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With Refugee Children Forced to Live in Squalor in Forests We Ask - Is This Really 21st Century Europe?

20/06/2016 12:55

"Why does this baby get on a plane, but that baby has to live in a forest?"

These are the words that Josie Naughton, my fellow co-founder of Help Refugees uttered to me as we sat in a Greek airport, waiting to board a plane back to the UK where our warm cosy beds lay waiting for us. I had pointed out that a very cute two year old baby sitting nearby looked almost exactly like another two year old we had met on our trip - a baby named Fareed with huge eyes, wild curly hair and enormous unknowing smile. Except Josie and I had met Fareed living in a forest, in a makeshift refugee camp behind an abandoned BP petrol station in Idomeni (known simple as "the BP camp").

This particular trip had been the hardest for us since our journey with Help Refugees began eight months earlier, when we unknowingly embarked on a venture which would change our lives (and those of so many of so many others) forever. We had only ever set out to raise £1,000 and collect a van load of goods to drop in the Calais camp, and yet here we were, less than a year later, two previously unexperienced young women from London, heading up an ever growing and emerging humanitarian organization which had made (and almost immediately spent) nearly £2million of publicly donated funds, and now supported 26 projects spanning across Europe.

It happened because our friends stood up and said "how can we help" and joined a team which organically developed its own systems of care/ infrastructure and aid delivery in Calais alongside the hundreds of volunteers who stood up to be counted. It happened because thousands of British people were sick of seeing people suffering and not having a direct route to help and we somehow found a way to offer them one - with such a small core team and almost non-existent overheads we gave people a much craved for way to truly donate time, goods and funds directly to those in need. It happened because the amazing long-term volunteers who travelled to Lesvos, Idomeni, Athens and Calais were prepared to do the hard graft with just a little support from us and wanted to join together with us, to stand side by side.

But in all this time nothing had effected me quite as much as this last trip - travelling to Idomeni to meet the teams on the ground there, to check in on how our funding was being spent, and to find how what more we could be doing.

The trip was fruitful. We met the hot food kitchens we fund, with chefs and volunteers slaving daily over giant bubbling pans to prepare more than 5,000 hot meals every day. We met the mothers and babies being cared for by Lighthouse, a group we partnered with to provide pastoral care for them. We saw the tiny bottles of pre mixed baby milk we were distributing in their thousands. We visited around 8 different camps.

But then we went to the BP camp, and nothing could have prepared us for what we were greeted with there. Not the months spent visiting the camp in Calais, not the heartbreaking stories of the thousands of unaccompanied minors, not the knowledge that so many children fleeing war sleep cold and hungry every single night.

The "camp" itself was in an overgrown forest, and as we arrived we were met by the sight of around 20 very small children, toddlers, all running about bare foot. It was reminiscent of a scene from Lord of the Flies. A little girl aged around six years old was standing nearby and throwing up in a bush. There was no aid agency there. No running water. No showers. No support. No NGOS. Only a twice a day distribution from a small volunteer group (who we helped provide goods and food to). Nothing more. 1,500 people, living in small flimsy tents in the mud amongst the trees. How could this be 21st Century Europe? How could human beings be left to live like this?

We went to the little girl, and she showed us where her mother lived (in a tent) and we took her over to her. There were no doctors on site to be able to call to help. No pharmacy to buy her medicine.

Another woman called us over to join her. She was from Syria and had three small children with her, all sat around a fire with a few small pots on it. She invited us to join them for tea and home made flat breads. We tried to refuse their food, seeing how little they had, but they insisted. We sat and chatted and she told us their story - how her husband had gone ahead of them and made it to Germany. How she and her children were stuck in Idomeni, unable to cross the closed border with Macedonia to head nearer towards him. She had been there for months with no access to legal or asylum advice (the kind of story we heard many times that day). An older man, the woman's father, peeked his head outside his tent to say hello. I asked him what he did back home and he told me he was a professor. My mind reeled. I could see the pain in his face of seeing how his child and grand children were being forced to live as rain water poured down through the holes in the tarpaulin above where we sat.

After a while we walked on through the forest. We came to a damp and rat-infested abandoned old stone structure. Inside five people lived, a Syrian family with two small children (aged six and two) and a 20-year-old Syrian boy whose parents had both died in his house when it was bombed.... he had gone out to the shops and returned to the devastation. He dreamed of making it to Canada to start a new life whilst the family he stayed with dreamed of making it to Germany where their 13-year-old son had gone ahead... fearing for his life (and forced Isis recruitment) they had sent him ahead with the little money they had.

We sat and played games with the little girl and she joyfully practiced counting to ten in English, laughing in delight each time she made it all the way. Meanwhile the 2 year old, baby Fareed giggled and gurgled on our laps. Curls falling all around his beautiful little face. When we got up to leave and the family asked us not to forget them. We never will.

The next day we had to leave, to return to the UK to try to continue to generate the funds that make helping those like the people we met survive. We were both very quiet now. I've dreamt of that forest many nights since that trip.

As we waited to board our easy jet flight home that was when I turned to Josie and pointed to a baby nearby. "Look Josie, I said, that baby looks just like baby Fareed!"

"Yes", she replied..."but why does one baby get to go on a plane to England, and the other baby have to live in a forest?"

The sentence sounded so absurd yet that is the reality we face today.

Today is World Refugee Day, yet for the 65.3million people across the world currently displaced today is no different from any other day. Fareed means "alone" in Arabic, but together we can stand in solidarity with refugees across the world, not only today, but every day.

To find out how you can help please visit helprefugees.org.uk

POST NOTE: We are grateful to say that the BP camp has now be vacated, and the refugees there (of whom 95% were Syrian) have been relocated to military camps across Greece. However, conditions there remain dire, and with approximately 57,000 refugees across Greece stuck waiting to be able to register in order to claim asylum, Help Refugees are committed to continue to continue to help meet their basic needs. We currently provide baby milk, nappies, hygiene packs, mosquito repellent, sunscream, provide flooring for tents (to prevent snakes and scorpions coming in), gravel the muddy terrains, provide thousands of hot meals a day, support women and child friendly services, an antenatal clinic, a sexual health clinic and various other life saving initiatives.

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