Critical Nourishment – Valerie and Verena, founders of ‘Kos Refugees Need Your Help’

How do you feed thousands of people from different backgrounds, dietary requirements, cuisines and taste with the same meal?

Since Spring, Kos has been receiving daily arrivals of people mainly from Syria, Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan, who are in the process of making their way to Central Europe, to seek refuge. Generally, upon arrival in Kos, they begin the registration process (permitting there are no technical delays,) and refugees stay on the island for 3-4 days. Once they receive their registration papers, refugees continue their journey by ferry from the island. With the boat ride to Kos costing thousands of dollars, refugees often arrive with little money, and what they do have must last their entire journey. There are many organisations addressing the needs of refugees in Kos such as UNHCR, Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) and the Red Cross, however this article will focus on the efforts of two German sisters; Valerie and Verena and later this week, the work of Kos Solidarity will be highlighted.

How to provide food, while taking into consideration factors such as differing taste and religious requirements, while being nutritious and economical were important issues deliberated by the sisters when they began their food distribution operation ‘Kos Refugees Need Your Help’. Kos is a ‘second home’ for the sisters, who have spent many summers at their family holiday house on the island. Their mother, who began visiting ‘Captain Elias Camp’, an abandoned hotel where authorities were originally directing refugees, was the original inspiration for the sisters to act. Verena recalls her mother, who was visiting the camp daily with fruit and crackers, urging them; “You have to do something, you have to come and see the situation”.

Verena of 'Kos Refugees Need Your Help' distributing cutlery

Verena of ‘Kos Refugees Need Your Help’ distributing cutlery

6000 refugees are estimated to have been on the island at any one time during the peak arrival period in August. From the end of July, the sisters began distributing food at Captain Elias, starting off with 100 kilograms of apples, which soon transformed into a daily distribution of 1500 pieces of bread, small portions of cheese, tomato, cucumbers and milk which they prepared in a manner to maximise portions; “We would have 400 cucumbers and cut them into thirds”. However, this type of food distribution was only considered short-term, and the sisters were planning ways to provide warm meals. As Verena explained, there were specific criteria for the food distribution, in addition to being healthy and quick to make in high volume: “It should be something fresh and warm, because if they haven’t eaten anything for a long time, it can’t be anything too dry. We thought about where they were coming from and we thought the pita bread would be suitable as it has moisture. Rice is a common feature of where everyone comes from. We were thinking about meat, but it’s tricky as it is not so economical and people need to be reassured that it is halal”.

Captain Elias was closed down by the local authorities on the 10th September. This time period also coincided with a new meal solution; the sisters began a collaboration with Gaia Hotels. Approximately 1000 warm meals (depending on demand), consisting of rice and chopped vegetables were produced daily by the hotel’s kitchen and packaged in aluminium containers. Each meal cost 40 cents, and to compliment the warm meals, the sisters provided fresh pita bread and fruit such as apples and nectarines through a contract with a local supermarket and fruit dealer. The food, paid for by donations, is now being distributed in a park, nicknamed the ‘Jungle’ behind the police station.

Food distribution begins at 5pm sharp and although coordinated by the sisters, tourists, freelance photographers and journalists covering the operation also provided assistance. Refugees themselves also help with the distribution, Hassan* a young man from Syria was assisting a few hours before he was due to leave on the ferry for Athens. Hassan explained that he previously worked for the Red Cross in Damascus and was happy to be helping during his last hours in Kos. Ifrahim* a man from Bangladesh, who was eating a warm meal after the food distribution finished, laughed as he explained to me; “In Bangladesh we eat rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner”.

Ifrahim; “In Bangladesh we eat rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner”.

Ifrahim; “In Bangladesh we eat rice for breakfast, rice for lunch and rice for dinner”.

Orderly queues are formed at two stone benches which host the food, and portions are individually dispensed. Families and children are allowed to line up to the side and often women and children line up to receive food for the whole family. Feeding 1000 people is a rapid exercise which is usually completed in 30 minutes, however the general feeling is calm, which is a testament to the attitude of the sisters, they speak calmly, act fairly and treat the people in line as humans and not herds.

Once the food has been distributed, the clean up begins. The sisters walk around with volunteers and refugees picking up rubbish. The clean up is an important part of the distribution process;  and integral to maintaining good relations with local residents and the municipality. As there is currently no official reception centre or accommodation for refugees on the island, many refugees reside in tents, donated by organisations such as UNHCR, MSF and Kos Solidarity, situated along the walkway towards the port. The sisters visit the tent communities before and after the food distribution to chat to people about their needs and experiences. In addition to the food distribution, the sisters also use donation money for jackets, shoes, backpacks and purchasing ferry tickets and hotel rooms for vulnerable people in exceptional circumstances. Valerie explains; “We come here one or two hours before, and we come after the food as well. We see how many people have arrived that morning, where they are from, how many women and families there are.” During this time the sisters receive feedback on what people need in terms of material items and their food; “They are happy with the warm food and eat it fast. People come up to us when we are walking around one or two hours later and they are saying thank you sister. The response to the food is positive”. Gratitude is also evident in the chorus of ‘thank you’s’ each time a meal is received.

Knowing daily changes in the flow of refugee arrivals and departures, as well as climate conditions in Kos is imperative for the successful implementation of the food distribution. Just before I left Kos the number of refugees had dramatically decreased. In response, the sisters amended their warm food order to 400 meals, however within days, refugee numbers had increased, reflected in their order of 800 meals. Since mid-October, the food offering has changed again. After a successful partnership with Gaia Hotels, who have now closed for the off peak tourist season, the sisters collaborate with Mr Ali, from Finger Food Restaurant, who is currently producing approximately 1000 warm meals of rice, vegetables and lentils. Constantly reassessing and adapting the food distribution due to constant changes is difficult, especially since the sisters are currently alternating their time between Kos and Germany; where they have their own lives and family. However Verena and Valerie remain realistic and compassionate: “We have an obligation to something, this is our second home. We are just trying to feed people who are really hungry”.

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If you would like to see more about what the girls are doing or donate, please visit them at: http://kosrefugeesneedyourhelp.com and visit the Facebook event to see Valerie’s stories and updates: Kos Refugees Need Your Help

*Name has been changed

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