“I never expected to be running a bus company when I came here,” Florence, MSF’s medical coordinator tells me as she stubs out a cigarette. After 16 years of working in the world’s worst crises, she never expected to be working in Europe either. Unusually for MSF, when the emergency team first arrived, they saw that the refugees’ most urgent need was for transport.
Thalia was part of that team. Over a breakfast of peaches, olives and coffee, she tells me about the day they arrived on Lesbos in early July and drove towards the north of the island.
“As we were driving, we met people walking – families with children, older people. They looked exhausted after walking for who knows how many hours, some of them all night. We had some bottles of water, so we opened the window. It seemed like thousands of hands reached through the window just trying to get a small bottle of water.
Then we saw people lying down in the middle of the road, unable to go on walking in the heat. One was a boy of about 18. He couldn’t walk even another metre.
Further on, I saw a father dragging a rope attached to a plastic crate with his two-month-old baby inside. He was too tired to carry the child any further, so he was dragging her in a crate. He had cut a branch from an olive tree and fixed it onto the crate to give the baby some shade.”
8 km down the road, tired, hot refugees wait in Molyvos for a bus, while volunteers hand out food & water pic.twitter.com/SOZheBIZQO
— Vickie Hawkins (@VickieHawkins) August 6, 2015
So MSF’s Florence set about organising a bus service from Molyvos, on the Turkish-facing coast of Lesbos, to the main port of Mytilini.
Now the Greek coastguard is running the bus service, allowing Florence to swap Molyvos car park for an environment she’s more used to: a health post in an overcrowded, under-resourced refugee camp, which was where we were headed next.
I visited the Greek island of Lesbos in August with MSF UK director Vickie Hawkins. MSF had launched an emergency response a few weeks earlier as the Turkey-Greece sea crossing became the most popular route for refugees trying to reach Europe. In July alone, 50,000 refugees arrived on the Greek islands, the majority of them on Lesbos and Kos.