“THERE was a very surreal atmosphere in the camp. There were people crying all over the place.” These were the words of an Upper Beeding man who witnessed the aftermath of the refugee boat that sank off the Turkish coast.
Joel Gage lived on the historic Greek island, Leros, for more than 15 years, but now only holidays there in the summertime.
However, on his recent visit to the picturesque haven, he was shocked to discover hundreds of traumatised Syrian’s living in squalor with little food, water and no amenities.
The 36-year-old said: “The port police are supposed to provide one meal a day. Well, they haven’t done for the whole summer, and it’s just the volunteers headed up by some local people, a few Greeks, a lady from New Zealand and some holidaymakers, who are distributing food, first aid and milk formula for the babies.”
Leros is a very remote island, which has connections to Athens, but they are not frequent, and it is difficult to buy tickets as the boats are commonly full of refugees from other surrounding islands.
Joel said the tented camps were overflowing with people, and many forced to sleep outside were begging for pieces of cardboard, so they could have something more comfortable to sleep on.
He said: “I’ve met young lads like me who are IT engineers, doctors, dentists, business owners – people just like us.
“There are babies that have been born on the island, so there are mothers who have travelled that heavily pregnant, so desperate to get away from what’s happening in Syria.”
The volunteers were not only handing out clothes, sanitary towels and other much needed items, they were also there to give support and distract the children from the horrific events that had taken place.
“The day the boat sank I was trying to comfort people,” said Joel.
Last month, more than a dozen refugees were killed after their boat sank on its way to Greece. Joel said they did not expect anymore refugees that day due to the strong winds.
“We heard in the afternoon that a boat had sank and they were bringing the survivors to Leros.
“We went down early and there was a very surreal atmosphere in the camp. There were people crying all over the place.
“There was a young couple who had been married for two weeks and the woman was walking around like a zombie, just staring because of the trauma they’d been through.
“There was a man who had a little girl on his lap and we were trying to distract the kids with colouring, but he was crying because he’d lost his wife, but he didn’t want his daughter to see.
“Sometimes it’s just giving people someone to talk to, but you don’t know what to say.”
The volunteers are in dire need of assistance and donations as more refugees arrive, to seek a better life.
Now back in Upper Beeding after ten days on the island, Joel has to return to his work commitments.
“Being back here for a couple of days I already feel so far removed from the actual reality of what’s going on.”
Joel said he would like to dispel any negative images and gossip that people have heard about the refugee crisis in Syria.
“A lot of people say they’re not real refugees they’ve all got smartphones and it makes me really cross, because Syria is not a third world country.
“If you had to suddenly leave your home the first thing you would grab is your phone, so people have to understand their towns have been flattened, people have been hounded and seen family members killed.”
Joel has set up the Facebook page ‘Leros Solidarity Network Team UK’ to keep an account of his shocking experiences and show others how they can help.
He said the government is struggling to support the numbers of refugees coming into the island and more needs to be done.
“I’m trying to raise money because the volunteers have been funding so much,” he said.
Within three days the page had raised more than £700 and continues to go up.
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