Young volunteers rally round children forced to flee fire at island camp

Published: 22 September 2016 15:34 CET

By Anita Dullard

Volunteers in Greece have been helping children get in touch with their loved ones after a blaze tore through a migration reception centre on the island of Lesvos on Monday.

Members of the Hellenic Red Cross youth team were on hand to support unaccompanied children and teenagers who were forced to evacuate Moria camp for temporary accommodation following the fire.  The volunteers provided phones and wifi so the youngsters  could call friends and family to let them know they were safe.

Student Giannis Giannakos signed up to volunteer with Red Cross last year at the beginning of the migration crisis.

“At that time, thousands of people were crossing daily from nearby Turkey, seeking safety in Europe,” the 20-year-old said.

“The situation has changed a lot since the EU Turkey agreement in March. There are far fewer people arriving, but those who are here are suffering with the uncertainty.”

Giannakos is part of a trend following the onset of the emergency. Young people signed up in droves to help migrants and refugees across Greece. Volunteer Manager for Hellenic Red Cross, Olga Antoniou, said:  “We’ve had such a huge show of support from the many young people who have registered with Red Cross since the crisis began. Volunteers are the backbone of our response.”

Giannakos says despite the economic hardship facing Greek communities, the crisis has put things into perspective for him.

“I first began volunteering when the crisis started last summer,” he said. “I realized our problems here in Greece are nothing  if we compare them with the problems of migrants and refugees. These people have lost everything. I know it sounds very sentimental but I wanted to help.”

Helping people keep in touch with their families is one of the key services provided by the Red Cross in Greece and across Europe

“When their relatives answer you can see immediately a broad smile of relief on the faces of the children who are travelling alone.”

Eleftheria Alexandri, 20, volunteers with the Hellenic Red Cross’s relief distribution team providing people with food, water, towels, tooth brushes and toothpaste, soap and shampoo.

“We try to keep the moral of migrants up, joking with them and trying to get a smile from the kids,” she explains. “But people are tired. They've been here for months and they don't know how long they'll be here or what happens next.”

Following the fire at the camp, there was widespread damage to the camp including to the tents and containers housing asylum seekers.

The Red Cross is currently working with other humanitarian organizations in Moria to provide emergency supplies, shelter and psychosocial support to the camp community, many of whom are already suffering from trauma sustained at home on and en route to Europe.

Giannakos, who has now been promoted to volunteer coordinator for  the Red Cross’ Restoring Family Links programme, supported by the International Committee of Red Cross, said: “If I’m proud of one thing, it’s the volunteers. They’re all unique and ready to respond, which is why we are able to provide real help to migrants and refugees.  We can’t exist without them.”

More than 12,500 people are awaiting their fate on the Greek islands. They arrived after the implementation of the EU-Turkey agreement and are waiting for decisions on whether they will be returned to Turkey and cannot head to the mainland. On average of 122 people continue to arrive to Greece every day, meaning centres across the islands are overcrowded.