Felicity Morgan-Rhind and Arani Cuthbert
We bumped headlong into the refugee crisis on the Greek Island of Kos, while on holiday in September 2015. It was the height of summer and stifling hot. Nothing could prepare us for the scene that would await us as we drove into the port. Thousands of refugees lined the beach and the roadside. Every single one of these people had risked their life taking one of the people smuggling dingy trips from Bodrum to Kos. (The same distance from the Auckland Viaduct to Rangitoto Island more or less)
The beach was awash with deflated dinghies, abandoned lifejackets and listless refugees. Small pup tents were erected on the roadside with the young and old lying without shade in the 40 degree heat. There was not a mattress in sight. A young head-scarfed woman, her make-up perfect, stood with Louis Vuitton suitcase in hand. She was alone and looked terribly scared. Outside the police station we witnessed a protest which later turned into a brawl. That very night a group of refugees were badly beaten by locals wielding bats. And in the midst of all this, tourists wandered around eating icecreams in their g-strings. It was an unbelievably contradictory experience.
After joining an interminable queue passing hordes of people waiting on the other side of the line, desperate to leave, we eventually boarded our ocean liner to take the overnight trip to Athens and ‘shared’ the experience with the several hundred refugees – most of them Syrian - who had managed to secure travel papers. As we sailed out of the port those left behind stood silently, grimly, watching us leave. It was one of those “I’m never going to forget this” moments.
While we had the luxury of a simple air conditioned room and the choice of 3 restaurants, the refugees were assigned to the “pool deck”. The pool, empty of water, was full instead of discarded chip packets and coke tins. Denied access to the downstairs facilities, exhausted people lay around on plastic benches and on the floor. Families huddled together. Young people played cards.There was a feeling of calm and hope in the air. These people had escaped war. Survived the ordeal of walking from Syria to Turkey then the hazardous dingy trip from Turkey to Kos. Now Athens-bound they were on their way at last… to who knows where? For the next 12 hours, at least, they were safe.
I spent the night awake, worried and freezing cold, with our air-conditioning stuck on 10 degrees. People’s faces on the streets of Kos re-played on my mind, and the scenes from the pool deck. Who had they left behind? Where were they going? How were they going to survive the upcoming winter?
On our arrival in Athens, we made a commitment to doing something. We sent a video plea to John Key to increase New Zealand's refugee quota and Kiwis on Board was born. We met some wonderful kind-hearted Athenians, who are making a difference in their own communities, and were inspired by their basic human goodness, kindness. Really it is not that hard. We all need to be more kind to each other, and reach out a hand to those in need.
Upon arriving home, we talked to some friends, and were introduced to a young kiwi journalist, Kim Vinnell, who had just returned home from being a correspondent for Al Jazeera. She also was deeply affected by the sights she had seen, and the senselessness of war. A simple conversation over dinner became a passionate pledge to do something. To make a short “ad” that expresses the refugees point of view in a way ordinary Kiwis will understand. So we started researching and found some amazing former refugees. We filmed 11 families in a 14 hour day, thanks to everyone who shared their harrowing stories. Big shout out to our wonderful crew who donated their talent and time. We have made three short films we hope will resonate with all of us lucky enough to call New Zealand home - and help bear political pressure on our government who are currently reviewing our refugee policy.
A Concert 'Kiwis on Board' headlining Neil Finn and the Topp Twins on Saturday January 23rd 2016 at Silo Park will roll out the welcome mat to all refugees living and re-settling in NZ. Unanimously we say WE WANT YOU.
Please jump on board with us and make a difference.
Cheers Felicity and Arani.