A Life-Changing Experience, Sparked Unexpectedly

Past Lighthouse Relief volunteer Marwa Bakabas stands in front of "the life jacket graveyard" in Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of discarded life jackets used as refugees crossed the Aegean Sea have been collected. Photo: Anna Tascha Larsson/Lighthouse Relief

Past Lighthouse Relief volunteer Marwa Bakabas stands in front of "the life jacket graveyard" in Lesvos, where hundreds of thousands of discarded life jackets used as refugees crossed the Aegean Sea have been collected.
Photo: Anna Tascha Larsson/Lighthouse Relief

“I was supposed to be on Lesvos for two weeks. There came a time where the two weeks reached and I cancelled my return ticket… I stayed for three-and-a-half months with the intention of returning to Lighthouse Relief in the future.”

Marwa’s first experience of Lighthouse Relief was a happy accident. Arriving on Lesvos in November 2015, she shared a ride with a doctor heading to volunteer for the young organization. Arriving at camp in Skala Sikamineas late in the evening, Marwa decided to stay with the small team of emergency response volunteers for one night before heading on to her original destination the next day.

Then boats started to land on the Greek shores - the first in 48 hours.

“Everyone joined together, brought cookies; people arriving were cheering,” she says, remembering how the volunteers greeted the arriving refugees with a warm welcome.

“It was a very surreal first moment! From there I decided... to stay with Lighthouse.”

Staff, volunteers and Lighthouse Relief's Board Chairman pose with actress and activist Susan Sarandon in Lesvos.

Staff, volunteers and Lighthouse Relief's Board Chairman pose with actress and activist Susan Sarandon in Lesvos.

At the time, Lighthouse Relief was working towards becoming a registered non-profit organization in Greece, which would enable it to work in coordination with the Greek government and other actors.

Watching the organization's growth from “just a camp, with maybe three tents” to a more structured non-profit organization in such a short time was impressive, Marwa recalls.

“More tents were built in the Skala camp, and more structure was created, both physically and internally as an organization.”

In January 2017, Marwa returned to volunteer with the organization while on semester vacation from university, spending the month in the Female Friendly Space (FFS) in Ritsona Refugee Camp.

“I can’t believe how much the organization has grown! Even before I arrived, I saw on social media how far it has come, how much structure it’s developed - being able to focus on children, on women, and even on maternal health,” she says. “And still on Lesvos, being loyal and cleaning up, focusing on the environmental aspect which I really respect Lighthouse for doing.”

Since returning to Greece, she has also noticed that “the care provided [today] is different.”

In November 2015, the organization was focused on emergency response and looking at how it could respond better to new arrivals, for example with more tents and access to medical care. However, Lighthouse Relief’s response in Central Greece now largely focuses on more sustainable programming for the residents - all the more important since changes in EU refugee and resettlement policies mean that people often spend over a year in camp.

“The difference now is that there’s more structure in the sense that there’s programmes for the females since it is a longer terms stay for them. We’re trying to provide psychosocial support and activities for the women; seeing what their needs are, what the women want.”

Marwa with other staff and volunteers in Lesvos, where she served as Lighthouse Relief's Volunteer Coordinator. Photo: Florenz Schaffner

Marwa with other staff and volunteers in Lesvos, where she served as Lighthouse Relief's Volunteer Coordinator.
Photo: Florenz Schaffner

The experience with Lighthouse Relief’s response to the ongoing refugee crisis also had a wider impact on Marwa’s life.

“I applied to university at 3am on Lesvos because I couldn’t imagine anything else. I said I'm either going to return to Greece or go move somewhere and advance my education to be able to do this type of work.” She is currently studying Anthropology in Beirut, focusing on aid provided to refugees in camps.

As the refugee crisis in Greece continues to shift and evolve, Lighthouse Relief has adapted and innovated, looking for new ways to work in tandem with community members on new programmes. Like many Lighthouse Relief volunteers, Marwa’s investment in the fate of LHR and our beneficiaries did not end when she left Greece.

Working as One: Training with the Skala Sikamineas Task Force

It was almost 10 pm when Andrea Montenegro, Lighthouse Relief’s Field Officer on Lesvos, received a phone call from a local fisherman, Costas, alerting her to a refugee boat landing on the shores of Skala Sikamineas. As usual, there was no time to wait, and Montenegro responded swiftly, contacting the UNHCR and rescue teams to help the wet and cold arrivals, preparing dry clothes and beds at Stage 2 since Moria was already closed for the night.

Andrea and the Lighthouse Relief staff are part of a task force of NGO members, volunteers and medics, together with the locals, in the small fishing village of Skala Sikamineas. One and a half year ago, the island saw a record number of arriving refugees and Lighthouse Relief formed to give emergency response and coordinate efforts in the area. The team is still there, on standby 24 hours a day, ready to respond at any moment to rescue and assist refugees arriving on the north shore of the Greek island of Lesvos.

Sea rescue team Mochara assisting a woman to land who needed emergency assistance from WAHA doctors and Lighthouse volunteers on the landing March 1st. Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Sea rescue team Mochara assisting a woman to land who needed emergency assistance from WAHA doctors and Lighthouse volunteers on the landing March 1st.

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

In Skala Sikamineas tiny port, Lighthouse volunteers gave emergency blankets and assisted with medical aid before giving clothes, food and shelter in Stage 2. Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

In Skala Sikamineas tiny port, Lighthouse volunteers gave emergency blankets and assisted with medical aid before giving clothes, food and shelter in Stage 2.

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

The month of March kicked off with a nighttime landing, bringing 45 new arrivals to the shores of Lesvos. Like many landings that we have assisted in 1,5 years year of working on Lesvos, this one occurred under cover of darkness, when many smugglers set out from Turkey for the Greek shores.

Time is of the essence: we must work together to provide a swift, effective response to every rescue and boat landing. The 45 new arrivals we met on March 1st were wet and cold after having been in the water for a long time. We acted quickly, working to prevent any chance of hypothermia, the largest threat to arriving refugees. We coordinated immediate medical care, provided emergency blankets and dry clothes. Though shaken up and cold from a long journey, thankfully, they were safe. However, in our time on Lesvos we have seen many emergency situations in which several boats are in the water, and people overboard need immediate assistance to prevent drowning or hypothermia. In these cases, it’s crucial to act fast, coordinating responsibilities without a moment's hesitation. But this takes practice. That’s why we have regular mass casualty incident coordination meetings and trainings.

Lighthouse Relief having a landing training outside the Lighthouse camp in June 2016. Photo: Wilhelm Wintertidh/Lighthouse Relief

Lighthouse Relief having a landing training outside the Lighthouse camp in June 2016.

Photo: Wilhelm Wintertidh/Lighthouse Relief

Together with our partners on Lesvos we had a rigorous training exercise on March 3rd in our home base of Skala Sikamineas. With Proactiva, Refugee Rescue, WAHA, and the Hope Project volunteers, we embarked on a four part training exercise to test our effectiveness in responding to an emergency situation. In order to make the training as realistic as possible the exercise was carried out at night, the time when most real life rescue operations take place.

Phase One: Spotting Lesvos-Bound Vessels

Each night, Lighthouse Relief volunteers carry out a 9-hour spotting shift with thermal vision binoculars at Korakas between midnight and 9a.m. Most rescue operations start with a phone call or a pair of binoculars. When a suspected refugee vessel is spotted, the spotting teams alert the rescue boats and guide them to the refugee vessels. In Phase One of the training, the "spotting teams" directed rescue boats to specific areas to respond to multiple refugee vessels. The training was as realistic as possible, with both "refugee vessels" and rescue vessels in the water. Each spotting team then directed a rescue boat to the refugee boats.

“The spotting training was really successful,” said Ivory Hackett-Evans, Lighthouse Relief’s Korakas night watch coordinator and Lesvos camp manager. “There was no confusion, and every single boat was reached within 5 minutes with no mistakes.”

A Lighthouse volunteer spotting boats in Korakas, with the lights from Turkey in the background. Turkey is not far away, but the sea is unpredictable and dangerous. Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

A Lighthouse volunteer spotting boats in Korakas, with the lights from Turkey in the background. Turkey is not far away, but the sea is unpredictable and dangerous.

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Phase Two: Rescue at Sea

In any mass casualty incident at sea, knowing how to recognize needs of victims is extremely important. Smugglers boats carrying refugees from Turkey are all too often flimsy, and cannot withstand strong waters. Sometimes, life jackets that smugglers provide are counterfeit. Because of this, we've often seen passengers who have gone overboard and need immediate help.

Phase Two involved sea rescue training for the two rescue boat crews, simulating a situation with people in the water. Three volunteers were taken out to act as overboard casualties and were given instructions to behave differently with different symptoms. The teams practiced how to respond and prioritize the rescue effort depending on the perceived needs of each individual.

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Phase Three: When Boats Reach the Shore

"Landing Team to Goji." Most Lighthouse Relief staff and volunteers on Lesvos are all too familiar with this phrase, signalling that we must depart to provide a warm, coordinated welcome to a refugee landing. Phase Three of the Mass Casualty Incident training prepared us for this very important moment, the landing, which involves physically unloading people from the rescue boats and handing them over to the landing teams. It is extremely important to act quickly but calmly to make sure not cause any extra injuries if someone is hurt. We also ensure that parents are not separated from their children. People must feel safe and welcomed.

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Claire Thomas/Lighthouse Relief

Phase 4: A Warm, Coordinated Welcome for Arriving Refugees

After refugees are safely on dry land, we attend to the needs of each casualty. As they disembark from the rescue boat, the landing coordinator carries out a quick assessment of each person’s needs and injuries. A WAHA doctor and nurse are on hand to provide immediate care, and refugees are assigned to specific color coded areas based on severity of their symptoms. For this phase, fast, efficient communication is key.

Lighthouse camp manager and night watch coordinator Ivory being carried by volunteer Hugh and field officer Andrea Montenegro during another landing training in March.

Lighthouse camp manager and night watch coordinator Ivory being carried by volunteer Hugh and field officer Andrea Montenegro during another landing training in March.

“None of us could do this without collaboration - everyone has to work as one”, said Ivory Hackett-Evans, Lighthouse Relief’s camp manager and night watch coordinator in Lesvos.

On Lesvos, we have been incredibly lucky to work with so many different partners, each committed to ensuring the safety and dignified treatment of refugees. If there is one thing we all learned from the locals of Skala Sikamineas and our partners while working and living on Lesvos, it is the importance of collaboration.

Ebrahim's Journey

By Lucy Spencer

Before the war, it would only take a few hours to travel from Syria to Germany by plane. The same journey has taken Ebrahim 11 months so far – and it isn’t over yet.

Photo: Lucy Spencer/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Lucy Spencer/Lighthouse Relief

Ebrahim, 18, has been living in Ritsona Refugee Camp since March 2016. Like for so many of his friends, his life took a dramatic turn when war broke out. 

“I would like to be lawyer for human rights, or a doctor if I were in Syria. I have to finish my high school now… My sister is a pharmacist, and my cousin and aunt is a doctor now. But me, I am here,” he says. 

On March 1, 2016 Ebrahim left his hometown of Idlib to reunite with his father in Germany. His mother, sister and two younger brothers remain trapped in Syria. 

What Ebrahim didn’t know was that Europe was closing itself off: the Balkan states would soon start shutting down their borders with Greece, and in February 2016, Germany approved a two-year ban on family reunifications for those with subsidiary protection, as part of its "Asylum II" package. Thousands of Syrian refugees in Germany have sued the government for their right to be reunited with their families by gaining full refugee status. 

Ebrahim’s journey began on foot. He walked from Syria to Turkey, camping with 50 other people on the border, waiting for an opportunity to cross under the cover of darkness.

Crossing the border is a matter of perseverance and patience - it took four days and close to a dozen attempts for Ebrahim and his fellow travelers to make it across.

Once across the border, Ebrahim evaded police thanks to a kind shop owner, hiding in his shop's toilet. Eventually he met a man from his hometown who spoke Turkish, and they travelled together to Izmir, where they would catch a boat to Greece.

Conditions were rough in the overcrowded plastic dinghy, Ebrahim recounts. He was sick throughout the entire trip, surrounded by terrified passengers and a vast, threatening sea.  

“We didn’t have any solution; we arrive or we will die in the sea. And I was so scared,” he remembers.

Ebrahim's journey, from Idlib to Ritsona, via Chios. Image Credit: Jay Birbeck/Lighthouse Relief

Ebrahim's journey, from Idlib to Ritsona, via Chios. Image Credit: Jay Birbeck/Lighthouse Relief

Although the distance from Turkey to the Greek islands is short, it often takes hours and multiple attempts for smugglers to make it across as they try to circumvent the border police. Refugees hoping for passage to Greece are subjected to overcrowding in flimsy boats, with life jackets that are often found to be counterfeit. The greatest risk to arriving refugees isn’t drowning - it’s hypothermia.

On March 9th 2016, Ebrahim made it safely across the water, but his journey was far from over.

“We were happy when we arrived to Greece,” he remembers. “We thought before we would just stay five days then we would arrive to Germany, and we would find everything.

"Just arrive to Greece," he continues,  "If you cross the sea, you have a new life.”

But by the time Ebrahim arrived in Greece, the borders to the rest of Europe had closed, separating him from his father. Countries such as Sweden, Germany and Austria, have enacted laws to limit family reunification. Coupled with a slow asylum system in Greece, refugees in Greece are in limbo, often separated from family members across borders.

Ebrahim arrived in Ritsona Refugee Camp on March 15, 2016. It was raining as the camp came into view, with tents lined up in a clearing on the former army base.

Ritsona refugee camp before Isoboxes were put up in November 2016. Photo: Madeleine Ball/Lighthouse Relief

Ritsona refugee camp before Isoboxes were put up in November 2016. Photo: Madeleine Ball/Lighthouse Relief

“When I saw this view, I thought that we would stay a long time,” he says.

Now, Ebrahim waits for family reunification in the Ritsona Camp. It was here that he celebrated his 18th birthday, thousands of kilometres away from his family in Syria and Germany.  

While he waits for the response to his family reunification application, Ebrahim hangs out with his friends in camp and watches football games on his phone.

“I like Cristiano Ronaldo because he helped refugees,” he says.

Ebrahim has also worked with Lighthouse Relief,  helping with construction projects, and more recently, engaging young people in the Ritsona Refugee Camp's "Tree of Hope."  He worked on the camp’s new art installation on the I AM YOU Library with some of his friends, including Farhad and Mohammad.

Ebrahim with his friends and Lighthouse Relief team members in front of the completed Tree of Hope. Photo: Lucy Spencer/Lighthouse Relief. 

Ebrahim with his friends and Lighthouse Relief team members in front of the completed Tree of Hope. Photo: Lucy Spencer/Lighthouse Relief. 

The community art project engaged 13 to 18 year olds around camp who made plastic bottle flowers, painted tree branches and wrote colourful messages of hope for the future on leaves and on the bright mural. Although the project was spearheaded by Lighthouse Relief, the teenagers made it their own, and dove headfirst into the creative process.

“We love this work, because it is for children,” says Ibrahim’s friend Farhad.“We wish to make them happy,” Mohammad adds.

Day in the Life of a Regional Coordinator

November 15, 2016

Somewhere in Epirus, in a storage facility located in the Filippiada Refugee Camp, Lighthouse Relief’s regional coordinator stands before bags of clothing, undaunted.

“That’s my dream job. I love sorting,” she says.  

In a way, that shouldn’t be surprising. Renate Hoare tirelessly sorts through the shifting information of refugee sites in the Epirus region. She is aware of the most delicate individual cases as well as the broader changes happening in the camps and region.  Originally from Ireland, Renate joined Lighthouse Relief in July 2016. Prior to her work in Greece, she spent many years in Bali, Indonesia, working with the John Fawcett organization, which gives life changing cataract surgeries to those who cannot afford them. Lighthouse Relief is actively working in two camps in the region, Katsikas and Filippiada, but there are five camps in Epirus, as well as refugees relocated to hotels in several towns. She is a master of multi-tasking: her every day is a juggling act, a feat of somehow being in multiple places at once. 

9:25 am, Lighthouse Relief Office, Katsikas

It’s 9:25am and Renate, starts her day by sweeping the floor of the LHR Epirus Office. After a peaceful sweep, the day sets pace at a run. Renate leads the daily 9:30 am briefing with staff and volunteers. The main topic today: When will the children at Katsikas Camp actually begin Greek school? Some have, some haven’t—since October, the Greek government has opened Greek public schools to refugee children, but there have been multiple delays. After the meeting, she grabs a coffee—“no time for the niceties of tea”—as she checks in with each member of her team on topics ranging from the board games initiative—engaging residents through chess, cards, backgammon—to heating Lighthouse Relief’s Female Friendly Space (FFS).

A quick coffee before heading to Katsikas Camp. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

A quick coffee before heading to Katsikas Camp. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

11 am, UNHCR Headquarters, Ioaninna

Renate’s running late until her meeting at UNHCR gets pushed back an hour—but she’s unruffled. “As you can see, everything is fluid.” And now, time for more coffee. At the meeting, they discuss UNHCR’s upcoming football workshop for 150 refugee children with former FC Barcelona players. Lighthouse Relief volunteers will help fit the children with new trainers before the workshop and paint faces after lunch.

1:00 pm, Katsikas Camp

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

After the UNHCR meeting, Renate heads straight to the camp coordination meeting in an old military hanger. It’s unheated and cigarette smoke hangs in the air. Representatives from different organisations discuss news about Greek public school, winterization, and electricity.

Renate leaves early to drop a tea kettle off at the FFS, where Medicins du Monde (MDM) is hosting a health discussion for women. Then she takes a brief walk and pops her head into a tent to see how a resident has converted the former beauty salon into a holding pen for carrier pigeons, which he flies in the evenings.

3:00 pm, Filippiada Camp

Now, she drives to Filippiada Camp, where Lighthouse Relief runs its Female Friendly Space and Infant and Young Child (IYCF) program. Renate visits her team there twice a week. The camp is about an hour drive from Katsikas. On those days, she spends two to three hours in the car.

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

On site, she visits the camp’s warehouse and to talk to Refugee Support, an NGO who converted the space into a well-organised shop with point systems so that residents can buy exactly what they need. But there’s still bags of shoes to discard, and Renate fills her car with five trash bags before coordinating interviews between Lighthouse Relief’s videographer and the Filippiada team. Waiting in Filippiada’s FFS, she works on a puzzle with a teen girl and covers a broken window. Renate meets with the Filippiada Camp team at 6PM. The sun has set and within five minutes, the electricity goes out, so they finish the meeting by cellphone light.

7:30 pm, Home

Renate drives back to Katsikas, her car brimming with bags of shoes and baby bottles. Bottles tumble as she turns on the winding roads. At home, she checks her email for the first time that day. She then reviews a document for a conference with European policy makers on female spaces in refugee camps, and finally goes to bed at 1:30AM. In less than 8 hours, her day will start anew.

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Renate Hoare was the Regional Coordinator for Lighthouse Relief’s work in the Epirus region from July 2016 to January 2017. Before her role as Regional Coordinator, Renate started with Lighthouse Relief in 2016 as a volunteer for IYCF in Ritsona Refugee Camp, a program that remains very close to her heart.  Currently, Renate is back in the United Kingdom, pursuing rigorous academic study with two modules, "Return to clinical Practice" followed by "International Humanitarian Development Program." For those interested in pursuing a coordination role within Lighthouse Relief, we encourage you to share you CV with us at hr@lighthouserelief.org! 

 

Raising Resilience: The Universal Language of Motherhood

Before 11 am, the Ritsona Refugee Camp’s Mother and Baby Area (MBA) is eerily quiet, except for the crinkle of paper bags and the soft bubbling of boiling water.  The housing container will soon be filled by the sounds of greetings (Marhaba! Kifik? Hamdellah!), the soft clicking of knitting needles, lively chatter, and of course, baby giggles and gurgles. 

IYCF/SRH Staff prepare supplemental nutrition in the MBA. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

IYCF/SRH Staff prepare supplemental nutrition in the MBA. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

But until then, the Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) team contemplates their morning ritual: packing brown bags for pregnant women, breastfeeding mothers, and their infant children at the Ritsona Refugee Camp. 

The prefab is full to the brim with cases of vegetables, fruits, yoghurts, nuts and eggs to be boiled. Lighthouse Relief works with a local farmer who drops off fresh produce three times a week.

Our trusty farmer with his delivery of fresh produce in the Female Friendly Space. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

Our trusty farmer with his delivery of fresh produce in the Female Friendly Space. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

Volunteers navigate the edible obstacle course, creating an unofficial assembly line. One by one, paper bags are filled with a fruit, vegetable and protein. 

Pregnant and new moms, as well as their infant children, need extra nutrition. The brown paper bags, distributed every morning, are aimed at strengthening them during this crucial time in their lives. Pregnant and breastfeeding mothers receive a protein (yogurt, nuts, or sesame bars), various vegetables, and fruits. Infants receive fruits, boiled eggs and optional dry cereal. The larger weekend bags incorporate staples such as chickpeas.

Boiled eggs provide crucial nutrition for infants under 2. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/ Lighthouse Relief

Boiled eggs provide crucial nutrition for infants under 2. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/ Lighthouse Relief

Nearly half of all refugees are women, and one in 10 of these women is pregnant. In Greece, over 50% percent of the approximately 62,000 refugees trapped here are women and children (UNHCR). According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, an estimated 10% of refugee women in Greece are pregnant, however, “services for neonatal and postpartum mothers and their children are negligible at refugee sites.”

There are currently over 50 refugee sites across Greece. Few offer sufficient obstretric services and support for new and expecting mothers. In Ritsona, Katsikas and Filippiada, Lighthouse Relief’s Infant and Young Child Feeding team tries to fill those gaps, supporting displaced moms, moms-to-be and their small children. The IYCF project, part of the Sexual and Reproductive Health Program, focuses on protecting, promoting and supporting women to breastfeed, and providing additional nutritional support. 

In the late morning, Ritsona starts to wake up. Women trickle into the MBA, leaving muddy shoes at the door. Some stay just long enough to pick up their brown bags, and others linger. New mothers and their small children settle into the soft mattresses on the floor, chatting with IYCF staff and volunteers about their breastfeeding progress, swapping stories and photos of their loved ones here and across borders. Language barriers sometimes lead to interesting pantomimes, but the meaning always gets across.

Today, an older Kurdish women with silvery hair and an easy smile has come to pick up food for her daughter-in-law. Armed with knitting needles from the Female Friendly Space, she artfully unfurls yarn while switching back and forth from Kurdish to Arabic. In a mere hour, she has already effortlessly knitted a glove that she says can be used as a loofah.

Across from her, a 8 month old infant slumbers away next to his pregnant mother, Nareen. His little face peeks out from layers of clothes and blankets. The walk from her housing container to the heated MBA may take 5 minutes, but on cold days like today, Nareen’s little one needs all the warmth he can get.

At the heart of the MBA’s services is the importance of breastfeeding, a very powerful tool for women worldwide to ensure that their children can grow and thrive. Optimal breastfeeding could save over 800,000 under 5 child lives every year.  Breast milk can provide protection against gastrointestinal infections, essential nutrients and energy, as well as greater health and well-being for new moms.

The first 1,000 days of a child's life are crucial. Infograph: Jay Birbeck

The first 1,000 days of a child's life are crucial. Infograph: Jay Birbeck

Because of its many protective powers, breastfeeding is especially crucial in post-emergency settings. It also happens to be free and readily available, especially important in this environment. Unfortunately, breastfeeding can be fraught with the difficulties and stresses of life in camp. That's where IYCF Supervisor, Nina Adelaide, comes in. 

"It’s even more crucial in this setting, because there's antibodies in breast milk, so it really prevents babies from getting ill," Nina says, adding that in the first six months, babies don't have their own immune systems yet.

Nina hails from Denmark, where she studied forced migration and worked with the integration work of ethnic minority groups, as well as with traumatized immigrant and refugee women. 

When pregnant or breastfeeding women don't pick up their brown bags, Nina and her team pay them a home visit, often finding that the burdens of daily life prevent them from coming to the MBA. She finds that many women are busy taking care of their children, cooking, cleaning and washing clothes. Many of the women have very bad rashes from washing clothes by hand in ice cold water. 

A glimpse of daily life in Ritsona. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

A glimpse of daily life in Ritsona. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Nareen, who fled from Al-Hasakah, Syria, has been in Ritsona for 2 months, after spending 5 months on the island of Chios. She is now pregnant now with her second child. The details of daily life in camp fill her day: cleaning, cooking, taking care of her little one. For advice about pregnancy, she often speaks with her husband, who urges her to rest. She still feels ill at ease and frightened in the camp - she hopes for stability, recalling happier, calmer past days in Syria.  

Beneath all the vegetables, shared stories, cell phone photos and knitted scarves lies something very powerful. What is special about the MBA is the universality of motherhood and the bonds that it allows. Here, motherhood is a common currency. These daily shared moments in the MBA may not seem like much, but over time, they amount to a support network. 

"To me that is the most important thing - that they use each other more than they have relationships with staff or volunteers," Nina says, referring to the importance of friendships between displaced mothers. 

"Having a friend there in the same situation as you, I think that can make you survive anything."

Many women come to the MBA in groups. Nina refers fondly to a group of five young mothers, all with a child under one and pregnant with the second one.

"They're going through the same developmental milestones with the babies." 

IYCF Supervisor Nina Adelaide (right) and Julia Kende, Gender Based Violence Protection Officer (left) in the doorway of the MBA at the end of the day. Julia's hat was knitted by the MBA's resident knitting expert. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

IYCF Supervisor Nina Adelaide (right) and Julia Kende, Gender Based Violence Protection Officer (left) in the doorway of the MBA at the end of the day. Julia's hat was knitted by the MBA's resident knitting expert. Photo: Marie-Helene Rousseau/Lighthouse Relief

You often hear in humanitarian settings that women and children are the most vulnerable. Despite the very real risks faced by refugee women, Nina points to the unique power of motherhood, and the very human, very universal, drive to provide for your children.

"These women and mothers - they're strong. As a mother you have some kind of special power because you are protecting your kid, something more important than yourself." 


Programmes like this wouldn’t be possible without your support. Now, more than ever, we must help displaced mothers and their young children thrive. This holiday season, consider making a donation that will enable us to continue providing programming.

How language classes help prepare refugees for relocation in Europe

For displaced people worldwide, life is a waiting game. Whether it is waiting for an asylum decision from an oversaturated system, or waiting for a food distribution, refugees often lack access to information and agency over their futures.

Much ink has been spilled highlighting the frustration and fear felt by residents trapped in makeshift, tent-filled settlements across Europe. However, programs by NGOs like Lighthouse Relief are trying to ensure valuable time is not lost, teaching valuable language lessons that can help residents communicate with and integrate into their new communities if and when they’re settled in Europe.

Lighthouse Relief opened its first operation in Filippiada camp in northern Greece in August of 2016. There, the Female Friendly Space (FFS) supports women, girls and newborns through its Infant and Young Child Feeding (IYCF) project and other activities.

(Jasmine Garnsworthy / Lighthouse Relief)

(Jasmine Garnsworthy / Lighthouse Relief)

As part of its activities, the the FFS teaches English, Swedish, and German to women and girls, including several students who have received decisions that they will be relocated in Germany, and are understandably eager to learn about the culture and the language of their new home.

“Three of the students in my class were already accepted for family reunification because of their husbands are in Germany. They will feel much more comfortable in their first days in this new country because they already have some basic language skills and insight into the culture,” explained Leoni Rossberg, a German native and manager of the FFS initiative at Lighthouse Relief.

Residents at the Filippiada refugee camp with family members already in Germany are extra motivated to take classes — not just to learn new skills, but also to feel closer to their loved ones.

“The wish to learn German is, on the one hand, an expression of their hope to be relocated to Germany, and on the other hand they can feel more connected to their relatives again. Right after my first German class a lot of them immediately took out their phones and started to type the basic sentences we had learned to send them to their loved ones in Germany,” Rossberg said.

Filippiada Refugee Camp in the North of Greece (Jasmine Garnsworthy / Lighthouse Relief)

Filippiada Refugee Camp in the North of Greece (Jasmine Garnsworthy / Lighthouse Relief)

About 10 students attend the German class in Filippiada each day to learn everything from basic pronunciation to grammar and spelling, and about life in general in the countries where they might be resettled.

“I always try to teach them something about the German culture within the classes, and beside that we have weekly cultural tea events about different European countries and cultures. If they are already aware of cultural standards and have some basic language skills, their integration process could be much easier," Rossberg explained, adding that as soon as she arrived at the camp, the community began asking for lessons.

Women in Filippiada were each given a German workbook to aid them in the lessons, which Rossberg says provides structure and allows the students to revise away from the classroom.

“They are also happy about the chance to actually use the time in the camp to study and advance their skills.”

In Katsikas, Filippiada and Ritsona Refugee Camps where we operate, Female Friendly Spaces offer privacy and promote a safe, communal environment away from many of the hardships of camp life. In addition to language classes, we also offer creative activities such as handicrafts, henna, spa day, knitting and opportunities for self-care. Retreating from the stresses of daily life in a camp-setting and engaging in a creative outlet can have tremendous benefits for one’s psychosocial well-being.

A glimpse into creative activities in the Filippiada Female Friendly Space 

A glimpse into creative activities in the Filippiada Female Friendly Space 

To find out more about our activities in the FFS in the Epirus region (Katsikas and Filippiada) take a look inside!

Female Friendly Space - Lighthouse Relief - Epirus Region from Tommy Chavannes on Vimeo.

Volunteer teachers and donations are what keep the programme going — programmes like this wouldn’t be possible without your support. Now, more than ever, we must help equip refugees with the right tools to thrive in their new homes. This holiday season, consider making a donation that will enable us to continue providing programming.

Gillie Fantastic

When asked how she decided to volunteer with Lighthouse Relief, Gillie Stenvers, a tall, British expat based in Portugal gives a quick reply: “Totally not happy with the idea of retirement, rapidly heading for the dreaded 70th Birthday, so I came to Greece.” 

Since joining Lighthouse Relief in September of 2016, Gillie hasn’t stopped moving. She’s been too busy teaching English to Yazidi residents, engineering a board games club or designing crafts for the Female Friendly space. While she creates handicrafts with residents, Gillie always finds a way to slip in an English lesson.

As you might have guessed, moments with Gillie are filled with disarming silliness. These moments follow her bottom line: “If you can’t laugh about it, don’t do it. Seriously.”

Two weekends ago, she broke her toe, and true to form, an image appeared over the volunteer group WhatsApp chat. Gillie had transformed the bandaged toe into a puppet with a smiling face and embroidery floss for hair. The following Monday, Gillie showed up to the morning briefing in a rabbit costume with a sign that read, “LH Twerp!” and laughed loudly when Renate Hamilton, Lighthouse Relief's Epirus regional coordinator, insisted Gillie rest, forbidding her from camp for the week.

But how could Gillie stay inside when she needed to persuade residents into playing backgammon and chess during a session of her board games club?

Gillie also had no intention of staying seated for Wednesday dinner, a staple event for Katsikas Lighthouse Relief volunteers that she hosts every week. Because only Gillie can make “Gillie burgers.”

Gillie is one of over 20 Lighthouse Relief volunteers in the Epirus region. Here, biting cold has crept into the camps of Katsikas and Filippiada, where Lighthouse Relief is carrying out programs.

A glimpse of Katsikas Camp on a particularly cold and rainy day. Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief. 

A glimpse of Katsikas Camp on a particularly cold and rainy day. Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief. 

But thanks to the tireless efforts of our volunteers, we continue to offer residents a variety of activities, including handicrafts, language lessons, opportunities for self-care in our Hammam, and most importantly, spaces of respite. 

It may be cold outside, but in the Katsikas Hammam, volunteers and residents share some warmth over handicrafts. Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief. 

It may be cold outside, but in the Katsikas Hammam, volunteers and residents share some warmth over handicrafts. Photo: Tommy Chavannes, Lighthouse Relief. 

Our volunteers come from every corner of the world and possess diverse skill sets, but they all contribute to every unique Lighthouse Relief Family that inevitably takes shape in each of our locations.  

“Gillie’s been a sister, mother, aunt, carer, cook—each one of us needs something in our life and she’s always there,” explains regional coordinator Renate. 

“She’s a protector of the the group."

Truly, she is. Gillie rents the apartment three feet away from the Lighthouse office. Her door is open to any volunteer who needs a warm place to have a cup of tea. Pre-cut packets of slippers, purses, and bags, all destined for the Female Friendly Space, have submerged her couch. 

Handicrafts galore, destined for the Female Friendly Space, line Gillie's couch. 

Handicrafts galore, destined for the Female Friendly Space, line Gillie's couch. 

Gillie claims that her hospitality is “self-service,” but she always seems to be turning on the kettle and asking, “Who wants a hot drink?”

“She is someone who is retired and should enjoy her retirement,” says Javid K, an Afghan resident at the Katsikas camp, “And instead she comes here and treats everyone the same.”

A few weeks ago, a group of Yazidi residents echoed Javid’s sentiment during an frenetic day of football fun at the Ioannina stadium. UNHCR had teamed up with veterans and legends from FC Barcelona for football workshops with refugees in Epirus, concluding with a friendly match with PAS Giannina. 

This group of Gillie fans greeted the volunteer at the banquet for UNHCR’s FC Barcelona event by chanting “Gillie’s fantastic!” 

Where had they learned the word? Gillie, of course.


Skilled volunteers (like Gillie!) are the backbone of Lighthouse Relief. We depend on dedicated individuals from every corner of the globe to shape and carry out our programs. Now, more than ever, we need passionate advocates for the refugees fleeing persecution and conflict. This holiday season, whether you volunteered with us, or follow our work from afar, we encourage you to join our fundraising campaign, or donate to our holiday appeal, which will ensure our ability to continue providing long-term and emergency relief in Greece. Thank you for your support and all that you do! 

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Ritsona to Chalkida: 18 Kilometres and a World Away

By Ann Esswein

It takes Ahmed three hours to travel from Athens back to his temporary home: a remote site next to the village of Ritsona.  

70 kilometres separate Ritsona from Greece’s bustling capital city. For most, this is a negligible distance. With a car, the road can be covered in 50 minutes. But for refugees living at Ritsona Camp, any journey outside the gates of the camp requires patience and creativity.  

Ahmed with a young customer at Supermarket Abuhamse. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Ahmed with a young customer at Supermarket Abuhamse. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

As he walks through the gate and the dirt driveway at Ritsona Camp’s entrance, Ahmed’s friends are already awaiting his return. He is tired after a long journey, having walked for 30 minutes from the nearest bus station under the noon sun. On his back, he carries a package of supplies: shampoo, cigarettes, oil, meadow grass for chicken, gas cookers, nuts, and food that tastes a little bit like home. Carefully, he arranges these treasures from Athens on the plastic table prominently displaying the wares of “Supermarket Abuhamse.”

Since March of 2016, when the Syrian man arrived at camp, he has procured items from Athens to sell in camp, until he proudly gave his initiative its name, now well-known amongst camp residents.   

For the community at the camp, food distribution provides limited options, and the surrounding area of Ritsona has few markets that they can frequent to pick their own products. At Supermarket Abuhamse, Ahmed doesn’t just sell groceries. In a small, but meaningful way, his market provides a sense of independence -- a way to determine the course of their daily lives. 

The Doors Are Open, But It Feels Like a Cage

Ritsona is located 18 km away from the nearest town, Chalkida. This distance brings frustrating limitations to the camp residents of Ritsona. Ritsona was previously a military air base. Today, taxis are a rarity in the remote area, and none of the municipal buses stop at the site. There are buses organized by the International Organization for Migration, which can take residents to Athens or Chalkida . Buses to Athens leave on Monday and Friday, and buses to Chalkida leave Tuesdays and Wednesdays. Otherwise, only a few of the residents can afford to rent a car for a respite from a camp that seems hidden from Greek daily life.

For two young Kurds who lived at the camp, Alan and Shervan, mobility is a basic need limited by the situation in Ritsona.

“Its true that the doors are open but it still feels like a cage” says Alan, who now lives in Athens. While in Ritsona, he had been to town a couple of times to go out, enjoy food, go to the supermarket and buy supplies - things he would normally do back home. However, here in Greece, these rare visits to town cost him around 30 EUR round trip, an expensive but invaluable trip.

Alan at the entrance of Ritsona camp, and the long road to Chalkida. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Alan at the entrance of Ritsona camp, and the long road to Chalkida. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

“There are a lot of things I miss here” Shervan reflected, having only been out of the camp three times, by hitch-hiking. 

Shervan echoed a common sentiment amongst the community, saying “I would feel better if the camp was located by a town or city." 

Searching for Normality Outside of Ritsona

Besides primary needs (food, shelter, water and sanitation) the secondary needs of the residents become more pressing the longer they stay in camp. Volunteer organizations such as Lighthouse Relief are trying to fill that vacuum with daily activities, such as body movement classes in the Female Friendly Space, and sessions in the Child Friendly Space for residents under 6 years of age. Organizations are also helping to prepare the community for the next step of their journey; there are English and German classes. After being stranded in Greece for many months the need for normality becomes vital. But normality lies outside, in the distant town.

“The camp feels like just another prison” former camp resident Sulaymaan says in his new apartment in the centre of Chalkida. Privacy is what he needed most after over four months in Ritsona, he explains sitting in his living room with baby-blue colored walls.

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

“Here I can decide whenever I would like to eat, cook, have a shower or just be by myself”. 

After looking for a private apartment for more than two months, he finally managed to leave the camp. Since then, he spends his days strolling around the town, meeting friends, sitting in cafes and writing applications while learning English. After nine months in Greece, a sense of normality has finally resumed. He feels free now, he says with a warm smile.

Sulaymaan playing pool in Chalkida with his friend. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Sulaymaan playing pool in Chalkida with his friend. Photo: Tommy Chavannes/Lighthouse Relief

Sulaymaan is a rare representation of refugees in Chalkida, a town of 60,000 inhabitants that draws tourists to its waterside promenade. 

“Its seems like the Greek government wanted to situate the problem outside,” Sulaymaan says, “people just pass Greece, but the locals fear that we are harming the economy”. 

Present Yet Invisible to the Chalkida Community

Local taxi driver Sakis Stamelos says the locals in Chalkida are somewhat skeptical about the refugees. 

“People would associate the refugees with illnesses and criminality, just because they they are invisible for most of Chalkida’s locals and they can’t get to know them better.” 

“What matters is not the distance but the conditions,” Sakis points out. Because he has driven residents back and forth, he has visited the camp three times. 

“Only dust and tents” he reported to his friends and colleagues, “not what one expects.” 

“You really have to go there to understand it,” he says, referencing a segregation that goes beyond the physical distance.

At Gold Bar in Central Chalkida, a lively crowd of all ages relaxes and sips cappuccinos and espressos. At this social hotspot, the patrons all know each other. When he’s not greeting people and shaking hands, owner Akis Koutsevlis watches over the activity from behind the bar. So far, Koutsevlis has seen volunteers resting in his cafe, but no refugees. 

“I don’t understand why the camp is so far away” Koutsevlis stresses.

“The camp should be close to the city”, Koutsevlis says, adding that he would love to have more contact with refugees. 

In Chalkida, as passers-by stroll on the waterfront promenade, milling in and out of coffee shops and restaurants, Supermarket Abuhamse and the refugee issues feel so present yet still so distant. 

#LightOnRefugees — Berivan

Photo: Allison Voight/Lighthouse Relief

Photo: Allison Voight/Lighthouse Relief

If there’s anyone in the camp who’s confident about the future, it’s Berivan.

“Since I was eight I have known I’m going to be an eye doctor,” she says. “I love eyes, because they show feelings. I've seen so many sad eyes.”

She whips out a pencil and draws a diagram of an eyeball with a tear duct next to it. “Did you know that when people cry, it comes from a sack next to the eye?” She pauses and points to her chest. “Of course, it also comes from the heart.”

Berivan’s family will be leaving the camp soon to continue their asylum process in Athens, a move that she has mixed emotions about. “I won’t get to see my friends as much, because they’ll be too far away. But I also won’t have to see any more bugs or rats.” She shudders. “I hate rats."

War, persecution and conflict is leaving 60 000 people stranded in limbo in Greece. Mothers, fathers, children, infants, elderly. People! Meet more of the real people behind the word "refugee" on the #LightOnRefugees page.

Happy Birthday Lighthouse Relief!

The 28th of September, Lighthouse Relief officially turned 1 year old. We are proud of what we have accomplished this year with hundreds of volunteers efforts, supported by generous donors, but it also pains us to be needed more than ever. War and conflicts are still increasing, leaving millions of people displaced or trying to flee danger.

In mainland Greece, 60 000 people are still stranded in deplorable conditions. Families are separated since the borders closed and mothers with children are facing the hardships in camp one more winter. The asylum process is slow as the European countries are not accepting enough of the people in need of our support and protection.

On Lesvos, refugees are still arriving by boats after a dangerous journey over the Aegean Sea. Winter is coming and now we have the only reception camp on the island with heated tents to treat hypothermia — tents that saved many lives last winter.

The situation is ongoing — and far from over. That's why during October month, we will focus on sharing more information on the refugees situation in the blog and on social media. We also created a site where you can meet the real people behind the words "refugees", "asylum seeker" and "migrant", the people we meet everyday in camp. The team at Lighthouse Relief hope that you will help us bring back the #LightOnRefugees.

You can also visit our updated About page, read the text and watch the longer video 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.

Thanks for your support this year!