Green light: this is where refugees can find help. We want to give them hope [INTERVIEW]
“When people who have been on the move for a long time are given a warm meal, they break down. They cry and completely go to pieces,“ says Kamil Syller. He has started a movement in which people who want to help the refugees mark their houses with green light, and he explains to OKO.press why this is important
The ”Green Light” campaign has simple rules: People who live along the [Poland-Belarus] border (and elsewhere) that are willing to give aid to migrants and refugees crossing the border are asked to put a green light in a window or over their front door. The migrants, who often wander the forests [along the border] for many days, are severely chilled from the October cold, and many have blisters and wounds. As of now, we know of seven deaths that occurred as a result, and of many people suffering from hypothermia or pneumonia that were rescued at the last minute.
OKO.press discusses the “Green Light” campaign with its founder, Kamil Syller, a lawyer who lives with his family in a village of Werstok in the Podlaskie Voivodeship.
Krzysztof Boczek, OKO.press: How did the idea of the “Green light” start?
Kamil Syller: It came out of helplessness that was swelling in me. We know that there are people in the forests that need help, that they are dying without it, and that we can assist them. But we don’t see them, so how can we reach them to offer that help?
Wait, why were you feeling helpless?
There was a certain situation that the media have already reported on in which three Syrians ended up in a hospital in Hajnówka [Hajnówka County, Podlaskie Voivodeship]: a 26-year-old man, a two-year-old child, and a 48-year-old woman, who turned out to be the child’s grandmother. She set out on the journey alone except for the child that was entrusted to her.
I became their legal agent: A group of volunteer rescuers contacted me, I drove to them and we signed documents designating me as their legal representative. I also completed a declaration of the intent to apply for international protection on their behalf. It’s a procedure that can be invoked only in certain cases, e.g., in the case of migrants who are pregnant or have disabilities, where the migrants do not have to be physically at a Border Guard station and it is sufficient if they state their intent in writing. The Border Guard must then begin the asylum process. It’s baffling that the procedure cannot be invoked for children, for whom the situation at the border is even worse.
The Syrian woman was severely chilled, and the Medics on the Border [a group of medical doctors volunteering at the border] intervened. She ended up at a hospital, and it was uncertain whether she would survive pneumonia and severe hypothermia. In the end, though, everything turned out well.
The doctors who rescued her told me that she would have died within a few hours. This made me realize that all this is unacceptable, that we need to get these people out of the forest so that they don’t lose hope. [It is unacceptable] That the fear of being thrown out to Belarus is bigger than their will to live.
Another time, a group of six refugees, including children, turned up near our house in the morning; we live within a mile of the emergency zone. The Border Guard was alerted by a neighbor who spotted them. He acted in good faith: he believed that the services would provide the refugees with food. The refugees, however, became scared and ran away. When we found out about this, we quickly set out into the forest, carrying with us warm clothes and tea. We looked for them by car and on foot. We tried to get to them before the Border Guard.
We even asked the Border Guard whether they had found the refugees already, to which they responded that they are not looking for anyone at all, that they’re just keeping watch on the border. Unfortunately, they caught them. A police van and an ambulance arrived, a young girl from Syria was taken to a hospital. I don’t know what happened to them next.
I realized then and there that they [the refugees] relocate mostly at night. How can we reach out to them? With light. And light can also be seen as a positive signal.
About five days ago we lit a green light next to our house. [It means:] The refugees will be given aid here.
And I think that this idea was a step in a good direction.
Because it’s spreading fast, and I wasn’t expecting that. Among my neighbors, there is a group of emphatic people who are socializing together. In the past we protested against logging in the Białowieża Forest [the largest remaining part of the primeval forest that once stretched across Europe]. At that time, these people truly came through. I wrote to them about my “Green Light” idea; I was hoping somebody would join in. And they have: green lights are being lit in villages around here. The first ones popped up very fast. I know that even people in cities start to put up green lights, I’ve been told that by my friends from Warsaw. These are gestures of solidarity. People are also adding green bulbs to their social media avatars.
But this concerns your social circle. What about other people who live around here?
I’ve been hoping they would like the idea, and I’ve been waiting for them to join as well. Today I was informed that the town of Michałowo [Białystok County, Podlaskie Voivodeship] has joined. It was in Michałowo that a warming center has been opened for the refugees. That city showed us that one doesn’t need to be scared; they went against the tide and put other administrative units around here to shame.
Encouraged by this, my friends wrote to other districts around here. I know that the Narewka district started to collect items donated for the refugees. The Białowieża district is under pressure now.
The town of Hajnówka [Hajnówka County, Podlaskie Voivodeship] should join in as well.
Because their hospital is experiencing significant logistics issues related to the refugees. They have problems with laundering the refugees’ clothes on schedule, they’re running out of detergents. People from our network are in contact with doctors and other employees at the hospital to find out what they need. As an example, yesterday the Border Guard arrived at the hospital with a mother and her six children. The woman had to stay to have an operation, while the children had to be transported elsewhere. The Border Guard did not have car seats needed for that, and we were able to quickly make arrangements for them.
The hospital doesn’t provide new clothes for its patients, so that when somebody is discharged after a few hours, the Border Guard instructs the hospital to have them wear the same wet clothes that they arrived in. That person, wearing those wet, dirty clothes, is then driven out to the forest and left at the border. This should not be happening.
We are also trying to bring the local Orthodox church in to help as well.
That would be interesting. Today I’ve visited a catholic priest in Narewka to talk about help for the refugees. He refused to talk altogether, claiming that they’ve been forbidden by the diocese and saying that I won’t get anything out of him. Or out of other priests. He became rather unpleasant and I had to go. I haven’t asked you about this yet: what kind of help can the refugees get in places marked by the green light?
It varies. In some places it may be simply drinkable water; it’s important, because the refugees don’t have access to it and often drink water that is unsafe and impure. In other places they may be given food, tea, a place to warm up. [In yet other places] They may obtain first aid; the migrants often have wounds from climbing through razor wire, or their feet are chafed.
I’m also aware that some people let the refugees stay overnight, but this is beyond the green light movement.
At our house, they can change their clothes and obtain many items needed on their journey. Just today I’ve received a big supply, bought and delivered here by Przemek Szafrański from TVN Turbo [a Polish TV channel with a focus on automotive programming]. We now have insulated rain boots in different sizes, thermal underwear, water, juice boxes, personal hygiene items, energy bars, clothes, a few dozen of charged power banks…
The refugees also need shoes: they’ve been on the go for many months and their footwear is torn down. It’s the 21st century and there are some people in the forests at the border, during the cold month of October, going barefoot! It’s unacceptable. Activists were often giving away their own shoes.
Recently I’ve been told by a doctor at the hospital that it’s important for the refugees to be able to brush their teeth. These are often well-educated people who are used to maintaining their hygiene at a certain level, and the lengthy journey through the forest often dehumanizes them. Such a trivial thing like brushing one’s teeth allows them to regain their human dignity. Therefore, we also have toothbrushes and tubes of toothpaste. I’m making sure that the activists who are helping the refugees are aware of such small but important details.
The donated items are also being used by entities who are helping the refugees.
The migrants are not prepared for the journey. They are misinformed. They think it’s a journey from a taxi on one side of the border to a taxi on the other side which will take them to Germany.
If they’re so disoriented, how are they supposed to know what the green lights mean?
Some of them know that already. I shared this information, in several languages, with international groups managed by refugees that are currently living in Great Britain or Sweden. Those who made it are trying to help those that are on their way. They are active within their communities. They write and speak about others as „their people” or “brothers.”
The information I posted was met with an instant reaction: already within the first hour I was contacted by a Syrian man from Istanbul. I explained to him that we will help anyone in the forest.
They are aware of what is happening on the Polish-Belarussian border, they’re watching the [posted] videos and read about bodies lying in the forest along the border. Some just don’t believe it, because they think it simply cannot be that bad. Others, equipped with this knowledge, are better prepared and try to cross over.
Maybe it’s because (using words of a young Yezidi woman who wrote to me) “it’s better to die trying to reach safety, than to be frightened to death in your own country, without any hopes for a better future.”
Helping the refugees can also be difficult, emotionally.
When people who have been on the move for a long time are given a warm meal and something to drink, they break down. They cry and completely go to pieces. They can’t utter a single word.
One guy from outside the emergency zone brought some items and gave them to the refugees. In response, they got on their knees to thank him. He was shocked. Situations like that completely overwhelm people who want to offer aid.
Among our group of people helping the refugees there is a psychiatrist. He offered help for other activists, and some people have already accepted that help.
On top of this you are surely a target of right-wing hate.
There is a lot of dislike towards this kind of aid. I get furious when haters criticize all kinds of help, or sneer that the green lights will alert the Border Guard who will know where migrants can be caught.
If such a person saw the refugees that are in hospitals, they’d be less willing to write about “young bucks” who came here to “steal and rape.”
As a lawyer, I would like to stress that there is no legal obligation on us to inform the Border Guard. Especially as, given that they engage in illegal practices [e.g., pushing the refugees back over the Poland-Belarus border], doing so could put the lives of the refugees in danger. This whole campaign would not take place if the services acted according to the existing laws. The usual process here would be to register a refugee, accept their application for asylum, and take them to a place where they can await the decision. Only then an eventual deportation could take place.
But this is not what’s happening, and I do not accept the current methods.
For the benefit of those who claim that the refugees should arrive at an official port of entry and apply for asylum there, I would also like to remind them that the border crossing points have been largely shut since 2020. There are 26 categories of travelers who may cross there, and migrants are not among them.
I’m seeing a clash of good and evil here in Podlasie [i.e., Podlaskie Voivodeship]. Some people help the refugees as much as they can, while others report them [to the Border Guard], don’t allow them the access to medical assistance, and finally, e.g., throw out a pregnant woman back over the border like a piece of trash.
It’s like somebody has cut out a piece of the occupied Poland [during the World War II] and pasted it inside a country where people go to get coffee at Starbucks and watch the new Bond movie in theaters.
Here, the situation is like during the occupation. There are people here who are on the run, who are in hiding, and they’re dying. There is also a group pursuing them, and those who are reporting the refugees to their pursuers.
There are also those who want to help. For now, some of this help is clandestine, and some of it is in the open.
This terrain is known for being home to bison; a herd of about 40 is often seen grazing near our houses. They used to live in the open, on grassy plains. But, exterminated by humans, they were driven into the woodlands. They became refugees in the primeval forest.
Nowadays they can go out onto the grasslands again and nibble on winter crops. However, the forests have again become a refuge, only this time for people.
First published in Polish at OKO.press
Translated pro bono by our reader from USA. Thank you for your effort!