CalAid Barcelona volunteers Sam Mednick, Anna Oje, Sandy Reay and Hettie Daniel (left to right)
“They have no humanity,” said Nassir Maser, slumping into a plastic chair, as he explained what brought him to Pikpa; one of several refugee camps on the Greek island of Lesbos. “I saw smugglers beat women and children on the way over,” he sighed. “They’re awful people.”
A makeshift refuge for the island’s most vulnerable arrivals, Pikpa takes in women, children, injured people and ‘sea-break’ victims—those who’ve lost loved ones during the perilous crossing from Turkey.
Maser came to the camp to support his sister, who two weeks earlier had watched two of her sons, as well as her husband, fall overboard and drown, leaving her alone with her 10-year-old daughter and baby. He hadn’t planned on making the journey this soon, but when he got the call he came as soon as he could.
“It was too dangerous to bring my family by sea,” he said, explaining that he left his three daughters and wife back in Iraq. “I wasn’t afraid because I was alone and I can swim, but if you have your family with you, it must be terrifying.” Maser plans on sending for them once he’s settled, hopefully in Ireland.
Maser’s story is all too common, especially amongst those staying at Pikpa. During the worst ‘sea-break peak’ in 2015, the camp housed over 50 families, all of whom had lost people during the extremely cold and dangerous three-hour journey from Turkey’s shores.
Pikpa, which used to be a summer camp for disabled children, now stands as testament to the good will of humanity. Started by a team of locals in 2012, the camp is run entirely by volunteers from all over the world. With the capacity to house around 200 people, Pikpa is somewhat of an oasis on an island that has now become the receiving centre for hundreds of thousands of Syrian, Iraqi and Afghan refugees, escaping the brutal realities of their homelands. It’s unique to Lesbos in that it focuses on longer-term stays with an emphasis on sustainability.
“There is more of a community feel here,” said Sandy Reay, CalAid Barcelona’s person on the ground. “Pikpa attracts the right people and I feel like the kind of volunteers that need to be here are drawn in.”
Volunteers like Sandy Reay—Barcelona business owner, successful producer and long-time humanitarian, who chose Pikpa as her partner in Lesbos, and who recently donated a large shipment of aid, for which she received contributions from people all across Spain.
A British native and Catalan resident of 10 years, Reay’s no stranger when it comes to humanitarian work. Having run her own charities in South Africa, the 42-year-old said it was time to do something about the refugee crisis. “Like so many people, I knew that there’d been a lot going on over the years. And after seeing pictures of dead kids and dead bodies, I said to myself, ‘Right [we] definitely have to do something because this is insane’.”
Four months later, in December 2015, she had arranged for a 35-tonne, 45-foot-long container, filled with 350 boxes of clothing, hygiene products, tools and materials, to be donated to Pikpa Camp and distributed around the island. Having partnered with CalAid UK, a grassroots organisation based in England, Reay created and spearheaded the newly formed CalAid Barcelona and, together with three other volunteers, flew to Lesbos in order to receive, organise and distribute the shipment.
“The response from the city and around the country was amazing,” said Reay, recalling how CalAid Barcelona raised €4,500 in less than a month and how donations trickled in from as far away as Cádiz. With over 100 people contacting her daily during the first week, Reay said she initially had to use her own office to store everything until she could find another space.
Now, the container that took a country to put together, sits at the edge of Pikpa and is being used as a storage space for clothes and other items. The short-term goal is to add another container and turn them both into a rooftop terrace for the camp’s residents to enjoy; an idea that has been well received.
“I’m so grateful to people who have left their own families and kids to come and help us,” said Maser as he admires the new container.
And when it comes to help, Reay sees this as only the beginning. She is currently making trips back and forth between Barcelona and Lesbos, helping to raise money for a dome, which will be used at Pikpa for workshops and trainings. She has also helped to organise a group of volunteers to assist with a warehouse on the island, and she’s partnered with the World Wide Tribe, a grassroots organisation with projects around the world who have taken an interest in Pikpa. The aim, said Reay, is to continue fostering relationships with Pikpa and other camps on the island in order to make things as sustainable and efficient as possible.
“This whole experience, especially being here, it changes you in the sense that you think differently about things,” she reflected. “It puts things into perspective and makes me want to continue even more. Before I came out [to Lesbos], I was thinking, ‘Oh maybe this might be it, I’ll wrap it up.’ Having been here, I realise that it’s only the beginning. I couldn’t stop now."
HOW TO GET INVOLVED
If you want to volunteer in Lesbos, you can find everything you need to know about it here.
There are several projects on the go in Pikpa and around the island. You can donate to a specific initiative or in general. For more information contact Sandy: email@example.com