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  • Evangelos Tsirmpas

The Starfish Foundation: Solidarity without borders!

During the last weeks, we observe a rapidly increasing expression of institutionalized xenophobia and racism against the immigrants and refugees who are trying to reach Europe in order to escape terror and death. A number of European governments are officially calling into question the very existence of the concepts of democracy and humanism addressing, verbally and practically, displacing people as sub-humans. Unfortunately, these far-right movements enjoy social support. Their followers, genuine children of the Enlightment, gather around refugee houses carrying torches,throw pig heads in refugee centers and burn potential refugee camps down, among others. On the contrary, as we have described in our previous articles, also exists the world of solidarity. People who are able to love, regardless of the other's color, religion, ethnicity or other distinctions. People who even take the life-changing decision to put aside their personal microcosms and to selflessly dedicate themselves to the ones in need. Some of those people from all around the world got together and created the Starfish Foundation, an organization that provides food, water, shelter, medical facilities and transportation to the refugees in Mytilini. I spoke with Peggy Whitfield, a volunteer of the Starfish Foundation who shared some compelling experiences, stories, pictures and emotions deriving from her past years on the island.

Photo by Brice Garcin

Evangelos Tsirmpas: When and how was the idea about the Starfish Foundation born?

Peggy Whitfield: Refugees have been arriving in Lesvos and other Greek islands for around five years now but in nowhere near the numbers of the last 18 months. In November 2014, Melinda McRostie, owner of the restaurant “The Captain’s Table” in the harbor at Molyvos, alongside a team of dedicated locals, began handing out food and water and words of welcome to refugees rescued by the coastguard. What started out as a spontaneous gesture of kindness soon grew into something bigger. In early 2015 a Facebook group was created so people could find out more and send clothing, so people arriving here by boat could change out of their wet clothes. As summer arrived, with the Syrian civil war descending into a bloodbath, and the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan becoming increasingly unstable, the amounts of desperate people fleeing for their lives exploded into the hundreds of thousands. Volunteers from all over the world flew into Lesvos to offer their time, expertise and compassion.

The organization became known as Starfish because of the story of a little girl walking along a beach covered with starfish after a terrible storm She began to throw them back into the sea, one by one, and an old man asked her "Little girl, why are you doing this? Look at this beach! You can't save all these starfish. You can't begin to make a difference!" The girl picked up another starfish and threw it back into the sea and said "Well, I made a difference to that one!" Soon other people joined her efforts and many starfish were saved.

This is the philosophy that lies behind the Starfish Foundation - if we pull together, we can make a huge difference to so many people, even if initially the task seems insurmountable.

Photo by Brice Garcin

E.T.: Can you describe your work and the practical applications of your solidarity with refugees?

P.W.: Starfish became an official non-profit organization in October 2015 and in the last six months we opened and ran our own transit camp for four months, the first on this side of the Lesvos, we had teams working in the registration camp, Moria, for some time and we currently supply and distribute clothing to new arrivals, as well as looking after all the refugees brought in by the Greek coastguard, ensuring that they have access to food, water, medical attention and dry clothes.

But perhaps our most important job lies in recognizing that we are the first point of contact for many refugees arriving here in Europe. People flee for their lives from their home countries. They then have to make a perilous boat journey to safety and Starfish are often the first people they meet. We want everyone arriving here to feel welcomed and safe and to ensure that they understand that we stand with them and not against them.

Photo by Peggy Whitfield

E.T.: Share with us some of the experiences you've had during the last crucial months on the island of Lesvos.

P.W.: The last six months here on Lesvos has been beautiful, terrible, over-whelming and above all, incredibly emotional. There have been extremely dark times – we have had several shipwrecks, where scores of people have lost their lives, including many children. Holding grieving parents whose baby has died or comforting a child whose parents have drowned in front of them, despite the best efforts of the coastguard and medics, is something you can never erase from your memory. But there have also been many moments of joy – the satisfaction that you feel when a family goes safely on their way, the teenage girls who make you tea in the middle of the night to warm you up in the camp and the smiles of people, who despite sharing no common language, you can translate as a feeling of solidarity, love and peace.

The strength of the human spirit is something that the Starfish team is constantly in awe of here in Lesvos. A few months ago, a Syrian man, complete with jaunty fedora, passed through our transit area. He was always smiling and helped us so much with translation. We asked why he had left and he told us he had lost his wife and mother in a chemical gas attack in Damascus and he wanted a new beginning after losing his whole universe. The dignity and hope he still held in his heart, in spite of everything he had lost, was moving beyond words.

Photo by Peggy Whitfield

E.T.: How can someone help you or join your initiative?

P.W.:There are three main ways you can help support Starfish in the work that we do; you can donate money to us, you can send us supplies that we are currently collecting or you can come and volunteer with us. We are always looking for hard-working, kind and respectful people to come and join our team. We couldn’t function without our volunteers. For more information about supporting us in these three ways, please visit our website.

We also want to stress how much the people of Lesvos have been involved in efforts to help. Austerity and this refugee crisis has been a double blow to island’s economy, which derives mainly from tourism. Lesvos is a beautiful island and we would urge people to come here and see the stunning landscapes, explore the fascinating history and have an ouzo or three, whilst standing in solidarity, supporting the local people and their livelihoods, as well as Starfish’s humanitarian efforts.

Photo by Peggy Whitfield

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