A woman faced the journey alone looking after her seven children, to save them from the daily bombs in Syria. A family saw their two-month baby drown in the Aegean Sea during the crossing. The refugees welcomed in the “shelter”, the hotel rented by Caritas Hellas in the island of Lesbos to provide a safe refuge to vulnerable persons, are mostly families with children, pregnant women, people with disabilities, old people. They are prepared to do anything to find a safe haven in Europe, despite the difficulties linked to their situation. Syrians, Iraqis, Pakistanis, Afghans, Africans. Since the month of December Caritas has given hospitality to over 5000 people and it continues supporting over 3000 also by distributing sleeping bags, clothing, personal care products and for children. Another project will commence shortly in collaboration and with the financial support of the Caritas network. It’s the humanitarian assistance of the Catholic Church that Pope Francis will find in the island of Lesbos during his lightning trip of 16 April.
The symbol: a mountain of lifejackets. The Pope has accepted the invitation of the Ecumenical Patriarch of Constantinople Bartholomew I and the Archbishop of Athens and All Greece to visit together the Greek island where over half of the one million refugees have arrived following the Balkan route. They are all desperate people. However – by paradox – they are more fortunate than since past March 20, when the EU-Turkey deal came into force, have been slammed the doors of Europe in their faces, that sends back their refugee vessels (the first 200 have left from Lesbos last week) to a Country where none of them want to return. Pope Francis will be in Lesbos to give a sign of solidarity with a strong ecumenical bearing, along with a powerful message to European governments and a warning against indifference and selfishness, as was the case in the island of Lampedusa. Lesbos, the island mentioned in Greek mythology, whose 8000 thousands inhabitants that took action with an extraordinary display of solidarity (for this they have been nominated for the Nobel Prize) will be remembered by the rest of the world for the upsetting symbol of the “mountain of lifejackets”, an immense black and orange heap of discarded lifejackets, many of which failed to save the lives of those who were wearing hem (700 dead in 2015, 400 since the beginning of January), for they were made with cheap materials in clandestine Turkish factories. Many refugees didn’t even have enough money to buy the fake ones. Their feeble hopes of staying alive depended on two plastic bottles tied together with a sock.
“Horrifying conditions” in Moria’s refugee centre. The effects of the agreement on the Aegean islands are already being felt. Landings have plummeted by 80%, from 1676 to an average of 337 a day, also because of Frontex military vessels of patrolling the seas to intercept traffickers’ rafts. Humanitarian and human rights organizations have denounced the “horrifying conditions” of the two detention centres on the islands of Lesbos and Chia. Over 3150 people, including an unacceptably high number of children, are being kept in Moria’s detention centre in Lesbos, waiting for their individual positions to be examined before being sent back to Turkey. There are few – if any – doctors, not much food, no blankets or fittings to screen individual privacy in a centre that has exceeded its maximum capacity of 2700 people. The refugees living in a situation of uncertainty and anguish are lacking much-needed legal information, although many of them are filing asylum requests to Greece with the purpose of prolonging their stay.
The support of the Catholic Church. For Maritina Koraki, coordinator of Caritas Hellas humanitarian aids in Lesbos, who has been living in the island for over 14 years, the Pope’s visit is an extraordinary event, as it will draw global attention on a tragic situation. It’s the most serious humanitarian crisis in Europe since World War II. Lesbos’ population is sensitive to the ongoing emergency. Even grandmothers have come to bring feeding bottles to baby refugees. Many of the refugees come from families of migrants from Asia Minor and they know what it means to flee from your home Country. They also understand why the refugees have no intention of going back to Turkey. “They stayed there for one/two years, and have personally experienced the difficult living conditions.” The Pope’s visit, Koraki added, “is also a good opportunity to pool efforts with the Orthodox Church – remarked the Caritas coordinator – . Even those who are not Catholic are welcomed in our Centre. We must act together to face this tragic humanitarian crisis of enormous proportions.”
Among the guests of the Caritas shelter. In the meantime the guests of the Caritas Hellas shelter in Lesbos continue reposing their hopes in a future in Europe. They previously believed they had only a few days left and then they would continue their journey. Now, under the deal, they are bound to stay for months. In fact, the present 230 refugees have arrived prior to 20 March, – when the deal came into force – so they don’t risk being expelled to Turkey. They are trying the path of family reunifications, of relocation or humanitarian protection in Greece, since they are extremely vulnerable cases. “We informed them of the Pope’s visit – said Tonia Patrikiadou, responsible of the structure of Caritas Hellas -. Some of them were already aware because they read the news online. They are very happy.” Everyday life is made of bureaucratic procedures, support groups, psychological counselling, information on European lifestyle and values, even yoga lessons. 17 people work there on a full-time basis. “Thanks to spontaneous volunteering and cooperation with other NGOs we will try to implement the project with new activities”, he added. Tonia remembered with emotion the most dramatic stories, like the family who lost their two-month baby at sea: “They were with us five days, we arranged the funeral for the baby, we helped them with the support of psychologists. It was very hard. But we were able to live together this moment of huge pain, to make them feel less alone.” You have to see with your own eyes to truly understand.