Volunteer stories: 'I will never forget how cold the little boy’s body was I carried that day'


Across , volunteers have been moved to act to help refugees seeking safety; from sea rescues, to teaching languages. Here, volunteers share stories from their involvement over the past months, revealing the emotional cost of this vast humanitarian crisis as it has unfolded.

Burying refugees in Lesbos was like an assembly line

Silence of the dead: tombstones on graves of the migrants, who died during the attempt to reach the Island of Lesbos, at a newly built cemetery in Kato Tritos, Greece. Photograph: Alexander Koerner/Getty Images

It was desperately cold when we performed the burial rites of the drowned and deceased refugees on Lesbos. I’d come from Karachi to help give Muslims a proper burial.

There were 80-90 bodies in the morgue and they were slowly released to us as land for the graveyard was arranged. When the white van drove into the graveyard with the bodies inside, the female volunteers were asked to carry the corpses of women and children.

Gender plays a very important role in Islamic burial – which is why women, like me, were needed for women’s and children’s burial. The men washed the men and vice versa. It was like an assembly line. One by one, the bodies were carried, washed, buried and prayed upon.

I wasn’t prepared for the sight of it all. In the van the bodies of adults and little children were stiff. I will never forget how cold the little boy’s body was I carried that day, as we prepared to bury him. The loud wailing of his mother broke the silence of the graveyard.

A few days later I went to the ‘village of altogether’, an abandoned school house surrounded by huts, set up by Canadian and US volunteers for refugees with special needs. I met a woman whose husband and children I’d buried. She hugged me. Her eyes were glazed over as if she was hoping to wake up from this terrible nightmare.

The children in this camp looked happy but the drawings on the wall told a different story. Some drew pictures of houses they had left behind and others of the tragedies they’d experienced, drawing boats and people drowning in the sea.

That night we went to another camp where we met some volunteers from a church. We all held hands under the stars and said a prayer for the refugees, for each other and for humanity.

Farah Haji, 37, from Karachi, Pakistan: volunteer in Lesbos, November 2015


Refugees were being held against their will, not by locks but by men

Refugees at Budapest railway station on 3 September 2015. Large numbers of mostly Syrian refugees were stranded because the Hungarian government had cancelled all international railway services. Photograph: Antonio Olmos for the Observer

I worked the night shift – as a volunteer offering advice and help – at the central station in Budapest, . One particular night it was calm, but word had spread among the refugees that a hotel was holding new arrivals against their will.

Traffickers would, for a hefty sum, drive refugees from the Serbian border straight to the hotel. The refugees were told by the traffickers that they were in the country illegally and that being spotted by authorities would mean instant deportation. They were told that the only way to get through Hungary was to stay at this particular hotel for a few days, until a new group of traffickers would transport them to the Austrian border.

Groups of refugees were forced to stay in rooms made to accommodate a tenth of their numbers, not by locks, but by intimidating men working ‘in security’ at each level of the hotel. They were charged ridiculous prices for these ‘services’ and could not escape until their bank accounts were drained.

A handful of volunteer coordinators, including myself, decided to drive to the hotel that same night. Accompanied by four police officers we stepped into the hotel.

The security men showed up and walked through the lobby smiling and the police questioned the hotel manager and receptionist. It was obvious what was going on but the police stood powerless; no apparent crime had been committed, and there was no legal support for a search.

As we couldn’t get the refugees out we decided to prevent any more from falling into the hands of these traffickers. We stood outside the hotel entrance telling arrivals of the traffickers true intentions. We managed to prevent 72 men, women and children from entering the hotel. We found families hiding in bushes from the fear of being seen by the authorities and deported. Every single person who arrived looked terrified.

We sent the 72 people to the central station in taxis and on a bus. We stood on the bus among the crowd of refugees, smiling as they saw the sunrise and the river Danube.

Kaveh, 27, from Stockholm, Sweden: volunteer in Hungary, September 2015


When an empty boat washed ashore my heart broke

A dinghy at the shores of the northeastern Greek island of Lesbos, across the Aegean sea from Turkey. Photograph: Petros Giannakouris/AP

Early one morning we watched a boat coming in, ready to help the refugees on board. It came ashore, and no one was on it. I knew it hadn’t left Turkey empty, and my heart broke.

Most beach patrols started out with a calm and quiet eeriness on Lesbos. Every night I looked across the sea at Turkey and knew that boats full of refugees were pushing off, and that only a quarter would make it across safely. I would spot glimpses of a light or a black spot in the dark grey waters, which meant they were coming and, soon the screams for help would become louder.

When boats arrived it was our job to grab hold of screaming babies and help their mothers and fathers. I helped pregnant women and old people to shore, trying our best to avoid the freezing water.

One night I helped an old woman and a young girl to shore – the woman immediately began to sob as she touched the Greek ground. I hugged her murmuring all of the welcoming phrases I knew. I looked back at the child, she stood wet and cold with an expressionless face. I got her a hot drink and wrapped her in a blanket, and the older woman – I believe it was her grandmother – began to grab my hands kissing them over and over. I knelt beside her, tears on my face. I will never forget her gratitude.

Like so many others, they were excited to have arrived at shore, but didn’t understand the cold horrors that awaited them at the refugee camp. It was hard when buses arrived to take them to the camp. The woman and her granddaughter tried to return the blanket, but I gestured to them that they needed to keep it, because the camps often ran out.

The schedule was difficult as a volunteer, I woke up at 4pm, helped out at the Pipka or Moria camps until 9pm then started night shifts on the beach from midnight that would last to 10am. But every time I walked back to the hotel I found my eyes were drawn to the water, and almost every time I saw a boat coming in. It was hard to sleep at night, the events from my shifts would replay in my mind. The tears, the screams, the gratefulness and the kindness.

I returned home broken, as I thought I would. I feel guilty spending money on eating out, and items I don’t need, while people continue to struggle for their lives. I try and educate people and explain what I’ve seen, which is something that is desperately needed where I’m from.

The refugee crisis sums up the state of the world today I’m hoping to do my part until this struggle is over.

Teela Ruehle, 31, from Michigan, US: volunteer in Lesbos, December 2015


The police were smiling, as though amused by peoples’ exhaustion

‘A weary family asked the police how much further they had to go – we had already been walking for more than an hour and a half.’ Photograph: Attila Kisbenedek/AFP/Getty Images

Every day four or five trains with about 1,500 refugees on board arrived near Hegyeshalom in Hungary, who all intended to walk to the Austrian boarder. My friends and I decided to wait for the first train of the day to arrive and then walk with the refugees. We wanted to witness how they were being treated.

Everyone we met was exhausted. There were double amputees in wheelchairs who had lost their legs in the Syrian war and families with young children. Older people leant on the younger ones so they wouldn’t collapse on the ground as they made the journey on foot. It was a mess.

The police were driving their cars slowly along the main road, keeping an eye on the crowd of refugees as we walked with them and I could see them smiling as though amused by people’s exhaustion. They acted like bullies.

A weary family asked the police how much further they had to go – we had already been walking for more than an hour and a half – and the police lied, they said there were another three miles left to walk. The border was only five minutes away. The parents got really upset because their kids were too tired to walk and they had so many bags to carry so they couldn’t pick them up and carry them. I told them not to listen, but word had already spread among the crowd, and people were panicking

I had seen all these videos of how the Hungarian police were treating refugees badly, so I was prepared to see some horrible things. But when I witnessed a beating in central Budapest it was a shock. Everything happened so quickly, my friends and I were walking along a street when we saw a man being beaten. He was a Syrian refugee. To see the terrified look in the man’s eyes was a horrible experience. I have cried many times because of that – how brutal humans can be to each other.

Erik Gerhardsson, 20, from Stockholm, Sweden: volunteer in Hungary, October 2015


When my class discussed the Cologne attacks I could sense the sadness in the room

Teaching refugees German and English in Dorfen, Germany. Photograph: Clare Janocha