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How we're bringing hope to refugees fleeing from terror

Co Down musician Tommy Sands is supporting a humanitarian effort to help refugees forced to flee their homelands. Linda Stewart talks to the singer, an Argentinian nurse Lidia Lammardo and Rostrevor aid worker Johnny Clark about the tough camp conditions

Young people working with Youth With a Mission in Rostrevor witnessed shocking scenes after they travelled to refugee camps in France and Lebanon, bringing clothes and medical supplies.

People in Rostrevor helped to raise €5,000 in order for the group to buy enough wood for refugees at the camp near Dunkirk to make it through the winter, yet 11 people have already died of hypothermia.

Co Down musician Tommy Sands, who has supported the group for many years through the Music for Healing events aimed at bringing politicians together to talk, described the help provided by the Rostrevor people as a "great thing".

"There are so many people losing their homes and at a time when we see refugees as people taking jobs or getting in the way. We have to bear in mind that many of them are coming from war-torn places," he adds.

"Very often the arms are going there from our western world and there are refugees fleeing from climate change which has been brought on by our industrial world," he claims. "If you export arms, you must not complain when you import refugees," is his hard-hitting message.

The group is currently collecting sleeping bags and shoes, particularly trainers for men, for their trip in three weeks' time.

'All the people tell stories of family members being killed'

Lidia Lammardo (44), from Argentina, has just returned from the camp near Dunkirk in France. She says:

I used to work as a nurse and wanted to take part in this project because I wanted to use my skills. I wanted to get involved in this.

As part of the group I lived in Belfast and took teams from Poleglass, the Shankill and the Falls to the Palestinian Territories and Israel to do community work.

This was the first time I have gone to the camp in France and my experience is that it has probably been the hardest, but I’m glad that I was involved.

The whole village of Rostrevor was involved in this initiative to bring clothes and hats in 10 suitcases.

When we got there we realised how hard the conditions are. All the people have stories of family members being killed. They are in France, but they know it is temporary and they live in constant fear of being deported back to where they know they will be killed.

There was a 16-year-old Kurdish boy who worked with the military in his homeland as a translator when they were infiltrating the village. But the military moved away and when Isis moved in, he and other boys were in danger for their lives so they had to run away.

The land for the camp was acquired by Medecins Sans Frontieres from a private owner and they have built a kids’ centre where children come and stay for a few hours in safety. There is a women’s centre, too, and a communal kitchen.

The worst part is the cold, the sickness and general hopeless atmosphere. When the temperature drops to -5C, the mud freezes. And there is nowhere to stay except the huts, nowhere to relax or sleep well.

There are people from Afghanistan, Kurdistan, Iraq and Syria and also some Iranian Christians who fled because they were being persecuted and threatened with death.

Everything is grey and cold. People try not to get up early in the morning because it is freezing. Ten to 20 volunteers cook lentil soup every day in big pots. Everything takes hours to cook when you are feeding that number of people.

They have fruit and lentil soup for breakfast, and at 2pm lunch is served by a French organisation which previously worked at The Jungle camp, near Calais

The refugees are not sitting around through choice. It has really struck me that they are forced to do nothing, but that is not what they want. They come to help the volunteers cook.

There is one man, Mohammed, who is a professional chef and he will come in the afternoon and chop vegetables for three hours in order to help.

When I got the chance to have a chat with him, he said his mother, father, brother and sisters had their necks cut by Isis. In that moment he started to cry suddenly — we couldn’t speak.

I asked him ‘why did he want to go to the UK?’ and he said the only person he has left is a childhood friend of his mother who lives in the UK. There is a yearning for that sense of belonging. There are a lot of single men because they were the ones that were able to run.  Their families and young kids were killed and they were the only ones who were able to escape.

What does it take to be a man who has run away because all his family have been killed? He doesn’t even want to be alive.

Most of them, to be honest, want to come to the UK because they have some family member or a community there. They want safety.

But they want the ability to work with their hands and work as part of a community. They don’t want to be receiving charity.”

'The children are out all day doing hard manual work with their mum'

Jonny Clark (42), married to Jenny with three boys, brings groups to the refugee settlement in Lebanon. He says:

We run a retreat centre here in Rostrevor, a charity. It’s a Christian organisation with all sorts of people from all over the world. We are trying to develop a social conscience in young people and a heart for reconciliation to become bridge builders.

A big part of that is using our faith in action rather than words. Our volunteers are trained for work in refugee camps, in what to do and how to approach people. We send groups out to Burundi, Lebanon and Dunkirk where there are refugee camps.

In Lebanon we are working in two areas — we are talking to people about the power of forgiveness, trying to help people in Lebanon who are suffering from the trauma of civil war. We are also going into refugee homes every day, visiting families, taking clothes and very basic medical supplies. We work with an organisation that helps to run a school — we do practical work, clean and teach English.

There are 1.5 million refugees in a country of four million and the government doesn’t really want refugees — they’re not trying to keep them there and not keen on helping them.

Almost all of the refugees there are Syrians fleeing the civil war. Almost everyone has stories of family members that were shot.

The very first tent we went into in the camp at the village of Damour, we found that the husband had been killed. The family were from a city in Syria and the husband was taken. He was found a few days later — he had been tortured, killed and left for dead. The two young girls and their mum had to flee to safety.

In the school the teacher was teaching the ‘R’ sound and said ‘Rrrm’ for the sound of a car and a little girl said ‘Rrrm for car and ooooh for rocket’.

Every child has experienced significant trauma and war — it’s just normal. You’re not going to leave your home and take your family to Lebanon where you’re not wanted unless you have to.

Lebanon doesn’t have traditional refugee camps — land has to be rented to put the tents on and the refugees are not allowed to earn money. They are only allowed to carry out manual work at a banana plantation for a stipend.

A lot of them get up early, cook early and go to work in the banana plantation. They’ve got kids who do it as well — they’re going out with their mum, doing hard manual work all day and coming home very tired late at night.

They’re very much reliant on the aid that we get from the United Nations — it gives a stipend, but that is being reduced every year because the money is running out.

It’s a hard life — snow in the winter and very hot in summer. Some of the families live in little derelict huts but most of them live in tents. There’s another camp at the Bekaa valley where there are whole fields covered in tents.

It’s very common for people to get sick. There are quite a few pregnant women and sometimes they have secondary issues, yet they will be out working in the fields all day on the banana plantation.

We brought a couple of dentists with one group and they were able to bring some basic dental kits with them, and on another trip we brought a GP who was able to carry out very simple checks.

They don’t have very much money and if you need a doctor you have to pay.

They will get a permit for a year and then when it runs out they have to leave, but often they don’t — they just stay illegally sometimes.

But you get the feeling that none of them want to live there. They are hoping the war will end in Syria and they can go home, or they find a way of getting out of Lebanon, getting to Turkey and into Europe.”

Anyone wishing to help or donate can contact Youth With A Mission visit ywamrostrevor.org/

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