TWO YEARS
OF ADVANCING A DIGNIFIED
HUMANITARIAN RESPONSE

SCROLL DOWN FOR AN INTERACTIVE SNAPSHOT OF THE LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF STORY
 
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Our mission is to provide a dignified, respectful and empowering humanitarian response,
with a focus on supporting vulnerable groups like women, children and youth.

Read on to learn about how we started, how we responded, and how the situation for refugees in Greece has shaped who we are today.

SEPTEMBER 2015: Crisis on Lesvos

Push factors such as 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.
 
“There are 100 people in this village. When the refugees were coming, there were 50-60 boats per day. We were all alone. “
— Stratos Valimos, a fisherman in Skala Sikamineas, Lesvos, who led local rescue efforts at the height of the crisis in 2015. Stratos was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for his heroic efforts.

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.

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Lighthouse Relief Arrives

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.

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. The organisation was officially born on the 28th of September 2015.
 
I could never imagine the scenes I would witness and the absolute urgency in every second of the day leaving little time to think, plan and coordinate a response as the needs were endless. It was unlike anything I had ever witnessed before – where children, elderly and pregnant women were exposed to inhumane and high risk conditions due to lack of WASH facilities, nutrition and shelter.”
— Fazeela Selberg Zaib, who together with Gunnar Björklund and Johan Mellström - two other independent volunteers from Sweden with a rich background in humanitarian response - formed Lighthouse Relief. 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.

As one of the the only stable volunteer or NGO presence in Skala Sikamineas in September and October 2015, one of the biggest challenges was coordinating the buses. Once the refugees arrived on the shore of Skala Sikamenias, they had to walk up the steep hill to the "bus stop" where buses provided by bigger agencies would sporadically come, but never as many or as often as was needed. The bus stop lacked any infrastructure (toilets and shelter) and at times more than 1,000 people were waiting for the bus to take them to the refugee camps outside Mytilini. We worked tirelessly day and night in extreme conditions to fill this gap in transportation support, with minimal funds and only a small team of volunteers.

OCTOBER 2015: Our Lesvos Camp is Born

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.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 the island.

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. 

Our Lesvos camp was the last functional first reception point on the north shore when it closed in July 2017. We continue to store all camp materials and equipment, and are fully prepared to reopen the space should it once again be necessary to do so. 

Developing Boat Spotting Operations

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.

In respose, we set up regular shifts, keeping watch every night to help people land safely.
 

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. Since then, we've also expanded to provide day spotting support in collaboration with Refugee Rescue. 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.

FEBRUARY 2016: European Borders Close

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.
 

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.

MARCH 2016: EU-Turkey Statement Implemented

Prior to March 2016, when Moria was a registration site for all refugees in Lesvos, our duties included welcoming people, allocating shelter, and providing the resources and information needed in a very challenging environment.

Then, 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 turned into a detention centre. We faced one of our most difficult decisions so far: to remain at the detention center — or refuse to work within a detention facility which clearly breaks humanitarian principles.
 
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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.

While we are no longer present within Moria detention center, we work in collaboration with other organizations to ensure arrivals are in the best possible condition prior to their departure to that facility. This includes supporting UNHCR in an overnight transit camp on the north shore of Lesvos, where we provide food, water, dry clothing and toiletries to people before the next leg of their journeys. 

APRIL 2016: Providing Psychosocial Support
on Mainland Greece

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. After assessing the situation, it became apparent that infants, children, women and youth faced the most hardships in the camps. We knew we had to do something to help.
 

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.

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. 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.

Most recently, in Ritsona camp, we initiated our newest programme - the Youth Engagement Space. After recognizing gaps in humanitarian programming for youth aged 16-25, particularly young men, we decided to create a programme that caters to the unique needs of this demographic. Guided by youth consultation every step of the way, the YES now serves as an area for youth to engage in creative workshops, as well as a drop-in facility for conversation and relaxation. 

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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.