I thought I was ready to come face to face with Syrian refugees. I thought I was strong enough to welcome them off the boats here on the island of Lesvos. I thought I could take the tragedy unfolding firsthand in stride. But I was wrong.
I am but one day in – and this may be the single most trying undertaking of my life.
Driving home this evening – as soon as we were out of Molyvos, distanced from the fateful rocky shores, away from the overcrowded and understocked refugee camps, where I no longer had to be strong and do for those whose strength blew me away – I broke down, so I have asked myself: Why? Why do I feel such weight? Why is this so different than anything I have done to date? And here is my working answer…
Because the people arriving by dingy and raft have nothing, no homeland, no alternative, no second chance, no fallback plan. They are strangers, alone and unwanted in an unknown foreign land. I cannot even begin to fathom how that would feel, to be forced out and/or actively decide to leave one’s country because anything must be better than life in its current state of violence, destruction, and despair. YET these remarkable, resilient human beings are smiling, united, hopeful, delighted to have arrived on Greek soil, despite little clue as to what the future holds, let alone where they are headed or how to possibly survive the coming days and weeks or years and lifetime ahead.
What happened on our first day here on Lesvos? Allow me to share…
We arrived this morning and went directly to Molyvos, the small town on the northern shoreline where boats upon boats filled with refugees come ashore. As we drove down the cobble stone road, we passed a steady stream of people walking uphill toward a transit camp, smiling and waving, “As-Salaam Alaikum.” “Wa-Alaikum Salaam,” I instinctively shouted out the windows in response, met with sheer joy and surprised cheers. It was only then that the gravity of the situation really hit me: these were not Greeks walking their island, nor tourists exploring the Mediterranean tourist destination; the spirited, well-dressed folks with small packs on their backs and minimal layers were refugees, who had just completed the harrowing oversea journey from Turkey to the nearby Greek landmass, now best known for the hundreds of thousands who have arrived in the past few months.
I bit my lip, as my eyes filled with tears and body shuttered uncontrollably. How could this be actual life? A harsh realization.
We soon reached the small port, just as the coast guard was pulling in with 50 plus people, having rescued multiple boats that capsized or collapsed in the final stretch of the trip. As the new arrivals found spots around the harbor to sit – one multigenerational Syrian family immediately took off all soaked socks and shoes, the Somali guys huddled together around one friend in his new wheelchair, an Afghan family of fifteen snapped a portrait on one of their phones (which had been meticulously wrapped in saran, a highly effective DIY waterproofing technique), three Iraqi men wrapped a sopping wet pregnant woman in emergency blanket scraps, covering her feet and upper body with thermal Mylar sheeting, before piling on emergency UNHCR blankets – we passed out white bread sandwiches, bananas, and bottled water. While visible, the ethnic divisions did not present any tension; people supported their fellow refugees with the respect of their own families and there was no scrambling, no begging, no hiding or hoarding of food, just pure gratitude.
I did not wish to impose, though so desperately wanted to know people’s stories – and would not let a language barrier stand in my way. My Arabic is all-but-non-existent these days, my Urdu is limited to one word (ya’ar = buddy), and my Farsi is gone (though my grandmother has tried so many times to teach me to count!), but hand gestures and facial expressions go a long long way! Plus, many of the refugees spoke English well, very well – certainly with greater proficiency than I had expected.
One Afghan boy took to me early on. I approached him as he lead his littlest sibling to water's edge to rinse his hands, while endeavoring not to redrench his trousers (most refugees had taken off all removable garments to dry in the sun; we urged more to do the same, offering blankets to keep warm in the interim, rather than shiver in wet clothes). He is the eldest of eleven children who made the trek with their parents and two cousins, forced to flee because his father was a police officer who refused to turn against his people, according to the 17-year-old. His name sounded like Sonsari (though I could not perfectly make it out) and while wishing he were still able to attend school, he was teaching English to kindergarteners. I asked where they were going, of their dream destination – “Germany,” he replied quickly. He knows not how that will come to pass or with what resources, beyond the small supply of cash his father had saved (and wrapped in a prized paper envelope, like so many others grasping tightly to their only funds), but is steadfast in his commitment to finish his studies and offer the same opportunity to his brothers and sisters.
Many people wanted photos with me – the “Ameriki” from “Noooo Yawk” – especially Ali, my 38-year-old new friend (yes, he typed his age into his phone, to show me that he was of eligible age to marry my 24-year-old self! “Tamam!”), who snapped selfies and posed by my side as his brother took dozens of snapshots with his new, white Samsung phone. Jodi, my remarkable partner in this journey by whom I am deeply inspired, was in high demand too, bringing such profound joy and smiles to the faces of children with photos of her famous troublemaker kitten Dougie tales of California!
I became the adopted daughter of one Syrian family, dubbed thus by the patriarch. It all began when a little girl caught my eye, waving adorably and then hiding behind her father’s legs. While rallying the troops to head from the harbor to the buses (apparently, I am completely fine with shouting at the refugees to m-o-v-e – and have the lung capacity, ear-to-ear smile, and bad dance moves to make it a comical and well-received success!), I noticed that her brother Shamsun did not have shoes. I asked if the child, like so many others, had lost his at sea. Yes, his father said, and that Shamsun’s foot had then been sliced by an old razor blade in the boat. The little boy held up his sole to reveal a deep, infected, pussing cut. I asked about for a first aid kit or any such supplies, but there was none to be found – so I scooped up the kid, popped him on my back, walked the short distance to my rental car, and packed in seven members of his extended family, mostly the little ones. While the littlest brother pretended to steer as he sat on my lap, we took on heavy packages through open windows to lighten the loads of travel weary walkers. The volunteers were delighted to have my little four-door as a “shuttle” for those who needed the extra assistance or had particularly bulky goods on the trek to a not-so-nearby soccer field, where they semi-systemically await bus transfers to the main camps in Mytilini (one for Syrians, one for everyone else – both overcrowded, as I hear, though I have yet to visit either). I made the quick trip to the supply house for basic first aid (a mad serach through the boxes and boxes of donations from around the world), returned and transformed into Doctor Erin. I will spare you the gory details. but 'twas a success… I seem to have retained a skill or two that I picked up while working at the hospital in Haiti.
I asked if people needed anything while waiting for the buses to arrive: water, one asked for politely. None in sight. Pain medicine for a terrible (likely dehydration-induced) headache. I ran to my car to offer up acetaminophen I had brought from the states. Shoes for three men who were still barefoot. I drove back to the supply house and tracked down socks and shoes in their size. And for the rest? HUGS! I went around and embraced dozens of my new friends. “We love you.” “You are good, Awin” (their version of Erin). “Thank you.” No, I am not going to lie; it feels good to be there for these beautiful souls at such a hyper-vulnerable turning point – and physically, emotionally, and mentally showing up with any and everything I have to offer is the least I can do.
We sent those two busloads on their way, to be processed as official refugees and continue the against-all-odds journey westward. I had a strange sensation when I stepped off the bus, after more waves and hugs and blown kisses: I will NEVER see these people again. But I did not allow myself to dwell on that fact, hopping back in my car to go pick up whoever needed a lift up the steep hill from the harbor, as another coast guard had brought in fifty more refugees – all of whom had been found in chest-high water, meaning they were soaking wet and freezing, as the late afternoon sun was nowhere near as powerful and brought with it piercing windchill. I loaded in a family, this one with a 40-week pregnant woman, and their waterlogged bags. As I drove, I noticed that the self-directed chain of refugees had veered off on the wrong road, so I drove to the front, hopped out, waved my hands enthusiastically, told them to follow along, and proceeded to drive at their pace amid the masses until we reached the field together. A few pairs of shoes and ample hugs laters, I drove back to grab Jodi and head to the port, but not before picking up a few young women and one man coming in on foot from an entirely different direction. Their boat had successfully made the entire trip, washing ashore on the rocky coast. With no one there to greet it – neither volunteers nor military, no coast guard or aid organization in sight – they began walking, as the sun set, in hopes of finding some camp somewhere. We picked them up to drive them to Oxy, the transit camp just outside of Molyvos that is named for the grounds of the summertime mega nightclub it now occupies, where those not “lucky” enough to be rescued by the coast guard en masse and therefore bussed directly to Mytilini for processing were held for a few hours or overnight – offered food, water, dry clothes, bandaids, and safe place to rest. The young man reached forward from the backseat with his phone (a brand new iPhone) and played a video which he had taken on the rubber dingy, a chaotic waterlogged scene with bodies and life vests and inner-tubes crowded together. But they made it – and for that we were all tremendously grateful! As we dropped them off to join the growing line of hundreds and enormous heaps of drenched clothing outside of Oxy, he airdropped us the video (technology for the win!) and blessed us in our lives going forward. We bid them adieu and headed to get a bite to eat, our first of the day, and sit down, or collapse into my chair, as the case may be. My order of a Greek salad without feta, substitute capers and hummus with “cucumber long cut” instead of pita left the waiter at the local taverna perplexed, but smiling at my crazy American ways.
As the sun set over the picturesque Mediterranean, I said a prayer for all of the refugees who will brave the seas overnight, to those who will wash ashore in the dark, for the new arrivals who will walk the pitch black island toward mysterious camps, to the people in soaked or inadequate clothing as the wind whips, for the individuals who risk absolutely everything in the name of survival and opportunity for themselves and their families. Yes, I/we are here to help however we possibly can, aid organizations are doing their very best, the kindness of people and donations does make a difference, but world leaders must step in immediately and decisively to prevent unimagined devastation stemming from this tragic, dangerous, and worsening crisis in Syria and beyond.
In all honesty, I am disheartened right now. I am devastated by the sheer magnitude of this crisis. I am sad that I will never again see the people with whom I shared such meaningful moments in both of our lives. But I vow to rise early tomorrow, continue to be present, open, loving for many more special souls who merit dignity and attention, and share my unfiltered truths, observations, and experiences in hopes of raising awareness and compelling fellow humanity to rise up, speak out, and take action that will undoubtedly #haveapositiveimpact (which is the hashtag I am using on Instagram @ErinSchrode, if you want to follow this journey). Onwards together.