Archive for the ‘Cambodia Field Trip 2010’ Category

The Athenian shelters providing sanctuary to unaccompanied refugee minors

Wednesday, August 10th, 2016

On March 23rd, it was my birthday. Like many of us, I had been watching the refugee crisis unfold and felt impotent to help as a flow of human traffic continued to engulf Greece, the crisis-stricken country of my childhood.

Just under one-million refugees and migrants reached Greece in 2015. Amongst them were thousands of children and teenagers who arrived alone. Many had lost their parents during the journey, others were sent by parents to flee war.

I was particularly struck by their plight, not least because when I was seven my father died, very suddenly and unexpectedly. Days later, I found myself in a foreign land that would become my home (UK), traumatised by the sudden loss of my beloved father, my home, my friends, my school, the familiarity of a language in which I could read and write, and the life I had known. My world as I had known it, had collapsed.

I viewed my birthday as an opportunity. I set up an online birthday appeal on behalf of the Bodassaki Foundation, a Hellenic organization working to protect and support unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece. On this trip to Greece I was able to visit their shelters and see for myself what my friends’ and family’s donations had helped to achieve.

Europol estimate that 10,000 unaccompanied refugee minors have gone missing since arriving in Europe. They have simply “disappeared”. It is a shameful contravention on the U.N. Convention on the Rights of the Child 1989, which has been ratified by all EU Nations.

Greece, has registered nearly 3,000 unaccompanied minors (2,951 to be precise) between January 1st and 18th July 2016 alone. This is four times higher than the rate recorded at the same time last year.

Existing shelters in Greece are full. Nearly half of unaccompanied refugee minors registered in Greece, are homeless. They have not only endured traumas that necessitated them leaving their home countries, separation from their families, or the ordeal of journey they have made, but 330 of them have been detained in police stations and in detention centers. They are vulnerable to human trafficking, prostitution, child labour, the drugs trade, and gangs.

I flew into Athens airport on Thursday morning fresh from the refugee camps in North Western Greece, to visit the Bodassaki Foundation and see their work on the ground.

My first point of call was a shelter, nestled discretely in the quiet, residential neighborhood of Kypseli near Athens’s centre. A small plaque on the door, told me I had arrived at the right place.

The shelter is run jointly by Stegi Plus and PRAKSIS, a Greek NGO working in partnership with the Bodassaki Foundation.

Sofia Kouvelaki of the Bodossaki Foundation and Sisi Levandi of PRAKSIS

I was greeted by Sisi Levandi, the shelter’s charming, bilingual coordinator. We were joined shortly afterwards by Sofia Kouvelaki, the program coordinator for the Bodasakis Foundation’s Unacompanied Refugee Minor Programme, Suzanne, The Executive Director of an American Foundation and Papa Jacobos, a 23 year old Harvard graduate who is now a priest, and who I later discover, drives faster than Michael Schumacher.

The shelter was established in January 2014. It is one of two operated by PRAKSIS, the second being in Patras. Greece’s Third Largest City some 215km from Athens.  Each shelter has the capacity to house 30 unaccompanied refugee minors.

The ethos of the shelter is to provide a home.

The shelter houses 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. The day I visited, PRAKSIS had successfully reunited one boy from Afghanistan with his uncle in Germany and another would shortly be going to Finland. Including them, the shelter that day, housed 12 Pakistanis, 9 Syrians, 8 Aghans and 1 Bangladeshi. All of them are boys between the ages of 12-18.

Sisi told us that they have seen a rise in the number of unaccompanied refugee minors of Pakistani origin, since October 2015. Their understanding is that ISIS’s recruitment in Pakistani schools has fuelled this.

The day after my visit, three more boys were due to arrive. They had been referred here by The National Centre for Social Solidarity (E.K.K.A.), a state department mandated to provide social support to people in crisis.  The shelters three new guests will be escorted here from their point of origin to ensure safe passage. PRAKSIS work alongside the IOM and Metadrasi, another of the Bodassaki Foundation’s partners, to escort minors to the shelter.

Once they arrive the newest members of the shelter will meet with lawyers with whom they will share their story. The lawyer will in turn speak to them about their rights, educate them about the dangers of trafficking, and then create a plan of action. Lawyers work in partnership with the shelter to establish whether there are family members with whom they can appropriately be reunited. This is a complex and sensitive process that typically involving cross border DNA testing to ensure the authenticity of claims.

While the legal mechanics are processed, boys at the shelter enjoy as normal a life as possible. They attend a local inter-cultural school, have language lessons at the shelter (mostly in German, though there is also a summer school in which they can learn Greek), play sports and once a week they are taken to the theatre. They are also provided with psychosocial support including from the centre’s psychologist and participation in drama therapy.

PRAKSIS are determined that the boys should feel at home here. And the shelter really does feel like a home. Physically, the centre is situated in a traditional Athenian town house. Each boy has their own bed in a bedroom which they share with a maximum of three others (there are 8 bedrooms in the home). They help to prepare food in a homely kitchen and there are computers on the ground floor which the boys can use to access the internet, watch films and do all the normal things any teenager does.

Where language lessons are held

On average, boys are here for three-four months before moving on. They seem happy here. The atmosphere is familial and relaxed. It is surprisingly, given the trauma that these young people have endured, a cheerful place.

Upstairs, there is a further bedroom, which PRAKSIS refer to as the Transit Room. The room has two sets of bunk beds in it. It is used in emergencies when children are in urgent need, typically because they have been found on the street. PRAKSIS are able to scoop them up and offer them temporary sanctuary here, before referring them to EKKA who will provide longer-term solutions.

PRAKSIS are clear that having this room is a luxury. They feel fortunate to have it. Government regulations in Greece mean that the maximum number of unaccompanied refugee minors permissible in centres of this sort, is 30 at any one time. The transit room is separate to this.

We left the centre an hour and a half later and scrambled into Papa Jacobos’s car to whizz through the backstreets of Kypselli to a second shelter. Our racing driver Priest multitasked impressively, driving at speed, texting, map-reading, talking on his phone and speaking to us about the work that is being done. I didn’t know whether to be impressed. Or press an ejector seat button.

We arrived at the second shelter, another Athenian town house set on a quiet street in a residential area, intact. This shelter has been supported entirely by the Bodassaki Foundation and will be called “Giving for Greece” when it opens in August.

The quiet street on which the shelter is situated. The shelter is the yellow building on the left

It has been a day centre since 2008, but the Bodossaki Foundation have now taken it over and are transforming it into a shelter modelled on the one we have just seen. The Foundation have succeeded in getting in kind support for the works and has invested just €20,000 here, a fact by which I am hugely impressed! It is to this shelter that my birthday fund went. Together my friends and family contributed around 25% of the renovation costs.

We are greeted by Iasonos, who will be the home’s coordinator when it opens. He has been overseeing building work at the site since work began three weeks ago, painting and busily preparing for its opening. He is exhausted but relentlessly committed to what is happening here. He has one of the kindest faces I have ever seen.

He explained to us that the team at the shelter will include 3 social workers, 1 psychologist, 1 cleaner and 3 night guards. The house will be a home to 16 boys between the ages of 12 and 15. They will be given English, French and Greek lessons here and the shelter will be run on the same model as the first home we visited. Initially, the home will be accepting unaccompanied minors from Samos. They have been refereed here by EKKA.

After a quick look around the home, the Americans, Sofia, Papa Jacobos and I return to the car (I gripped the chair in front of me tightly feeling like an extra in Starsky and Hutch) and raced to our final destination.

10 minutes later we arrived at another quiet street and walked to a large building displaying a brass plaque that said Malliopouleio Paidiko Asylo Kypselis. The Malliopouleio Foundation was established in 1922 following the population exchange between Turkey and Greece. The population exchange resulted in an estimated 3 million Greek refugees of Asia Minor origin arriving in Greece. 300,000 of them were resettled in Attica and Central Greece. The Malliopouleio foundation was set up to provide support to the many thousands of unaccompanied refugee minors who arrived in Athens alone.

The parallels between that situation and the situation in Greece today were not lost on any of us. And neither it seems, had they been lost on  the Malliopoulleio Foundation who have donated this historic building to the Bodassaki Foundation in order to create a shelter for unaccompanied refugee minors in Greece today.

Until 2008, the centre was a kindergarten offering support to impoverished families in the area to enable parents to work. It has since 2013 been abandoned. But soon it will have new life breathed into it.

Architectural plans

Manolis, the architect responsible for renovating the building showed us around and explained how the building will be transformed into a state of the art shelter to accommodate a further 30 unaccompanied refugee minors. They will be given the same services we have seen at the previous shelters. The shelter, like the first one we visited, will be run by PRAKSIS.

The Bodossaki Foundation have through their network, secured in kind support from a local building contractor who have agreed to do all renovation work for free. Given the level of work needed (over €100,000’s worth) and the current economic climate in Greece, this is an extraordinary act of generosity. IKEA have agreed to equip the building. A consultation has been conducted amongst the local community who are extremely supportive of the venture.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment. It illustrates clearly the exceptional nature of the Bodossaki Foundation and their ability to bring together not just organisations, but individuals and companies, to support unaccompanied refugee minors.

I am so heartened by what I have seen. From the chaos and hopelessness in the refugee camps, to the organised, structured and strategic work that is being done by the Bodossaki Foundation and its partners. I feel that there is a plan. That the most vulnerable are being supported by a strong, determined and thoughtful team of people, with not just the ability, but the commitment to practically support those who have arrived in Greece alone. They are determined to protect the most vulnerable and provide them with the best possible chance of a positive future.

It costs the Bodossaki Foundation €30 per child, per day to do this. I have spoken to donors in the UK who believe this is expensive. But I have this to say, in response.

The Bodossaki Foundation are not just feeding, clothing and sheltering those they support. They are bringing together NGOs, individuals, Foundations, government departments, commercial enterprises, doctors, lawyers, host communities and of course racing Priests, to provide tangible, holistic support to the most vulnerable faces of this refugee crisis.

They are giving them legal representation, family reunification, DNA testing, psychological support, education, access to proper healthcare. And above and beyond everything, they are giving them a home. A sense of family. They are in some way, seeking to ease the pain experienced by these young people, so that they are able to move beyond it and create a better future for themselves.

Nelson Mandela once remarked “There can be no keener revelation of a society’s soul than the way in which it treats its children”. €30 a day seems a small price to pay.




Filippiada: Where Time Stands Still

Wednesday, August 3rd, 2016

Filippiada refugee camp is set four kilometres northwest of the small town of Filippiada, Epirus, in a former military base. The disused army barracks now act as a warehouse bursting with donated goods. They are desperately in need of men’s clothing.

The camp opened in March 2016. It is is now “home” to 441 people. Most are Syrian, though there are also Afghans. As in Katsikas, half are children. Some have been moved here from the now infamous refugee camp at Idomeni which swelled to 12,000 people after Western Balkan countries sealed their borders to Refugees trying to reach Germany, causing chaos and sparking  accusations that European nations were passing the migration crisis buck. Idomeni camp was shut down in May and refugees evacuated.

In order to enter the camp individuals must apply in advance for a permit from the Mayor’s office. We need to collect our permits in person from the Town Hall. After weaving through the narrow, blisteringly hot  backstreets of Filpiaddia in search of the Town Hall and after a seemingly endless wait once we get there, we are told that permission must now be granted from the army.

We are dismissed, instructed to find the army chief and told that we may, or may not, need to return to the Town Hall once we have spoken to him. We are given vague directions to the camp. These are thankfully supplemented by a cleaner who, having overheard our conversation, helpfully embellishes the minimalistic directions we have been given. Everyone here it seems, knows about the refugee camp.

When we finally reach the camp, we drive through a military entry point and seek out the head of the army who gives us permission to enter. The reason for this procedure is to prevent smugglers and human traffickers from entering the camp.

Marta Larrea-Pombo, Volunteer, Olvidados

We then find Evangelia Boboni, a volunteer with CalAid who has helped to coordinate our visit, and introduced to Marta, a bilingual engineering student from Madrid who shows us around the camp. She is spending her summer here, volunteering with Olvidados, the Spanish NGO we met at Katiskas. Olvidados were invited here in June, by the Greek army on the basis of their work at Katsikas.

The Greek army’s resources are severely stretched. As one would expect with an army, their expertise is in combat and defense, not managing a refugee camp. They are grateful that their efforts here are supported by Oxfam (to a minimal extent), the UNHCR and Mercy Corps as well as Olvidados.

I am told that Oxfam provide food and hygiene products here, though a volunteer later tells me that the army are the sole providers of food. A German NGO called Mobile Fluechtlingshilfe have created a community space where tea is served to refugees (it’s the closest thing to a café one can imagine in a refugee camp), and Olvidados generally oversee the camp.

Donations of clothing, shoes and basic good have been made predominantly by the local population, but also from overseas, especially from Spain through Olvidados and the UK through CalAid. We unload our carload of donations with the help of Dawood from Afghanistan, who escaped over the Turkish border in the boot of a car. I suspect he is about 16 or 17. He is here alone.  He repeatedly thanks us for the donations as he works.

A crumbling, disused building to the right of the warehouse, composed of two rooms, has been given a lick of paint and transformed into an impromptu school. Between the warehouse and the school, stand a legion of canvas tents with the UNHCR logo emblazoned on their roofs.

The informal school runs each day except Friday and Saturday and is attended on an adhoc basis by children of primary school age. Their lessons here include maths and history. A mural of the Little Prince has been painted on one of the school’s exterior walls and translated into English, Arabic and Dari for the camps Afghan inhabitants. Inside, three alphabets have been painted on the walls. The school is run by refugees who teach in Arabic and Dari. Volunteers supplement their efforts by providing informal English lessons. Marta says to me ”It’s not ideal because some children don’t want to go. Or their parents wont let them. It is only for children up to the age of 12. They all need better education.” A painted clock is permanently set to 2:50.

Beyond the school, stand 50 portable lavatories and a shower block. There is no hot water.

Behind the shower block, a vanity space has been created to help boost morale, and an improvised hairdressing salon has been set up. Somehow this strikes me as the most cheering thing I have seen. It is so normal.

A third building has been renovated by a team of Spanish volunteers and painted by the refugees.  When it is finished, the three-roomed construction will include a sewing workshop (non electrical machines are needed), a children’s play area and a yoga space. Until the building is ready, volunteers organize activities for the children that include painting and sports.

The UNHCR, whose efforts in Greece have been widely criticized as inadequate, are at least present in this camp. Around the camp, men sit in the shade of their tents patiently constructing solar powered lamps given out by the UNHCR. Oxfam are trying to secure solar panels to provide proper electricity to the camp.

There is also a prayer tent.

Behind the camp a dense forest leads to a river, which though difficult to reach, provides the camps inhabitants with some much welcomed and refreshing paddling. Women collect firewood here to light fires in the camp at night. Open fires are not allowed by the army (there is a high risk of forest fires), but as the camp has no electricity, they turn a blind eye to it.

Throughout the camp refugees have planted herb gardens outside their tents. The seeds were provided by Olvidados. This is not just a bid to grow herbs to add to the flavourless food that is provided daily and which volunteers tell us is almost entirely lacking in nutritional value. It is an attempt to take pride in their “homes”, to channel their energy positively and to invest in a future that many have accepted is likely to involve remaining much longer than anticipated in Greece.

The majority we speak to have family in Europe and they are desperately keen to reach them.

Amar is a teacher from Damascus who proudly shows us his herb garden. He is here in the camp with his family. But he is trying to reach the U.K where his mother and sisters have been living for 13 years. He left Syria a year ago, travelling first to Turkey, where he stayed for 8 months, and then on to Greece. He paid a trafficker $2,500 to smuggle him and his family from Izmir to Greece in a plastic dinghy.

He says he had no choice. He could not stay in Syria with bombs and bullets raining daily from the sky. There was no future there for his children. He said that worse than the chaos of war, was the fear of looters who routinely pillaged and intimidated people by regularly turning up at their houses in the middle of the night. He says they did not know if they were thieves, or regime spies.

So for now, Amar and his family sit and wait. They occupy their time as best they can. Building solar lanterns. Digging gardens. Playing cards. But it seems absurd. A doctor, in a place where medical professionals are urgently needed, not allowed to work but instead made to idle his days away by and just wait. The perpetual waiting.

The atmosphere in this camp is different from what we saw at Katsikas. It feels more organized. The people are more hopeful. The conditions in which they are living are still very basic. On a psychological level, they are not simply dealing with the trauma of war, loss and the journeys they have undergone. They are dealing with uncertainty and waiting for permission to continue their journeys.

On a physical level, they are living in great discomfort with the most basic supplies, in an inhospitable place plagued by snakes and scorpions (the army have set snake traps). On a social level, there are reportedly tensions in the camp between the Syrians, who are automatically granted refugee status because they are fleeing war, and the Afghans who are not classified as fleeing war and therefore not automatically granted refugee status (tell that to someone fleeing the Taliban).

But as in Katiskas, the volunteers, NGOs and army are doing the best they can to make the situation as bearable as possible. It is now a waiting game. Like the clock painted on the school wall, time for the refugees here, seems to stand still….

Please contact us for further information about our Refugee Fund

Greece’s Warehouse of Lost Souls

Tuesday, August 2nd, 2016

Over 1 million refugees passed through Greece in search of sanctuary in 2015. The EU-Turkey deal, signed on 20
th March 2016, has left an estimated 57,000 people stranded in the Eurozone’s most crisis-stricken member state.

Today, they are living in 30 makeshift camps and detention centres across the country. 48% of them are children.

In most of the camps, the Greek army provides food, while the government is responsible for the provision of medical care. Our NGO partners report that the majority of the camps do not have electricity or hot water. As MSF reported in May:

“It is not hard to see why people do not want to come to the government-run camps… Near the Albanian border, in Ioannina City, the Katsikas military-run camp hosts asylum seekers who spend their days in the heat and freeze at night. They sleep in tents without mattresses and have nothing but sheets to keep warm on the cold, hard, and rocky ground.

A Greek army truck comes twice a day to distribute food and water, and people spend their days avoiding snakes and scorpions. They rely on camp fires to provide heat and to sterilize water in order to prevent their children from suffering from diarrhea.”

I feel anxious and uneasy as we approach the camp at Katsikas. Although I have visited countless emergency response projects in Sub Saharan Africa, Asia and the Middle East,  this is different. This is my home country.

We arrive at Katsikas, in 37 degree heat, with a car bursting with donations from the people of Corfu following an appeal by my mother and a friend of hers. Like many, they have felt impotent to help in the face of such a crisis. But they have responded by collecting clothing, shoes, toys, cooking pots and school equipment and bringing them to the camps on the mainland. They have spent days collecting and sorting through the donations. Our sitting room at home, has in recent months, doubled up as a sorting depot. This is my mother’s second visit to Katsikas in six weeks.

The camp itself is set on a disused airfield, 15 minutes outside the Byzantine city of Ioannina, the capital of Epirus, Greece’s North Western province. Epirus, has few resources and its mountainous, rugged terrain makes agriculture difficult. According to a 2001 census, it has the lowest population of Greece’s 13 provinces. Tourists are drawn here by the region’s natural beauty and rich wildlife which includes, bears, wolves and lynxes. Lovely for tourists: Less lovely for those living outdoors, in tented communities.

The village of Katsikas itself, has a population of 2,500 people. At its peak in May 2016, the refugee camp here housed 1,500 people.

On arrival, we are redirected to a rented warehouse, a ramshackled building that also houses an improvised pharmacy, about 2km from the camp. Here we met with Berta De La Dehesa, an actress from Madrid who has been volunteering at Katsikas since March.  She helps to coordinate the camp’s logistics.

Berta told us that they have been overwhelmed with donations of clothing, predominantly from their supporters in Spain, but also from Greeks who have been very supportive of the refugee community, offering not only donations but simple comforts like showers in their homes when the camp was first set up. The warehouse is full. With the exception of a large bag of shoes, some school equipment and a bag of clothing, we shut the boot of our car without unpacking the donations, agreeing that we will instead take them on to another camp tomorrow.

But there are two things that they now urgently need. Shoes. And money to buy bread. €67.50, or €0.13, per person, per day to be precise. Although they initially had assistance from the UNHCR and OXFAM, now they are on their own.

Despite being classified by the UNHCR in a recent evaluation as one of the better camps, Katsikas is bleak.  The ground is littered with sharp, jagged stones. Volunteers tell us that the terrain is so rough that they need a new pair of shoes every week. Electricity is sourced illegally from overhead pylons. It is boiling hot during the day. At night the temperatures plummet.  It is also prone to heavy rainfall. On the day we visit, it hails.

Katsikas was classed by the UNHCR recently as one of the better of Greece’s 30 camps. Seeing the conditions here, I cannot help wondering what the circumstances are like in the lower scoring camps. All the while I keep thinking: “This is Europe. This is Greece.” A few miles away holiday-makers are reveling in the sunshine. Enjoying grilled octopus for lunch. Building sand castles on the beach. Is this really the best we can do?

In April when Alternate Defence Minister Dimitris Vitsas visited the camp, he noted that Greece had been asked to accommodate more than 50,000 refugees very rapidly, after countries to the north closed their borders, and that some camps, including Katsikas, had more problems than others. He said:

“Our goal is to very quickly overhaul the existing hospitality centres so they reach at least a medium standard.”

But it is clear that the conditions in the camp, 3 months later, remain inadequate. There is nothing hospitable about this place. The NGOs working here are doing the best they can to support the primary needs of the refugees.

The volunteers have travelled thousands of kilometres, at their own expense, to support these efforts. The response of civil society has been inspiring. The Greek government are doing the best they can, to respond to the refugee crisis. But they are themselves, a nation in crisis, seemingly with little external support despite the European Commission’s pledge that it would support Greece with €83m, in April this year.

Today, the camp is home to 537 people, mostly from Syria. Half of them are children. The plan is that they will attend school from September. But how children will be subsumed into local schools is not clear, beyond assertions that they will be taught in Greek, with local children.

There are numerous complications associated with this, not least that this Arabic speaking community do not speak Greek. Nor do they particularly wish to. Most of them want to get to Northern Europe. Nor is it clear how local schools will be supported to accept their newest pupils without additional funding or support. Unlike refugee communities we have visited previously in Jordan, children will not attend school in shifts or be segregated. No-one we have spoken to has been able to answers basic questions about how the process will work.

Although the Greek army is officially responsible for the camp at Katsikas, it has been supported by the Spanish charitable organisation, “Olvidados” meaning “The Forsaken”, who were invited to work in the camp, in March. Olvidados were soon joined by volunteers from the Swedish NGO “Lighhouse” and AIRE, another Spanish NGO. These organisations are determined to make life bearable for the refugees here.

Whilst Olvidados and AIRE attend to basic needs such as the provision of water, food and clothing (to date, Olvidados have provided 44 tonnes of food to the camp), Lighthouse’s aim is to “turn Katsikas camp into a lively community for the people staying here. Apart from providing them with supplies and material (they) have created a community centre with an information point (including wifi), a child friendly space and a female friendly space”.

Since April, Lighthouse Relief have been providing children with language lessons in Arabic, Kurdish, English and German as well as mathematics and science in purpose built tents (the refugees helped to construct the tents). They also provide English, French, Spanish and computer lessons to adults.

Medecin du Monde are also present and responsible for the primary healthcare of the camp, but in reality, simple cases such as fevers are usually referred to hospitals in Ioannina.

Currently, a team of 70 volunteers run the camp.

Katsikas’s Yazidi community, an Iraqi ethnic and religious minority who have been violently persecuted by ISIS, of 250 left two weeks ago, saying that they did not feel safe after graffiti mentioning ISIS was seen in the camp. Their aim was to travel to Patras, some 250km south of Ioannina where there is a Yazidi only camp, but there was no space for them. Instead, Katsikas’s former inhabitants have set up an independent camp on the outskirts of Ioannina.

Olvidados are providing them with basic support but no-one is able to provide detailed information on what will happen to them in the long term. This situation is not uncommon. Refugees have freedom of movement within Greece’s borders. The numbers of people in the camps changes almost daily, as people set off to alternative camps in search of friends or family.

Nobody seems to have a long-term plan, or a clear picture of what will happen to the refugees as they wait for their asylum applications to be processed. Many are swiftly losing hope that they will be able to join their relatives in other European Nations. Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras description of his country as a “warehouse of lost souls” last February seems bitterly true here.

All the refugees can do is await decisions about their asylum applications. And for the time being, that means relying on the goodwill of  volunteers and the donations they are able to inspire.


We have set up the Prospero World Refugee Fund to accept tax efficient donations to support a number of outstanding interventions, including Olvidados  in Katiskas. Please click here to donate  

On Astro-biology, Spanish Olive Oil and the Sinking of the Titanic

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

The Cornucopia Club joined the How-to-Academy for a long weekend at ‘Trasierra’ a beautiful home masquerading as a hotel in the middle of Andalucia, Spain, owned by Charlotte Scott.

A host of writers, academics, entrepreneurs, and a scientist specialising in that hot, new unexplored discipline ‘astro-biology’,  joined our guests for 3 days of  lunchtime and pre-dinner talks on a range of subjects. We had ‘Shakespeare and Science’ given by the talented children’s writer and academic Katherine Rundell,  ‘How to Survive the  Titanic’ by Francis Wilson, ‘How to rebuild the World from Scratch’  and ‘Hunting for Aliens’ by the rising star in astro-biology, Lewis Dartnell, ‘Spanish Olive Oil’ by George Scott, ‘Lorca and the Spanish Civil War’ by Paul Keegan, ‘Night-climbing’ (means scampering up buildings like the Battersea Power Station, at night) also by Katherine Rundell (a multi-talented young lady) and a completely impromptu and brilliant talk by  Cornucopia Club member Nadeem Shaikh who founded  Anthemis, on ‘The Future of Money.”

These talks were spread out over 3 days and it was possibly a little like being at the Hay Festival, but with only 17 people around a table laden with delicious food and wine,  and the opportunity to continue to talk  thoughout the afternoon, or walk in the olive groves where one might meet Lola the white donkey loitering on the tennis courts. The grand finale was a midnight supper in a wild garden, while Lewis pointed out stars and various (invisible) moons while the conversation turned to intelligent design, space-travel and – at our table – the benefits of cremation.

John Gordon’s idea of bringing us all to this beautiful place and keeping us hostage was genius: it brought the Cornucopia Club salon into the sunshine with the How-to-Academy’s brilliant speakers and guests.

I have never been in a situation where I have been immersed in so many well-presented and eclectic new ideas – at least, not recently, not over three days, and certainly not with endless plates of Jamon, cups of freshly made gazpachos and glasses of  Campanas. It was surprisingly stimulating and has triggered off a whole constellation of new ideas. As Lewis Dartnell reminded us, the moon has no dark side, only a far and a near side…

Grab Dheir, Amman, Jordan

Tuesday, December 17th, 2013

Zaatari has become the face of the Syrian refugee crisis. The three square miles of Jordanian desert, 12km from the Syrian border is the second largest refugee camp in the world. It is now the fourth largest city in Jordan.

Established in July 2012, it is home to 130, 000 refugees. At its peak in April 2013, the camp housed 203,000 Syrian refugees. The three hospitals here, mean that  healthcare and mortality rates are significantly better  for refugees inside Zaatari, than for those outside it. Although there are schools, attendance is low at an estimated 25%. Over 3,000 shops selling everything from bread, to scent, to wedding dresses, have been set up along the camp’s main roads, including one known as the Champs Elysee. There are football pitches, taxi services and children’s playgrounds.

But life here is hard. Violence is widespread and gangs are everywhere. Refugees are not permitted to leave the camp freely. Visitors come to visit on their tour buses as if they were on a day trip to the zoo. No-one wants to live here. But many, do not have a choice but to do so.

But despite the media focus on Zaatari, 80% of Syrian refugees in Jordan live outside the camps in host communities, many of them with host families. Their plight is slowly gaining attention.

Today we meet the head of the UNHCR’s urban response unit to hear more about what is being done for those living in host communities. He is a calm, charismatic and considered man. Which is no coincidence given that under his management, his team are responsible for home visits, cash assistance and the provision of healthcare to refugees living outside the country’s refugee’s camps.

Refugees who have entered Jordan must by law, register their status. Their first point of call is a the UNHCR helpdesk.  Many refugees, who have entered Jordan illegally, will have had their documents removed at the border. The task at the helpdesk is to verify the identification of applicant refugees, through corroboration of their stories and supporting documents where they are available, in order to move them on to formal registration at an appointment at one of the UNHCRs two registration centres in Jordan- Helda or Irbid.  Where entire families present themselves at the helpdesk, they will be registered on the spot and issued with their refugee paper.

During this subsequent appointment, refugees have their irises scanned. Once this is complete, they are presented with an A4 document confirming they are a UNHCR registered refugee. This paper must be guarded with their life. It, along with their iris print, entitles them to benefits including cash assistance on average of $125 per month for a family of 5, accessing education through UNICEF and  it is their passport to healthcare.  The UNHCR are working with the Jordanian government to implement a refugee identity card within twelve months.

The UNHCR make home visits to those who are sick or unable to attend the helpdesk. Or rather, their 250 caseworkers do. They have made 130,000 home visits to date, to assess refugee status and what to do next.

The cash assistance programme uses a biometric iris identification system to prevent fraud. The process is this. Refugees receive a message on their mobile phones once a month, telling them that money is ready for collection. They in turn go to one of 100 specialist ATMs fitted with an iris scanner to identify the refugee, and their cash is distributed from the cash point. They receive this form of cash assistance for 6 months before they need to re-register as a refugee.

The system has been piloted in Jordan and designed by a Jordanian company who provided the first several thousand transactions free of charge as part of the UNHCR pilot.

Cash is a compliment to other services, including World Food Programme vouchers, which entitle refugees to food.  It is not intended to provide beneficiaries with the full cost of living.  Cash assistance is provided to refugees to compensate for laws that prevent them from working in Jordan. Many of them do so of course, in the informal sector- 25% if estimates are correct.

The level and speed of help is assessed on a case-by-case basis with at risk groups including children, female-headed households, the sick and the elderly being prioritised.  The UNHCR estimate that 30-50% of registered refugees fall into this category.

Of those who apply to be registered by the UNHCR as a refugee and receive their benefits, 5-10% are rejected as human rights violators. Others choose not to because they are independently wealthy or because they simply do not want to, despite the Jordanian authorities requiring them to do so.

It is unusual for the UNHCR to be providing an emergency response in a middle country like Jordan. However, their mandate is clear. To safeguard the rights and well-being of refugees. To ensure that everyone can exercise the right to seek asylum and find safe refuge in another State, with the option to return home voluntarily, integrate locally or to resettle in a third country.

Tomorrow we visit Mafraq to see how the UNHCR enact this ambitious mandate.

Amman, Jordan. December 2013

Monday, December 16th, 2013

When most people think of Jordan, images of Petra, the Dead Sea and the desert dance into their mind.

Today, in complete contrast, a thick carpet of snow awaits us at Amman airport. Storm Alexa has wrought havoc. Men in keffiyehs teeter precariously along icy pavements, cars glide on ice-glazed tarmac at a top speed of 3 mph and boulders of ice litter the road. Meteorologists report that this is the worst storm to hit the Middle East in 60 years. On the ground, we can certainly attest to the effects.

Last Friday, images of the Pyramids after Cairo’s first snowfall in 112 years went viral. In Jerusalem, Hasidic Jews prayed at the Wailing Wall while snow tumbled around them. Children in Lebanon sculpted round snowmen, Palestinians braved a foot of snow in Hebron clutching weekly shopping bags, and in Jordan, King Abdullah helped to push free a car stuck in the snow on an Amman street. Schools and government offices have been closed for days.

In Amman’s university district, students slide over banks of snow that harden again overnight and bring the city to a standstill. We meet an Arabic student from east London, snowed into accommodation for three days, describing an Amman gridlocked, shops re-opening slowly and an emergency national holiday in response to the standstill. Over shawarma and fatoush, we notice two Syrian kids in warm but dirty clothes, selling colouring books of the Disney princesses. They play in the snow in a larger group; later the staff hand them cartons of juice from over the counter. Half of Jordan’s current population of Syrian refugees are children.

Later, in the hotel, someone curses the freak weather, but thinks the melt will be good for the fifth driest country on earth. Mastering the hot water supply leads to dismay (run it for eight cold minutes first). Meanwhile, the humanitarian disaster across the border in Syria cycles on rolling news as helicopter bomb raids in Aleppo kill dozens.

Jordan is bordered on the north by Syria, to the east by Iraq, by Israel and the occupied West Bank on the west. It is home to at least 300,000 refugees. 250,000 of them are from Syria, including 120,000 in Zataari, the world’s second largest refugee camp. The snow, sleet and biting winds have deepened the troubles of those living in makeshift shelters and tents as temperatures remain freezing. With water supplies frozen, many are melting snow on their stoves to access drinking water. The donated warm clothes and sleeping bags we crammed into our luggage to pass on are more needed than ever and we wish we could have brought more. There are grim predictions of families burning the few clothes they own to keep warm.

We are here for a short trip to visit two very different responses to the Syrian refugee crisis here in Jordan. First up will be Syria: The Trojan Women, an adaptation of Euripides’s play that has been reworked to include the stories of women who have fled the war in Syria. The play opens tomorrow in the King Abdullah Cultural Centre. We pray we can actually get to it. The UN have needed to postpone our visit to a refugee registration centre tomorrow because of the extreme weather conditions.

In Northern Europe, we may be dreaming of a white  Christmas. In the freezing refugee shelters around the region, the white dream is a white nightmare.

Down to the Delta: The River Boat Mobile Clinic

Tuesday, November 27th, 2012

To catch the boat from the Mawtin Jetty, we get up at 4.30 a.m. Moses Aung, a man with fingers in many pies – a restaurant in Bagan, a solar lamp project, an orphanage in Yangon, and one of the administrators for the River Doctor’s Boat Clinic – picks us up.  For once, the streets of Yangon are traffic-free.  It is still pitch black when we arrive at the river side. Moses deposits us at an early morning café filled with river travellers. Burmese pop videos play very loudly from various TV screens, and we sit down on the child-sized red plastic chairs . We are the only foreigners here.  A waiter brings us the ubitiquous pre-packaged creamy sweet coffee in shiny wrapping that one might develop a taste for.

Outside, as the sky lights to a thin grey, lorries with yellow headlights still on reverse and lower heavy sacks of grain and rice  accompanied by that universal ‘something-is-being-lowered’ beeping noise. People start to stream towards the river.  6am: The sky is bright now.  Our boat is the ‘express’ Shwe Pyi Tan  boat, which carries around 30  passengers from Yangon to Mawkyn via Bogole – one of the worst hit towns when Cyclone Nargis came roaring up the Irawaddy Delta in 2007,wiping out 135,000 people.

The boat is spacious and has a TV showing beauty pageants – Burmese girls wiggle up and down a catwalk in glittering bikinis – and pop videos about broken hearts.

The seats are comfortable and the throb of the boat’s engine is soporific. People sleep.


en route

It is 6 hours to Bogole. The boat stops occasionally and vendors come bounding in, thanaka pasted on their cheeks, tin plates balanced on their heads, selling baskets of mandarins and plastic bags filled with yellow sticky rice and fried cat fish.  Some people jump off midstream, balancing on the edge waiting until the pick-up boat has rowed up close enough.

A monk and two novices, in rich burgundy robes leap off in this way, spinning out towards the shore of the widest milky-tea-coloured river I have ever been on.

In Bogole,  we disembark, legs quite stiff.  Travellers  outside under a makeshift shelter wait lying down with bundles and babies. We walk through the town – it is hot and humid. Shops selling plastic goods line the mud-beaten road.

Moses takes us to the only good restaurant in town – and he should know as the River Doctor’s office is located here.  The food is delicious – rice, chicken and fish curry, and a palm-juice sweet at the end which looks like a ball of mud but tastes like heaven – and we hurry back stopping only to get a ‘sun umbrella’, which it is clearly far more sensible and less hot than a hat.  My new parasol is red with orange polka dots, and I am very pleased with it. It costs 1500 kwats – about 2 dollars.

Now we get into a Mowhote boat – a 13 horsepower engine travelling at around 3 km/ hour. It is painted bright blue and its inside is lined with a woven wheat-coloured mat. We are going downstream to where the River Doctor’s boat is stationed at Petpe village, which has around 450 houses and a population of 1800.

This is a 3-hour journey, so Anna Louisa and I click on our kindles and settle down to read. I have ‘The River of Lost Footsteps’ by  Thant Myint-U  on mine, and as we throb steadily down towards the sea, I read about the countless kings and their troops  who have gone in the opposite direction up to Rangoon and to Mandalay. It is hard to imagine warships being rowed and later, steaming up this river, full of fierce warriors.  Moses reads what looks like, and is later confirmed to be, a Bible.

The river is empty of anything other than the occasional hle  – rowing boat – carrying small, carefully tied bundles of wood.  Then suddenly  the boat splutters to a halt and the propeller  is hauled out.  We are too hot, too tired and too lulled by the boat’s movement to worry. This is clearly a commonplace occurence and nobody says much. After some banging and twisting, it is dropped back in river and the boat puts off again. Only on the return journey does Moses tell us this happened outside the Japanese crocodile farm….

Finally , around 4 pm, we arrive… Ahead of us we see THE RIVER DOCTORS CLINIC in bold lettering on the side of a solid, rusty red cargo boat.  Behind the boat, woodsmoke spirals up from thatched wooden houses and huts. Dogs bark and the staff lined up on the deck to welcome us  start to wave and smile.

Apart from the river boat, the river surface is empty. We are about 5 kms from the Bay of Bengal.

The River boat, originally a cargo boat for the transport of cars, used and refashioned by Merlin during post Cyclone Nargis rescue operations, now services around 1000 patients every 3 weeks, up and down the Irawaddy, staying two days in every village. It carries two doctors, 1 dentist, a crew, a chef, and 4 nurses, and is an altogether solid and impressive structure.  The captain, a weathered, handsome man with a golden tooth, has to deal with one of the engines failing – this has delayed their movements by a few days already. The doctors  include  the 74-year-old Priscilla Kyawahla, originally from the state of Arakan, where the sectarian violence against the Rohinga Muslims is ongoing. We have been able to follow the news on the international news channels for otherwise nobody speaks of what is going on.  Dr Priscilla, a devout Christian from a family of doctors, has defied retirement and personal tragedy, and works tirelessly managing the medical team as well as examining patients.  She is elegantly dressed in a violet ensemble with matching nail polish. When we compliment her on her appearance, she says that it inspires confidence in her female patients.

Her co-doctor is a recent graduate from Yangon University, Dr San Tun Oo . He is half Chinese half Karen,  and has an ipad, given to him by his Aunt, full of the latest medical reference documents. He is tall and funny and tells us to share the photos we take of him via Facebook.

These two doctors handle the 40-80 patients who come on board daily. The ship has 4 examining tables, including a delivery table, and equipment including equipment includes ECG, ultra sound, an X ray machine, a cauterizing machine and a laboratory – (this is able to do spot tests for hepatitis B and C, HIV, malaria and so on). They also have medicines. Treatment is charged to those who can afford it and according to Moses, most of the patients can contribute one or two dollars per visit.  Most of the health problems are similar to what we have seen in urban areas: hypertension and diabetes. For children, worms are a problem.

The young dentist, Dr Nainglin Oo, of full Chinese origin, treats patients for cavities, infections,  and does a lot of tooth extraction. He has a full dentist’s chair  with full attendent equipment, missing only a dental x-ray machine.  I test the chair, and he examines my teeth – which are apparently in good shape.

House after a storm in Petpe

We go for a walk in the village. Flooded areas and puddles are evidence of yesterday’s storm. Children play football, a boy plays the guitar, villagers stare at us. Some of the houses are solidly constructed, with wooden floors and working TVs run on a generator that services the entire village until 10 pm every night. Some are hovels – with mats on earth as a floor and roofs that are beginning to cave in.  The villagers look relatively well-nourished we walk past a school, a rice-mill and a small shop. Anna Louisa says that the villages she saw in this area post Cyclone Nargis had no electricity at all, and no commercial activity.

We are taken to the house of a man who is one of the River Doctor’s assistants. His daughter is six, and she comes to show us how thanaka paste is made: she rubs the bark on the wooden plate with water until she has made enough to smear on our cheeks.  It is used by Burmese women and some men as a cosmetic and sunscreen. The people around the table all laugh with in approval. ‘Now, they say, you are beautiful.’ Outside night has fallen.

A plate of dried shrimp and onion – paz un chowk salad – is brought out in our honour.  It is an expensive delicacy that is absolutely delicious. We sit in the dark, only one bare light bulb illuminating the scene,  and learn that the little girl’s mother was killed during Cyclone Nargis. She is being brought up by her father and grandmother.

A further walk takes us to a disused temple. Here Dr San gestures at the paddy fields beyond which lurk the villager’s most dangerous enemy: vipers.  If you are bitten, certain death awaits you, because it is impossible to get to a hospital able to provide emergency treatment in the five hours it takes you to die.

As we walk back to the boat, I bang the ground with my umbrella to make sure any snakes are frightened away.

Onboard, the diesel generator roars, and lights are lit which attract hoards of insects.  To get up to the upper deck to make a phonecall, I have to fight through a curtain of buzzing bodies. Upstairs, where the Captain is smoking a cigarette,  he helps me to place my call, we dial, and then hold the telephone out over the river. This is apparently the only way to make it work.

The Irawaddy

The Irawaddy is now in darkness – only the light from the boat and the moon reflect on its surface.  We have supper indoors and it is a feast; th e ship’s chef loves his job. The flowered plastic tablecloth is covered in small dishes filled with fried catfish, plates of vegetables and rice.After supper, sitting outside in the cooler night air, Moses leads the entire team through a rousing two hours of thanks, prayers and general encouragement.  We are given a Bible in English to help us follow him.  Although Anna-Louisa has spotted a guitar, it isn’t played.  Dr San, a Bhuddist as is the ship’s Captain  and crew, sits patiently until it is over and we retire to the cabin – Dr Priscilla’s –given up to us for the night.

Breakfast is at seven and Dr San – who, being so tall, is also constantly hungry, is delighted because it is his favourite meal: mohingar – catfish noodle soup.  Clearly it isn’t on the menu every day of the week.  We are only the second lot of visitors to have visited the boat. As there is no squeezer, the chef crushes together a bagful of mandarins to create fresh juice for us.Patients have already started to queue up. We must leave in order to get back to Yangon before dark. Before we go, we see the little girl from last night, dressed in a new dress, is back on the ship.

Everyone lines up again to wave goodbye, and we start the long journey back. Tomorrow we separate to see the work Marie Stopes is doing in reproductive health and the British Council-funded educational theatre project on how to prevent human trafficking.


The Muslim Free Hospital, Yangon. October 2012

Thursday, November 22nd, 2012

Yangon General Hospital

With this fieldtrip focusing on health provision in Myanmar, we’ve already heard how the General Hospital in Yangon, which provides statutory health care, is famed for charging its patients for all equipment used. Street vendors outside the hospital prepare “operation packs” where would-be patients go to buy the equipment needed to cut them up and put them back together again. Heart bypass pack? No worries. It’s there. Orthopedic surgery? No fear, there is a suitable pack waiting beyond the General Hospital’s walls. For a price. And, at up to 3,000,000 Kyat ( £2,250), that price is more than most can afford. In a lifetime.

Today we are visiting a different healthcare provider in Yangon City Centre’s bustling Mahabandoola Panchan Street; The Muslim Free Hospital. In sharp contrast to the General Hospital, 93% of patients here receive their treatment for free and just 7% pay a stipend for their treatment.

The Muslim Free Hospital was founded in Yangon in 1937 by Community Elders as the then “Muslim Free Dispensary”. At the time, it was a modest dispensary serving poor members of the community with basic medications. Today, it sees an average of 400 outpatients a day. For those with more serious medical ailments, the hospital provides 130 beds.

After the small street entrance, the medical campus itself is large. Three separate towers, interconnected by bridges, house the hospital’s Obstetric and gynaecology unit and eye unit in the first building, the medical and surgical unit in the second and the original dispensary, X-ray and ultrasound unit in the main building.

Despite its name, which commemorates its founding fathers rather than the demographic that it serves, the hospital is a non-sectarian, charitable entity. Between January and December 2011, the hospital reports that it treated 56,500 Muslims, 58,700 Buddhists, 9,500 Hindus and 3,600 Christians. Whilst the span of religions is impressive, it is also interesting to note that patients are defined in such terms. However they are defined though, it is impressive to see a hospital that runs on a budget of $600,000 a year, is able to successfully cater for approximately 129,000 patients per year. To look at it in the most rudimentary way, that equates to just $4.65 per patient, per year. Impressive.

The entrance hall displaying the menu of services on offer

For this, patients receive a variety of medical interventions including, eye surgery for which the hospital is most widely known as it has attracted leading eye surgeons since its inception; general surgery, obstetrics and gynecology which it speaks most about and minor surgery. Most of the patients they see come in for routine treatment for diabetes, asthma and high blood pressure.

They tell us about the rise in diabetes, something they attribute to worsening diets and an over dependency on white rice which has no nutritional value. Sadly this is not the first time we have heard this. In East Timor, where Prospero was in June this year, the introduction of white rice by the Indonesians in the 1970s has led, some suggest, to widespread malnutrition.

Those in need of more complex treatment are referred to specialists at the General Hospital. Though this brings with it the perils of the “operation pack”. The perils of becoming sick in Myanmar…