A SOUTH Mayo woman is bringing a sense of hope to refugees fleeing conflict in the Middle East by working on the ground with traumatised and travel weary refugees in Lesbos.
Renata Herger recalls a boat with three dead children coming ashore on the Greek island last month. She and other volunteers with Swisscross were there to take care of their screaming mothers, ‘to give them some human touch’.
Renata, a native of Switzerland, now living in Ballinrobe, knows a bit about caring. In her home country she was responsible for a home for old people and specialised in caring for people with dementia.
Her work in Lesbos over two-and-a-half weeks last month took caring to a new level. And she plans to be back on the ground there next month. Her message is a simple one: “Share and care.”
Ten days after returning home from her first ever humanitarian trip, Renata said while we all know what’s happening in places like Lesbos, when you are there it is completely different.
The distance from the Turkish coast to Lesbos is only 10 kilometres and the trip across usually costs €5. Desperate refugees, mostly Syrian and Iraqi, are paying €2,000 to the smugglers.
“We rescued many boats coming in,” she said, “and we scanned the waters at night with the aid of night vision binoculars. We caught 60% of the boats and tried to get them ashore safely.
“Very often the refugees are in bad condition, in boats full of water, and suffering the effects of what has happened them before ever coming into contact with the people smugglers.
“I saw many families coming through – the very old and small children, and people with special needs.”
In addition to rescue, the Swisscross volunteers handed out provisions, such as warm clothes, summonsed volunteer ambulances, and organised registration in the camps. As she has medical experience, Renata also did some work with Medecins Sans Frontieres.
They also engaged in beach clean-ups for the Greek people, removing lifejackets and boat wrecks. Despite the fact that tourism, and their economy, has collapsed, she said, the local community have been fantastic in their efforts to help. Among the volunteers was Ai Wei Wei, the Chinese performing artist, who is a very well known fighter for humanity.
It all sounds very bleak but Renata says recent talks in Geneva are giving a sense of hope, albeit finding a resolution will be a very long process. The Greek coastguard are now helping people at risk on the sea. This has placed rescue volunteers in a better place too as until now, legally what they were doing was ‘aiding trafficking’, with some volunteers even finding themselves arrested.
Since her return, Renata has held a social evening in Ballinrobe, inviting friends and neighbours around to talk about her work and the refugee crisis in general.
She’s planning a return trip to Lesbos in April for a similar mission. This month she’ll be travelling to Switzerland where she will help coordinate a convoy of shoes collected for newly arrived refugees.
“It’s a simple thing,” she explained, “but we need thousands of shoes. These people are arriving wet and have a long journey ahead of them.”
On the Irish reaction to the emergency, she believes Irish people know what it means to leave home as a result of the Famine and years of emigration. “They are very concerned but I do not think they have enough information.
“What I ask of people is to share and care.”
For more information on the Swisscross group Renata is working with, see https://schwizerchruez.herokuapp.com/en (there’s an English translation). You can also contact Renata directly at (087) 3307525 or firstname.lastname@example.org.