Ordinary Europeans helping refugees in the face of rising xenophobia
If you listen to the politicians and much of the press, you might get the impression that no one in Europe gives a toss about refugees.
You would be hearing how although record numbers are arriving in Greece and Italy, the rest of Europe has agreed to take just a fifth of them.
You would be hearing how Hungary is building a wall to keep refugees out, France has sealed its border with Italy and it might well be illegal to give a refugee a ride in Greece.
You might easily come to the conclusion that no one in Europe wants to help these new arrivals.
But you would be wrong.
Across the continent at a local level, thousands of people doing what they can to help people who have fled war and persecution in places like Syria, Iraq, Iran, Mali, Rwanda, the Central African Republic and Ukraine.
From the Hungarian volunteers providing round-the-clock support to Syrian and Afghani newcomers and to the Spanish priests assisting migrants with paperwork; there are thousands of unheralded people across Europe fighting for refugees’ rights.
Here are just few examples:
Turkish newlyweds Fethullah Uzumcuoglu and Esra Polat decided to skip the usual wedding reception and spend their big day, still dressed in a tux and bridal gown, distributing food to starving Syrian refugees.
The idea came from the groom’s father, who volunteers for a Turkish relief organization called Kimse Yok Mu (KYM).
For the past few years, KYM has distributed daily meals to the thousands of impoverished Syrians who’ve flooded across the nearby border. Fethullah approached a representative of the organization and proposed that the family would cover part of the costs of feeding refugees for the day.
KYM international communications manager Hatice Avci put the act of kindness down to the south-eastern Turkish culture of “sharing with people in need,” saying “they love to share their food, their table, everything they have.”
The refugee situation in the border town of Kilis is critical. Normally a city of 108,000, Kilis is currently hosting 123,000 Syrian refugees, with construction of a new camp recently announced by the Turkish government.
Ms Avci said the newlyweds were pleased with their decision to feed the hungry in lieu of a conventional wedding feast, and hoped that others may follow their example. She said the groom told her “the best moment of his wedding was when they had the food distribution.”
Christopher Catrambone, 31, was out sailing on his super-yacht with his Italian wife and their teenage daughter in July 2013, when they spotted a lifejacket bobbing in the waves.
One of his friends speculated that it could be from a migrant boat that had sunk – they were sailing off the coast of Malta, and desperate refugees often passed that way.
But instead of shrugging it off, Christopher decided something had to be done. Over the next year, he bought a ship for five million dollars, and personally invested the funds needed to repair it.
He begged strangers for donations – eventually gathering enough volunteer man power and funding to set sail in August 2014.
In the space of ten weeks, Christopher and his team rescued 1,462 migrants, and helped another 1,500 people onto nearby Navy ships.
Fast forward one year, and he’s still at sea, rescuing as many refugees from the waves as he can, with his family on board helping out.
His daughter remembers one incident when she met a girl her age called Rasha. ‘I looked at her and I looked at me, and I said: “What if I was Rasha? What if I had to see people being killed by snipers every day, seeing my parents killed right before my eyes?” I would want to leave. She was so brave. She travels, she gets on a boat. And she says: “Either I am going to make it, or I am going to die trying”.
Nikandra Kopcke, 28, launched Mazi Mas three years ago, after recognizing that for the majority of refugee women, simply getting to the UK isn’t nearly enough. Instead, they need work, structure and community in order to integrate into society.
“We’re working with highly qualified women, including a doctor who had her own medical practice in Sri Lanka, but their qualifications aren’t recognized in this country,” she says.
“A lot of them are long-term unemployed. Employers pass them over in favour of younger people who have a recent employment history. It’s a vicious cycle.”
Currently staffed by six women from Brazil, Ethiopia, Iran, Peru, Senegal and Turkey (and with five more in various stages of training), Nikandra’s initiative is transforming lives – and providing us all with food in the process.
Eric Kempson and his wife Philippa have become ‘first responders’ on the Greek Island of Lesbos.
“The refugees just need help when they come in, they’re shell-shocked,” says Mr Kempson.
“So the first thing we do is take the wet clothes off people and give them dry clothes, and then give the mothers hot water-bottles, so she can put it between her and the baby, and keep the baby warm.”
Lesbos has become the Lampedusa of Greece, with more than 1,000 refugees arriving daily. The Greek authorities, struggling to deal with an economic crisis, cannot cope with the influx – so the vacuum has been filled by volunteers such as British couple the Kempsons.
It’s a team-effort, caring for the migrants. Once the refugees are out of the boats, the president of the local village, Thanassis Andreotis, comes to clear away their abandoned rubber dinghies.
There are locals who think the migrants should be left to their own devices, and be discouraged from coming. But Andreotis is not one of them. “It’s a matter of humanity,” says the retired policeman.
On the other side of the island, Australian-Greek restaurateur, Melinda McRostie, has done something similar. Behind her restaurant, the Captain’s Table, she has set up a makeshift migrant camp for 150 people.
She gives them three meals a day, using donations from tourists and locals alike. It is exhausting, but there is no alternative, she said. “It’s obvious that it’s not something that’s going to stop, so the only obvious thing to do is to do something about it.”
For doctor Isabelle Pépin the sight of pavements strewn with mattresses each evening is a familiar sight in the northern Paris suburbs where she lives.
“What am I, Mme Pépin, 56 years old, six children, actually doing to make foreigners welcome in France and help them become better integrated?” she asked herself several months ago.
“Last autumn, two of our children left home,” she said. “We suddenly had a spare bedroom. We decided we wanted to offer it to a young asylum seeker.”
At the Paris parish of Saint Merry to which she and her husband, Philippe, belong, Pépin had heard of the Welcome to France project run by the Jesuit Refugee Service (JRS).
Currently, Ghaith, 26, from Syria, is the fourth guest to benefit from board and lodging, after Abdullah, an Afghan and Ali, an Iranian. He arrived in early July and will stay all summer, although Welcome’s rules stipulate no stay should exceed five weeks.
“We offer temporary lodgings with families to asylum seekers to whom the state provides nothing,” said Pierre Nicolas, general secretary of the JRS, which also organises French lessons, meet-ups and clothing exchanges for asylum seekers.
One of Germany’s best known actors has announced he wants to build a “model shelter” to house asylum-seekers as Europe grapples with a migrant crisis.
Til Schweiger, who appeared in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglourious Bastards and The Replacement Killers, said he has already secured a site for the shelter.
The actor’s announcement came as a newspaper published figures showing that Germany has already hosted more than 300,000 asylum seekers this this year – even more than previously thought.
“I’m going to build a refugee home together with friends,” Mr Schweiger told Bild newspaper.
“Since Thursday, everything is signed and sealed. We want to build a flagship home for refugees.”
Although details are sketchy so far, Mr Schweiger said the shelter will offer more than just accommodation.
“There will be things for children to do, workshops and a sewing room, so people can work there, a sports facility and so on,” he said.
Mr Schweiger said he had secured a site in Lower Saxony, in a former barracks named after the WWII Field Marshal Erwin Rommel.
AMES Australia Senior Journalist