I AM YOU began as a volunteer emergency response to the humanitarian crisis unfolding on the shores of Lesvos, Greece in the fall of 2015. Over one million men, women and children risked their lives to reach Europe, making the dangerous journey across the Aegean sea. Of these, 3,735 people were missing, believed drowned. (UNHCR January 4, 2016).
On October 21, 2015, a meeting took place in Stockholm, Sweden, between Swedish recording artist XOV, real name Damian Ardestani, his life-long friend Rebecca Reshdouni and the Emergencies Director of Human Rights Watch, Peter Bouckaert. The aim was for Damian, who himself came to Sweden as a refugee, to learn more about the refugee crisis. During the meeting, Peter showed moving cell phone footage of the dramatic scenes he had witnessed, explaining the extent of the crisis.
On October 22, 2015, Damian and Rebecca boarded a plane to Lesvos, the refugee crisis epicentre at the time. The plan was to learn more about the refugee crisis, but after only one hour the visit transformed into an urgent rescue operation. They spent the next few days helping refugee families in distress. It included everything from lifting unconscious babies from inflatable rubber boats, to taking care of wet, screaming children, to driving injured people and pregnant women, who had no idea if their babies were still alive, to the nearest camp where doctors were standing by.
Europe was facing a humanitarian disaster. On Lesvos, a former prison known as Moria was made into a makeshift refugee camp closed in by barbed wire, steel fences and concrete walls. The heavy rain had turned the surrounding olive grove into a sea of mud, garbage and human waste. Toxic smoke filled the air with a distinct smell of burnt plastic.
From the distance, life jackets painted the beaches orange as far as the eye could see. During Damian and Rebecca’s first few days in Lesvos, 32 000 refugees arrived to the small island (UNHCR), which contributed to a severe overload of people at Moria refugee camp. Families were forced to sleep in the cold for days awaiting registration. Military police used tear gas and violence to control the masses. The scenes that took place were horrifying.
On October 27, 2015, Damian and Rebecca boarded the plane home. En route, they founded I AM YOU, a non-profit movement dedicated to engaging young people in the refugee crisis and coordinating volunteer relief operations, starting in Lesvos, Greece.
A few hours after landing, Damian went live on Swedish national television and opened up about his experience. The network broadcast his footage. No one was left untouched.
On October 30, 2015, the planned release party for XOVs debut album turned into a fundraiser for I AM YOU and barely a week later, the organization was up and running with support from Sony Music, Universal Music, Max Martin, Avicii’s manager Ash Pournouri amongst others.
Within three weeks, I AM YOU had a team present on Lesvos 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. From then on, rotating teams of volunteers attended to the urgent needs of refugees who were still arriving in their thousands each day.
On November 11, 2015, I AM YOU were informed that they had built enough trust with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and the Greek authorities to be one of the few groups allowed to operate inside Moria refugee camp. Shortly thereafter, I AM YOU became a leading team in the camp and spent the winter providing support in every possible form to the thousands of people who arrived each week, bewildered and in desperate need of shelter, blankets and supplies.
Meanwhile, I AM YOU remained present elsewhere on the island attending to additional urgent needs. There were many vulnerable families left on the streets of Lesvos, with no shelter, medical assistance or supplies, who needed to be provided with a safe place and professional assistance. Distribution of donations on the island was ineffective. Families shivered in the cold and rain, while mountains of blankets, shoes and clothes lay untouched in storage facilities. The island desperately needed exactly what I AM YOU could offer: coordinated man power. Throughout winter, I AM YOU teams created efficient distribution systems, transporting items from the warehouses to the people who needed them, while other I AM YOU volunteers patrolled the streets and shores of Lesvos, coming to the aid of lost families and vulnerable cases.
In early December 2015, an EU deal with Turkey for a payment of €3 billion to stop the flow of refugees crossing the Aegean Sea seemed to reduce the daily flow of boats leaving Turkey to arrive to the North of the island of Lesvos, where professionals were on hand. However, with fewer boats arriving to the North during the day, there was a new challenge of boats arriving throughout the night to the South of the island, where there were no professionals around. I AM YOU responded with the “South Coordination Group”, and were the driving force in getting lifeguards, medical teams and volunteers transferred from the North, cooperating with night rescue teams. With the help of Peter Bouckaert, I AM YOU got reinforcement from the Proactiva Open Arms team of lifeguards on the second night. Shortly thereafter, IsraAid's doctors and medical teams from around the world joined the group, as did the Greek Hellenic Lifeguards, Help Needed and Because We Carry.
In January 2016, the Danish Refugee Council (DRC) were invited to take over the official management of Moria refugee camp, and I AM YOU partnered with them to create efficient systems for housing, protection monitoring and new arrivals. They jointly perfected these systems, and on February 27, 2016 co-branded vests were revealed, declaring I AM YOU official partners of DRC and UNHCR.
I AM YOU volunteers were one of the first groups to operate in Moria refugee camp and played a significant part in transforming it from chaos to coordination. I AM YOU were present every single day until March 20, 2016, the fateful day that Moria camp was closed to NGOs and once again turned back into a detention centre, following a second deal between the EU and Turkey.
WARNING: Raw footage from Lesvos
Late March 2016 was spent exploring new opportunities for I AM YOU to assist in a crisis that was still in desperate need of help. With the team dividing between Lesvos, Athens and Idomeni, needs assessments and discussions with the Greek authorities, military and other NGOs took place in multiple locations to decide upon the best step forward.
By April 1, 2016 I AM YOU volunteers had identified the area that needed them most, and gathered in Ritsona refugee camp, 1 hour north of Athens. The camp, based in a forest in the countryside, was extremely far from meeting basic humanitarian standards and had difficulties with hygiene, snakes and rodents. It was a dangerous and unsafe environment for up to 900 refugees, many of them children. Simultaneously, I AM YOU learned of Oinofyta refugee camp, a location in an industrial area where up to 2000 refugees are planned to arrive in 2016, which was not ready to receive them. Thus, I AM YOU began outlining its relief operations to meet the needs of the two camps in the region.
Early April 2016 was spent building relationships with the Greek authorities and Air Force who are responsible for the Ritsona and Oinofyta camps, and coordinating meetings with Ritsona’s other three NGOs: Lighthouse Relief, Echo100plus and Red Cross, to divide the responsibilities of the camp.
Simultaneously, Damian was in Los Angeles recording his second album and fundraising for the organization referencing its achievements in Lesvos. Over €100.000 was raised and the organization entered a new phase of exciting development.
In early May 2016, co-founders Rebecca and Damian joined the team in Athens to lead its operations onward. By this time, I AM YOU had grown to an NGO that had received hundreds of volunteers. During this journey, a handful of them naturally grew into leadership positions and I AM YOU decided to invest in their skills and expertise, hiring 6 in management positions and 2 in project management, based in the Athens-Chalkida region. Due to the vast number of volunteers and intense exposure to trauma, it was identified that psychosocial support must be provided to all volunteers and staff. This came to form an essential part of our operational plan.
The refugee crisis in Greece and the rest of Europe had transformed from immediate emergency to long-term emergency, and the situation was mirrored by the development of I AM YOU as a sustainable, project-oriented organization with long-term goals.