Ex-Idaho family aids migrants in Europe

Migrants wait to register themselves in Moria village on the Greek island of Lesbos Oct. 24.
Migrants wait to register themselves in Moria village on the Greek island of Lesbos Oct. 24. AP

The night shift is long and cold, especially during the rainy season, but that’s when most of the migrants come.

Paul Steed, a 60-year-old former Pocatello man, is in Greece with two of his children, Adam Steed, 33, and Crystallynn Steed Brown, 28, volunteering and helping with efforts surrounding asylum seekers.

The family works nights at a processing camp that takes in thousands of people fleeing areas such as Syria to escape the Civil War and non-Syrian Middle Easterners who are looking for a new life.

Syrians have been fleeing their country since the war broke out in 2011, but in recent months the surge of migrants to Greece has increased, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The International Office for Migration says Greece has seen its largest single influx over the last week of migrants and refugees this year, at an average of some 9,600 per day, The Associated Press reported.

Steed said many migrants arrive in Lesbos at night after making a 5-mile trip on the Aegean Sea from Turkey. The short trip can be deadly. A woman’s body was found the other morning, he said. She had drowned and washed ashore.

Steed said the processing camp isn’t for the faint of heart.

This is one of the situations where volunteers can make a difference.

Crystallynn Steed Brown

On Oct. 9, the day after her birthday, Brown “pulled unconscious children and pregnant women from clouds of tear gas,” according to a post on Adam Steed’s Facebook page. Adam and Paul Steed flew to Europe to join the effort Oct. 11.

Paul Steed saw mothers being pushed up against the processing gates one night. He saw them fall to the ground with their children and he ran to help them.

The scene made him think about the women in his family. He had to turn away after he helped the women and their children up, he said. It broke his heart. But as he turned away he felt a hand on his shoulder. It was one of the mothers, he said.

“It’s OK. We’ll be fine,” she said to Steed.

The strength of the people at the camp is incredible, he said.

It’s these types of stories and occurrences that led Brown to leave her home in Little Rock, Ark., to volunteer.

“When she saw the picture of the little baby on the beach, she said, ‘That’s it, I’m going over,’ ” Steed said.

He was referring to the Sept. 2 photo of the body of Aylan Kurdi, 3, who drowned when the boat carrying him to the Greek island of Kos capsized.

Brown arrived in Lesbos about a month and a half ago. She helped with efforts in Croatia for a few weeks and then went to Greece. She had only planned to stay a day or two; more than five weeks later, she said she isn’t ready to leave.

Her father and brother have been there for two weeks, after traveling to Greece from Provo, Utah, where they now live. Steed isn’t sure when they’ll head home.

Steed calls his daughter the hero of the story. He said Brown has turned the camp around.

When she first arrived, Brown said the camp was in disarray. People weren’t receiving the necessary help. She negotiated to have volunteers in the camp to pass out water, blankets and clothes, Steed said. She was also the only medically trained person in the camp for weeks, he said.

There are 11 volunteers working the night shift in their camp, including a doctor, he said. Brown is no longer on her own.

Steed said the camp is staffed by the Red Cross during the day, but at night the volunteers are largely on their own.

Steed and Brown said migrants get to the processing camp any way they can. Sometimes it’s an hourlong bus ride and sometimes it’s a very long walk. Migrants are not allowed to take a cab, to catch a ride or even purchase a hotel room because they are considered illegal until they have their paperwork processed, Brown said.

A few days ago processing camp officials implemented a new system after the rains got too bad to bear, Steed said. Instead of standing in masses at the gate for days, waiting to get through, the migrants were given numbers.

Before the system, Steed said the migrants couldn’t leave their spot because they’d lose their place.

Not being able to leave the line for days meant wet clothes were discarded if dry ones were available, wet blankets were left behind and trash was thrown on the ground.

Steed said trudging down the dirt road to the gate feels like walking on a dirty old wet mattress.

While Steed is optimistic about the new system, Brown isn’t.

Nobody should feel OK about what is happening to these people.

Paul Steed

She said they’ve implemented about seven to eight different systems since she’s been there and so far none have stuck.

“Each of them have lasted a couple days and failed,” she said.

While the system keeps changing, Steed and Brown said the police are doing everything they can to keep the chaos under control and have been kinder than mainstream media has made them out to be.

“They are not the bad guys,” Steed said of police. “They’ve been given a very difficult task.”

Every day the Steeds and other volunteers load up a van of supplies. They drive to the camp at night and spend eight hours helping where they can. Steed said the supplies last only half the night and the wall of arms reaching for water never seems to end. People are huddled under wet blankets with no shelter nightly. As a result of the poor conditions, the camp has seen illnesses such as trench foot — a condition caused by long immersion in cold water or mud, which turns skin black — and fevers.

It’s not a happy scene, but Steed said the migrants have been helpful and kind.

“These people are incredibly gracious,” he said. “At the end of the day, nobody should feel OK about what is happening to these people.”