Help for Refugees In Europe

Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Jan 16, 2017

Dear Backers,

So it’s been six months since my last update, for which I apologise. At which time we had just started work on the foundations for a timber framed building to be used as a community centre at Skaramanagas refugee camp on the edge of Athens. Since then I have worked with other volunteers from around the world and from within the camp community to build the centre which is now (very nearly) finished. When I left three weeks ago, an Afghani volunteer electrician was finishing off installing the light switches, sockets and fittings and was about to connect the building up to the mains power! The building has three large rooms – one to be used as a computer room the other two as flexible spaces for classes, meetings and workshops as well as porch for outdoor activities. The building is already being used for mother-baby clothing exchanges, a pop-up library, music and dance activities, arts and crafts workshops and drama performances. As the construction approaches completion the task becomes to design an entertaining, useful and engaging program of activities for the centre which we hope to do in full collaboration with other NGOs and organisations for within and outside the camp, Drop In The Ocean volunteers and critically volunteers from the camp community.

It has been great to work in one camp for so many months allowing me to get to know some of the families and individuals living there very well. I have been deeply humbled by how generous so many people have been in volunteering their skilled labour for months at a time and I feel privileged to call so many of the people I worked with so closely my family. I have never known people to work so hard without ever asking for reward. Throughout the build at the many points when problems arose; when there was a technical issue with the construction that I had no answer to, when I felt too exhausted to continue, when personal issues where getting me down or when, at one point, the safety of the building was in jeopardy it was always camp residents that provided the solution and gave me the support and guidance I needed to continue. I have never known such resourceful, determined, strong, kind and caring people. I went to Skaramangas hoping to help rebuild community ties and social institutions that have been ripped apart by war, poverty and forced displacement but of course these people taught me more about community than I have every known before.

As with the last time I left Greece, I did so with a heavy heart. What I can do in four hours with a flash of my passport, tens of thousands of people across Europe are hoping beyond hope for. Every night across Europe, thousands of refugee children try to sleep in open-air detention centres, tents and squatted buildings or simply on the pavements of Athens, Thessaloniki, Belgrade, Napes, Rome, Paris, Berlin, Brussels and London. The cold spell that is currently sweeping Europe has been horrendous for these people, so many of who are still being denied the most basic human rights of shelter, water and food in this most wealthy of continents. The refugee crisis is not over. The numbers entering Europe are bigger than ever and show no sign of dropping and our governments are failing in their legal and moral duties of care to people seeking protection.

Despite all the suffering truly amazing things are being done by incredible people. Let me leave you with some pictures of what we, the community of Skaramangas refugee camp have built. Being part of this project is proudest thing I have ever done and I would like to thank everyone who has worked so hard to make it possible including all my backers. I love you all!

Please LIKE the Skaramangas Community Centre Facebook page for updates on whats going on!




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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Jul 18, 2016

Dear backers,

Long time no speak!

I have been basing myself out of Athens for the past couple of months working with refugees in the city and the wider Attica region. Athens has been hosting refugees from the beginning of this crisis. With the Balkan borders closed, over 10,000 thousand displaced people now live in and around Athens in official government camps, detention centres, informal settlements, squatted buildings, rented accommodation and rough on the streets. These are a few of the projects I have been working on to help make life a bit easier for refugees in Athens.


The Orange House


The Orange House in central Athens was an IT shop but has recently been refurbished and has now started its life as a shelter for vulnerable people such as single mothers, unaccompanied children and LGBT refugees. The upper rooms have bunk beds and bathrooms which means 20 or so people now have a safe space to sleep. The lower floors have a communal kitchen and a social space, computer facilities and classrooms. Zaatar, the NGO running the shelter, has already started running English classes here with the aim of teaching Greek and other languages, as well as cultural and social integration classes. I spent a few weeks helping with building work here last month.

Me re-painting one of the classrooms at The Orange House.

The same classroom being used for English lessons


Malakasa Warehouse


I first visited Malakasa camp, north of Athens, on an information gathering trip last April (our report on camps on mainland Greece can be found here) and I have been back many times since to help out mostly with warehouse logistics. There is an on-site warehouse here with the potential to be a great service to the camp's 1,400 Afghani residents. Unfortunately however, the camp is understaffed and lacking skilled warehouse management. Really, a full time warehouse team is needed to ensure clothes and non-food items are sorted and stored systematically ready for distribution. I have been doing what I can over the last couple of weeks to establish some order in the place that was a bit of a bombsite when I first arrived. If I had not already made commitments to other projects in Athens, I would have loved to take on this responsibility fully. As I have said before, warehouses are the backbone of any relief effort and it's a great shame to see this one in such a state. I hope to return to Malakasa when I have more time and work to develop a better functioning logistical system there.

Inside Malakasa warehouse. Having rearranged the items in the red cages to the left, here we are preparing to sort the mountain of loose clothes to the right!


Skaramangas Community Centre


The relatively comfortable Iso-Box containers at Skaramangas camp

Over the past month or so now I have been working on plans and drawings for a timber framed building to be used as a community centre at the camp in the Athens suburb of Skaramangas. This camp hosts over 3000 people from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan and is situated on a vast expanse of concrete by the dockyards of the Hellenic Navy. The people here actually stay in air conditioned containers with running water and electricity, by far the best accommodation we have seen in any camp in Greece. However there is virtually zero social/community space here and given the intense heat it is difficult to encourage people out from their cool container boxes to engage in any kind of civil life. This environment, coupled with a complete lack of police or security presence in the camp has lead to some isolated acts of vandalism, theft and violence. I am hopeful that more designated, comfortable, secure community space can contribute to lowering tensions here and act as a catalyst for community engagement.

My plans for the timber framed community centre at Skaramangas

For this project I am working with a Drop In The Ocean/Drapen I Havet, a Norwegian NGO founded on Lesvos on the same beaches I worked on last year and they are responsible for the management of the centre. Our current plans are for the building to be divided into four areas; a seminar room to be used for classes and workshops, as well as a venue for the regular meetings of representatives from each community and other organisations in the camp as a forum for dialogue; a library and IT centre providing free access to the internet and printed literature and a cafe to provide tea, coffee and other refreshments to camp residents

Checking the levels for the foundations

We finished laying the foundations for the building today. The first morning was a failure, myself and two American volunteers struggled. I overworked myself, got heat exhausted and very disillusioned with this huge task I had taken on. Salvation came in the form of a Syrian carpenter, a Kurdish decorator and an Afghan engineer as well as numerous other camp residents. They showed me how it is really done. I was deeply moved by their humility, work ethic and determination to work through national, ethnic, religious and linguistic boundaries. I feel almost patronising now, building these guys a community centre as if I can teach them anything about community. It's all well and good coming from multicultural, pluralistic London but our communal bonds have never really been tested. These guys have been through hell and back and still really want to make community relations work and get on with their neighbour.

The finished foundations ready to take the timber frame of the building

It's really promising to see such spontaneous and voluntary engagement from camp residents and we have only laid the foundations! It was always my hope that the building process would contribute to the strengthening of community ties as much as the finished product itself and this seems to be happening. The timber for the frame is due to be delivered on Wednesday and I will be sure to keep you updated on our progress at each stage of the construction. In the mean time please consider contributing to my fund as much or as little as you can. I am still doing this work on a completely voluntary basis and I must cover all of my accommodation, travel and general living costs myself.

Many thanks for your support!

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Apr 27, 2016

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Diavata camp, northern Greece

Dear backers,

When we last spoke the impact of the EU - Turkey agreement was swiftly being felt on the Greek islands. Overnight all those making irregular crossings were arrested and held in detention centres with very limited access to volunteers or aid workers, unofficial camps were being forcibly closed and more generally the scope for volunteers to make a meaningful difference on Lesvos became more and more limited. Some found other ways of supporting refugees such as holding demonstrations against deportations and smuggling food into overcrowded and under resourced prison camps. But much of the attention of the international volunteer effort has now shifted to the mainland where around 50,000 refugees are now stranded behind closed Balkan borders.

Since Macedonia closed its boarder with Greece last February the numbers at the now infamous crossing point at Idomeni have swollen to around 11,000. There are many more thousands living in open military sites, scattered across the mainland. Others live in squatted buildings and makeshift camps. Many unaccompanied minors are be held in police cells for lack of foster homes in the overwhelmed Greek social services. These sites are relatively new and more are opening all the time as the reality of closed borders dawns on the people who want to leave the hell of Idomeni and the Greek government encourages people into regularised refugee camps. Information on these new camps is scarce and limited which is frustrating given the population of experienced volunteers, established NGOs and fully stocked warehouses on the Islands. It seems coordination is what is really lacking and this is why another long term volunteer and I decided to make a three week information gathering trip to visit as many camps on the mainland as possible.

At each site we took stock of the living conditions, made a needs assessment, tried to establish how international volunteers could best fit into existing systems and more generally develop contact with the individuals and organisations already operating. Our full and on going series of reports can be found here. This information has already been used to ship a container of needed supplies to Malakasa camp in central Greece, arrange deliveries of mosquito repellent, organise mosquito spraying and snake removal for several camps and we already know of volunteers who have successfully began work in mainland camps following reading our reports. We are currently working in partnership with others on several potential projects such as cooking pots and pans, mosquito nets, medical teams and further shipments of aid to other camps. We hope our findings can continue to better coordinate the relief effort across Greece.

The situation on the mainland is static and very different to that which I have been working in in recent months which was one of transit. Since the Macedonian government recently released a statement that it's border would remain closed for at least a year and returning to Syria, Turkey or Afghanistan is impossible for most, these 50,000 are likely to remain in Greece for some time. The basic necessaries of life must be made available as was always the case. But now new issues of education, long term health and cultural, social and economic integration with the Greek nation as well as ensuring a minimum level of autonomy and self determination for a stranded and isolated people are becoming the key challenges.

At every place we visited we were struck by the hospitality of the Greek people in the face of overwhelming crises. Thousands of local volunteers have mobilised, many of which where already active in supporting the many Greek families that find themselves in a dire financial situation. We have seen local governments have dip into already over stretched budgets to try and house their new neighbours. We were pleasantly surprised by the broadly cooperative and compassionate work of the military personnel responsible for running the official refugee camps. They seem to be doing the best they can with the very limited means available to them. Throughout my work in this crisis, through all the despair, I have managed to find examples of human endeavour that more then restore my hope for the future. Over the past few weeks it has been the dignified and stoic behavior of Greece, hit by two earth shattering crises and abandoned and vilified by her European 'partners' that has been my inspiration. Greece should not be left to shoulder this burden alone.

I write to you having just returned to Lesvos. We plan to stay here for a week or two to debrief (and decompress!) before finalising our plans to return to the mainland. We envisage ourselves being based out of Thessaloniki in future, the main city in the north of Greece. We hope to continue our information gathering exercise to deepen our contacts with existing camps, visit those in the west of the country that we did not manage to get to this time around as well as new ones as they open. In the longer term we hope to contribute to a more permanent centralised system where by needs can be regularly updated and made available to to warehouse managers and NGO coordinators across the country and internationally.

To do this I will continue to need funding for the personal costs of food, accommodation and travel as well as money to develop projects on the ground in these new camps. Thank you to everyone has supported me so far and to everyone who can help me going forward. Your contributions are vital in enabling me to do this work.

P.S. Thankfully on my trip I managed to take some time out from driving, talking and writing to do some work with my hands. Here is a video of me felling very proud of a 5m x 1.6m sorting table I built in the Czech Team warehouse in Polykastro. I also did a day's work with the Green Helmets on their exciting and ambitious project to build timber floors for 700 tents at Nea Kavala camp.

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Mar 25, 2016

Myself with one of the starfish teams after a shift in Mytillini Port

Dear backers,

It has been a hectic week on Lesvos. Following the agreement of the EU-Turkey deal and resulting EU statement all refugees that had arrived on the island before 20 March have been evacuated and dispersed across new camps all over mainland Greece. According to the authorities these people will be allowed to apply for asylum in Greece and/or for family reunification elsewhere in Europe. They apparently will be able to move 'freely' through the country. Initial reports from a handful of new camps suggest they are wholly inadequate with little to no sanitation, water or shelter, but at least they are free to move in and out.

As of the 20 March all new arrivals to Greece will be arrested, detained and subject to fast tracked asylum hearings and deportation. Volunteers and NGOs have been kicked out of Moria registration camp which is now a detention centre run by the army. The UNHCR has stated that these new procedures are a breach of international law and will cease their work in Moria, along with MSF and Save the Children. The few remaining unofficial camps are being shut down and there is less and less space in which volunteers can work.

Over the weekend I worked with a team of Starfish volunteers and others in the port of Mytilini to help with the boarding of thousands of refugees onto ferries bound for the mainland. We distributed food, clothing, tents and sleeping bags in the car park of the port. Many of these people were suddenly evacuated overnight and so were unprepared for the journey ahead. We helped carry bags onto the boats for many exhausted families, all the while being as deferential as possible to the port police who could force us to leave at any time. At one point the police rounded up around twenty Pakistani men who did not have the right papers to board. One was kicked by a police man whilst he was sat down on the concrete. They were then loaded onto a bus and taken back to the detention centre.

As all arrivals to the Greek islands are now prisoners, there is less and less scope for volunteers to do meaningful work here. Reports come in daily of horrendous conditions in Athens and in the north of the country. For these reasons I have decided to leave Lesvos, at least for the time being. Myself and another independent volunteer have made plans to visit as many camps on the mainland as possible to do a needs assessment and make contacts with local communities in the area. The hope is then to divert supplies, volunteers and funding to where it is needed most. We will also look into possibilities for improving access to legal advice for the many stranded in legal limbo in Greece. Currently many people are completely in the dark as to their options, particularly following the recent changes in procedure.

I would like to say a massive thank you to everyone who as supported me in doing this work. I look forward to reporting back on what we find...

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Mar 11, 2016

An ever present problem in European refugee camps is water and cold. Keeping warm and dry is essential to preventing disease and exposure and providing a minimum level of comfort and dignity. Of course having a roof over your head is the primary concern when designing a shelter. But once you have this one’s mind very quickly turns to the ground beneath you. If it is uneven, stony, muddy or allows water or raw sewage to flow in freely it can be nearly impossible to stay warm, dry and comfortable even in the best tent available. A good floor is a critical element to a good shelter. An element that is all too often not available to people staying in camps throughout Europe.

For this reason I wanted to tell you guys about an innovative and effective flooring method that I have seen used in all the refugee camps I have been to. A lot of my time doing construction work has been spent making these floors.

The primary material is the wooden pallet used in warehouses and shipping containers for transporting all manner of goods around the world. Not only does this method reuse a readily available, local and usually free material but if done well it is very effective at providing shelter from the elements. This system has been used in informal camps such as ‘The Jungle’ in Calais and the anarchist ‘No Borders Kitchen’ by the port of Mytilini as well as more formal ones such as the IRC transit camp in northern Lesvos and Moria registration camp in the south.It seems that no matter what the budget, nothing can beat the humble wooden pallet!

I have seen several permutations of this system. Some made en situe, some made in a workshop. Some use more or less components depending on availability of materials and time. Bellow is a sketch of the most thorough design I have seen, the method for which is as follows:

  • First a layer of gravel is laid to produce a level surface and aid drainage.
  • Then the pallets are laid. This lifts the floor off the ground keeping it dry and providing an initial insulating layer.
  • A damp proof membrane (plastic sheeting) is added on top of the pallets providing further protection to the floor above.
  • Plywood sheets are screwed down which creates a smooth stable surface and ties the pallets together.
  • Heavy duty tarpaulin or lino/vinyl sheets are used to give a finish that can be easily swept or mopped.

The other photos are of me laying a pallet floor in Pikpa camp for vulnerable people and of some prefabricated floors I worked on in Calais. I hope this gives you a better idea of some of the work I am doing. There are many more tents and shelters that need floors. Your donations will allow me to continue to provide shelter to displaced people, one floor at a time!

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Great job, Sam!

Alina Listopad

Update posted by Mar 12

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Mar 02, 2016

Dear backer,

I am volunteering on Lesvos again. It feels great to be back!

The situation is much changed since I was here last. Numbers of arrivals are currently lower than the huge flows of people we saw back in October/November, although they are still six to seven times higher than this time last year - there have been more arrivals on Lesvos in the first two months of this year than the first seven months of 2015. The recent decision by Austria to greatly restrict its refugee intake has led to a domino effect of border closures across central and eastern Europe. These measures, along with Macedonia's refusal to allow Afghans to cross its border, have led to a bottleneck of thousands of refugees stranded in Greece in dire conditions. There is great concern about what will happen in the coming months as the weather improves and the dinghies start arriving in vast numbers again.

I am again working with the Starfish Foundation. Oxy transit camp has closed since I left and been replaced with an IRC camp which now takes all arrivals in the north of the island. We are responsible for clothes distribution here. We also manage arrivals to Molyvos and Petra harbours which are picked up by Greek and Frontex coastguards. I have also worked shifts in Moria registration camp in the south of the island allocating people to Refugee Housing Units and dormitories for vulnerable people. On the quieter days I have been improving storage space as well as builing a shop display space where donated clothes that are unsuitable for refugees are made available to local Greeks in need - you'd be amazed at what people send! I am excited to start work on renovating an old stone building that will become the new Starfish headquarters. I also have plans to work with a volunteer architect who is developing plans for landscaping and sanitation in Pikpa camp for vulnerable people.

I plan to stay for at least two months until April and I have a continued need for personal funding for food, travel, car hire and fuel and tools and building materials. Any contribution towards these costs, however small is greatly appreciated.

Many thanks.

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Update posted by Sam Mitchell On Nov 20, 2015

Oxy transit camp at sunset

Dear Backers,

I am home in London, safe and sound! Its been an experience I will never forget and I’m sure has changed me profoundly in ways I do not completely understand yet. But allow me to try and give you some idea of the situation on Lesbos and the part I played during the five weeks I was there.

The refugees arrive on the northern shores of the Island as illegal immigrants, crossing the narrow, but often dangerous waters bordering Turkey. Each person pays a fee of around two thousand euros to local smugglers for a place amongst fifty or more others on a rubber dingy built for no more than twenty passengers. Some travel on larger fishing vessels; also overloaded and often dilapidated.

If the people arrive safely, they are met by volunteers and small NGOs on the beaches who provide dry clothes, food, medical care and transport in the form of small cars and vans as well as coaches paid for by the International Rescue Committee and UNHCR. In the area around Molyvos where I was working, arrivals from the beaches were taken to Oxy Transit Camp, so named after the VIP night club, in the cark park of which, it is sited. The camp provides food, clothes, medical care, information and shelter to two thousand people on an average day, although we peaked at six thousand whilst I was there. Further buses are organised to the capital, Mitilini where one can register and apply for asylum.

Boats that get into trouble are picked up by the Greek and European coast guards and volunteer life guards and taken to Molyvos harbour where they are again cared for by volunteers and loaded on to buses directly to Mitilini, since they are technically under arrest. It is on the harbour that the most tragic scenes are played out when people have been in the water for too long.

There are two main camps outside Lesbos’ capital city – Moria and Kara Tepe. When people arrive at Oxy Camp we are asked to separate them in to Syrian and Non-Syrian buses. Syrians go to Kara Tepe and non-Syrians go to Moria. Syria is officially recognised as a war zone and Syrians have a better chance of being accepted as refugees and are better treated. Countries such as Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Somalia are apparently not war zones and as such non-Syrian nationals have a harder time being granted asylum. Their conditions are much worse. Moria, where we must send all our non-Syrian arrivals is notorious for malnutrition, lack of shelter and medical care, little to no sanitation and bouts of police brutality. Why large organisations such as UNHCR, Save the Children and the Red Cross, which are supposed to be responsible for these camps, allow this to happen is beyond me.

The UNHCR provide us with a decent supply of blankets as well as some tents and a few buses. The IRC make a critical contribution of buses and professional staff to help organise them. There is the odd Red Cross personnel helping out. The overstretched local coastguard and ambulance services do the best they can. There are smaller NGOs doing critical working in specialist fields such as medicine. But the overwhelming majority of manpower, supplies, logistics and care being given on Lesbos, indeed across Europe is volunteered or donated. Ordinary individuals from across the continent and the world have freely given their time, money and emotional energy to provide what is at least a semblance of a welcome and safe right of passage to those seeking refuge. No matter how dire the situation ever got while I was on Lesbos, I was reminded of this fact daily and it gave me strength.

For most of my time on Lesbos I worked with Starfish, one of the largest volunteer organisations in the north of the island. Established by a local, British born restaurant owner who began giving out sandwiches to some desperate people who arrived in the harbour one day, the project has since snowballed and Starfish now runs Oxy Camp, as well as operations at the harbour and Eftalou Beach. I worked on an 8 hour, night-and-day shift system distributing food, clothes and blankets, cleaning the sites, running the ticket system and loading buses. Later in my trip I managed to get some time off schedule to build a new door, shelves and tables for the men’s clothing tent and storage houses.

The refugees I met were in approximately equal numbers from Syria and Afghanistan but there where others from Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Palestine, Eritrea, Somalia, Libya, Tunisia, Morocco and Nigeria. The majority travelled in family groups of two or three to twenty or more with members of all ages; babies, small children, teenagers, young men and women, parents and grandparents. There where groups of young men and individuals. Single mothers would often band together. I cannot say there was a particular mood of the refugees. Their outlook was as varied as they’re origins, background and situations; As varied as humanity. I saw moments of intense joy and optimism for what a future in Europe might mean as well as moments of despair at what the journey had cost. But without fail all the people I meet where always courteous and thankful.

I would like to convey a message to you from an anonymous Syrian mother. She was wrestling to keep her place in a line for some dry clothes for her three children. A line I was trying and failing to hold. Upon realising my desperation, she looked up at me and said gently, as a mother would: “We are proud of you.” I think she meant it to all of us.

It was very difficult to leave Lesbos and it feels strange now I am back in London. I have every intension of returning soon.

Thank you all for your generous contributions that have made this opportunity possible.

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Hope you're well Sam.

Nick, Meg & Jacob Malleson

Backed On Oct 07, 2016 Amount Hidden

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The work that Sam & others are doing to help people who are trying to find a safe & secure future for themselves & their families in utterly essential. I am proud to know that Sam is so involved.

Daniel Cochran

Backed with £30.00 On Sep 21, 2016

Recurring Donation!

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Calum Johnstone

Backed with £50.00 On Sep 09, 2016

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The work that Sam & others are doing to help people who are trying to find a safe & secure future for themselves & their families in utterly essential. I am proud to know that Sam is so involved.

Daniel Cochran

Backed with £30.00 On Aug 21, 2016

Recurring Donation!

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Anonymous

Backed On Jul 31, 2016 Amount Hidden

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Thanks for all the updates, Sam - and many thanks for all the work you have been doing in Athens and the region. Dx

Diamond Ashiagbor

Backed with £50.00 On Jul 25, 2016

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Thank you for the up-dates Sam, and for all you are doing. Lizzie xx

Lizzie Barmes

Backed with £100.00 On Jul 25, 2016

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The work that Sam & others are doing to help people who are trying to find a safe & secure future for themselves & their families in utterly essential. I am proud to know that Sam is so involved.

Daniel Cochran

Backed with £30.00 On Jul 21, 2016

Recurring Donation!

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Good luck Sam. We look forward to catching up with you.

Tim Trout

Backed with £50.00 On Jul 19, 2016

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Nick, Meg & Jacob Malleson

Backed On May 22, 2016 Amount Hidden

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