Almost 100,000 refugees have arrived on the Greek island of Lesvos this year and for many— thousands— they have been greeted not by official humanitarian relief workers, but by a British family who have opened their hearts and home to desperate people.
Eric Kempson – a long haired ex-Safari Park manager from England, his wife Philippa and their daughter Elleni have become heroes to thousands of refugees who have washed up on the 10 miles of coastline near their home. Most of them are Syrians fleeing the war and chaos in Syria.
In the absence of any aid agencies, help from the Greek authorities or the European Union, the Kempson family, along with a handful of other volunteers and tourists, spend every day helping the thousands of vulnerable refugees and migrants who have landed near their home.
Every morning at dawn Eric and his wife Philippa make their way up to a vantage point on the coast overlooking their home, the sea and the Turkish coastline four miles beyond. They look out for boats arriving across the narrow Mytilini strait from Turkey.
Smugglers wanting to maximize profit pack in as many desperate people into unstable inflatable dinghies as they can.
“Boats that are designed to carry 12 people are carrying 70. So the boats are so low in the water, they’re sinking from the beginning,” Philippa says.
“They think they’re going to die the whole way across,” says Eric.
Once the boats have reached the safety of Europe’s shores, some jubilantly cheer and kiss the ground; others stagger to the shore before breaking down in a wave of relief and despair.
It is a chaotic and humbling scene. And there are children and new born babies, too. Dozens of them. Every day.
“It’s horrific, says Eric, it’s like a scene out of World War II.”
Eric’s first priority is to make sure the boats land safely and help the most vulnerable ashore.
He sighs with resignation when he has to explain to the arrivals that they’ve landed in the north of the Island. Here, because they are “undocumented illegals”, there are no facilities available for them — no aid agencies, no water, no toilet, food or shelter.
Traumatized refugees soon discover that they can’t pay for a hotel or eat in the local restaurant until they become “legally registered” — and still the Greek authorities do not set up a reception centre where tens of thousands of them land.
Instead they must register with the authorities in the South, in the capital of Mytilini. Until they do this they are not even allowed to take a taxi, instead they must walk a grueling 40 miles in the searing heat across rugged terrain, carrying their life’s possessions with them.
Eric and his volunteers do their best to ferry the vulnerable — the disabled, the elderly and the youngest children – up and down the remote dirt road from where they land to a small makeshift transit camp in the nearest village of Molyvos. Here they rest on filthy bits of cardboard or sweat-stained mattresses, before their grueling onward journey to the south.
Eric dishes out bottles of water, feeds as many people as he can and deals with medical emergencies.
He’s had to attend to miscarriages, a severely dehydrated baby, and accidental stab wounds. One day a heavily pregnant Syrian woman nearly gave birth in his car.
“These people are fleeing a war zone, they’ve suffered enough and they don’t need to suffer anymore,” he says simply.
But he’s desperate for help. “We’ve been screaming out for a doctor here for 7 months and no one comes. I’m just a wood carver,” he says. “I naturally presumed when you ask for help, when you say there’s a big problem here the aid agencies come and help, but no, it doesn’t seem to work like that.”
Staring out to sea, always on the lookout for more refugees making the perilous crossing, Eric sounds a warning: “This is just the tip of the iceberg. Soon we could have tens of thousands coming through here and if we don’t get any help on the frontline soon, this island is in for a big shock.”
The Pappas Post has recently embarked on a fundraising endeavor to “support those supporting the refugees.” There are dozens of people and organizations throughout Greece who, although facing their own financial and economic stress, are involved in superhuman endeavors to help those arriving in Greece en route to other European countries. Please consider sharing and/or supporting this campaign. Click here to donate and see the campaign details.
Edited for length from an original story on Channel 4 News. The original version of this story appeared on Channel 4 News here.
Film edited by Steve Gibbs
Filmed, produced and directed by Sharron Ward. @KatalystProds
Lesbos SOS is a Katalyst Productions film for Channel 4 News.