Who We Are
Lighthouse Relief is a Swedish NGO with a branch based in Greece, registered as the Greek NGO Lighthouse Relief Hellas. We are operating with skilled volunteers from all over the world. We provide relief to refugees that are stranded in mainland Greece and those still arriving on the Greek island of Lesvos. On Lesvos, we also support the local residents in restoring their beautiful island through our Lighthouse ECO Relief clean-up project.
Our mission is to provide immediate crisis response, as well as long term relief, for vulnerable groups such as women and children in a dignified, respectful and empowering way. Our ambition is to find a response that simultaneously improves the conditions for both refugees and local actors.
The office for Lighthouse Relief Hellas is located in Athens. From here we support our current Lighthouse Relief field operations in Greece. We are also a small team in Stockholm, Sweden, including our board who are experienced in humanitarian aid operations as well as crisis coordination in response to both natural and man-made disasters.
The organisation was formed by volunteers on Lesvos to better respond to the massive humanitarian crisis unfolding there in September 2015. The assistance we have given has been able through hundreds of volunteers efforts, backed up by the generous support from our donors.
Read on to get the full story on our organisation, how it started, how we responded, and how the situation for refugees in Greece has shaped what we are today.
The Lighthouse Story
September 2015 — Volunteers in Skala Sikamineas, Lesvos organising themselves, taking the name Lighthouse Relief.
October 2015 — Opening the Lighthouse reception camp and starting the Korakas night watch operation.
February 2016 — Starting official partnership with Danish Refugee Council in Moria registration site.
March 2016 — EU-Turkey deal and closed borders — leaving Moria detention center and expanding to mainland Greece.
April 2016 — Setting up programs for vulnerable populations in official refugee camps on the Greek mainland.
May 2016 — Upscaling and re-launching our clean-up of Lesvos — introducing Lighthouse ECO Relief and Upcycling
September 2016 — Registering our Greek branch as the Greek NGO Lighthouse Relief Hellas.
April 2017 — Currently active on Lesvos and Ritsona and Filippiada camps in mainland Greece.
In September 2015, the number of arriving refugees on lesvos increased dramatically
War and conflicts in the Middle Eastern countries forced people to flee, and no safe passage to reach Europe was provided. Local residents on the Greek islands were struggling to support the extreme amount of arriving refugees, simultaneously dealing with their own financial crisis. Volunteers from all over the world started arriving to the island after seeing reports about the humanitarian crisis in press and on social media. The suffering had reached Europe, what was needed was hands, and it was possible for us to leave our homes and help.
This is when the Lighthouse story started.
We were a small group of independent volunteers who all met in September 2015 in Skala Sikamineas, a tiny fishing village housing 153 permanent residents on the North Eastern shore of Lesvos — with thousands of arriving refugees every day by rubber dinghies.
By this time, no NGOs, medical groups or rescue teams were present. Fishermen were out at sea at night rescuing people from drowning, and local residents were doing what they could to help the constant stream of people arriving on the shores, needing information, shelter, transportation, dry clothes, medical attention, water and nutrition. The roads between the Northern coast and the registration camp Moria were full of people, including families with infants, the elderly and injured, all walking every day, a walk that took up to three hot days and three cold nights.
We quickly organised ourselves to give better support and took the name Lighthouse Relief inspired by the lighthouse in Korakas where we hiked night after night to find people in need. In the end of September, Fazeela Selberg Zaib, Gunnar Björklund and Johan Mellström, three of the volunteers from the team with a background in humanitarian aid, emergency response and camp construction returned to Sweden and founded Lighthouse Relief. The organisation was officially born on the 28th of September 2015. Fazeela, Gunnar and Johan are still members of the Lighthouse Board today.
Our main focus at the start in September 2015 was to provide coordination and a structured emergency response to the area and to support the most vulnerable people. We provided shelter, nutrition, water, emergency medical support, coordinated boat landings and organised transportation. Alongside a small number of volunteer medical groups, we started up the medical coordination in the area and held meetings with all present agencies to set up protocols for Mass Casualty Incidents.
Our relationship with the local community grew stronger every day as we worked side by side day and night, and we promised early on to stay as long as we were needed. That included restoring the island where the shoreline was now bright orange from life jackets.
Creating the Lighthouse Camp — and the Lighthouse Spirit
October 2015 was an extremely difficult month for refugees, local residents and volunteers. The island had its highest amount of arrivals ever, 135 063 people arrived on Lesvos according to UNHCR statistics. This month will also be painfully remembered by all volunteers and residents of Lesvos for all the tragic deaths at sea. Refugees arriving at night were stranded in the area, and so were the hundreds of people not getting a place on the few existing buses. The need for immediate emergency aid and shelter on the shore increased every day, and we were driven by a desire to give a warm, dignified welcome for refugees arriving on Lesvos.
We secured private land outside the village of Skala Sikamineas to build our own reception camp and later on First Aid Station, and this is where the "Lighthouse spirit" was born. The camp grew organically with all volunteers tirelessly contributing to improving it, whilst welcoming and supporting arriving guests day and night. As winter arrived, and the nights grew colder, the threat of more mass casualties due to hypothermia increased. We expanded our medical facilities and many lives were saved by the Lighthouse medical team working side by side with other medical teams in the area.
During the year that has passed, we have housed thousands of refugees arriving at night, provided clothes, water, nutrition, toilets and wash facilities, dignity and a warm welcome in our Lighthouse camp on the shore. It is currently the only functional first reception camp on Lesvos even though boats are still arriving, and winter with hypothermic cases is once again getting closer.
Developing the Watch Operation at the lighthouse in Korakas
Already in September 2015, local fishermen reached out for help supporting arriving and stranded people at Korakas, a remote shoreline of sharp cliffs. Perched on top is a lighthouse that would attract boats at night, resulting in many tragedies. Unfortunately the isolated place also attracted people taking advantage of the refugees vulnerabilities. For these reasons, the place needed our presence.
In October, we started regular shifts, staying there every night to help people land in the complete darkness. Since it was so difficult getting up from the rocky shores, and being so far from medical help, we recruited volunteers with experience in first aid and search and rescue. Our teams also acted as guides along the small coastal paths through countless olive groves. Before we arrived, refugees risked walking for many hours without finding civilisation and support.
We still have a night watch team in Korakas — now focused on the watch operation of spotting boats at this high point with excellent view over the sea and coastline. We alarm Coastguard and rescue teams to guide the boats to safety and contact our landing team and reception camp to be prepared to receive them.
The lighthouse in Korakas is a troubled spot, but also one of the most stunning places on the island. It also holds a special significance to us, as it gave us the inspiration for the name and symbol of our organisation.
Entering Moria registration site — leaving Moria detention center
Moria was the only registration site on Lesvos where all arriving refugees had to register before continuing their journey north into Europe. After informally supporting Moria with volunteers during the winter months, we started an official partnership with Danish Refugee Council at the end of February 2016 when asked to immediately start 24/7 shifts.
Our duties included welcoming people, allocating shelter, and giving them the resources and information they needed in a very difficult environment. Our main focus was on the family compound, where we ensured that all of their needs were met. We brought the ‘Lighthouse touch’ from our own camp to the grim atmosphere in Moria with beautification projects and friendly faces. As part of this mission, we built benches for people to relax on, brought in decorations, a garden and various activities for the children. We also built ramps all over the camp to make it more accessible for disabled people.
On the 20th of March 2016, a new deal between EU and Turkey regarding refugees was implemented. Less than 48 hours after it was reached, Moria was emptied of both refugees, NGO staff and our volunteers and the registration site turned into a detention centre. All new arrivals of refugees are detained on the island since the agreement.
As a humanitarian organisation working with volunteers we faced one of our most difficult decisions so far — to return to the detention center and assist those who would now need our services even more — or to leave and refuse to work within a detention facility, as detention clearly breaks humanitarian principles.
In our month of 24/7 presence, our volunteers hard work and big hearts made Moria a more humane place for people who were in desperate need of a bit of humanity. The situation today, with thousands of people still detained on Lesvos in atrocious conditions and new people arriving daily by boat creates a huge amount of suffering for both refugees and local residents.
Closed borders — Expanding to mainland Greece
On the Greek mainland, the borders suddenly closed on the 22d of February 2016 for all refugees except those of Syrian and Iraqi nationality. Two weeks later, they closed completely, leaving over 45 000 people stranded in Greece in terrible, unsafe conditions.
Lighthouse Relief’s focus on assisting vulnerable people wherever the need was greatest had us immediately moving many of our resources to the mainland in early March, while still keeping a presence on Lesvos for arriving refugees and our environmental clean-up of the island.
In the Idomeni border crossing and the villages, forests and gas stations in the area, makeshift camps housed 15 000 people in miserable conditions, all hoping the borders would soon open as they had suddenly, without warning, closed.
Our organisation had experience in providing shelter, and had a focus on the most vulnerable populations of refugees. We supported the UNHCR in putting up winterised tents and found and relocated vulnerable families to live in them. We also mobilised cleaning teams in Idomeni to prevent the spread of disease, distributed emergency aid and emergency nutrition for small children and babies at EKO Station. We also started working on protection, leading us to expanding our operations to the official camps in order to prepare for the arrival of refugees that were going to be evacuated from Idomeni and Eko, and make sure they would be able to get basic services for survival.
Moving in to the official camps and setting up our programs
In the end of March 2016, there was a constant threat of the make-shift camps soon being cleared and we decided to focus on improving the permanent goverment camps by setting up services for the most vulnerable populations of residents. Just as with the make-shift camps, these camps were — and are — unsafe, inhumane, often even lacking many basic needs like running water and winterised shelter, and they didn’t have services for vulnerable people or basic protection. Governments and bigger International organisations were not able to cope in a coordinated way in order to meet the needs of the 50 000 stranded refugees. We had to help even if it was on a minimal scale compared to the needs.
We started working in Katsikas and Ritsona camps, and after we were able to meet some of the immediate needs like starting huge clean-ups, carrying out a census or setting up wifi, we defined what Lighthouse Relief could focus on in the mainland camps within our field of expertise and our mission to support the most vulnerable groups.
After assessing the situation, infants, children, women and disabled faced most hardships in the camps.
Many infants and babies suffered from malnutrition and the sporadic distribution of baby formula could be harmful. The food provided in the camps was not sufficient for anyone, which was especially sensitive for pregnant mothers. We developed a program for mothers and babies, helping with re-lactation, nutrition and food supplements.
Following a Child Protection Risks Assessment in Ritsona camp, we created a Child Friendly Space project under our Child protection in Emergencies Programme which provides a safe place where children can learn, play, receive psychosocial support and gain a sense of normality after the difficulties they have faced. Our Female Friendly Spaces are closed-off areas for women and adolescent girls that offers some rare privacy and creates a safe communal area. The FFS has leisure activities for women and social and cultural activities including language classes and women’s health workshops. This project is now part of our Gender Based Violence Programme. Our protection team is now engaging in formal and informal partnerships with INGOs with a protection mandate, with whom we work with as implementing partners and/or collaborate closely to provide and refer individuals to appropriate services through a thorough follow up and monitoring.
We have also duplicated our constructions program from Lesvos to the mainland, working with the camp residents to build the structures for our spaces and other communal spaces, as well as making the camps more accessible for disabled and elderly.
We are now active in several camps on the Greek mainland — constantly aiming to improve our services and offering them to residents in more camps.
Re-launching the Lighthouse ECO Relief and Upcycling
Since the start of 2015, over 600 000 life jackets and 10 000 rubber dinghies have been discarded on the shores of Lesvos due to the lack of a safe passage for refugees to reach Europe. This created a huge environmental problem, and the island depends on the tourist industry, and clean beaches. As the shores piled up with heavy rubber and life jackets, they also became more and more difficult to land on. The remote, rocky beaches unaccessable by cars were filled with life jacket, the bright orange colour unfortunately attracting new arrivals on these dangerous spots. Already in November 2015 we started cleaning unaccessable beaches with the help of local fishermen.
In May 2016 we up-scaled our environmental clean-up project on Lesvos into Lighthouse ECO Relief and Upcycling. At this time we saw a drop in arrivals on Lesvos, but kept a presence to monitor the situation and this was the perfect timing to focus even more on restoring the island. Unfortunately, most of the discarded material is impossible to recycle. To reduce the waste, and raise money for our organisation, we have started an upcycling project where as much waste as possible is turned in to new, functional objects like bags, key chains and wallets.
The upcycling workshops are open to everyone, and we often have local residents joining in, everyone using their creativity to turn something that used to be a symbol for tragedy into beautiful pieces full of new life.
Lighthouse Relief, Swedish organisation: 802503-7444 — Lighthouse Relief Hellas, Greek VAT: 997083101