How Volunteers Got Madrid's Government To Pay Attention To Refugees

"Many people arrive with nothing but the clothes they have on: short-sleeved shirts and slippers."
A view of Madrid City Hall with a banner that welcomes refugees.
A view of Madrid City Hall with a banner that welcomes refugees.

They've been traveling by bus for hours. They’ve left their families, friends, cities, countries and lives behind. When they reach Madrid -- probably not their final destination -- they get off and find this sign: 

The sign reads, "Welcome to the refugees. We'€™re happy to help you."
The sign reads, "Welcome to the refugees. We'€™re happy to help you."

It says, "Welcome, refugees" in Arabic, and it is a message for people arriving from Syria, Iraq and other conflict-ridden places in the world. It contains words of hope. 

A group waits at Madrid's Atocha and Méndez Álvaro bus stations Thursday through Sunday to greet refugees. The cartel is part of the Refugee Reception Network of Madrid, an initiative that supports refugees and migrants by providing basic care and support to people arriving in the country with virtually nothing.

This civil movement now has transportation facilities, as well as a team of translators, quartermasters and spokespersons. Tania García, a member of that team, said she had tears in her eyes the first time she saw a group of refugees stepping off a bus in Madrid.

"When you see them getting off the bus, they look so lost, and then they see the sign," García told HuffPost Spain. "Some of them know we're here, because someone had informed them beforehand, and some don't. They arrive in such a precarious state that as soon as you offer them some food and water, they readily accept your help and sense a bit of warmth."

 As she talks, García keeps glancing at the bus arrival screens at the Méndez Alvaro station, eager to find out if her group will be receiving more refugees that day.

"Now they are mostly Syrians, but people also come from Iraq or from African countries," she said.

Once refugees arrive in Madrid and approach the people holding welcome signs, they are taken somewhere to receive immediate assistance. It's a security precaution, intended to safeguard their privacy. At the Méndez Álvaro station, refugees stay in the overnight waiting room, which only refugees and Refugee Reception Network members are allowed to enter. The children who pass through this room manage to keep smiles on their faces despite the harsh realities they endure. This space, however small and dimly lit, serves as a place for the newcomers to rest. 

"They are given something to eat, something to drink, and when we find mothers with babies, they're given diapers, if they need them, and toys," García said. "Many people arrive with nothing but the clothes they have on: short-sleeved shirts and slippers. They need many things.”

Overnight waiting room at the Méndez Álvaro bus station in Madrid.
Overnight waiting room at the Méndez Álvaro bus station in Madrid.

Thanks to this movement's work, the Madrid City Council has agreed to use its resources to accommodate refugees. This wasn't always the case. When the network first started working, it relied on about 250 families that were willing to host refugees in their homes -- not an ideal arrangement, García said.

"We realized it was something unsustainable," she said. "We had been doing it for a month, and then one day we decided in a meeting that we would stop, and that we had to pressure the City Council to accommodate people using their resources. One Saturday, we stayed [at Méndez Álvaro] until 3 a.m. And at 4 a.m., they came with [municipal social assistance and emergency rescue program] SAMUR social and took the refugees in."

From this room in the station, SAMUR takes refugees to other shelters. At some of these destinations, Madrid's Palestinian-Hispanic community comes to assist refugees, said Marwan El Burini, the spokesman for the Palestinian Embassy in Madrid.

"We, as Palestinians, are versed in the experiences of refugees," he said. "We established a civil society here. We have a community, an institution that, in this kind of conflict, has a crisis committee that aims to help and relieve these people’s suffering. ... That is, we provide clothing, translators, doctors."

For the Palestinian civil society, assistance activities for refugees are not limited to those fleeing the Arab-Israeli conflict. Rather, they serve everyone who approaches them.

"We have already lived through what these people are going through, and that is why we serve them. When they see us, when they realize we are foreigners like them and that we speak their language, it helps a lot, psychologically," El Burini said.

Palestinian civil society groups keep a database of resources to help refugees, including translators, volunteers and doctors, El Burini said. 

"We left our contact number in the centers and people call us when they need someone to solve their problems," he said. 

García asks people to urge their governments to create a radically new policy to address the ongoing refugee crisis. El Burini, meanwhile, believes that governments ought to consider "the origin of the conflict."

"For me, it is not enough to solve the consequences of the conflict. Yes, we must provide a solution for those people who are escaping death, but there is no serious political work being done to try and solve the root of all this," he said. 

"We have to look back and realize that this had already happened and that it may happen again," he added. "Five years ago, Syria was one of the most peaceful countries in the region. Look at it now. The solution: dialogue. All conflicts must be solved through negotiation, but with honest and neutral intermediaries."

This story originally appeared on HuffPost Spain and has been translated into English. 

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