In 2015, when refugees first started streaming into Greece by the thousands, boat after overcrowded boat landing on the shores of Lesvos and a few other islands, I felt the pull to go help. Agencies were calling for volunteers to help keep people safe, and I wondered whether I should go. But I didn’t feel like I could leave my work at the time, which was keeping other people safe. Still, it stayed on my heart and mind for years, as I followed the refugee crisis in the news. Finally, three years later, I found the opportunity to go do the volunteering that had been in the back of my mind since then.
I flew to Lesvos from Athens on a 50-person propeller plane and landed in Mytilene, the main city on Lesvos.
I took the only bus of the day to the community where I would be volunteering, Skala Sikamineas, a tiny village on the northeastern corner of Lesvos. It is one of the closest parts of the island to Turkey, which is why it is a hotspot for refugee arrivals. It has a lot of fishermen, one mini market, one bakery, a handful of restaurants, and one cafe where both old Greek men and young international volunteers hang out. I stumbled out of the bus and right into this café where I promptly met like-minded volunteers and got my orientation from the volunteer coordinator. My first shift was the next morning.
Skala Sikamineas – out the window of the volunteer house
I was part of the land crew for an agency called Refugee Rescue, and we had two jobs: one, to watch the sea from above and spot any refugee boats that entered Greek waters, and two, if a boat was spotted, we would open the transit camp where the refugees would stay until they could be transferred to the main refugee camp on Lesvos. We distributed blankets, hot tea, and helped everyone get dry clothes to replace anything that was wet. And we also got to distribute toys for the kids, which was so lovely! (And prior to that, the Hellenic Coast Guard and other official boats would be notified and either they or the Refugee Rescue boat would meet the refugee boat and escort the people safely to shore.)
Looks pretty but it was FREEZING
Why is this work even necessary? International refugee policy and migration routes are ridiculously complicated and ever-changing subjects, but here’s a simplified summary. When refugees flee their homes in Syria, Afghanistan, or other countries due to unsafe conditions there, many of them aim to resettle in the European Union, where living conditions are better and their families will be safe. They make their way overland from their home nation and end up in Turkey where they try to cross by boat to land in Greece, where they seek asylum.
(The process of seeking asylum is a political request that an individual puts in, saying that the country they have left is unsafe for them, and asking for permission to resettle in a new country. It’s a time-consuming process and not all people who request asylum are granted it.)
The distance of sea between Turkey and Lesvos near Skala is fairly short (only five nautical miles), but the journey is dangerous, which is why boat spotting is important. Most refugees cross on dinghies, small boats made of rubber with an engine attached, and most crossings are at night. The dinghies that arrived on Greek shores while I was there contained 35-60 people each.
There were a surprising number of small children on the boats, including a 4-day old baby.
(I never personally saw a dinghy in my three weeks, but this photo was taken a few years ago by Boaz Arad from IsraAid. This agency was on Lesvos doing great medical work while I was there.)
Lots of things can go wrong on a journey across the Aegean. Most dinghies take at least an hour and a half to cross, though sometimes it can be faster and sometimes it can take up to 3-4 hours. The engine can stop working on the boat, stranding the people in the middle of the sea. The weather can change, as it did one night that I was working and a boat came into Greek waters during a thunderstorm – it had been calm when they left Turkey but by the time they made it to Greece, they were totally soaked from rain and there was lightning in the sky. The boat can develop a leak and start taking on water, and eventually sink.
And, something sinister I learned while I was there is that though the smugglers who organize the boats provide life jackets (which of course the refugees pay an additional fee for, on top of the huge fees they are already paying for the service of being smuggled – sometimes people’s whole life savings), they are often fake. Fake life jackets look real, but when they get wet, the material inside absorbs water instead of repelling it, and they will end up dragging a person down instead of floating them.
So the danger of attempting a crossing is quite real.
Fake life jackets cut open to reveal the inside
The volunteer work we were doing was important, but it was not glamorous nor fast-paced.
Two of my colleagues watching for boats around midnight one night
It meant a lot of nights spent standing out in the cold and wind (yes, Greece is cold in the winter time too), scanning the sea through a night vision camera or binoculars, looking for refugee boats. Most nights, nothing happened. But every night, it was possible that we would see something and so we had to be out there and alert.
An official boat patrolling the Greek-Turkey border, seen through the night vision camera
We did night shifts that went from 10pm to 7am, which were spent on an exposed promontory which had a good view of a large section of sea. Working in teams of three, we watched the sea throughout the whole night in shifts, each getting a couple of hours to sleep in the car, huddled under blankets, when it wasn’t our shift.
It was highly unpleasant on some nights, trying to keep the [very expensive] camera and your body steady in huge gusts of wind, waiting out rain for hours locked in a soggy car with two other exhausted people, etc. The sea looked pretty unfriendly in the dark, especially when there was no moon and there was wind or rain.
It gave me a lot of time to think about how desperate and scared I would have to be to decide to put myself and my children in a boat in the middle of a frigid, windy night and try to cross that scary sea.
I took this photo around 3am one night during my shift. I was sitting out at our viewing point, having my 5-minute break between scans. I was thinking about the refugees who were likely hiding in the woods somewhere in Turkey, trying to decide if tonight was the right night to attempt a crossing. I had prepared a thermos of hot tea to bring with me, something to try to keep a bit warm, and when I looked at the little saying on the tag, it just hit me straight in the heart with its relevance to what I was doing.
Indeed, we are one soul, you and me.
Myself, the refugees who are crossing, the people who live in Skala Sikamineas… we’re all the same. We’re all human. We all want the same basic things in life – safety and freedom for ourselves and our families, enough to eat, a roof over our heads, employment that pays enough to live, etc. I happen to have been born in a stable country with no war, to a privileged family, and that puts me in a position to help. These folks on the boats happen to have been born in a country that is unsafe for one reason or another (and I won’t get political, but our government had a lot to do with the reasons that some of these people are fleeing their homes) and that puts them in a position of needing help right now. We were born in different places, but we are one.
Those are my sisters and brothers. We are two sides of the same coin. We are the same.
Shortly before I left Lesvos, a few of the other volunteers and I drove a short distance from the spot where we watch for boats to see this ‘lifejacket graveyard,’ an unintentional monument to all the refugees who have passed through Lesvos in the past few years.
The life jacket graveyard is just a pit in the ground, not far from a cute tourist town called Molyvos, where life jackets started collecting, and now there are thousands upon thousands just disintegrating in the elements. There are pieces of dinghies and different flotation devices mixed in, and a bunch of boat motors arranged near one edge like tombstones.
It was powerful to witness.
When I first got out of the car and took in the magnitude of all those people who left their homes and everything they knew to make this dangerous journey, the hairs on my arms stood straight up and I got goosebumps all over.
One of the other volunteers said, “the feeling I get here is the same feeling as when I visited Auschwitz and saw all the shoes left behind.”
The crisis continues.
The volume of refugees that cross through Lesvos these days is diminished from what it was in 2015 when the crisis began. The European Union is paying Turkey quite a bit of money to try to prevent refugees from crossing into Greece; there is a Frontex patrol boat on the border at most times, as well as a NATO warship patrolling the border, in addition to the Turkish and Greek coast guards. And yet, people continue to cross.
Once they arrive in Greece, they spend months or years trapped in Moria, the main refugee camp. It is like a prison where they must stay until they are either deported back to Turkey or allowed entry onto mainland Greece. (I didn’t visit Moria because I didn’t have any work to do there and I don’t like to treat humans like animals in a zoo to be viewed, but click here for some good photos and reporting on the camp.) Overall, the presence of a huge number of refugees on Lesvos was much less obvious than I thought it would be, because they are all contained in the camp.
But people continue to arrive. I just saw an update from friends who are still there, and they had four boats land in the last 27 hours, with nearly 130 people on board.
There are also boats landing on the Greek islands of Samos and Chios, and a growing number of refugees crossing into Italy from Africa. A huge amount are moving overland to Jordan and effectively resettling there, which is rarely mentioned in the news. And of course there are other refugees and mass migrations across the world.
Most countries don’t want to take in any more refugees, but it’s not safe for them to return to their home countries. And remaining in subhuman conditions in refugee camps is also not a viable solution.
I don’t know what the answer to this huge issue is, but I do know that this work both shook my faith in humanity and renewed it.
The coordinator for the agency I volunteered with posted a picture of a dinghy that arrived on Lesvos one morning and ended her description with the hashtag, #Godisdead.
I can understand why. Bearing witness to the suffering of so many people, the terrible things they encounter that force them to leave their homes, the arduous journey they take, the treatment they receive by some people and authorities along the way, the animal-like conditions in which they exist in Moria camp, and the likelihood that in the end they will be deported anyway…it can make you question why any God would allow this.
But on the other hand, as I got to know the community I was living in, I learned about how the residents of this tiny village reacted when refugees suddenly started showing up on their shores in droves. And that buoyed my spirits and my hope for humanity.
The few hundred people who live in this village were there when the refugees first started arriving, and they rose up to help their fellow humans, doing their best until the international NGOs and other assistance arrived months later. The women cooked and helped care for the children, the local café donated food and drinks, and the fishermen were nominated for a Nobel prize for their work rescuing people from boats in distress. (Here is a beautiful photo collage by the Guardian showing the incredible work of this community.)
It’s so beautiful to know that despite what we see reflected in politics, the basic human impulse is still to help others.
And that is what I’m going to try to keep in my heart from this experience.