In February 2016 I took the long trip from the US to Lesvos, Greece to be a part of the One Stroller Project that I had helped organize five months earlier. My niece, Judith, went with me and we met Anca in Lesvos and stayed with her and her family during our time there.
In the weeks leading up to the trip I worked with several wonderful volunteers to get supplies to take over. We packed five suitcases full of baby clothes, blankets, carriers, winter clothing and some small toys. In all it was over 200 pounds of items. We nearly missed our first flight due to some technical difficulties out of our control but once we finally settled on the place the reality of the trip began to sink in. For months I had been organizing stroller shipments and fundraising efforts as well as working alongside other moms to get all the logistics that a large undertaking like we had coordinated takes. Now I was preparing to see everything first hand and I wasn’t sure what that would be like.
Personal Story from Marie Hallam Beechy, Co-Founder and Director, Greece
Handicap Child: We handed a stroller out to one family who had a six year old child with a broken leg. Anca saw them alongside the road. She asked them to follow her and they went to the nearest shop where she purchased them a stroller. They had been carrying the child for many miles and the family was very grateful for the help.
Newborn Baby Ibrahim: Today Anca gave a stroller to Ibrahim who was one day old. He was born in Turkey and they came across the sea to Greece the very next day.
Safe Place to Sleep: Aris saw a family with a baby one night trying to make a place to sleep on the sidewalk. They were exhausted and planned to sleep out in the open for the night. He picked them up and drove them to the refugee checkpoint and gave them a stroller for their child.
Project One Stroller
Location: Lesbos, Greece
Challenge: Refugees continue to land on the beaches in Lesvos, Greece. They are fleeing the war and looking for a safe home for themselves and their families. They often have a long journey ahead and can only take with them what then can carry. Strollers are needed for these refugees continuing their journey to a safer place. These strollers are also used as beds for the children at the camp as space is limited and conditions are challenging.
Purpose: Project One Stroller provides strollers to refugee families with infants and toddlers to assist on their journey in Greece and to their final home. The strollers also serve as safe transportation and beds for the children. $65 purchases one reclining stroller - a perfect bed on wheels for their travels.
We landed in Lesvos Friday evening after 26 hours of travel. Saturday morning, we drove about 20 minutes to the main ferry port in Mytilene. It is important to understand the logistics of the refugee crisis as it unfolds on the island to have a clear picture of the journey as well as the needs of the refugees. The coast of Turkey is about 3-6 miles from the coast of Lesvos depending on the landing point. You can easily see Turkey from the island and it gave me a much clearer picture of why the refugees are willing to risk the journey. They can literally see the island from the time they get into the boats until they land. It’s never an unknown place. It seems like just a short boat ride away. Unfortunately, that short boat ride has killed thousands since the refugees began taking this route last year.
Once the refugees leave the coast of Turkey they begin to try to get to Greece. Often the boats do not have enough fuel to make the entire trip and have to send out a distress signal. If they are caught in the waters in Turkey, they are sent back to Turkey. They wait to get into the Greek waters before sending out a distress signal so they can be brought to Lesvos. At the present time, the Greek coast guard and Frontex are intercepting many of these refugee’s boats as they arrive in Greek waters to load them on safer ships and take them to the port in Lesvos. This is supposed to help decrease the incidences of drowning. One our first day in Lesvos I saw one of these ships arrive with hundreds of refugees. Many boats still land on the shores but a fair amount are intercepted.
After arriving on the island the refugees are required to register at a checkpoint in the refugee camps. I visited one of these camps near a popular landing site. The refuges usually have access to clean clothes, a meal and in some cases, medical services. This is much different than early in the crisis. Before the government got more organized and volunteers arrived, the refugees were walking between 30-50 miles to get to check-points on hilly terrain with little relief or aid offered. Increased co-ordination by the Greek government and the arrival of many NGO’s (non-governmental organizations) have made this a much safer and more fluid process.
After registering the refuges return to the port to get on the ferry to Athens. This ferry run every evening and takes about 10 hours to reach the port in Athens. Sometimes there is more than one ferry but there are also times when the water is rough and the ferry does not run at all. As a result, the port in Mytilene becomes a waiting place for refugees.
Before entering the port, we went to the store in Mytilene where Anca had been purchasing strollers for quite a while. We paid for 42 strollers and loaded five of those in the back of her small SUV along with baby carriers and a suitcase full of items. It was around eleven in the morning when we arrived in the port. Even at this early time, families had begun arriving to make the wait for the ferry that was due to depart that evening. The first thing I noticed was a little girl playing with a balloon and a stick. There were many small children with their families waiting in the shade of bushes or sleeping on the ground. We gave away the first three strollers immediately to families with very small children. We gave each of them blankets and warm winter clothes from the supplies that had been donated. We also gave away the 3 ziploc bags full of toys away within 15 minutes to young children in the port. The children were so excited to receive the toys and the mothers were just as excited to see their children’s faces light up. One mother had her little girl come over and give Judith and I a kiss on the cheek.
We drove to the other side of the port with the remaining two strollers and immediately I saw a mom with a very distraught child. I went over to talk to her and the little girl just couldn’t stop crying. The mother spoke very little English but told us that the little girl was crying because she was unable to sleep. As a mom I know that a nap is very important to keep an infant or toddler in a good mood. I also know that the circumstances have to be right for that nap to happen. In my observations most of these children were sleeping on the concrete on top of a thin blanket or in their parent’s arms. The noisy atmosphere and bright sun are not conducive to a nap. The value of the strollers is that the child suddenly has a darker and somewhat quieter place to rest and the movement can help facilitate that as well. This family was especially grateful to receive the stroller and we left a small snuggly toy with the little one as well.
After finding a family with twin boys to give the last stroller to we drove to a landing spot where volunteers are constantly watching the waters for arriving boats. We did not see any boats land but the piles of life vests and deflated rubber boats were testament to the refugees that had arrived earlier in the day.
The afternoon was spent buying toys at a local toy store, grabbing a bite for lunch and reloading strollers for a return to the port. We drove back to the port around dusk with fifteen strollers and six baby carriers as well as baby supplies. As soon as we pulled in it was very clear that giving those items away was going to be very easy. The port was full of people waiting to board the evening ferry to Athens. I would estimate that there were more than 1,000 people there and the majority of them were families. Within minutes of parking two vehicles and opening our trunks we were swarmed with mothers and children.
We gave out 15 strollers and 6 baby carriers in 20 minutes. We gave every baby blanket and hat and pair of socks we bought in vehicles. As soon as the strollers were given out the moms asked for carriers. I promised the last two carriers to two moms who were together with small children. As I was walking to the trunk to get them out a young, small mom with a baby came over desperately gesturing to ask for a stroller. I shook my head no and she gestured to ask if we had a baby carrier. Again I told her no and it was then that I saw the tears begin to form. She tried to ask again in a different way but all I could do was shake my head. She began crying and I did what any other momma would have done, I hugged her and cried too. Cried for her situation and the fact that we literally had nothing left to give her. In Greece the shops are only open certain times of the day and it’s not possible to just go buy another stroller or carrier. I would have if I could. Instead, all I could do was cry most of the way back to the house and wish I could have helped that young mom.
We spent much of Saturday evening organizing our supplies and planning for the next day. I fell asleep at 11 and woke up at 3. There was rain and strong winds. I wanted to sleep but all I could think about was refugees making the crossing at night. I wondered if they were safe and if they were warm. It was cold outside and we had seen people sleeping in the port. The current situation makes it easier for refugees to cross at night to avoid Turkish Coast Guard and this also makes the journey a little more dangerous.
On Sunday we drove the 30+ miles to the north coast where many of the boats have been landing. This used to be the path that refuges walked. Now better transportation methods make the journey a little easier for them. Along the north coast there are many NGO camps of volunteers set up. The Spanish lifeguards who are pulling the boats in and getting the refugees to safety. The medical teams, food supply teams and rescue teams. All of these watching the water to alert when a boat approaches. The thing that struck me most about this area was the rocky coastline that the boats will land on. I saw paths up the side of hills that were barely passable that the refugees had gone through. There were shoes and life vests and clothing items left as a reminder that this was part of the difficult journey.
Our journey Sunday took us back to the port and the many families in need there. The store owner met us at the port with 20 strollers and we had an entire suitcase of supplies as well as a couple of bags of toys and several baby carriers. Upon arrival in the port we saw a young boy vomiting by the side of the road. His family asked me to come over when they saw the strollers and motioned to a baby sleeping on a blanket on the sidewalk. I gave them a stroller and more blankets and the mother tried to ask for help for her son. Luckily I had seen a Doctors Without Borders Mobile Office nearby so I took them there for evaluation. We met a couple from Afghanistan who were traveling to Germany with their 1 month old twin girls. The babies were bundled warmly but you still have to recognize the desperation a family must have to travel with children so young. One father brought his son over to see if we had any winter hats or gloves for him. The little boy was about 8 or 9 and had a broken leg. He was also mentally handicapped and another group had just given him a wheelchair. Prior to that his father had been carrying him. I was so sad to have to tell the father we didn’t have clothes for his son but we really only had baby and toddler items. As I was looking through the suitcase for another item I happened to see a stretchy hat I had thrown in at the last minute from my own son. It was bright blue and I grabbed it quickly and flagged the father down. I offered him the hat and sure enough it fit. I also found a pair of gloves for the little boy and gave him a container of bubbles. The smile on the child’s face as well as the father’s face made my whole day. Each and every family we encountered were so thankful for any help we could offer.
We handed out as much as we could in the port and then began driving through the surrounding streets. We gave a stroller and supplies to a very young mom with three children. I recognized that many of the mothers were just teenagers, barely able to care for themselves on a journey like this much less a baby. We gave out several carriers to a large family traveling together. We also saw many extended families in groups in the port and surrounding areas. Then our final stroller went to a young father who appeared to be traveling all by himself with his young daughter. He and the child were dirty and he was thin. He kept thanking us and expressing how grateful he was. He was carrying very little with him and you could obviously see he was struggling. As we began to pull away he made a motion to ask if we had food but the surrounding traffic and lack of immediately available resources forced us to only shake our heads and drive on. I had the hardest time getting his face out of my head that night. I wished I could go back and take him and his daughter and help get them to a better and safer place. Where they weren’t hungry or cold or lonely. Where war wasn’t forcing them from their home. Where they felt they had a future.
Our final stop was PIPKA, a refugee camp near the airport. This camp was housing around 70 refugees at the time and is very focused on helping children heal from the trauma of their experiences through art therapy. I toured the camp and saw the site where we will be helping to build a playground in the next few months. I also got to meet a refugee who is currently residing at PIPKA and has begun to earn a living designing handbags from the life vests found in abundance on the beaches of Lesvos. The driveway of the camp is lined in orange life vests that spell out SAFE PASSAGE. This is a grim reminder that people still risks their lives every day to see safety and a future and some never get past the point of the Aegean Sea.
This trip brought a whole new awareness about the refugee crisis as a whole to me. I was reminded of the harsh reality that every day, people are dying in their quest to reach a safer existence. That hunger and coldness and loneliness can be constant companions on their journey. It left me with a great empathy for the mothers trying to keep their children warm and safe and fed and alive in their quest for a better life. Most of all it showed me that there is a great need for compassion and action to help the Syrian and Iraqi refugees. For me to continue to do what I can to make a difference each day in the lives of these people and look for ways to make their journey a little easier and show them that there is still good in the world.
stories that touch the heart