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Hampstead mother’s refugee appeal: ‘If we don’t act people are going to freeze and starve’

PUBLISHED: 06:00 21 January 2016 | UPDATED: 15:20 25 January 2016

Mary Mc Williams has launched an appeal for winter coats and clothes after volunteering at refugee camps in Calais and Lesbos. Picture: Nigel Sutton

Mary Mc Williams has launched an appeal for winter coats and clothes after volunteering at refugee camps in Calais and Lesbos. Picture: Nigel Sutton

© Nigel Sutton email pictures@nigelsuttonphotography.com

A mother who has witnessed firsthand the horror or the unfolding refugee catastrophe in Europe has launched an appeal to send coats and clothes from Hampstead and Highgate to people freezing in Greece this winter.

More than 140 refugees are helped ashore by a half dozen volunteers near Eftalou, Greece, on November 29 last year. Picture: Doug KuntzMore than 140 refugees are helped ashore by a half dozen volunteers near Eftalou, Greece, on November 29 last year. Picture: Doug Kuntz

Mary Mc Williams says she was unable to stand back and do nothing when she saw the images of Syrian children drowning in the perilous waters between Greece and Turkey that shocked the world last year.

Instead of sending money, the former business woman decided to volunteer in the refugee camps herself.

She first went to Calais to work at the notorious Jungle camp where more than 6,000 refugees have been left in squalor with no way out but to climb razor sharp fences and jump onto moving trains in the hope of reaching the UK.

Then, last month, Mary made the trip to Lesbos to help Syrian and Iraqi refugees pulled from capsizing boats during the treacherous seven mile journey to Europe.

Refugees from the capsized boat are pulled to shore. Picture: Doug KuntzRefugees from the capsized boat are pulled to shore. Picture: Doug Kuntz

“Governments have closed their borders and cut off every route to these people,” she said. “That’s why us volunteers do it, because we know that if we don’t these people are going to freeze and starve to death and that’s a terrible situation.”

Mary is one of a growing number of volunteers who travel independently, connecting with each other through Facebook, as NGOs and charities do not have a significant presence in the burgeoning camps.

At the Jungle, which was partly demolished by the French government this week, Mary met migrants with horrific injuries who “go out every day and try to jump the trains”.

Among the squalid tent city she talked to Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan, Eritrean, Sudanese and Ethiopian refugees who are left to contend with hunger as scabies runs rife.

A child refugee in Lesbos. Picture: Doug KuntzA child refugee in Lesbos. Picture: Doug Kuntz

“There are so many skilled and professional people there and it’s just like they are literally rotting away,” she said.

In Lesbos, she worked at the Oxi camp in Molyvos where more than 1,000 refugees are washed up on the shores in small boats every day.

They are given dry clothes and food before being driven by bus to the Moria camp on the other side of the island to receive papers to allow them entry to Europe.

One of toughest tasks for volunteers is preparing refugees, unaware of how cold Europe is during winter months and without proper clothing, for the hazardous journey they face, she says.

Pictures from volunteer Mary Mc Williams of the Jungle camp in Calais Pictures from volunteer Mary Mc Williams of the Jungle camp in Calais

“They don’t know what’s ahead and that’s heartbreaking,” said Mary. “They don’t know that a lot of countries in Europe are closing their borders.”

Now, from her Hampstead home in Branch Hill, she has launched a fundraising appeal to try and raise £3,600 to send a shipping container full of winter clothes to Greece.

She hopes that people in Hampstead and Highgate will give generously as well as donating winter coats, jumpers, clothes, blankets and rucksacks to fill the container. There is a particular need for men’s shoes in sizes 41, 42 and 43.

Mary is also appealing for anyone who has storage space to keep the clothes to contact her.

Graffiti scrawled in the Jungle camp in CalaisGraffiti scrawled in the Jungle camp in Calais

“I believe this is our golden opportunity to help our fellow human beings who have been caught up in this unprecedented catastrophe,” she said.

“What I have realised watching this happen is these are real human beings, people that I would like to be my friends, my neighbours, just ordinary people who had lives and got caught up in this.”

To donate, visit gofundme.com/q4fppm38.

To contact Mary about donations email getaid2refugees@hotmail.com

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