A Different Halloween. Refugees in Lesvos… Day Seven.
Orange was the color of the day. For most, that's because of Halloween, but for me, it's the color of the lifejackets refugees wear when we spot their boat on the horizon and signal them to these European shores. I honestly did not remember that it was Halloween until I opened Instagram and saw the deluge of posts. I did not celebrate here in Lesvos, but I did dress up little ladies in warm, dry layers (better than costumes!) and give out grapes to kiddies in the refugee camps (as if this green girl would dole out sugar-ridden candy to anyone!). What haunted me were not phantom goblins and ghouls, rather the terrified all-too-real screams of men, women and children on faulty, overloaded rubber dinghies, as waves crash into and upon their boat.
The day began with a drive to the northern coastline – and the spotting of a boat. We pulled over and I began waving discarded lifejackets in the air to signal refugees to a safe landing point through the choppy waters. An amazing team – volunteers from all around the world – gathered to bring all onto land safely, albeit drenched and shaken to the bone. There were many children, all shivering involuntarily with teeth chattering. We ripped off their life vests, removed sopping wet layers, wrapped them in emergency blankets, and carried them toward our car, where the heat was already blasting. We rifled through our stock of dry children's clothes to find shirts, sweaters, jackets, panties, pants, socks, shoes, hats, and mittens that would fit each. Forced to get creative for some, I stretched a cableknit socks to be a stocking cap for one little girl and made a crocheted baby blanket into a halter top for another with a couple of bobby pins fresh from Jodi’s hairdo. We bought two crates of green grapes yesterday, so that was the snack of choice, bringing great joy to kids and adults alike. One family stayed with us for quite some time, all outfitted in new gear, including the father in a rasta cap, channeling his inner Bob Marley. The fearless eldest daughter, Laila, was clearly in charge of her family, instructing all ten (yes, 10!) of them to pile into our car. We drove along the coast and up the hill to the camp, where they were lucky enough to make it directly onto the bus! We hugged and hugged some more, before bidding them adieu and making a few more trips up and down the mountain with loads of Aghan boys, one with a prosthetic leg who was proudly making the journey on foot, but relieved to have a lift. We crossed paths with five African men, just starting the trek up: two from Mali, two from Senegal, one from Guinea – the first I have met from any of those nations here in Lesvos. We spoke at length (in the middle of the road, over grapes, of course) and I asked where they are ultimately headed. Five answers: Sweden, Germany, Greece, Belgium, and the UK. “You will never get,” one quipped upon hearing his peer utter the word London, speaking to England’s strict policies on refugees and low intake numbers. Another wore a backwards Yankees cap. When I told them I live in New York City, he exclaimed, “Let’s make some noiiiiiseeeee!” going on to tell me that he was a DJ – and a good one at that! We picked up a final load in Eftalou to drive people to Oxy transit camp on the other side. I loaded five men into my car, all from Latakia, Syria. Hussein was in the front sea and when I asked where they were going, all said Germany, but he said Turkey. Turkey?! I asked, confused as to why he would return to the land he had just left. As he was a captain by trade, the smugglers had commanded him to enter the boat at gunpoint. He was forced to leave behind his family – and was told that the yacht (the same type of large boat that sunk a few days ago, despite people paying double the cost and told it was far safer) would pick him up tomorrow and bring him back to Turkey, where he would have to make the crossing again by dinghy with his family. He was terrified to brave the seas many extra times, but more scared to never see his family again. I hugged him tightly and wished him every blessing I knew in both English and Arabic.
We returned once more to Eftalou as the sun set, but everyone had been successfully shuttled to Oxy on the last bus of the day. Debating whether or not to cross the mountain on the dirt road or head back for a bite to eat, we decided to go a final time to drive families to the transit camp, who would otherwise wander in frigid darkness. When we crossed, I spotted a light flickering in the distance; it would go on, then stop, shine for a moment, then disappear. We stopped to track the flashes as more people amassed on the lookout bluff. There were volunteers from England, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, all over. The distressed boat was eerily coming in at the exact same spot on the cliff where we had rescued four boats a few nights ago, likely due to a strong current. I had the phone number of the Spanish lifeguard team, Proactiva (an incredible organization that is saving lives every single day), and rang them to come help, acting as translator between the Spaniards and my fellow volunteers. They were en route, but had no ropes left, so one man pulled two from his car, tied them together in a knot I prayed would hold, and wrapped the rope around the same tree we had used as an anchor in the previous rescue. The boat was drifting southwest with the wind, so we sent two cars to go shine headlights brightly on the nearest beach, in hopes that IF the boat had any remaining motor capability or oars on deck, passengers would aim for the lights and reach a more accessible coastline. Two men and I descended the 200 foot cliff via rope, wearing sneakers I had found in the backseat, a full four sizes too small and clearly intended for a child, but I paid that fact no mind. Proactiva arrived and shouted down that if we were to walk 400 meters to the left, we would avoid having to hoist people up the vertical, instead able to navigate a steep path on foot. The high tide of the violent seas left us in thigh high water, as we made our way along the nonexistent rocky shoreline in pitch black. People were screaming from the boat, being tossed about in the growing waves, yet growing ever nearer. We were on shore to receive it, safely bringing every individual onto solid ground one-by-one; this boat was not as packed, carrying around thirty people and only a few children. One young man was hypothermic, unable to move his limbs or open his eyes initially. A doctor with whom I have been working for days checked his vitals and asked me to once again lay beside him on a bank of lifejackets to provide body heat; he came to in a matter of minutes, squeezing my arm and then slowly gaining back feeling and mobility. Our smiling team walked him up the path, grateful that the landing had gone so well, particularly when we feared the worst up until moments before. I found Jodi in our car with the sweetest newborn, little boy, father, and mother (a gynecologist from Afghanistan) as the heat blasted with seat warmers at full strength. The man spoke to me in broken English, praising G-d for having made it to Europe alive after more than four hours at sea with no motor and no clue what to do, as their numerous calls to the coastguard went unanswered. "Where was the boat or helicopter?," he asked, incredulous that no Greek authorities stepped in to save lives when dozens were shouting desperately for hours just offshore. He thought that Europe would welcome them, unlike Turkey, where he had been forced into the boat at gunpoint, as he demonstrated with his fingers to my temple, despite horrible weather conditions. While he told me stories and asked questions about what their journey on Lesvos had in store, his two-month old daughter slept peacefully in my arms, wrapped in blankets galore. We dropped the family at Skala transit camp, hugely appreciative of the warmth, temporary shelter, information and transportation; it is the least we can do, I reiterate to all with hugs.
From there, we drove back along the dirt road and to the Molyvos harbor, but not before Jodi’s new rental car – a rather fancy SUV, compared with my tiny little Suzuki – got a flat tire. We left it on the side of the road and went to dinner at a local taverna with Dirk, the Dutchman who has now lived on Lesvos for years, donated his land to make Oxy transit camp, and corresponded with Jodi about details prior to our arrival. I ate ridiculously delicious dolmas (rice-stuffed grape leaves), in addition to my standard Greek salad sans feta, baked eggplant with tomato and onions, and fava bean puree with capers. Following dinner, we met with Peggy of Starfish Foundation, the group running all logistics for refugee help in Molyvos – and shared stories of everything from babies nearly being born in the harbor to violent stabbings at Oxy (a rare occurrence) to a 93-year-old Greek woman baking pies for the refugees. Starfish’s Facebook page is still called “Help for refugees in Molyvos” – based out of the founder Melinda’s restaurant, The Captain’s Table – though will soon change its name to Starfish Foundation when the website launches in a week or two, as well as the capability to accept donations.
Conversations with people who have been immersed in this situation for months confirmed what I have been thinking based on my personal experiences here. There are three primary ways for everyday people, like you and me, to help:
– DONATE MONEY. Write a check or raise it! Large organizations are doing good work here and around the world, though I favor lean, effective, local operations like Starfish Foundation and Proactiva, where you can see funds directly applied to aiding refugees. You cannot yet donate to Starfish, but that is where I will be giving a good portion of what I have raised, so hold tight – or if you want to make a donation today, you can do so to my Paypal at email@example.com and I will make sure it gets to them.
– SEND WARM CLOTHES and winter gear. Clean out your closet or host a drive! The Help for refugees in Molyvos Facebook page has updated lists on what they need and provides an address of where to send in Greece.
– VOLUNTEER. Come to Lesvos and get to work! More hands and boots-on-the-ground are absolutely needed – at a variety of locations in Molyvos and the north, as well as Mytilini. I can explain to you more about specific opportunities, so email/text/message me, but if you want to get in touch with Starfish directly, write to firstname.lastname@example.org with the subject line “Volunteer” and provide dates, medical or language skills (very useful), and whether or not you will have a rental car (I highly recommend). I will be coming back soon – and you are all cordially invited to accompany me!
More soon. My fingers (and brain) are tired, but I wanted to share some information on what you can do right now, as so many have been asking and waiting patiently for me to do my due diligence.