9 inspiring stories of solidarity with refugees and migrants
1 Stopping 12,000 deaths at sea
Millionaire US-Italian couple Christopher and Regina Catrambone were moved by the sight of a winter coat floating past their yacht on a family holiday in the Mediterranean in 2013. Months later, when 400 people – mostly Syrians and Eritreans – drowned off the coast of Lampedusa, some 160 kilometres from the Catrambones’ home in Malta, they took action. With their life savings, they bought a rescue ship, The Phoenix, and in 2014 privately funded a stint – at a cost of over $500,000 per month – rescuing migrants along the central Mediterranean route from Libya to Italy.
The project became the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS). Now equipped with two drones and two high-speed rescue crafts, it has gone on to save 12,000 lives. In the words of the founders, ‘those who care about migrants drowning no longer have to wait for governments to act’. After the photo of the refugee child washed up on a beach, Kurdish toddler Alan Kurdi, went viral in September 2015, MOAS received $1 million in just two days. Since then, a steady stream of funding has come from Vietnamese boat people and their descendants in the US, and high-profile Hollywood stars. Their next mission will be to help Rohinyga refugees in the Andaman Sea.
2 Support on the Balkan route
When the Serbian capital Belgrade became a major transit point for refugees, an umbrella group of nine charities pulled together Miksalište in under two weeks. Last August, Miksalište was helping 1,000 people a day, offering food, clothing and a solar-charging station for mobiles from a performance space in the heart of the city.1 Miksalište is one of the groups filling the gaps left by a government hamstrung by the terms of an IMF loan, which leave it unable to employ civil servants to respond to the needs of refugees transiting through its territory.
While many of Miksalište’s volunteers are international, the bulk of donations have come from locals. ‘We are a nation of refugees – people understand,’ explains Marija Vranesevic from Philanthropy, the charitable wing of the Serbian Orthodox Church, which provides food and shelter on the Croatian border. Over the summer there were 3,000 refugees in Belgrade parks. People brought food and clothing; companies handed out water. There was not a single incident of conflict.’
3 Refuge from Boko Haram
Four years of conflict between the government and Islamic extremist group Boko Haram have taken their toll in Nigeria, driving over two million from their homes. Less than 10 per cent of displaced people are in government camps, with the rest having to rely on friends, family – or bakers. Lawal Dan Gashua, the 52-year-old chair of a bakers’ association in the northern city of Maiduguri, a former Boko Haram stronghold, has personally housed 300 people. The BBC’s Katerina Vitozzi relates how he has squeezed as many people as he can into his ‘gently rusting’ compound, and billeted others in the community, since displaced people started arriving in 2012. His bakery now provides a roof and endless bread to 14 boys whose fathers are among the thousands killed or kidnapped by Boko Haram. He gets no support from the government, saying simply that his role as chair made him ‘feel responsible’.2
4 Rescuing Eritreans in distress
Meron Estefanos has most likely saved 16,000 lives in the past year – though she doesn’t care to count. Of the 5,000 people who flee Eritrea’s despotic regime each month, many leave clutching her telephone number. When they run into difficulties on boats bound for Italy, they call the 40-year-old radio journalist who, from her Stockholm flat, communicates the co-ordinates to the coastguard; at least 50 boats were rescued in this way during 2015.
The journey across the Mediterranean is only one of many hazards facing refugees from the tiny east African country. Hundreds have fallen into the hands of merciless kidnappers who torture, rape and kill their victims in places like Sudan and Libya. Estefanos negotiates hostage release by telephone, collects ransoms and consoles families while campaigning for government action.
Estefanos, a single mother of two, laments that if Westerners were being kidnapped in the Sinai, the response would be very different. ‘This is a race issue,’ she says. ‘Sadly, nobody cares about Africans.’3
5 Festival of hope
Congolese refugee Menes La Plume is on a mission to change the way refugees are seen across the world. To this end, for the second year running, he has brought electric guitar riffs, drummers and dancers to the Dzaleka refugee camp in Malawi, which was set up in the wake of the Rwandan genocide and is now home to 20,000 residents. The Tumaini (‘hope’ in Swahili) arts festival 2015 put on acts from Malawi, Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. ‘No-one sets out permanently to leave the place they were born. And to then go to a foreign country where they will know no-one,’ La Plume told the Guardian’s Clyde Macfarlane. ‘Who chooses to be looked at as a lesser human being?’4
6 Fishers to the rescue
When Thailand, Indonesia and Malaysia left thousands of Rohingya refugees and Bangladeshis stranded in the Andaman Sea last May, villagers took action. Moved by the sight of the starving people they saw on board, Indonesian fishers in Aceh province, northern Sumatra, helped traumatized women and children and the sick to shore, giving them food, clothes and medical help. ‘We helped them because they needed help,’ said 38-year-old Myusup Mansur from the small island village of Pusung who, with other fishers, rescued 677 people. ‘What is more human than that?’5
7 Caravans for Calais and beyond
Lea Beven was spurred into action by the picture of a refugee in wellies. ‘He was stood in a puddle, in “The Jungle” in Calais, with a tent behind him,’ she recalled. ‘I had just bought a caravan and I was sat in it with my three-year-old son and I welled up. I thought, “Why am I sat here while they are in tents?”’ Since September, Beven and a network of supporters around Britain have raised over $33,000 and delivered 50 caravans to the informal refugee camp that clusters around the entrance to the Channel Tunnel linking France to Britain, which is now home to over 6,000 people. The caravans shelter volunteers, medical units and refugee families.
8 One outfit, one child
When children land in Greece after crossing the Aegean Sea, they are often soaking wet and freezing cold – even more so if they are washed ashore or plucked from the water. Jeannie Etherton spent time volunteering on the Greek Island of Leros and came up with the idea of One Outfit One Child. A ready-to-go pack of clothing, labelled by age – which can be mailed straight to solidarity projects on the beaches – that means children can be stripped, dried and dressed before hypothermia sets in.
9 Lighten the Load
Brodoto, a Croatian non-profit, fundraised for baby slings for refugee mothers trekking along the Western Balkan migration route. The campaign hit four times over its initial goal of $2,300 in less than 48 hours. ‘We’re aware that these baby slings won’t stop this humanitarian catastrophe,’ they wrote on funding platform Indiegogo, ‘but it will ease the way for the most vulnerable group – mothers and babies – to reach their destination safely.’
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