Compassion and efficiency on Cyprus

Published: 5 September 2006 0:00 CET

Nora Hadjisotiriou

The first to receive a crying baby, to give the child a toy, to give her mother a rest, the first sympathetic face, the first kind word, the first glass of water. That is how the Red Cross will be remembered in Cyprus by the tens of thousands who fled there from Lebanon.

As UN peacekeepers move into southern Lebanon, and the evacuees return home, Red Cross volunteers in Cyprus are now getting on with their own lives again.

They responded en masse to the call for help, after the Middle East crisis began, helping to welcome and comfort well over sixty thousand people, equivalent to nearly ten per cent of the island’s population.

Hundreds of Cypriot volunteers set up relief points at the ports of Larnaca and Limassol and airports of Larnaca and Paphos where the evacuees all passed through, fleeing the war.

The volunteers kept the relief points going 24 hours a day, seven days a week. On single days they coped with ten thousand arrivals and departures.

“The volunteers were very well organised, enthusiastic and dedicated,” says Tore Svenning from the International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies. “There are many human stories.”

Many of the evacuees have been children, who got special attention and support from the volunteers. They distributed 22,560 jars of children’s food, a thousand toys and 15,122 bars of chocolate. Not forgetting six hundred toothbrushes.

Some of the children came alone.

“A young girl, about 12, was unaccompanied because her mother didn’t want to leave her husband behind in Lebanon. A Red Cross volunteer gave her a mobile phone to contact her parents…the whole area was lit up with her smile.”

In fact, one of the most welcome services was that offer of a free telephone.
The Cyprus Red Cross bought mobile phones and local telecommunications companies donated free time.

There were those who lost their entire families in the shelling.
Tore Svenning recalled: “A young 22 year old Lebanese man arrived from Syria. He only had one remaining relative, a brother in Sweden. A volunteer took him home for a bath, a short sleep, a little food.”

They also organised multi-lingual volunteers to be on hand and set up stations right next to passport control. They had wheelchairs available for the sick and the elderly.

This was very important, as many of the evacuees were the citizens of other countries, in Lebanon for work or family reasons. The Cyprus Red Cross supported them too, often in close contact with the home Red Cross or Red Crescent Societies of the people themselves and with the assistance of the International Federation.

At another level, the Cyprus Red Cross also helped the Civil Defence run four camps, at the Vergina School and Zenon Athletic Centre in Larnaca and at the Achna Dasaki, where the repatriated were temporarily housed until their departure to their own countries. The Red Cross provided snacks and something to drink as well as soap, shampoo and towels for a quick shower.

Even now relief continues coming in and the volunteers are sorting out clothing in case it is needed again. Either by those arriving in Cyprus or if requested by the Lebanese Red Cross or the Lebanese Government.

The Cypriot volunteers have received and are still receiving compliments and “thank-you’s” not only from the people voluntarily repatriated – but from foreign Embassies and governments. They, just like the authorities in Cyprus, know that they can depend on the Red Cross to look after the humanitarian side of the operation, allowing them to pay more attention to other aspects.

The Cyprus Red Cross is not a member of the International Federation as such, but is a properly constituted national society formed under a Red Cross Law, and working in strict conformity with the Fundamental Principles of the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement.