The British expats helping Syrian refugees

Published by The Mail on Sunday (6th September, 2015)

As the inflatable boat overloaded with Syrian refugees neared the rocky Greek island coastline shortly after dawn last week, the smuggler revved the motor and hurtled forward.

There was panic among the people on board, who shouted to slow down. Instead the boat hit the rocks and flipped over, throwing 14 adults and five children into the sea.

Derar Alzarzor grabbed his terrified sons aged one and three. He knew neither could swim – just like Aylan and Galip Kurdi, the Syrian brothers whose drowning last week provoked a global outcry.

But ten-year-old Moaje Saad was less fortunate, trapped beneath the overturned boat for several minutes. ‘Everything was black,’ she said. ‘I was crying and thinking bad things would happen.’

Fortunately she was saved, so the sweet girl did not add to the tragic toll of Syrians killed on the lethal Mediterranean crossing into Europe. And yesterday she woke with her family in a smart holiday flat on the tourist idyll of Symi, courtesy of an impressive initiative by British expats to help refugees passing through their island.

Distressed by seeing families sleeping rough on the streets, hotel owner Andrew Davies and lettings agent Wendy Wilcox decided to make up for Europe’s failure by launching a reception service called Solidarity Symi.

‘We suddenly started seeing all these families arriving, with kids going barefoot,’ said Mr Davies, 43, a former investment banker from Cheshire. ‘How could we lie on the beach reading books when people were suffering?’

Already after little more than two weeks – aided by other expats, concerned locals and tourists on their summer break – their venture is feeding, clothing, housing and even offering medical treatment to hundreds of desperate Syrians.

I watched as pensioners handed out home-cooked food for families, businessmen poured milk for children, and holidaymakers sorted donated dresses and T-shirts. ‘These are kind people, good people,’ said a Syrian man, who left his war-torn country a month ago.

It is a remarkable reaction by caring citizens to the crisis engulfing our continent, the quiet communal spirit of an English village bursting through the bureaucracy and incompetence of official European responses.

Symi, with its stunning harbour surrounded by pastel-painted houses on steep hills, sits on the front line. Just six miles from Turkey, the tiny island of 2,600 people saw more than 4,000 refugees arrive in the first half of the year alone on a ragtag flotilla.

Since then, the numbers have risen. When I arrived on Friday, there were more than 300 Iraqis and Syrians in the tiny main town, many camped out on the street with children beside sleek yachts, busy bars and ferries disgorging gaggles of holidaymakers.

Among them was Moaje, whose father was killed in the civil war and whose Damascus home was obliterated by bombs. ‘There was fighting everywhere – it was so bad,’ said her mother Aras, 33, who wants to reach Germany with her two daughters.

Mr Davies and Ms Wilcox decided to set up their group after seeing the number of arrivals soar this year; for the first time, many were families with young children. Refugees say Turkish smugglers land them on the arid island and claim Athens is just over the hill.

‘We had to do something,’ said Mr Davies. ‘These are human beings who had to leave their homes or die, often surviving by selling family jewellery along the way. We have seen people with scars from torture, and others who say they have seen chemical attacks.’

Their group commandeered a disused post office, now filled with stacks of water bottles, food sold at cost price by local shops and piles of donated clothes and medicines. They also installed a chemical toilet and shower, since there are no public ones on the island.

Ged Horton, 68, a retired engineer from Manchester who has lived on Symi for eight years, cooked the spicy lentils being doled out alongside cheese, coleslaw, biscuits and milk. ‘They like the lentils but don’t seem very impressed by the coleslaw,’ he said. Like other expats in the 30-strong core team of volunteers, Mr Horton said he wanted to assist people suffering in a crisis. ‘I get quite choked up seeing the children,’ he added. ‘I wish we could do more.’

Alongside him were tourists from Britain, Spain and the United States, while an army of local residents wash clothes. Many refugees arrive with only what they are wearing after jettisoning all their possessions over the side of crammed boats to stop them sinking.

Last weekend one Iraqi teenager was shot dead by traffickers who clashed with Symi coastguards. There were 91 people on the boat, each paying about €1,000 (£730); a three-year-old boy was clubbed on the head by the callous gang as a warning to follow their orders. The crossing normally takes an hour or two, but one boat recently floundered in the water for more than two days.

Mr Davies, who spends winter working with a South African charity, is a born organiser. Anxious Syrians beg him for help and ask about travel permits; he tells them to wait their turn for police processing so they can travel on to Athens as registered refugees.

Among his team of volunteers is Peter Fitton, a GP from Holmfirth, West Yorkshire, who is alternating with a German doctor to provide a daily medical clinic during his two-week break in Symi. ‘We all have to do what we can,’ he said.

Already Solidarity Symi has raised €20,000 (£15,000) through a Facebook site and donations from visitors. Holiday home-owners are giving them vacant properties for €20 a night, just enough to cover cleaning costs. They also received a truckload of clothes from British expats in Bodrum, just over the water in Turkey.

The group’s founders, both working eight hours a day on the venture on top of their jobs, admit there was initial resistance given fears over the all-important tourist industry. Talking to local traders, you hear sympathy for families fleeing war mixed with smatterings of concern over ‘dirty Syrians’ impacting on their businesses. But about one in seven islanders is thought to be receiving assistance themselves, victims of Greece’s austerity.

Maria Rizopoulou, 28, runs a small hotel that is letting rooms to refugees; I saw one with 12 people crushed inside. She said only a single guest had complained, while estimating that about a third of islanders oppose such assistance.

‘People are worried this might affect tourism but we are in the middle of a huge crisis and have to help,’ she said. ‘This could happen to any of us – especially Greeks, as we have our own crisis going on.’

Just as in Britain, the shocking image of a three-year-old’s corpse on a beach seems to have shifted attitudes on Symi, despite the tide of refugees. But voluntary efforts can only have small impact when almost 200,000 refugees have arrived in Greece this year, with numbers expected to intensify in the coming weeks ahead of winter. However, as Ms Wilcox said when I asked why she started the group: ‘It’s from my heart.’

Once again, amid the tide of human misery from the Middle East and official incompetence across Europe, ordinary people are taking matters into their own hands to help those whose lives have been devastated by conflict. It is heartening to witness.

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