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 who are stranded in mainland Greece and to 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, to 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 also have a small team in Stockholm, Sweden, including our board who are experienced in humanitarian aid operations and 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 made possible by the efforts of hundreds of volunteers, as well as by the generous support of 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, band together and adopt the name Lighthouse Relief
October 2015 — Lighthouse reception camp opens and Korakas night watch operation gets underway
February 2016 — Official partnership set up with Danish Refugee Council in Moria registration site
March 2016 — EU-Turkey statement and border closure — LHR leaves Moria detention centre and expands to mainland Greece
April 2016 — LHR sets up programmes for vulnerable people in Ritsona, Filippiada and Katsikas refugee camps on the Greek mainland
May 2016 — Lighthouse ECO Relief and Upcycling operations are launched on Lesvos
September 2016 —Greek branch is registered as Lighthouse Relief Hellas
June 2017 — Active on Lesvos and in Ritsona camp in mainland Greece
In September 2015, the number of arriving refugees on Lesvos increased dramatically
War and conflicts in the Middle East forced people to flee, and no safe passage to Europe was provided. Greek island residents were struggling to cope with the high number of refugee arrivals, while also dealing with their own country’s financial crisis. Volunteers from all over the world started arriving on the island after seeing reports about the humanitarian crisis in the press and on social media. The suffering had reached Europe’s shores, and more helping hands were badly needed.
This is when the Lighthouse story started.
We met in September 2015 as a small group of independent volunteers working in Skala Sikamineas, a tiny fishing village with just 153 permanent residents on the North Eastern shore of Lesvos, where thousands of refugees were arriving every day in rubber dinghies.
No NGOs, medical groups or rescue teams were present at the time. Fishermen took to sea at night to rescue people from drowning, while local residents did what they could to help the many thousands of people landing on the shore who were badly in need of information, shelter, transportation, dry clothes, medical attention, food and water. The roads connecting the Northern coast to the Moria registration camp were packed with people, including families with infants and elderly and injured individuals. Every day, new arrivals would set off on a walk that could last up to three hot days and three cold nights.
We quickly coordinated our 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 late September, Fazeela Selberg Zaib, Gunnar Björklund and Johan Mellström, three 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 beginning was to offer coordination and structured emergency response to the area, and to support the most vulnerable cases. We provided shelter, nutrition, water and emergency medical support as well as coordinating boat landings and organising transportation. Working with a small number of volunteer medical groups, we instituted medical coordination in the area and held meetings with all agencies on site to set up protocols for Mass Casualty Incidents.
Our relationship with the local community grew stronger by the day. We worked side by side day and night, and we promised early on to stay as long as was needed. Our commitment extended to restoring the island’s shores, piled high with orange life jackets, to their former beauty.
Creating the Lighthouse Camp — and the Lighthouse Spirit
October 2015 was an extremely difficult month for refugees, local residents and volunteers. The island witnessed a record number of arrivals: according to UNHCR statistics, 135,063 people arrived on Lesvos. This month also conjures forth painful memories for all volunteers and residents of Lesvos due to the many tragic deaths at sea. Refugees arriving by night were stranded in the area, and so were the hundreds of people unable to find a place on the few buses that were running. 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 to refugees arriving on Lesvos.
We secured private land outside the village of Skala Sikamineas to build our own reception camp and, later, a First Aid Station. This is where the "Lighthouse spirit" was born. The camp grew organically, with volunteers tirelessly contributing to its improvement whilst welcoming and supporting 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, who worked side by side with other medical teams in the area.
Since then, we have housed thousands of refugees who arrived at night and 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 continue to arrive.
Developing the Watch Operation at the lighthouse in Korakas
Back in September 2015, local fishermen reached out for help in supporting new arrivals stranded at Korakas, a remote shoreline of sharp cliffs. Perched at the highest point is a lighthouse, which, rather than serving as a warning, had the adverse effect of luring boats onto the rocks, resulting in many tragedies. The isolated nature of the place also appealed to people who wished to take advantage of the refugees’ vulnerability. Our presence was therefore strongly needed.
In October, we set up regular shifts, keeping watch every night to help people land safely. Since it was so difficult to climb up the rocky shores, and with medical help so far away, 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 were often forced to walk for many hours before reaching population centres and support.
We still have a night watch team in Korakas — now focused on spotting boats from this vantage point that affords an excellent view over the sea and coastline. We alert the Coastguard and rescue teams who 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 holds special significance for us, as it provided 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 refugees had to register on arrival before continuing their journey north into Europe. After informally supporting Moria with volunteers during the winter months, we entered into an official partnership with the Danish Refugee Council at the end of February 2016 and were asked to start 24/7 shifts immediately.
Our duties included welcoming people, allocating shelter, and providing the resources and information needed in a very challenging environment. Our main focus was on the family compound, where we ensured that all needs were swiftly met. We brought the ‘Lighthouse touch’ from our own camp to the far more uninviting atmosphere of Moria, introducing beautification projects and friendly faces. As part of this mission, we built benches for people to relax on, brought in decorations, planted a garden and devised various activities for the children. We also built ramps around 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.
During the month when we were present 24/7, our volunteers’ hard work and kindness made Moria a better 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 22 February 2016 for all refugees except Syrian and Iraqi nationals. 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 maintaining a presence on Lesvos to support new arrivals and continue 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 working with highly vulnerable cases. 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 and distributed emergency aid and nutrition to small children and babies at the EKO Station. We started working on protection, expanding our operations to the official camps to prepare for the arrival of refugees evacuated from Idomeni and EKO, and make sure they were guaranteed basic services.
Moving in to the official camps and setting up our programs
By the end of March 2016, the makeshift camps were under constant threat of being cleared, and we decided to focus on improving the permanent government camps by setting up services for the most vulnerable residents. As is the case with the makeshift camps, these camps were — and are — unsafe, inhumane, often even lacking basic services like running water and winterised shelter, and basic protection for vulnerable people. Governments and bigger international organisations were not able to set up a coordinated response to meet the needs of the 50,000 stranded refugees. We had to help, even on a small scale.
We started working in Katsikas and Ritsona camps in mainland Greece. At first, we focused on meeting immediate needs such as clean-up operations, a census and Wi-Fi. As our presence became more established, we began to define longer-term operations for Lighthouse Relief, in accordance with our mission to support vulnerable groups.
After assessing the situation, it became apparent that infants, children, women, disabled people and youth faced the most hardships in the camps.
In the early stages, access to adequate food preparation and hygiene facilities was limited. The food provided in the camps was sometimes inadequate, which could prove especially harmful for pregnant mothers and young children. We developed a programme for mothers and babies, helping with re-lactation, nutrition and food supplements.
Following a Child Protection Risk Assessment in Ritsona camp, we created a Child Friendly Space project under the remit of our Child protection in Emergencies Programme. It provides a safe place where children can learn through play, receive psychosocial support and regain a sense of normality after the difficulties they have faced.
Our Female Friendly Space is a closed-off area for women and adolescent girls that offers some rare privacy and acts as a safe communal area. The FFS has leisure, social and cultural activities for women, including women’s health workshops. This project is now part of our Gender Based Violence Programme. Our protection team engages in formal and informal partnerships with INGOs with a protection mandate, working closely as implementing partners to identify and refer cases through a thorough follow-up and monitoring system.
We have also recreated our Lesvos construction programme on the mainland, working with camp residents to build structures for our spaces and other communal areas, and making the camps more accessible for disabled and elderly people.
We are now active in Ritsona camp on the Greek mainland — our goal is constantly to improve our current services and be in a position to provide them to residents in other 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 by refugees who lack a safer route into Europe. This build-up has had a serious environmental impact on the island’s beaches, a key feature of its once booming tourist industry. As the shores piled up with rubber and life jackets, they also became more and more hazardous to land on. The bright orange colour of the life jackets attracted new arrivals onto these remote, rocky spots, inaccessible by car. 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. This period saw a drop in arrivals on the island, but we maintained a presence to monitor the situation. It seemed like the perfect time to focus on restoring the Lesvos’ shores. Sadly, most of the discarded material is impossible to recycle. To reduce 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.
Lighthouse Relief, Swedish organisation: 802503-7444 — Lighthouse Relief Hellas, Greek VAT: 997083101