never make it to shore. 

My experience in Lesvos conflicted in many ways with what I had observed previously in the mainstream media. These are happy tight knit families who fled their home country from a long list of war torn countries, as they feared for their lives. They are wonderful people who just want a better life for their families.  And they are going about their lives, getting married, celebrating birthdays, having babies and living under the most extreme conditions. 

This is a humanitarian crisis of epic proportions that is being kept quiet as the situation is out of control and the solutions are far too complex. Many of the NGOs have quit as the conditions as the need far exceeds the capacity to do good.

Since Moria is beyond capacity, the incoming refugees are now forced to create their own living space next door in what is known as the Jungle.  Those who live in the jungle have limited access to running water, food or even shelter. It is a dangerous free for all. During the one week I volunteered there, 28 boats left the mainland to seek refugee in Greece. Of the 28 boats, 19 of them carrying over 1,000 refugees were arrested and detained by the Turkish Coast Guard, 213 new refugees arrive in Lesvos, with about 100 or more arriving on the other islands.

Huge Hearts

The generosity of Nikos and Katerina and what they are doing for the refugees is beyond measure. I’m not sure I have ever met such selfless people in my life.  And yet even with their resources stretched razor thin, Home for All keeps expanding their services. Now it is more than just the restaurant, it is also an internet cafe in Mytilene providing wifi access to the refugees. They continue to bring dozens of parcels of food into Moria camp daily to feed those with special needs. In addition, they were putting the finishing touches on what will be known as Home 4, a center for women to enjoy a yoga class or get a massage or aromatherapy treatment. An hour or two once a month to feel good, forget their troubles, restore their dignity for a brief instance and have a warm home cooked meal served with love is the least we can provide. 

These people are not beggars or criminals coming to cause conflict. They didn’t flee their home countries on a whim or without careful consideration and forethought. The journey is long and difficult. Many don’t survive. I met engineers, teachers, farmers and architects, who fled their home country because their lives were in immediate danger. Most of the people I spoke with had already lost loved ones back in their home countries.  I heard stories from the refugees that brought me to tears and yet they can still smile and say thank you when you put on a warm meal in front of them. I met selfless volunteers who were spending months in Lesvos, volunteering in many different capacities. One opthamologist from Spain, was providing eye exams and collecting eyeglasses for the refugees. She had painstakingly organized an entire container full of donations from her home country of Spain, just to bring to the refugees.  And of course Nikos and Katerina are there, helping everyone they can. It truly renewed my faith and humbled me. If only everyone had a portion of kindness that all the volunteers have, the world would be a much better place.   

Volunteering here is not for the weak.  I spent long days in a cold warehouse, questioning our commercialism. There is not a lack of clothing donations, in fact there were warehouses full of them. The problem is a lack of people who care enough to help others who may not look exactly like them or speak the same language.  There are too many people that feel by tossing their used clothes into the donation box, they’ve done their part. I wish they could see how much more is needed. 

The asylum process is flawed. The generational impacts of endless wars have long term consequences. The cumbersome bureaucracy that treats them like animals is overwhelming frustrating. The lack of resources is unimaginable in a world where there is not a lack money but morality.  And yet the volunteers do this selflessly day in and day out, not for money, not for glory, but out of the generosity and goodness of their hearts. A desire to right the wrongs. 

One night after spending about an hour crammed in the small internet cafe called Home 2 with about 30 refugees playing Jenga and just chatting, I needed some fresh air.  I couldn’t get the smell off of me. As I took a warm shower that night, I thought lucky me, I get to take a warm shower in peace, and lay my head on a soft pillow without the filth and stench and coldness that is Moria. Even after I showered, I couldn’t get the smell off of me, it was more than just body odor, it was despair and hopelessness. How does one keep up the mental fortitude to survive in those kind of conditions?

Moria is a humanitarian crisis with no end in sight.  It is said to be one of the most expensive humanitarian efforts to date with not much to show for it.   There are literally no options for the refugees. Some get shipped to mainland Greece, where jobs are scarce and sex trafficking is at an all time high. I expected better from Europe. I think it has reached a tipping point where no one knows what to do next. EU countries are struggling to take in their fair share of refugees and yet they keep arriving. Turkey is now arresting them as quickly as they can, thanks to the deal the EU made with Turkey.  Nothing good will come of how these people are being treated. As a mother I think of the long term trauma that these children have seen already and how an entire generation will be impacted by a lack of basic human compassion. The underlying factors that have led to more than 2 million migrants arriving in Europe since 2014 have not gone away.  

Photo credit curtesy of Damian Lemański / photographer damianlemanski.com

Home for All is a beacon in the seemingly hopeless struggle to do what is right by the refugees.  But they are in desperate need of continued donations and a new van to keep up the good work that they do.  The kindness I witnessed is unlike anything I have ever seen. They truly are the peacemakers. This couple, Katerina and Nikos, gave up their livelihood to help the refugees. When the refugees come for a meal at Home for All, they get a table set with table cloths, real plates, utensils and good food made with love.  It provides the refugees with a rare sense of dignity, something they don’t get at the camp.

Please consider this next time you sit down at your favorite restaurant or even at home with your family.  If you would like to make a donation or even volunteer with Home for All, please do so.

There is an anonymous quote that sums up not only this trip for me but for all the immigrant crises going on around the world:

“If you are more fortunate than others, it’s better to build a longer table, than a taller fence”.

Update: Since I first wrote this article, Doterra, the essential oil company I work with has generously provided a new van to Home for All.  Their generosity is much appreciated.