In Summer 2015 Vincenzo and his partner Marina were on holiday off the Turkish coast with their friends Paola, Ignazia, Helène and Bernard. Their experience with the refugees and the selfless work of some of the islanders led directly to this fundraising effort. Below, the email Vincenzo sent to friends and family upon his return:
"We were on vacation off the Southern Coast of Turkey, sailing on a lovely gullet called Shanti, a Sanskrit word meaning peace, serenity and equilibrium. We stopped on the quaint island of Kastellorizo (or Megiste), which is actually Greek territory, although only two miles from Turkey. Many of you will remember the island because of the early ’90’s Italian movie “Mediterraneo”, which was filmed there.
On a walk around the rather empty harbour, Marina and I came across a group of ten Syrian refugees at the end of the quay, who had just swum across the straits. They had purchased a couple of inflatable toy-dinghies to float a seven-year old child and a few dry belongings they needed to wear after the two-hour swim and pushed them as they crawled their way across. They had hung their wet clothes to dry and were resting on some old deck chairs that the helpful Greek coastguard had procured for them to spend the night on under the full moon.
These were very civilized families. Their tales were harrowing. Those from Aleppo told of an ancient city reduced to rubble without any schools, hospitals, pharmacies, supermarkets or people left. The vast majority of the population has had to flee. Some had lost family members, others their own limbs in the civil war. They had lived in Turkish refugee camps, where they told of being treated well, but with no hope for the future, for between six months and four years. Two of the teenage girls had not gone to school for three years. Their stories were heart-breaking, but their dignity and hope uplifting, in spite of their dereliction.
The next day, our group found another fifteen, in the same spot. Again, we obviously clothed them, fed them put a little money in their pockets and secured rooms in local pensions for them to be able to wash and sleep until they could board one of the two weekly ferry services to Athens, where they had registered with the police to join refugee staging centres. It was during the difficult search for places that would take them (for a fee) for a few nights that we came across an incredibly brave and generous couple.
Monika Brüggebors, from Germany, has lived on the island for many years, with her partner Damien, who was born in Australia from Kastellorizo emigrés and decided to return to his ancestors’ island over a decade ago. These two wonderful human beings own a small shop and restaurant and have dedicated themselves to provide first aid to the flow of Syrian refugees swimming across or being picked up on little neighbouring islands by the Greek Coast Guard every day. They collect old clothes in the shop and feed the wretched swimmers in the restaurant, for free, or for a heavily subsidized few Euros when some of the refugees insist they wish to pay for the meal to maintain their pride. They also help them find places to sleep and co-ordinate local help. Monika and Damien have accepted the fact that they will lose many regular tourist customers as a result of their charity, because they have limited room and some tourists positively want to avoid mixing with the wretched arrivals.
Monika and Damien are on the front-line of the epochal Syrian refugee crisis that we have all been following through the media. I can assure you that all the pictures we see in the newspapers or on TV pale in comparison with the emotion of actually meeting and caring for these brave and unfortunate souls. Monika and Damien were able to enlist the help and charity of many foreign tourists during the Summer season, but are really worried now that the flow of tourists has all but stopped and the relatively impoverished local inhabitants are simply overwhelmed (we met Greek Coast Guard officers who were buying bread out of their meagre salaries to feed desperately hungry refugees). A group of us has therefore decided to help them over the next few months because we know the money and clothing we will send will be put to good use, where it is sorely needed, right away."
Since September, the number of refugees arriving on the island has increased substantially, from an estimated 500 arriving in September and October, we are expecting more than 1000 in the coming winter months. As a result, Monika and Damian's efforts focus mostly on the provision and distribution of clothing, while local authorities have mobilised and our Shanti support group has organized the provision of food, drink and shelter using local. Find out more about this in What We Do.