I remember holding her really tightly, and running with her to the women’s tent in our camp. I was really concerned I would trip and fall, I kept looking at her face, her teeth were chattering and I remember feeling strangely relieved in that moment that she didn’t have hypothermia

Jemilla Russell :: Age 29 :: From UK ::  “I was a Freelance Journalist, then became a barmaid again and I had to give up that job to come to Greece”

I came here because I wanted to educate myself on the situation rather than reading about it on my commute to work. In October 2015 I was in Lille, France and I crossed paths with a young girl. It was clear she and her family were refugees. I gave her some money and I spoke to her mother. During the next couple of months I begun reading about it more in-depth and following the situation on social media. I was working during Christmas in a pub in Central London. A fight broke out one night between two men, one was on cocaine and attacked the other for no reason. In breaking up the fight, I was stood between them both, with my hand on the chest of the one drugs. I remember feeling something snap in me when he was looking me in the eyes, with his own manic eyes, deciding in that moment I should be doing something better with my time and energy, if I truly cared about what was happening, I should just go and do it. On Christmas Eve I booked my ticket to Greece.

What did you know about the place and the situation before arriving?

As a country I didn’t know anything about Greece, or Lesvos and I hadn’t been to Greece before. Once I booked my tickets I did a little reading on the country but mostly my research was on the volunteering movement and the refugee crisis. I learnt some Greek words through a man who came into the pub where I worked.

When did you arrive and for how long have you stayed? 

I arrived at the start of February and was in Greece, including Athens until the end of March (just over six weeks)

Did you arive alone or  with friends? I came alone.

What reactions did you get from family and friends before coming? My Father was very supportive, despite being against immigration in the past, his first response was “Well, these people are human too”. My closest friends were also supportive, but they were not surprised I was doing something like this, they had a response that they expected it from me, there were concerns about my safety but nothing major. In London I lived above a Turkish Kebab shop (run by Kurdish people who had come to Britain 15 years ago), I had become friendly with the owners; they had been the ones I had told first after I passed the owner in the hallway, he didn’t believe me at first. I saw him a week later and he gave me a huge hug when I told him I was definitely going and admitted he didn’t believe me, he has been sending messages of support through my old housemate.

An influential / defining moment you had on the Island ?

 I had been on the island a couple of weeks in Molyvos, and I decided to move to Skala Sikamineas to work with Lighthouse (I had been with a different organisation in Molyvos). The most defining moment for me was when I was there to help bring a boat in. It was unusual, but I guess usual for some, I had been in Skala a week or so and had welcomed people into the camps – but not directly from a boat, bringing it in from the water. I was on night shift and we were told that a boat was coming, so we started getting everything ready. We waited around for it for some time and learnt that they had come but were with Platanos. The Greek authoriries were accusing the driver of being a smuggler, when he wasn’t, when he was driving the boat he hadn’t listened to the coastguard and gone in another direction (he made a pragmatic decision as where he was originally coming in was rocky and potentially dangerous). I walked with another volunteer to Platanos to see what was going on to tell our camp about. We waited in the background watching the authorities around all of these people. I went back to the camp to get blankets for the people shivering. I went back and wrapped some around some people, then they were taken away (arrested). We went back to the camp and I told the other volunteers that there wasn’t a boat coming now. I decided to go back to my room to get my cigarettes and walked with the girl I was sharing my room with. As we headed back, the camp manager came up behind us and asked us to wait, because he thought another boat might be coming but wasn’t sure. As we stood there, some people from Platanos started running down then someone gave me a huge torch and told me to shine it on the sea. I didn’t know what I was doing, someone next to me told me what to do and we all moved to just in front of the Lighthouse camp. I was stood next to a doctor from New Zealand, the big group of us were staring out to the sea. I had no clue what we were looking for – I kept telling myself, just a shape of a boat. The refugees I had met before had already come in, so this was new to me, and it only happened once. Then the coastguard light began scanning the sea, every so often we caught a glimpse of something in the sea. It seemed that we were staring out there for so long, time went really slow then suddenly it happened very fast. The doctor next to me said “there it is!”. I could see the boat in the distance, it was tiny, then suddenly it was there – huge, and the people’s shouting were loud. We began running down the beach towards a safer part, where there were less rocks. We all begun shouting “over here”, waving our arms and me the torch at them. They were shouting and waving their arms, and we were doing it back at them. I remember feeling that I needed to do it as loud as possible. Then the boat was there, being dragged onto the beach and everyone started clambering out. I heard the same doctor say to get everyone’s life jackets off so I started going to any piece of orange material I could see and undoing the clasps. There were two little girls, I was undoing their life jackets, an elderly woman dressed in an Hajib (it was dark, all I could see was this and the skin on her face) came up to me and grabbed my shoulders. She kept saying thank you. She was full of exasperation and seemed overwhemlingly emotional at being on the beach. She spoke some Arabic to me and I said “Insha’allah”, she took my face and kissed my cheeks. The same doctor then handed me a little girl – about 3 / 4 years old and said “this girl needs to be changed immediately”. I remember holding her really tightly, and running with her to the women’s tent in our camp. I was really concerned I would trip and fall, I kept looking at her face, her teeth were chattering and I remember feeling strangely relieved in that moment that she didn’t have hypothermia. In the tent I moved as quick as I could to get her clothes off, they were stuck to her skin she was so wet. She wouldn’t look at me the whole but I kept smiling and talking to her. She kept staring to the side until one little moment which seemed to change it all. I couldn’t get her socks / tights off properly, out of the corner of my eye I saw her watching me, and she moved her foot in the way I needed it without me having to force it in some way. I got the tights off, looked at her and said “Shokoran”. It was a really indefinite amount of time in the whole picture but it will stay with me. I saw her eyes change and she softened. She went from looking distant to warm. Her face changed. It was like I wasn’t just another stranger to her in this whole traumatic experience. Her eyes flickered, she seemed to come to life. She looked at me and said “Shokoran” back. Her older sister was there the whole time, I had been changing them both at the same time. She wore glasses like me and we bonded over this. She kept giggling at my silly ways of trying to communicate with them. The women from their family had also been changed and I had run back and forth also getting them things. Hours on I remember standing back and realising it was morning, then looking at them all and realising their whole family was together. I sat next to grandmother. She kept smiling at, she took my hand and kissed it. She did this a few times. I sat there feeling exhausted but so relieved, I remember feeling grateful and alive for the first time.

When I left some time later I went to get coffee, I spoke to a friend back home who asked if I was OK (generally), I couldn’t explain what I had just experienced to him, I sent a brief message back saying “Yes. Tired. But alive”

What do you feel you learned?

Back in London I felt isolated and trapped, my faith in people had diminished. I was frustrated carrying this inner anger around. The volunteers and the refugees have restored my faith in people. I have always had empathy and cared about the refugee crisis. The concept of Freedom of Movement is very important to me, and was when I did my degree in Human Rights – but I have been deeply taken-aback by the openness of the refugees. How much they want to connect with you and share themselves, how welcoming they have also been to me. To me, that’s been a real connection with humanity. There were times when I watched some of those people with awe, that despite their journey’s and the horrendous trauma involved, on the outside they remained composed, still able to smile and laugh.

Have you experienced moments of crisis or trauma?  There was a time when a boat had arrived, and again I was in the women’s tent changing several women, and a young boy and girl with their mother. Once they were changed they wanted to find the rest of their family, I walked with them to the male changing tent. Myself and another volunteer were there, and the sister in law was fraught and both women started telling us something quickly. The mother was crying and pointing to her chest, rocking her arms, then pointing in the direction of the water. For a moment I swear my heart stopped when I thought she was telling us that a baby was in the water. In all the chaos we worked out that the mothers husband was on the other side of the water with their 7 month old baby. Somehow they got separated, and put into different boats. The night was long, I sat in that tent with them, going back and forth with things trying to distract the children. There was nothing else I could do other than wait with them. The mother couldn’t stop crying, she was sat by an electric heater, rocking backwards and forth. This experience was a mish-mash of things. From me sitting with them to getting up trying to work out what to do, or find something useful for them. I brought the grandfather tea and he motioned to me to sit next to me, then we held hands. A little while later when I went to bring the mother tea, she refused it so I put it next to her on the floor, then knelt next to her. I took her hand and said “Insha’allah” she looked at me and nodded yes. Then I found us both saying it out loud together, it felt like praying. We were all waiting for this second boat to arrive, it was painful to watch and be so helpless in. I found out a few hours later the next day that the people on the second boat had been arrested and it never arrived.

Do you remember anyone in particular among refugees or volunteers?

I will always remember the refugees I met, I can still see their faces. I think I will always remember the very first group of people I met, a group of men from Afghanistan. This was on my first night shift with Lighthouse. I had gone to Platanos to help direct them to our camp, someone from this group will always stick with me, and is now a good friend. He was so calm and the way he communicated with the refugees I was in awe of. I thought he someone a lot more experienced in the whole situation, but when I got to know I found out that he was as new to it as I was, the only difference between us was that he is Greek and chose to come to Lesvos for the same reasons I did. I felt even more inspired by him knowing that he was a local and was still taking time to do this. The same night, much later when it was calm I was sat around the camp fire with some of these men who I wrote this about: http://jemillaroux.com/2016/02/24/my-afghani-brothers/

There are many volunteers who have become good friends now that I have a love and respect for. The volunteers who really stood out to me, were the middle aged women who had come there single, or away from their husbands; when I got to know them, I found incredible stories and a resilience of experience that was so important in connecting with not just refugees, but all people around us. I listened to their stories of their own travels, their careers and other situations they had experienced like this totally mesmerised. There was one in particular who is an American Librarian living in Cairo, her stories were incredible. These women reminded me of the life I wanted to have outside of the walls of London.

What are you taking with you back home

I think mostly a renewed feeling of humanity, and belief in other people. The concept of freedom of movement has always been something that has moved me and been important to me, but I now I feel a solidarity with the refugees. I feel a protectiveness that I didn’t have before. This experience has become a part of me and I will be coming back, I want to come back especially to Athens but regardless of what job I get once back home I will be using my free time to assist refugees anywhere I can in Europe