It was one of my last days in Lesvos. I had just finishing meeting with a handful of representatives from various humanitarian organizations. They were interested in working with COHI on the protection of vulnerable women refugees — women travelling alone, single mothers travelling with children, and pregnant women.
We were all excited by the prospect of having a continuous flow of experienced midwives to Greece. They could provide prenatal and postnatal care to women who, not needing emergency attention, would otherwise slip through the cracks. They could provide breastfeeding support to mothers who found their babies had suddenly stopped feeding amidst the trauma, and were terrified. And, in the middle of a crisis where privacy is a luxury and women’s needs get left for last, they could carve out safe, women-friendly spaces. Space to disclose a need. Space to talk about contraception or violence. Space to dry off, warm up, listen to a little heartbeat, and feel some relief.
I hitched a ride back to the main port with one representative from the meeting, and we parked in the large lot near the ferry, where refugees depart for Athens after they've registered at the camp and bought their ticket. “John!” Someone suddenly shouted my name. I whipped around and saw it was one of the doctors who works in the medical tent on Afghan Hill, stethoscope around her neck, snowflakes perched on her head and shoulders as the rain started to freeze. She waved us over across the lot, and we found a small huddled mass of Afghani refugees wrapped up in blankets by her car. She had been driving and came across a large family of six who'd walked for more than three hours in the cold to buy their ferry ticket — nine miles from the camp to the port — only to discover the ferry was full and they'd have to wait until the next day to depart. With them was a year-old baby with a high fever. The family was clearly eligible for overnight accommodation at Caritas, an organization which takes the most vulnerable refugee families and puts them up in a hotel that they've rented out. But the doctor's car wouldn't start, and she didn't have the phone number for Caritas, to boot.
I gave her the number, and she confirmed that Caritas had room for the family today and would take them. She called another doctor to drive over from the camp and meet us. The women and babies got in the doctor's car. We took the men in our car, as well as all their bags, blankets, and two strollers — clearly donations they’d picked up at a volunteer-run tent at Afghan Hill. We drove them to the Caritas hotel, helped them inside, and gave the staff a brief handover. The women of the family thanked us several times and were clearly so grateful. The men wanted only to know how they would get back to the ferry. We reassured them that Caritas would organize transport to the ferry for them tomorrow.
If the doctor hadn't been driving by and if we hadn't happened to park there, the family might have fallen through the cracks entirely. Despite the plethora of aid organizations on the island, there isn't a coordinated and comprehensive system for ensuring the most vulnerable are protected. Many refugees fall through the cracks, while some of the key aid organizations here refuse to even acknowledge the cracks through which they're falling. It's up to organizations like COHI to be here, and to be everywhere — in the camp, on Afghan Hill, at the port — caring for those who have no care, finding those who are invisible. COHI and its partners on the ground are the ones who will ensure vulnerable women and children are seen, heard, given safe spaces to stop and heal, and safe passage to their new homes. And it will happen like this, one family at a time.