Special report: Fife woman’s view from the frontline of refugee crisis

Lorna Ross
Lorna Ross

“As my eyes acclimatised to the darkness I looked through the bars and saw dozens of men sat on the floor shrouded in dirty blankets just looking back at me; it’s a harrowing moment no amount of life experiences could prepare you for.”

The disturbing experience is just one of many etched in the memory of a Fife grandmother who has recently returned from a month-long trip to the frontline of the humanitarian crisis which is engulfing many of the Greek islands.

For so long they have been popular tourist destinations, but are now the get-to places for many thousands of families for a whole different reason.

Many such families, which often include elderly grandparents, disabled, young children and babies, are fleeing war, terror and persecution happening right this minute in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq.

For Markinch resident Lorna Ross it was the nightly news bulletins of the unfolding crisis that compelled her to do something, indeed anything she could to help.

“Having watched the television coverage and seeing the ordinary families fleeing war, risking their lives by putting their elderly grandparents or the young children and babies in flimsy, overcrowded boats and paying thousands to do so, because that was a better option than where they were running away from, I was compelled to help,” she explained.

“This is the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. People need to realise that the equivalent of the population of Scotland has fled abroad and that humanitarian crisis is something I could not stand by and watch happen.”

Already a member of the Fife Welcomes Refugees group she, along with three others, joined Refuge Fife to make the self financed trip out to the Greek Island of Kos, first to help in the construction of temporary shelters and later to assist refugees at one of the many camps hastily set up to accommodate the huge influx of arrivals.

With many camp sites run by the Greek military, Lorna found out quickly that many of the most basic amenities were either being neglected or, in the most extreme cases, not provided at all.

“The camps are absolutely appalling, akin to detention centres, imprisoning refugees in many instances,” she said.

“On one particular night the situation was so bad that volunteers had no option but to go and buy food in order to quickly make up 400 meals in one evening for starving refugees that had not been given anything to eat.”

And Lorna is quick to dispel the myth that it is just adult men making the journey.

The reunification programme, whereby fleeing families will be sent on to join other family members in safe European countries means many more people are now undertaking the arduous and traumatic journey in order to make their escape.

Many hundreds of unaccompanied minors are among the refugees now arriving on the islands.

“The impression that the crisis is made up mainly of adult men is unfounded from what I witnessed, I can assure you it is anything but; the amount of unaccompanied minors and young children was truly shocking.”

But amidst the chaos and the undoubted misery and hardship etched on the faces of many a refugee, Lorna is moved to tears by the warmth, compassion and humility which was shown by those she was there to help.

“But for an accident of geography it could be us needing this help, these families are ordinary people just like you and I, they just find themselves in an extraordinary situation,” she said.

And she looks back admiringly at the many ordinary Greek islanders who have found themselves caught up in the unrelenting crisis.

In particular there is Kiki, who for the last year has driven along the coastline before every dawn on the lookout with her night vision equipment for those overladen boats that continue to arrive.

“Just one of many very special and inspirational people a lady who on one morning found ten bodies washed up on the same beach and who on another morning made the heartbreaking discovery of a lone baby, again drowned and washed up alone on a beach,” explained Lorna.

Her time in Kos, and at Leros, Pipka and later at Athens’ port of Piraeus, has already profoundly moved Lorna who is now planning to return to wherever she can help.

“I’m not brave, I was just in the position to have the time and the money to be able to do something and I urge others to consider it if they can.

“The most basic of help is of huge benefit and is welcomed with open arms by the people that help is for.”

But despite the efforts of many volunteers, Lorna feels the situation is not going to end or even improve anytime soon.

“Unless they stop the war; but then that’s where governments come in to it,” she relfects.

“When people look back at this time in years to come this is something that will feature large in the history books and many countries should hang their heads in shame at how little they helped people fleeing from the unimaginable horrors of war.

“Much more can, should and urgently needs to be done.”

A crowdfunding page has been set up for those wanting to donate to the Fife groups supporting refugees – to donate click here

Tickets for a charity dinner, which features guest speaker journalist and broadcaster LesleyRiddoch, taking place at the Bay Hotel, Kinghorn on April 23, are also available by contacting Maggie MacDonald on 07768-347597.