A KILLALOE based tennis coach, who has introduced the sport of tennis to residents of a Greek refugee camp, is urging the public to support charities like Lighthouse Relief who are helping those fleeing war torn countries.
Wesley O’Brien, a coach at the Killaloe Tennis Club said while the issue may have gone off the news cycle, it is still a major international crisis that needs continued support.
He said rather than sitting on a beach in Lanzarote he wanted to do more with his skills and wanted share the joy of tennis with those less fortunate. In 2018 he got in touch with a number NGOs and was directed to Lighthouse Relief, who work with refugees from Syria, Iraq and Turkey. The charity has a base on the island of Lesvos where they have a first responder team who help migrants fleeing by boat. Their second base is at the Ritsona refugee camp where they cater for more than 800 refugees organising activities and teaching them German and French.
After getting the go ahead to do a one week tennis workshop in October 2018, Wesley issued an appeal in the Killaloe club for rackets and tennis balls and set off with 50 rackets and new tennis balls.
He said when he arrived he just went into work mode and didn’t think about the horrors these people had experienced or what they had been through to get to the camp. He just wanted to give them some time out where they could learn something new.
“I didn’t let it effect me. I did find when I was there, that some of them would open up, but you would never ask them. One guy had just spoken about his family and said he hadn’t seen his mother in three years. They didn’t talk about how they got there. You’d ask what did you do, and a lot of them had really good jobs. That’s one of the misunderstandings people have of refugees, they had good jobs and they are some of the loveliest people you would meet,” he said.
The Ritsona camp installed portacabins before he arrived, and he described it as “five star” compared to similar facilities in Greece.
Wesley went back in January 2019 for six weeks bringing with him more rackets and two portable 18 foot nets. He hoped to return this September but has unfortunately had to postpone it until January 2020.
The plan then is to bring a third net. Wesley set up a court on an open concrete slab, which is shared with a soccer group, and painted the lines for a tennis court.
“I found the numbers getting bigger and bigger each week. The charity said they’d never seen something get as big, especially when the women were playing. At different stages we had 40 to 50 residents coming and going”.
He said it was often hard to hold onto equipment due to what they called “Alibabas” who would grab and run. This he explained happened as there was never enough supplies at the camp to go around.
“You can’t bring out stuff if you don’t have enough for everyone, because people say if he got it why don’t I get it. One of the last days I was there, there was a delivery and there was a mass brawl a bit away from the charity but we could see it. It comes down to there not being enough for everyone. It is every man for themselves,” he said.
He said while the migrant crisis is not reported on as much any more, it is continuing at pace.
“There were six boats at Lesvos in one day alone last week. I wanted to talk to raise awareness of the charity and to let people know it is still out there. The average stay of a resident is a year and a half. The charity needs €5,000 per month to keep it running. In that camp there were about 800 people,” he concluded.