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To Shake A Man's Hand - Benjamin Gow

To Shake A Man’s Hand

Like many of you, I imagine, I’d heard of the refugee crisis but when I started thinking of volunteering, I wondered if I was really needed? I didn’t know if I could be bothered if I wasn’t that much use. I’m not a medic, or have management experience or other things I imagined were useful.

I’m 18 what do I know, I don’t have any answers, I’m trying to figure out the question.

At some point, I realised the refugee crisis was all the politics I’ve been arguing with people about, things like Ebola, homelessness, social cleansing, zero hour contracts, bombing,

Then it dawned on me, how can I sit at home and say what’s right and what’s wrong and not do it myself. I realised no one was going to tell me to do this. So I just showed up

On my first night shift I was part of a volunteer group that helped over 200 cold, wet and scared refugees, off overcrowded dinghy boats onto the beach. In the pitch-black we reclothed them, got them medical aid, and tea, and set them on their way to the registration centre safely.

And that was on one beach, on one shift, on one night.

Within 24 Hours I was on my first shift, a dawn shift in the Watchtower, scanning the sea between Turkey and the Greek island of Lesvos for refugee boats, I thought “this is cool.” I thought I was more than ready for the night shift.

I slipped a grain bar in my pocket, picked up my Thomas the Tank Engine headlamp I had when I was five, and strolled out to meet up with a driver I was teamed with; thinking we were going to drive up and down the coast road with our elbows out of the window.

But we almost didn’t even have time to put the handbrake on when we hit the beach. We were straight into unloading refugees from a dingy that had just been pulled out of the water.

I was initially excited. This is what everyone comes to do, hands on helping people who need it. I was also relieved that refugees were making it out of the woods along the coast of Turkey; where they tell us, they are kept at gunpoint, sometimes without food, for days.

Then I went straight into; “I don’t know how to handle this. How to handle this many people, in need, in the dark, in a foreign language.”

Somehow in the confusion I saw a man tipping a bottle of water into his hand, to wash his face. Suddenly I had a way to get to grips with the situation. We had stocked up the car with water. I pulled up the boot, heaved out a pack of 24 bottles and went back into the crowd. Even though I didn’t know the word for water, I could move through everyone handing them out. The light of my childish headlamp cut a bright path in the dark. It caught hand after weak hand reaching out, and I just put water in each one.

It was as if by letting me help with this simple act, the refugees gave me the chance to understand I could actually help.

I ran out of bottles of water as the second boat landed. In that moment of uselessness, I realised all these people still had to keep going. They now had to walk to the next point at least. They were wet, with salty water, the wind was blowing, it was dark, and they had no idea where they were.

I had imagined they landed on a beach where an aid camp was set up, and it was as simple as that. Journey over. But they don’t. They land randomly, somewhere on the other side from wherever they leave.

With luck, they are spotted on their way, by a strange mix of Spanish lifeguards, assorted NGOs, coastguards and maverick volunteers. Who scan the sea for boats, through the telescope on a hotel balcony to cliff tops with binoculars, and alert whoever is on the ground at the time. Who get to the projected beach with cars full of water, a mix of clothes, warm hats, socks are easy to carry and fit on a lot of people, and emergency foil blankets.

The refugees just want to get off the boats, feel their feet on the ground. All that we can do is get everyone on the beach safe. Then help them take off their life jackets, change what clothes we can for dry ones, and wrap emergency foil blankets around the shocked, the wet, the old, and the wide-eyed, shivering children.

Then they have to get off the beach. Any help depends on who is there, with what resources. This night a mix of available cars and vans took those they could fit into the nearest aid camp. To everyone else we could only point the way in the dark to walk for more help.

It’s unpredictable, noisy, chaotic, certainly highly charged. Everyone is wet. I grabbed a bag of clothes from the car and began handing out all the spare trousers we’d brought to some soaked men. The gloves went, the hats, the scarves, all found homes. Until there was nothing but a bag of socks and a small, cream, woman’s quilted coat, left in the boot of the car. That’s when something caught my attention. Silhouetted in the beams of various torch lights was an old man, bent double, carrying a big bag on his back.

Then I saw water dripping out of the bottom of that bag. I could not let him carry that, all the way to whatever area was down the road. So I shouldered it for him and walked at his side.

I did not know when I took his bag I sealed my fate with his.

I soon realised he was a grandfather, walking with his family; two other men, his sons, a pregnant woman, and a little girl about 5. Suddenly, the woman clutched her tummy and cried out with pain. A call went out, a medic volunteer appeared, and we sat the mother to be down on some rocks on the side of the road. All her family sat down with her. The medic asked for socks, I ran to get that leftover bag of them. We changed her socks out. I realised the child’s feet were soaking and I changed her socks too.

Then I saw the grandfather had started to shake uncontrollably. Someone unfolded an emergency blanket around him, someone else felt his coat was soaking and stripped it off him. I remembered that one left in our boot; it was more than the wrong size, but it was better than nothing.

Someone was rubbing his hands to try and get him warm, I didn’t have gloves. But I found more socks and gave them to put on his hands. Someone took their own scarf off and replaced his soaking one, but nothing helped. The call went out again. The medic said he was slipping into hypothermia, which would be life threatening. He needed to be taken to emergency help straight away.

That was it. We became the emergency ambulance, it was up to me and my fellow volunteer to “volunteer” to do this.

We told the family we were taking him to a doctor. We told them to remember our faces and look for us because we would stay with him all the time. That’s how we would reunite them. The one rule is to keep families together, if they split at this point they can end up in different countries. Then we had to do what needed to be done. So I put his arm round my shoulder and lifted him up, and in the dark just followed the shouts of my driver back to the car. I got him in the back, and got in next to him.

The ride to the camp was a blur. All I knew is that I wanted him to live.

We pulled up to a makeshift camp built in an area hewn from the dense gorse, on the other side of the road along the beach. There was someone to point the way to a tiny portacabin, where a doctor from Holland took over.

Grandfather was safe, or at least he now had a chance. But, I realised my job still wasn’t over. I had to wait for his family.

For a second I took a breath and looked around, and thought; “this is no place for people to be at all, but thank goodness it’s here.” Despite the shabby impermanence, under the pale blue camp lights there was a feeling of calm organisation.

There was medical aid, a clothes distribution area, separate changing tents for men and women, and camp toilets. Someone was making tea, there were biscuits, the shouting changed to conversation. There were queues forming, clothes changing hands, and it felt more like a market stall; “Have you got a size bigger. This is too big. Have you got jogging pants.” I could see people exchanging smiles.

I saw his family arrive so I knew they were here. We just had to get grandfather on his feet. I was sent to fetch clean, dry socks and new underpants for the grandfather. Then I fetched tea, hot sweet tea, then more tea. His feet were dried with great care and plastic bags were put on them because he had to put his feet back in soaking shoes, but he was back. I stayed with him to watch the doctor prick his finger and check his blood sugar, and then grandfather was clear to go.

We stepped outside, and my crew member waited with him while I was sent to find his family. I finally spotted them. I waved, they waved, I waved at their grandfather, he waved. Slowly grandfather made his way over the uneven ground, on shaky legs, back to his family. But it still wasn’t over.

His legs were still shaking. So a chair was found, and someone handed me a fleece blanket, and I tucked it round his legs as if he were my grandfather.

There was more tea, and biscuits, and he had two. I was relieved to find out the pregnant mum was fine, the girl too, everyone was in dry clothes, we found carrier bags for their wet belongings.

But, the night was still not over. The first small chance of rest in weeks and the refugees have to move on.

We arranged to drive this family in two cars to the nearest place transit buses can get to. But most refugees still face a 40min walk up a punishing hill, on a dirt track, in the dark, to the pickup point, for a ride to the registration centre over an hour away.

But at least there are busses. There is an American organisation running the pickup point. In the moonlight, the high mesh fencing, the portacabins with stretchers lined up against their wall, and the green military tent, looked like a post-apocalyptic holding centre. However, everyone is greeted with a smile and fresh bananas and apples.

I picked up as many of the family’s bags as I could, and walked with them into this hanger like tent. There were thin mattresses lined up in rows on the floor, and nothing else.

It was late, the air felt heavy, I remember the sound of a crying baby echoing around the hanger. Suddenly there was no more I could do.

I realised I would never see any of these people again, I will never know if they are alright. All I know is I was a small part of amazing work making this one old man alright tonight. The son of the grandfather walked up to me and silently held out his hand.

For the first time in my life I’ve had my hand shaken. I mean, I have had my hand shaken before, in greeting, in introduction, in general, but he shook my hand and meant it.

I put that hand in my pocket and felt my Thomas the Tank Engine headlamp was still there. Now I know what it is to really shake the hand of another man, and nothing will ever be the same again.

The refugees have given me far more than I’ll ever be able to give them.

This article first appeared in The Observer Newspaper


 

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