How two gardaí set up a soup kitchen for refugees in Greece
‘It’s different when you are out there, you cannot unsee the human cost of this crisis’
Sligo garda Raymond Wims with volunteers and refugees at the soup kitchen
Garda Raymond Wims with Syrian refugees in the soup kitchen. “We just see the war as Aleppo and bombs but it’s human beings, it’s children.”
Raymond Wims and Damian McCarthy preparing food at the soup kitchen they set up in the Shenanigans Irish pub last year
Raymond Wims with volunteers and refugees. “These are all decent people”
Damian McCarthy and Raymond Wims with Syrian refugees in Turkey earlier this year. In Izmir, they discovered tens of thousands of refugees in appalling conditions
Garda Raymond Wims had planned to make only one trip to Greece, a week’s holiday in October 2015 where he would drop off clothes and toys for child refugees.
From the comfort of his armchair in Sligo, the father-of-four had uneasily watched television footage of men, women and children battling across the Mediterranean.
He called his friend and colleague Damian McCarthy in Dublin. Together, the two travelled to the island of Kos.
“All we ever planned was one short trip. We were moved by the pictures of Alan Kurdi. We went for one week and ended up staying two,” he says now.
They did plenty of research before going, but the reality was worse than they had imagined.
“It’s very easy to look at a few photos on the internet and then forget about it but it’s different when you are out there. You can’t unsee the human cost of this crisis.”
Soon after arriving in Kos, they found people left for days without food as they waited for papers to travel onwards to Athens, while aid agencies struggled to provide services on the island.
Wims and McCarthy began searching for a place to feed people, targeting disused restaurants closing for the winter season.
Three days before they were due to leave, they found an Irish pub getting ready to put the shutters up.
“The Shennanigans” is owned by Australian-Greek Michael Pastrikos, who has lived on Kos with his wife since the mid-1990s.
“Ray and Damian said ‘Why don’t we do something for breakfast here?’,” Pastrikos tells The Irish Times.
“They went out and bought loads of breakfast foods like croissants and Weetabix. One hundred and fifty people turned into 400 and then we started doing dinners.”
With the help of a translator, Wims and McCarthy found a few chefs among the refugees who began working in the kitchen. Sure that the effort would fail if they left, the two gardaí extended their stay.
They paid for the first few days of meals out of their own pockets, but quickly realised they had to get help if they were to last, so they contacted the Mercy Corps aid agency which was already active on the island.
“We told them we’re Irish police officers and we’re not looking to gain here but in the last week we’ve seen refugees starving and if you keep this restaurant going every refugee will be guaranteed a breakfast and a dinner,” says Wims.
With the help of Mercy Corps, the Shennanigans served as a food centre for nearly seven months.
“The refugee crisis on this island changed all our lives,” says the pub owner.
“We now look at the values of life in a totally different way. You would see refugees who were well-off people who had two houses and three cars in Syria risk their lives and their children’s to cross that tiny stretch of sea.”
Once home, Wims and McCarthy struggled to come to terms with what they had seen.
“Once you get involved it’s very hard to turn away. I felt my descriptions were very inadequate.”
In December 2015, they went back. This time, they were joined by two more colleagues, Alan Cummins from Dublin and Pauline McFarlane from Donegal. Together, they helped to offer 500 meals a night.
Meanwhile, they volunteered with a paediatrician who had come from the UK to care for sick children.
By then the situation on Kos had “greatly improved”, so they went to see what was happening on Leros, 50km away.
“It was absolutely dire. The refugees were staying in a disused slaughterhouse that was cold and damp with no heating or lighting. We found up to 40 men, women and children sleeping on the floors of each room.”
They asked Mercy Corps to set up kitchens: “It was coming up to Christmas and we couldn’t afford to wait too long with our families back home. Fortunately they agreed to set it up.”
In the following months, Wims kept in touch from the sidelines. The European Union reached a deal with Turkey in March 2016 to stem the flow of refugees travelling across the Aegean Sea.
Under it, all “irregular migrants” who arrived in Greece after March 20th would be sent back to Turkey. The flow of new refugees coming sharply diminished, but the ones already there were stuck .
In October 2015, Wims and McCarthy came a third time, helped by a 24-year-old Syrian refugee, Moger Razouk, who had fled Aleppo, who acted as their translator.
He had been imprisoned and tortured by the Syrian army for his connections with opposition groups.
After a year in prison, he was released. He fled, crossing the Syrian border by foot and travelled to Izmir.
Arrested a number of times by the Turkish authorities, he reached Greek territory on his seventh attempt: “I was very afraid but once inside the boat the people around me encouraged me,” Razouk told The Irish Times by phone from Greece.“I just felt happy to be getting away.”
Having ended up in a refugee camp in Chios, he met Wims: “ I just met Ray by accident.”
He convinced the Irish gardaí to make the 30-minute ferry journey from Chios to Cesme in Turkey.
From there, they went on to Izmir, where they discovered tens of thousands of refugees in appalling conditions.
The United Nations Refugee Agency estimates that there are 2.5 million refugees in Turkey.
However, Wims says, anecdotally, there may be up to four million men, women and children seeking asylum in the country.
“There’s no point in them registering as refugees. If they register when they cross the border they have to keep going back to that same place and it’s dangerous near the border so they move on.
“A lot are undocumented and have no access to food or medical care. In Greece you have plenty of volunteers but in Turkey there were very few.”
Wims and McCarthy travelled 200km north into the mountains, finding refugee families in tents and old farm sheds. In one, a mother of six, who had walked across the border before giving birth to twins, struggled to cope.
“Realistically there’s no hope for these people,” says Wims. Turkey cannot cope with four million people; the EU will not take them: “The ones in Greece will be processed, [so] they have some hope.
“These are well-educated people living in sheds and fields. Most of their kids have been out of school for three to five years; you’re going to have a full generation who will miss out on an education.”
Wims and McCarthy plan to travel back to Turkey early this year with supplies, hoping to raise the profile of the millions of Syrians stuck in limbo.
“We can only hope the journey some of these Syrians are attempting to make extends as far as Ireland and that our Government will open its doors and welcome them in the same way so many Irish have been received across the globe.
“The war is well reported on but what about the human side? We just see it as Aleppo and bombs but it’s human beings, it’s children.
“These are all decent people. There is nothing to be fearful of . . . about the Syrian refugees. They are grateful, resilient, proud people in search of a better and safer life.”