Edinburgh teacher tells of her bid to help Syrian refugees

Helen Russell has told of her experience of helping Syrian refugees in Sicily. Picture: Scott Taylor
Helen Russell has told of her experience of helping Syrian refugees in Sicily. Picture: Scott Taylor
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HELEN Russell watched TV as 800 refugees died in the Med earlier this year as their ramshackle boat sank. But she refused to sit idly by, packing her bags to help the displaced clinging desperately to survival.

Ms Russell, 31, a teacher at George Watson’s College, has spoken for the first time of the harrowing but fulfilling experience as a local woman who went beyond watching the headlines unfold and put herself in the midst of the crisis.

It’s one thing to see it on the news, but these are real people. Someone loves each and every one of them”

The sinking of the boat in April, with young children among the dead, was the tipping point for Ms Russell, who spends her days encouraging children to be the best they can be. For her, that was the moment when it clicked inside her: she had to follow the example she sets.

Ms Russell contacted Christian charity Gioventù in Missione (GiM) and flew to Catania in Italy during her summer holidays to work alongside 65-year-old retiree Enos Nolli, to help in whatever way she could. Mr Nolli founded GiM in 2011, when boats from Africa first started arriving in Italy. Most days, he drives for two hours in a van with no air conditioning to deliver urgently needed boxes of clothes, shoes and basic cooking supplies to processing centres.

When Ms Russell arrived, she worked alongside Mr Nolli, getting to the heart of the increasingly desperate situation. She noticed small dots on the horizon of idyllic beach seascape. Italian coast guard ships were making for port, laden with hundreds of people set adrift in rickety boats and now just miles from relative safety on the shores of Sicily.

“I think it’s one thing to see it on the news, but these are real people.” Ms Russell said.

“They’re not just a number coming over in a boat. They’re not just a number of people drowning in the Mediterranean. Someone loves each and every single one of those people.”

Mineo, a former military base in central Sicily, built to accommodate 2000 people, is now bursting at the seams with more than 5000 refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Eritrea, Sudan and elsewhere.

Essential provisions such as blankets and clothing are scarce, while the grinding poverty in Sicily itself only proves to be an even greater obstacle in helping them.

Given its location, the island is also often the first landfall for refugees from north Africa, with more arriving by the day.

“They come here with such hope thinking that this is El Dorado, that it’s going to be easy to get a job, earn money and support their families, but when you arrive in Sicily, there’s no job prospects for the locals let alone anyone else,” she said.

Mr Nolli has provided wi-fi at Mineo for people desperate to contact their families. He teaches Italian and arranges legal support. In many ways, he is a lifeline in a place full of fear and uncertainty.

But the camps are so overcrowded, some refugees are left no choice but to find shelter elsewhere.

“It was the squat home I think that really brought it all home to me,” the teacher said. “To see just how desperate these people really are.”

Ms Russell and Mr Nolli visited two brothers from Kashmir, who had walked for seven months to reach Europe and were now living in an abandoned villa in Caltanissetta, only accessible along a railway line.

With just clothing placed on the floor to sleep on, and an open fire to cook on, these were the people who shocked her the most.

“They were lifting their shirts to show bullet wounds, deep marks, and across their backs, scars from lashes,” she said.

Others she met included Afghans who had escaped the Taleban, and two Kurds who were forced to flee for their lives from repression in Iran.

There were some signs of hope, though. One of the Afghan families who were among the early arrivals, thanks to help from GiM, now own a computer repair shop in Caltanissetta. They learned Italian and earn a living to support themselves.

But it can take years to get to this far and it will take years for the many thousands who followed them.

Ms Russell was heartened by the constant stream of volunteers from all over Europe offering their help, visiting the island to do what they could for those in despair.

But the ghost of the refugee crisis will stay with her. “They’re risking everything they have to have a better life,” she said. “Be that escaping from war, famine or poverty. Would we not want to do the same?”

She went on: “I learnt a lot. You could be out there for months and still feel that you’d only scratched the surface and not done anything of significance.”

With flashpoints now centred in the Balkans, the question of how to deal with the crisis engulfing Europe has yet to be solved, with ever more desperate scenes of refugees storming trains and border fences.

“I think the response of the British public has been amazing, giving everything they can and driving over to Calais to help people over there. I think it just shames the governments and the politicians for not having done more,” she said.

One thing is certain in her mind. “Nobody walks for months without a determination or hope for something better and no-one walks for months without leaving something horrible behind. I think we lose sight of that – that these people have left behind horrors.

“These people need a voice. They need to be listened to and they want to tell their story and it is important that we do that.

“These people had actually had lives before they came here. One day everything was normal then the next it was absolutely different.”

And the daily flow of about 8000 Syrian and Iraqi refugees into Europe is likely to go on, according to the UN.