Why we started Sea of Solidarity

My name is Maria Tran. Thirty-six years ago, my family risked our lives to escape persecution in Vietnam. We were lucky and our boat was picked up by coast guards and brought to safety. Reading about the current refugee crisis in Europe, particularly the dangerous sea route that refugees are taking from Turkey to Greece, I decided to spend 2 weeks following that journey--to meet people, humanize their stories and volunteer.

Picture of me at 3 at a refugee camp in Hong Kong.

Picture of me at 3 at a refugee camp in Hong Kong.

I arrived at Skala Sikaminaes, Greece on Oct. 21, 2015. “Skala,” as we call it, is a small fishing village on the northern coast of the island of Lesvos, and home to around 200 residents. It is also one of the main landing points for refugees coming by boat across the sea from the Turkish coast 6 miles away. Over the last few months, there have been thousands of refugees landing in Lesvos every day (see UNHCR for latest stats).

I spent 5 days on Lesvos, serving as a volunteer at the Skala camp. This camp, set up and run completely by volunteers, is important because it is located directly on the beach where the refugees arrive. Refugees arrive on the beach cold, wet, scared and hungry. The Skala beach camp provides food, dry clothing and a place to rest for vulnerable refugees — often times families with young children— who cannot immediately move along to the larger camps.

Until I saw it for myself, like most people, I was under the impression that the government and NGOs had the situation under control. What I witnessed was beyond horrific. The government and NGOs are not doing enough to meet basic human needs of food and shelter. They are NOT at the landing sites and don’t supply food and shelter until people register, which can take several days.

Photo of the Syrian family that I helped off the boat on my first day in Lesvos.

Photo of the Syrian family that I helped off the boat on my first day in Lesvos.

Often times, the food distributed by this camp and food provided by other volunteer organizations is the only food that the refugees will get for several days until they are registered at the main camps in Mytilene, about 30 miles away from Skala. At the time that I was there, the wait for registration was up to 4 days. It is therefore critical for the Skala camp to provide sufficient calories and nutrients, especially for the vulnerable children, before they leave Skala and face the trip to Mytilene and the subsequent wait for registration.

Photo taken by Linda Wassell, volunteer from Sweden, of the line for registration at Moria.

Photo taken by Linda Wassell, volunteer from Sweden, of the line for registration at Moria.

In addition to providing basic necessities, the Skala beach camp provides essential medical services. The medical team, Michael-John Von Hörsten and other volunteers, routinely treat children suffering from hypothermia, wounds inflicted by Turkish smugglers and resuscitate people after boats have capsized.

The Skala beach camp is completely managed, operated and funded by an informal group of volunteers from around the world. This group operates solely on donations from friends, family and new volunteers like myself who just show up to help. Not only do the volunteers provide their time for free, they also purchase all of the food, blankets and other supplies needed out of pocket and relying on the small donations from family and friends.

Photo of Rayyan Harries, aka The Volunteer Cook, at Skala Camp, excited about the fruit delivery.

Photo of Rayyan Harries, aka The Volunteer Cook, at Skala Camp, excited about the fruit delivery.

Volunteers at Skala, making sandwiches and distributing food.

Volunteers at Skala, making sandwiches and distributing food.

he Skala camp is managed by people like Phoebus Demian and other Greek volunteers who refer to themselves as Solidarity. They are normal people like you and me, who’ve put their lives on hold to help with this crisis. They have very little by the way of resources, yet they give everything they have in terms of time and personal funds to make sure this small but critical camp runs smoothly. This team of volunteers from Athens are important because they are Greek and can therefore secure food at the best prices, make arrangements for delivery of donated goods to Skala, and manage the actual operations of the camp, i.e., remove trash, clean, answer questions from refugees and coordinating volunteers, etc.

The current arrangement is not sustainable as volunteers are running out of resources. To address this situation, I am working with Adam Rosser, a Washington DC based attorney and volunteer at the Skala site, and Fiona Gallagher-Payet, a Dublin, Ireland based technology professional and humanitarian, to formalize the donation process and provide enough resources to keep the Skala beach camp operating.

How You Can Help

1. Volunteer - If you have even four days that you can spend on the island, please consider going and volunteering at Skala. We need people for all types of activities - serving tea and food, changing kids out of wet clothes, helping people get safely off boats, shuttling families with small kids up the hill to the transit camp, etc. We particularly need people who speak Arabic and Farsi, although English is perfectly suitable.

2. Spread Awareness – Talk to family and friends, share Facebook posts, write to your local paper about the issue, write your representatives in government to demand more government assistance; contact large NGOs working in Greece (Save the Children and UNHCR) to ask them to provide assistance on the beach at Skala Sikamineas.

3. Donate – The Skala beach camp runs entirely on donations from volunteers and their families and friends who support them. Below is a list of items that we need to fund immediately:

Food

• We need a steady supply of propane to make tea and soup. It costs 750 euros for a 30 day supply of propane. I paid for a month of propane to last until the end of November. An additional 750 euros will pay for propane through the end of December.

• Skala camp requires a steady supply of bread, milk, cheese, apples and bananas for the next few months. At least 300 euros per day is needed to supply the necessary food items. We have secured an offer for a market to provide 100 kilograms of apples and bananas delivered daily to our camp for 150 euros a day. Therefore, 9,000 euros should be sufficient to provide food supplies through the end of November. We can reassess the amount based on the number of people coming through, but aid groups on the ground expect at least 500-1,000 refugees per day at Skala, even during the winter months.

Thermal Blankets - With winter coming and people coming off of the boats cold and wet, we need to provide a way for them to retain their heat. We have identified a supplier who can provide these lifesaving blankets in bulk for about 50 cents apiece. Since we have up to 1,000 people arriving each day at Skala, and the price of blankets is cheaper when purchased in quantity, we have determined that a 100 day supply of blankets is necessary at this time. The cost of a 100 day supply of emergency blankets is $50,000.

• IsoBox Converted Shipping Container - We have already ordered one of these for storage of food and donated clothing. We would like to order another one to serve as a changing room for the women to change out of their wet clothes. This is particularly important because many arrive wet and borderline hypothermic. The camp currently doesn’t have a secure place for the women to change, so many opt to stay in their wet clothes. We can get one used and transported to the Skala beach camp for 4500 euros.

Medical Supplies - There’s ongoing need for basic medical supplies such as antibiotics, first aid kits, basic surgical kits, etc.

Lodging for Volunteers - Members of the Solidarity team come from all over Greece and Rayyan Haries all the way from Malaysia. They are paying for their own lodging, travel and food. For 500 euros a month, we can sponsor a simple apartment for a number of them to live in--this includes rent, utilities and basic food for their kitchen. Initially, we need to provide this funding for one month. The need will be reevaluated after that.

Funding Ongoing Needs- The items above are the current critical needs. We will continue to monitor the ongoing needs to keep the Skala camp operating and will prioritize the funds according to the critical needs that arise.

To donate, go to SeaofSolidarity.org.

We, and the refugees we help, are all extremely grateful for any support you can provide. It's impossible to explain in words the satisfaction of being able to provide a warm blanket or hot meal to people who are so vulnerable and hurt by the situation they are in.

Maria Tran