Peggy Whitfield is a volunteer with the Starfish Foundation in Lesvos, a registered NGO helping tens of thousands of refugees fleeing war and persecution. TRAID is supporting its work by collecting donations of clothes and shoes for refugees in our 11 charity shops in London. Here, Peggy gives us an insight into the work of the Starfish Foundation, her motivation for getting involved, and how the donations you make will help refugees through winter.

Four years ago, I walked through the jasmine soaked streets of Damascus and every corner was a poem. Storytellers wove their magic in the cafes, friends chatted over coffee and falafel, the souk rang out with the sound of children laughing and the cries of “Welcome to Syria” rang in my ears throughout the city. But then war came and everything changed. Damascus is now home to chemical gas attacks, torture, bombs and murder.

A consequence of this carnage, along with ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been the biggest movement of people in recent times. Whilst desperate people have been making their way to the shores of Greece for the last five years, 2015 became the year of the refugee. Huge numbers of people fleeing persecution made the perilous journey to Europe in search of a safe haven and a semblance of a future. Like many others, I was profoundly disturbed by the images of people dying on boat journeys on overcrowded dinghies. So I decided to try to help.

Recently arrived women, with baby. ©Brice Garcin
Recently arrived women, with baby. ©Brice Garcin

I flew out to Lesvos, Greece in September to volunteer with an organisation called Starfish, which was dedicated to helping all refugees arriving on the island. I was immediately plunged into a world of human suffering, but also immense amounts of compassion from locals and volunteers alike. The depth of trauma here cannot be underestimated. I’ve spoken to a Syrian man whose wife and mother were killed in a chemical gas attack. I’ve broken bread with an Iraqi boy, little more than a teenager, who had been kidnapped by a militia and tortured with electricity, the scars criss-crossing his body telling their own horrible story. I’ve comforted an Afghan women, along with her 15 day old baby, who had lost her husband in the melee of the Greek beaches.

Many people ask me, why now? Why are hundreds of thousands of people choosing to leave their homes behind this year? I can only think of the occasion when I asked a Syrian man the same question. He pulled down the t-shirt of his two year old son to reveal a freshly healed bullet wound on the child’s shoulder. All human beings deserve a life free from such atrocities.

I have now been on the island for three months and I intend to stay for as long as I am needed. During my time here, Starfish has turned into an non-profit organisation and as well as looking after all refugees intercepted by the coastguard, we also run a transit area for people, where they can eat, sleep, get dry clothes, access medical assistance if necessary, get information about where they are and what happens next, and are supplied with onward travel to Mytilini where they register and get papers for onward travel.

Hundreds of thousands of traumatised people have passed through Lesvos in the last year. We cannot change their past or influence their future. But what Starfish can do is give refugees the best welcome to Europe possible and provide people with their basic needs whilst they are with us on the island.

Newly arrived refugee with child, walking up from beach ©Brice Garcin 2015
Newly arrived refugee with child, walking up from beach ©Brice Garcin 2015

This is where you come in. Refugees arriving here on Lesvos are often soaking wet and verging on hypothermia, especially now we are entering the winter months. They have a long journey across Europe ahead of them and temperatures and conditions vary wildly from country to country. One of our Starfish’s most important jobs is to ensure that all refugees have clean, dry and warm clothing that they can take with them. Not only is this important for human dignity but it could potentially be life-saving in sub-zero temperatures. TRAID has kindly arranged collection points for clothing and blankets for refugees in all of its London stores. So please dig through your wardrobes and cupboards and give generously. Your donations will ensure that refugees arriving on Lesvos will keep them warm through their first European winter.

Starfish would like to thank all of you for supporting us in our work with refugees and we wish you a very merry Christmas.

Drop donations of clothes, shoes and more for refugees at any TRAID charity shop. Full information here.