A Drop in the Ocean

 

The most dangerous part of my trip to Lesvos was leafletting my neighbours in Lockleaze (my neighbourhood in Bristol). In my eagerness to put leaflets through their letter boxes requesting donations of clothes, I tripped and sprained my ankle. A week later, I showed my still hurting ankle to a volunteer paramedic from the United States in the Lighthouse Refugee Relief Camp on the north shore of Lesvos. It was a stormy day and the sea was too rough for the refugee boats to leave Turkey. So the camp was empty except for a team of volunteers working in the rain to get the camp ready the next flotilla of boats. And though a sprained ankle was inconvenient, the leafletting had resulted in a sizable donation of woolly hats, scarves, warm gloves and good wishes from my neighbours. I had wanted to involve my neighbours in my trip to give them the opportunity to be there with me in spirit, if not in person. When the doorbell rang and a neighbour I’d never met before handed me a beautiful hand-knitted hat, I knew I had succeeded.

Like many other Bristolians, I felt moved to go to Lesvos to add my drop to the ocean of compassion. I asked friends, family and neighbours for money and clothes to help the refugees and make the trip possible. Although I went as an individual, not connected to any NGO or organisation, I felt part of an international movement of people, a wave of humanity intent on offering humanitarian aid.

Before I went, I talked to Bristolians who had been to Lesvos and signed onto the invaluable Facebook page – Information Point for Lesvos Volunteers. After doing as much research as I could, I decided to offer my services to the Dirty Girls of Lesvos. Alison Terry-Evans set up Dirty Girls last summer and has devoted herself full time to fundraising, recruiting volunteers, liaising with NGOs, local people and the laundry as well as sorting the clothes and cleaning the beaches. My task was to pack the wet clothes into bags and pile them by the side of the road where they were picked up by a commercial laundry. Then bring the clean dry clothes to the clothing tents at the reception camps to be distributed to the next boatful of people. This work benefits the refugees who are at risk of hypothermia in their wet clothes, the Greek economy by giving business to a local laundry and the environment by keeping many tonnes of usable clothes out of landfill.

In January, it was colder in Lesvos than in Bristol. There was snow, torrential rain, fierce wind and an icy sea. There were also bright sunny days when the sea was calm though no warmer. On those days and nights, a steady stream of inflatable dinghies left the Turkish shore packed with people from Syria, Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Morrocco. Boat after boat after boat. An unstoppable flow of humanity, of people just like you and me.

Among the volunteers, everyone I met was doing the best they could. It wasn’t always efficient but it was effective in what we set out to do – offering dry clothes, a hot meal and a warm welcome to people in need of kindness. While kindness is what citizens of the world can offer, the refugees need something only world leaders acting co-operatively can offer – safe passage, settlement in a country with opportunities for jobs, housing and education, acknowledgement of the threat felt by many Europeans at the influx of refugees into their already divided societies and a ‘Global Marshall Plan  (The Global Marshall Plan: A National Security Strategy of Generosity and Care, Network of Spiritual Progressives) to bring peace and justice to the Middle East.

I can’t imagine that anyone who’s been to Lesvos would advocate anything other than a loving, compassionate, generous, humanitarian response to this crisis. With that in mind, I went to speak to my MP for Bristol North West, Charlotte Leslie. My hope was that her drop in the ocean would be a bit bigger than mine alone and being a Conservative MP, she might be closer to the seat of power than I will ever be. I was pleased to discover that Ms Leslie is well informed and passionate about this issue. She listened respectfully to my story and reassured me that she is personally committed to “ensure that Britain continues to be at the forefront of helping relieve this terrible humanitarian crisis.” I could see that these are not just hollow words – Ms Leslie has been to Sicily distributing basic essentials to people arriving by boat from North Africa, she went to Syria in 2011 and has visited refugee camps in Turkey. She described what Britain has been doing in both spending and in action to help these refugees, much of which was news to me. She confirmed that Britain has “a duty to care for and accommodate refugees as far as we are possibly able.” At this point I had a sinking feeling in my heart. Apparently we are able to accept only 20,000 refugees by 2020, not including any of those who have made or are still making the perilous journey to Lesvos. Her drop in the ocean, it turns out, is not very big after all.

As Ms Leslie pointed out to me, “this is a tragedy on a global scale and demands a multi-national global response.” True indeed but until world leaders awaken and start responding with compassion, it is the responsibility of individual citizens to add our own unique drops to the ocean of compassion and not sink into despair and cynicism. I take comfort from the words of Rabbi Tarfon, a second century rabbi, who taught: “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from it.” My task is to remind those of us living in safety and comfort that we are one humanity.

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