Behind the numbers and political posturing are real people with hopes, dreams and stories to tell. That’s why Stephanie and I came to help out local organisation Sienos Grupe for a few weeks. This blog post is about what we’ve done, the people we’ve met and the lessons we’ve learned.
Sienos Grupe (SiG) started in 2021 as a group of people refusing to accept the dehumanising treatment that Lithuania was showing to people arriving here. Much of the work at the beginning was helping people immediately after they had crossed the border, whilst in the woods. Back then, there would be multiple alerts a week, with groups stuck in the forest in brutal winter or hot summer in need of food, water, medical assistance or clean clothing. Since Lithuania erected a fence along most of the 680 kilometres of it’s border with Belarus, the number of alerts has reduced to almost nothing.
We were prepared to go on alerts if needed but we were also prepared for there not to be too much to do and integration of people who are here and want to stay is becoming ever more part of the role of SiG. That’s how we ended up with some English and German classes in a random town. Twice a week we set up tea and biscuits in the church hall used by Caritas and welcomed people from the camp to come and chat.
People from Sri Lanka, Russia, Syria, Iraq, Belarus and Nigeria came to escape the boredom of waiting for an asylum decision. From Advanced English - where topics such as “what would be your superpower” and the best literature from different countries were discussed, to Easy English where spelling and dissecting grammar were on offer - we tried to provide something for different levels of prior knowledge. Thankfully there were people who would explain and translate for others - once again I’m reminded how language skills can open different doors.
A camp where many families live had plenty of other activities for children over the summer holidays, but not musical ones. Have you ever tried doing a workshop where you don’t speak the same language as the children?? Well, not content with making drums, we went back on another occasion to try and speak to parents. This time the singing workshop was much calmer and some kids enjoyed playing instruments and singing together.
Having assumed we may not need to visit the forest, it was a bit of a shock to receive an alert. Messages from a group came to the SiG phone and werushed to pack clothes, food, water and first aid before driving for hours into the night.
Lithuania, Latvia and Poland have all legalised pushbacks. That’s to say that people within 5 kilometres of the border will not have a request for asylum accepted and they can be returned to where they came from. This is against EU law and the human rights convention. (Another activity of SiG is to lobby for legal change from every angle). So when meeting a group, it’s paramount that they aren’t found until they have left the border area. Many groups have already been travelling for days in the forest on the other side of the border and can't go further without receiving food and water. All this means that we had to remain undercover so as not to lead authorities to where they are.
Our first mission was unsuccessful. There was a border guard checkpoint very near to where the group were hiding and we couldn’t risk trying to reach them. We stayed in an extraordinary motel to try again in the morning, but one of the group had medical issues so severe that they had no choice but to call the authorities. Driving back after an emotionally and physically draining 15 or more hours was deflating. We were exhausted from lack of sleep, but that was nothing compared to the group who had been in the forest for days and faced an unknown future.
Creeping into the woods in the dark was scary for us, but nothing compared to the people waiting for us. The person we met, a young man from Afghanistan, was terrified that we were border guards. The fear was palpable, and so was the relief. We said our names, that we were bringing food - finally he trusted us and the air around us changed as his fear turned to gratitude. We handed over what we had in near silence, using as little light as possible, and left quickly. Filthy from the woods, but relieved to have managed, we drove home - only to hear that the next day the group were found and deported back to Belarus.
In response to the "failed" mission, Stephanie wrote the Facebook post below. Click See More for the English.
A real highlight of our time here was helping to organise the first meet-up. A pop-up restaurant in a park in the capital Vilnius was happy to host and one of our jobs was to try and invite as many people as possible.
People from language class came, and people who had contacted us with questions about jobs, contracts or from other camps were all invited. The sun shone, we drank tea, ate falafel and baklava, played games and chatted. Some call this integration, but I think it’s just having a nice time! I played a few pieces on the piano, helped by two girls from Afghanistan who knew one of the songs, and chatted with people I had met before and new people. It was great!
What with driving long distances and a certain amount of planning and admin, we’ve been pretty busy. Add to that that we’ve had The Phone. The organisation phone is passed around different volunteers and it’s been our job to respond to messages. The hardest part has been responding that we can’t help. There were several groups in the forest that for one reason or another we couldn’t even try to get to - the distances were too far, or the group couldn’t stay in contact enough to ensure we would find them, or we couldn’t provide the level of assistance that they needed.
This was the case with F. and J. two women from Somalia. The husband of F. contacted us from Somalia when the women were left in the woods by the rest of the group because J. was injured and couldn’t walk anymore. The others knew that calling an ambulance would alert authorities to their location. That was the start of three days of messaging. The women were picked up by border guards, given minor medical treatment and pushed back to Belarus. The spent another night in the forest. I nearly wrote “lost in the forest”, but at no point were they actually lost. We knew their location. It was fences, border guards, politics, that stopped them receiving any aid.
Eventually they reached a house and were once again detained by border guards - Belarusian this time. Somehow they made it back to Minsk, where they sought medical help. As I write, they are working out how to get back to Somlia - despite the humanitarian crisis there, it’s still better than the treatment they received at the feet of the EU.
It was fences, border guards, politics, that stopped them receiving any aid.