One night after a period of doubt in continuing my career as a mathematics teacher in the UK, I heard a Radio 4 programme about refugees arriving in the Greek island of Kos. I cried as I heard the ordeals of the refugees arriving, not knowing if to donate more than I have already done or what. A member of Kos Solidarity, a local grass root organisation helping the refugees stated what they needed most,
“Hands! We need volunteers to come and help us. As you see there is no Red Cross, no Save the Children, the authorities are making the situation worse by not letting us help the refugees. We need hands.”
This prompted me to buy a ticket to go to Kos within days. I planned to be in Kos for a week, but my stay extended for more than a month.
The first night I saw a boat arriving and wet young men emerging, distressed and tired, I froze.
A warm feeling overtook and I could hear my father whisper, “Now, you go and help these people.”
During those weeks I saw more than a thousand people arriving in precarious condition. The few volunteers that were, we worked around the clock, from night shifts to preparing and delivering breakfast to the refugees camping along the Kos’ town pier, then going to the warehouse sorting mountains of clothes, visiting families with children we met and bonded the nights before to see if they were fine.
I decided to return to London to fundraise and equip the warehouse in Kos. It was then that my very good friends Matthew and Christine, prompted me to start a charity to help ill equipped groups like Kos Solidarity with equipment and so, ArmandoAid was born.
Armando is not only the name of my father who was a refugee and migrant from China, but also means building in Spanish and broken in English is Arm-and-do. It sounded good and after I told the story of that night in Kos to Matthew, we decided that that was to be the name.
We did a few deeds as a new charity, equipping Kos Solidarity’s warehouse and helping a couple of other groups with equipment. Then, in February 2016, after returning from a trip in Kos, the news that the borders were to close fell. I had an 8 hours stop in Athens and through friends I had two contacts of volunteers helping the refugees at the port of Piraeus.
As I walked from the bus stop into Hall E1 at Piraeus, I could not believe my eyes. Over a thousand people lying on the floor. All sorts of people, pregnant women, elderly people, people with war injuries and a staggering number of children running around rampant.
I stayed for a couple of weeks running around the hall, looking for vulnerable families with babies, old people and trying to attend the children with activities.
I explained the situation to the trustees back in London and asked for permission to buy small tables and chairs so I could set up children facilities.
I can not forget the day I opened the boot of the car and the children spotted the tables and chairs. They shouted, “School, school!”
The children helped building them and sat to be taught. I had nothing but paper and colours and they began to draw. Their drawings were a revelation of what they had left behind. Pictures of enormous ships, beautiful houses with gardens and a sky with not only birds, but also planes bombarding them and many broken bleeding hearts.
ArmandoAid provided such facilities at three halls. The tables and chairs will disappear for the night but as I walked in, the children will shout, “Teacher, teacher!” and ran to gather them.
As a teacher I ended up teaching English and Maths. The children were excited, they were worried of missing out school, some have never been at school, some have not gone to school for years, but they wanted to learn more than just doing endless drawing and games.