British tourists explain why they have spent their holidays helping refugees

The Telegraph –Lesbos has long attracted tourists from Britain, Germany and Scandinavia, lured by its laid-back tavernas, attractive villages, beaches, and two dozen varieties of ouzo. It has a long history of trade, with tanneries, soap factories, and oil presses. The island – which now has a population of around 90,000 – thrived during the 6th and 7th centuries BC, and was the home of the lyric poet Sappho.

Nor is it new that refugees arrive on the island, fleeing conflict and persecution in their countries of origin. Many refugees came to the island and stayed after the Greco-Turkish War in 1922.

However, as the conflict in Syria entered its fifth, long, awful year this April, and the extent of the destruction in the country worsens, the numbers of arrivals has risen dramatically.

Laura Ferris, who works for The Co-Operative Travel in Selby, is just one of the tourists on Lesbos who was prompted by the scale of suffering to lend help. She and Pete had originally booked a two-week holiday on the island for July, after visiting last year and “falling in love” with the place.

“We couldn’t sit by the pool and know these brave people were walking by with nothing outside.”

According to the latest figures from the UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, 184,000 people have arrived on Lesbos this year, of a total of 348,000 in Greece overall. Nearly 70 per cent of them are from Syria – others come from Afghanistan and Iraq.

Most arrive on the island’s northern coast, in inflatable dinghies from Turkey, perceptible across the water. They must register in the capital, Mytilini, 60km away on the south-east coast, before continuing their journeys through Europe, to countries such as Germany, Britain, Sweden and France.

Daniel Elkan, a freelance writer currently on holiday on Lesbos, said that refugees are currently arriving predominantly at Skala Sikaminias beach in the north, and buses are now being arranged from the eponymous village to spare many of the refugees the long walk to Mytilini.

Some reports have suggested that the presence of refugees on Greek islands (people are also arriving in their thousands on Kos, Chios, and Tilos) has disturbed tourists. But such visitors appear to be in the minority, with many others wondering how best they can help.

Having seen news reports of the situation on Lesbos, Laura Ferris contacted Philippa and Eric Kempson, British expats on the island who have been heavily involved in assisting newly-arrived refugees. “We agreed that we would do a couple of days helping out, but that turned into every day of the holiday. We couldn’t not do it. We couldn’t sit by the pool and know these brave people were walking by with nothing outside,” Laura said.

The day they helped Ahmad Yousef and Mohammad was just one of many. The couple would rise at 5.30-6am, stock up on bottles of water, and set off along the mountain road that refugees take to Mytilini – charities  are organising buses to transport the most vulnerable, but many people have been walking in the summer heat, of temperatures between 30-35C.

“We saw a gentleman with his seven-year-old son, who had walked 20km in the heat. No seven-year-old should have to do that.” They also spent time clearing rubbish at Kara Tepe, a camp where refugees wait to be registered, where the living conditions for refugees were “a real shock to the system.”

According to the International Rescue Committee, a non-governmental organisation providing aid on Lesbos, Kara Tepe is designed for 500 refugees, but has housed up to 5,000 as bottlenecks on the island prevent people from continuing their journeys.

Can one person make a difference?

For visitors who might feel their presence intrusive, or insufficient to make a difference, tourists who have lent a hand have words of advice.

Just seeing people who were welcoming and friendly, offering biscuits, drinks and foil blankets seemed immensely powerful for them [the refugees].

“Even giving bottles of water and snacks to refugees making their way to Mytilini will help – it could be the only bottle of water that man, woman or child has on a 60km walk”, Laura said. She had packed 120 miniature games for children in her luggage, and although the gesture felt small, she hoped that it had “put a smile on the faces of 120 children; it took their minds off the treacherous journey.

“Most [of the refugees] wanted to shake our hands before we gave them water. The old ladies wrapped their arms around us”, she added.

Up to 4,000 people have been arriving in inflatable dinghy boats on Lesvos this summer, and are welcomed by volunteers Up to 4,000 people have been arriving in inflatable dinghy boats on Lesvos this summer, and are welcomed by volunteers (Getty)  Photo: Getty

Other tourists reported that their efforts were obviously appreciated, too.

Syd Bolton, from London, spent three weeks in the Greek islands this summer, including a week on Lesbos. A child refugee lawyer by profession, he visited both as a holidaymaker and with a group of friends carrying out research into the situation for refugees in Europe. Based in Eresos, in the island’s south-west, he said that, “just to help one refugee as a tourist makes a difference.”

“The people who receive your help don’t forget it. The messages are coming back all the way up to Hungary and Germany: ‘I remember the person who helped me on the island.’”

He collected a scrap of paper from a child’s schoolbook he found on the beach at Sikaminias, showing English-Arabic translations of some of the words that might be needed on the way. They include “ran away”, “lost”, and “escape”. Mr Bolton said he would try to find the child to give it back.

While authorities have been struggling to cope with the influx, a spokesperson for Lesbos Municipality told Telegraph Travel that along with the Greek government, they have put in place “a plan that includes the enhancement of the registration process, the expansion of the reception centres, and the commission of extra ferries for daily transportation to Athens.”

He added that they were planning to build more registration centres near the arrival points, to decrease the number of refugees making the long walk to Mytilini.

Rules to follow, and local reaction

Reactions from locals working in the tourist industry have been mixed, according to visitors.

Laura Ferris said that one seafront taverna in Eftalou on the north coast welcomed groups of Syrians, but another pizza restaurant refused to sell a Syrian man a bottle of water as he walked four kilometres into Molyvos.

“Some of them [local businesses] fear that refugees are destroying tourism – but they’re not, it’s attitudes that are.”
There has also been confusion over whether tourists are permitted to transport people from the beaches where they land near Molyvos, to where they need to register in Mytilini – to save them the long, hot walk on roads also used by cars.

Lesbos Municipality confirmed that tourists are allowed to give refugees lifts, provided that they phone the emergency police number (100), stating their name and licence plate number, where they are going, and how many people they are transporting.

Laura Ferris also advised making the hire car company used aware, as there have been reports of some reacting angrily to customers transporting refugees on the island.

Daniel said that providing lifts from the landing beaches at Sikaminias to save new arrivals the 4km walk up a steep hill is a useful thing tourists can do, but advised being, “careful not to split up families as many get in different cars and never find each other again.”

Contribute to a wider effort

Travel companies are also putting in place measures to allow travellers who don’t feel able to spend their holiday providing practical aid to make contributions.

Thomas Cook confirmed that it has increased its “Charitable Luggage” allowance to 400kg on its Greece and Turkey flights: passengers must pre-book their extra bags carrying donations for local distribution, but can do so free of charge. Passengers on easyJet flights can now make donations in any currency to Unicef, which is providing supplies such as medicine for children in Syria and the region, while TripAdvisor is allowing users to make donations via its site.

Sunvil, a tour operator specialising in Greece, is also collecting donations – most importantly tents, sleeping bags, gym mats – to take on its last charter flight of the season, leaving Gatwick on October 1.

Laura and Pete made a second week-long trip to Lesbos, leaving the UK on September 5 with 92kg of luggage. “We knew as soon as we landed at Manchester [after their first visit] that we would be going back. It felt the right thing to do.”They were alarmed at the increase in the number of boats arriving since July – “before it was only in the early morning but now it is maybe up to 40 in a day.

“We spent the week helping boats in, giving out water, fruit, food and dry clothes when they landed. Everyone was soaking wet and all their belongings, usually in carrier bags or rucksacks were ruined.”

Donations taken over to Lesvos by Laura and Pete from the UK: cehck with local organisations first to see what is most needed Donations taken over to Lesvos by Laura and Pete from the UK: cehck with local organisations first to see what is most needed (Laura Ferris)

How else can tourists help? The Facebook page, “Help for Refugees in Molyvos” is run by a group of local volunteers, including Melinda McRostie, who owns the well-regarded Captain’s Table restaurant and guesthouse in Molyvos. Information and advice is provided on the site as to how ordinary travellers – or those in the UK – can best help.

Lesbos authorities said they were “very grateful” for the help visitors have provided, but said that other EU member states needed to accommodate a proportionate number of refugees, “and not push them back.”

The future

The situation is in danger of becoming more difficult as winter comes, as tourists stop arriving and the sea gets colder and more treacherous. “When it is not tourist season is when most help is needed”, said Syd Bolton. But the visitors who come to help – whether now or as the winter crawls forth – will be remembered.

“The people who receive your help don’t forget it,” he added. “The messages are coming back all the way up to Hungary and Germany: ‘I remember the person who helped me on the island.’”