From Greece to Germany, volunteers are joining forces to help newly-arrived refugees and migrants get food, clothes and medical attention – plugging glaring gaps in the European Union’s broken asylum system while Europe’s leaders still grapple for a common solution to the growing crisis.
A young refugee on the island of Kos © Amnesty International
Treating refugees as people
"There was this Syrian family: a father with a small girl. She tried to open the door of my car. I thought she must be after the food, so I asked her father what they need. 'You have the same car as us,' he responded. 'But ours exploded back in Syria. Her mother died in it.' And then I understood what the little girl was looking for."
Konstantinos, a volunteer, looks away as he shares this story with me. Locals on the Greek island of Kos call him 'The Hardcore One', because he juggles two jobs with daily deliveries of food, supplies and support for refugees.
More than 200,000 mainly refugees, and some who are migrants, have risked their lives to reach the Greek islands so far in 2015. They face hellish conditions as the local authorities are either unwilling or incapable of providing basics like food, water, toilets or housing.
Locals and tourists have stepped up to plug the gap: "It simply is an overwhelming task," says Giorgos, a teacher who helps prepare and distribute more than 1,000 portions of food daily.
"It's not just feeding people," says Dionysia, another activist and local theatre director. "It's treating them as people."
Biljiana, aged 36 and originally from Belgrade, Serbia, volunteers with her partner: "We also experienced famine and bombings back home," she explains. "We can't just sit back when this is happening in front of us."
Tourists have joined forces with locals, including Dr Greta Tullman, a German academic. She shows me a hand-written list of supplies to buy when she goes home – she’s already brought several boxes.
A mother started crying, a father – a middle-aged man – bowed down to me and prayed to God in gratitude…for what? Because I gave them a bottle of water.
By the late afternoon, the food is ready and an elaborate distribution, also of clothes, nappies, and other essentials takes place across the island, in the absence of a central reception centre.
‘Don’t even give the migrants water’
Later, in my hotel lobby, a woman shouts: "If we carry on like this, there will be no food for our own kids." She says that the local mayor has told people not to offer refugees even a glass of water, suggesting this will encourage more people to come, and that she agrees.
Now I understand what Christina, another activist and nursery teacher, had told me earlier: "A mother started crying, a father – a middle-aged man – bowed down to me and prayed to God in gratitude…for what? Because I gave them a bottle of water.
"When riot police attacked the refugees, we were crying," she continues. "Refugees with blood all over them came to us to console us. They said they've been through worse… it was very moving."
Finally, long past midnight, the activists start going home for a much-needed rest. "Solidarity is not charity," a deeply exhausted Giorgos tells me. "It's re-humanizing a dehumanizing situation."
A refugee registration centre in Berlin © Julia Weiss
Hot meals while registering for asylum in Berlin
"By the time refugees make it to Germany they have been reduced to basic human functioning," says Björn Freter, a 37-year-old man from Berlin, Germany. He has volunteered at one of Berlin's asylum registration centres since August, after first going along with a friend delivering donated food.
People from countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan have risked everything to reach the one European country they knew would receive them: Germany. But the recent large influx has overwhelmed the system, leaving many with no money for food or a place to sleep.
Another patient, who was pregnant, had a severely malnourished three-year-old boy with a mouth infection, which meant he couldn’t eat or drink.
Showing us around the centre Björn explains how frustrating it is for exhausted, hungry and traumatized refugees to wait up to 15 days for their asylum applications to be registered. One man told him: "I’d rather go back to Syria and die than sleep for days outside like an animal."
Just like in Kos, volunteers have stepped in, providing one hot vegan meal a day, sandwiches, water, clothes, and basic medical assistance. There is also a children’s play area, a midwifery centre where pregnant women can get check-ups, and a quiet room where parents can rest while volunteers look after their kids.
Scarred feet from walking for weeks
When they finally reach Germany, Björn says most refugees have badly scarred feet and splinters, and are dehydrated. Many are traumatized and some have shrapnel wounds. Their illnesses are often a consequence of walking for days or weeks.
Doctor Hartmut Wollmann, a semi-retired paediatrician who volunteers at the medical centre, says there is a gap in medical care for unregistered refugees, because cases that are not considered an emergency can’t be referred to a hospital.
Many people’s situations have touched him deeply, including a 17-year-old boy from Syria who was very thin. “He had no fat on his body. He said he was on the road for two and a half weeks and hadn’t eaten properly. He was so heavily traumatized that he had pain in his chest and difficulties breathing.
"I couldn’t find anything wrong with him medically – it was just the fear and pain; he just needed care and rest,” says Doctor Hartmut. "Another patient, who was pregnant, had a severely malnourished three-year-old boy with a mouth infection, which meant he couldn’t eat or drink."
Dr Hartmut Wollmann volunteers at the makeshift medical centre at the refugee registration centre in Moabit, Berlin © Julia Weiss
Refugees welcome: a movement that is changing politics
Björn emphasizes the importance of volunteers: "If we weren’t here, four or five people I’ve met personally would have died. One person had been stabbed, another had a high fever. When there isn’t enough food we advertise on social media and people bring donations."
"It’s also important to show people that they are welcome," he adds."We can’t always communicate in the same language, but we can smile and let them know that they can trust us"
"This movement is already changing politics in Germany," adds Doctor Hartmut. "You read about right-wing attacks – how they set fire to refugees’ homes, but the number of people helping refugees is much higher."