I don’t know how I lost a day, it is very easy when you are so busy you forget to eat or sleep. Most of the time it is almost hard to think because we’ve been burning both ends of the candle. I am fortunate that everyone speaks English for the most part, I could not imagine working and speaking a language that is not my first-language. You can tell by the time we have evening meetings how mentally drained the volunteers are when they are thinking in Norwegian, Danish, German, etc, but have to speak their thoughts in English. Words that would have been easy to remember suddenly become lost. Even I trip up on words, but I’m not sure if that is just my ADHD kicking in mixed with the intense desire to sleep, or drink coffee… or both.
I am now going to Samos for sure now. They receive roughly 150 refugees a day, but they need more help than here at Lesvos; there must be a volunteer per refugee on this island. Myself, and the team coming with are excited to be able to work more on a personal level and also the opportunity to be utilized more effectively. Though we know what we are doing on Lesvos is important and needed, we more or less feel like we are underemployed. This next chapter of my journey here I am looking at with optimism.
I’m sitting on the pier near where the ferry will launch typing this. It is 10am and I’m sitting next to a cat looking over the boats tied up. It’s a beautiful view, I think if it wasn’t for the beauty of the island the morale of the volunteers would be severely hampered. I spent the morning packing, I brought too much with me. About half of my clothes I am going to donate to the refugees. I look at the team coming with me, and it amazes me how little the girls have brought with them. Most are here for a month and they have a hiking bag to live out of. I definitely packed like an American.
It’s different working here with the European female volunteers, they wake up and go to work, not even considering makeup. Daily showers are almost an impossible dream, and most of the clothes we wear, we’ve been wearing for a couple days straight. They still don’t get washed, just hung out to dry.
I think back to some of the girls back in the States, who couldn’t fathom a morning without their Starbucks or wearing the same outfit in two weeks. Different perspectives, but then I am coming from a country that many of the women feel entitled and expect to be held up on a silver platter. It also helps that these women came here to Lesvos to help people which I would never expect of most Americans.
Today was also the first day for me to drive on this island. I rented a car for a few euros to get us to the other side of the island where the ferry was. So at least the steering wheel was on the proper side of the car, and driving was on the same side as in the States, but every car here is manual. I am so happy that I was taught to drive stick but the hill it was parked on was more than a 45-degree angle. Within 5 minutes the road can 1000 meters higher in elevation. Every road here loops up and around mountains, with no guard rails, just straight drops off of cliff faces at every turn. To say the least, it was an interesting first 5 minutes driving, compared to the flat- square roads in the states.
Since there are so many volunteers here, we had nowhere to stay, we were considering sleeping in the car or we were going to see if we could share a tent with the refugees. Might as well get the real experience we thought. Since the dynamics of the island are always changing, bureaucracy, and even the flow of the refugees, it is not wise to pay for a hotel for 2 months straight. You might end up having to work on the opposite side of the island which is a good hour drive when the conditions are good. We stopped by Camp Moriah to grab some supplies. One of the volunteers documenting the story of the volunteers, not the refugees, overheard Miri asking some of her friends if they knew of any places to crash. He, Raffael from Hungary, offered us the spare beds in his flat, someone had moved out that morning. That’s what’s amazing here, good people here, people you really do not have to question their motives.
Somehow everything works out, it’s an island, so everything is laid back. I couldn’t imagine the US working like this, my customers cannot even wait a day for us to order a part before they call corporate and start raising a fit.
When we got inside the flat there was a man about my age inside sitting by himself. At first we had thought that he was a volunteer but after talking with him we found out that he was a Pakistani refugee. He works at the tent at Camp Moriah serving chai tea to the other refugees, so more or less he is a volunteer. We invited him to supper with us; we wanted to hear his story. Volunteer or refugee there is always a story as to why we all are on the island together. The refugees have a story of death, pain, and suffering. The volunteers all have a story too. Some altruistically came to help, others were on vacation this summer when a refugee boat landed next to where they were enjoying their holiday, some were so sick of their monotonous life at home of work, sleep, work, sleep that they had to take a break. There are some volunteers who have lost themselves and needed to find themselves again, there are some veterans from different countries in the coalition who either came back to continue their mission, or because they needed to pay back for the sins of their past. Everyone has a story, and we want to hear the story so we can tell the people back home.
This is the sad part of my night. The part where I finally met a face to the demons that haunt my dreams, and permeate my thoughts. Talking with S. Ahmed about his story of how he came to be here on Lesvos was an emotional moment for both him and I. He fled Pakistan due to the wars, it took him 27 days of walking to make it here. He had to leave his mother because she had diabetes and could not make the trip. His horror stories of being treated like cattle, 4-5 people packed in the trunk of a car, 30 some more packed inside the vehicle. Their limbs gave out, their joints gave out, and every car had someone suffocate. The Iranian smugglers would just toss the bodies on the side of the road. He saw his friend from home die who had been traveling with him. His friend had four sisters, they couldn’t even bury him, he had to leave him. He went through at least two car trips like that and two different boat rides. His whole trip was death. It weighs on his conscience that he survived.
He made it here to Lesvos, so lost now due to language and nationality. Due to American pop culture/music he spoke perfect English, so well that the refugees barely accept him because they thought he was a spy from an agency like CIA or Hezbollah. He felt that he couldn’t be accepted by his own people because they thought that he worked working for an agency, and the volunteers didn’t think that he was a Pakistani. This is where the journey of the refugees gets worse. In 6 days he is going to be deported back to Pakistan because he is not from a priority war-zone country. This is true for any refugee that is not coming from Syria, Iraq, of Afghanistan. The EU does not want the refugees, hence the payoff to the Turkish government to keep the refugees, and also a way to keep Turkey out of the EU. Due to the Dublin Act, refugees will be deported to whatever country in the EU that they first registered with. That means many of them are getting sent back to Greece or Croatia once the country’s decide that they will not accept refugees.
Those that are not from priority war zones (Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria – the ones directly affected by the coalition) will be deported back from where they originally came from. Many of them have walked to one border to find it closed, to walk to another border to find it closed. I’ve heard stories of the immigrants walking for three months just to find someplace that they can find asylum. There are torn up passports from a dozen nations scattered throughout the island because they think that if they have no identity that maybe they will have a chance. Those that don’t come from the coalition war torn countries think that they are nobodies, and it’s hard to not agree with how they think, for they will never be accepted. They feel like they are not even humans or deserve a chance to live just because they do not come from a coalition war zone.
He took a boat from Iran and this wasn’t a zodiac/inflatable, this was a speedboat. They have a higher chance of capsizing since a quick jerk of the wheel while catching the right wave could flip a boat. It’s happens to people in the states, a customer of mine just spun the boat out. I have no idea if they had smugglers driving the boats, people/refugees who have no choice but to collaborate with the smugglers so that they can earn passage. We just do not hear about it because it happens in areas that the Western world has little to no knowledge of the smuggling racket.
As he was boarding his speedboat he was 100% sure that he was going to die. He called his mom for what he thought was the last time to talk to her. She kept on telling him that he was going to be ok, that he was going to make it. He is going to be deported back in 6 days, the living hell he has endured was for nothing.
I feel horrible for my friend Miri, within half-of a day she heard both sides of the war. She saw two grown men cry, one who had been part of the destruction of an infrastructure, and another who suffered from the destruction. There are details about both S. Ahmed and myself that she heard that would make most grown men cry, and yet she was the only one here to comfort us. I really do not know how I would have survived without her these past couple of days. Today was just another day I wish my Mom was here just to hold me and tell me that it will be all right. I’m looking forward to Kristina returning in a week, she was the mother figure here for me my first week.
Very busy day today, had my first double shift. It’s easy to tell when you’ve become the “veteran” volunteer here. Most of the volunteers hail from the Scandinavian countries and can take short holidays due to travel time. While my total trip was 72 hours, most of the volunteers have a 12 hour trip and are not restricted to losing a week of their two week holiday to travel. It is also holiday in general for the whole world, and since the younger generations are more attuned to the crisis, they come between semesters.
Early morning I worked with two other volunteers, both work with my NGO, A Drop in the Ocean. Marian is one of the girls who had witnessed the woman dying the day before, and Tobias is a prior coordinator for Drop. Tobias works some shifts with me, but is working on a grassroots NGO here. All three of us were working at The Watchtower, which is just a hotel room with a balcony overlooking most of the northern coast into Turkey. This makes it one of the most important positions for my NGO. If any boat is seen we must immediately input it into the “Boat App.” This notifies the Greek and Spanish Coast Guards as well as the head coordinators of my NPO. My coordinators then send a mass text to every group of volunteers on shift patrolling the shores. We then race to where the boat is going to land with boxes of emergency blankets, shoes, and socks. If the watchtower does not spot the boat, there is a chance the Turkish Coast Guard will intercept them and turn them back or sink them.
The Turkish Coast Guard is known for their atrocities toward the refugees. Partially because they are facists, but also because of money. The government gets money from the EU to keep the refugees, but they get paid off by the mob to let them smuggle the refugees over. The Turkish Coast Guard also gets paid off, so if they sink a boat or turn it back, the refugees have to repay and they get to double-dip.
There are horror stories of their coast guard boats circling the refugees, throwing knives at the inflatables. We’ve had some come in halfway deflated with holes. Tobias watched as the Turkish Coast Guard were using fire hoses to spray water into the inflatables to fill them up with water. This post has to see them before the Turks do. It’s a matter of litfe and death, especially now that it is winter.
We spotted at least 6 boats in an hour. They were 20 km out so it was hard to tell which ones we had already reported, and which one’s we hadn’t but we kept our lifeguards busy in that area so the Turks left them alone. It was close to 0 degrees and breezy, but we kept ourselves warm by telling stories and reminding ourselves that it is much colder for the drenched refugees. When you know that people’s lives are dependent on you, it doesn’t take much to assume our responsibility.
That afternoon I helped Tobias with his grass-roots operation. I cannot get too deep into details, but it's all for providing proper transition housing to allow families to change into dry, clean clothes in privacy. This also gives them a place to stay if they are sick, and is only 50m off of the beach, instead of the 15km walk up the mountain in wet clothes. I’ll just say that Tobias, Marian, Mari, myself, and 20 others spent the afternoon cleaning, sanitizing, white-walling, etc.
My last shift of the evening was beach patrol. I’m pretty sure I get put on this since I’m the only one that knows how to properly utilize both the thermal and night-vision scopes. Usually when people ask me where I’m from I feel like I have to hang my head and mumble “America,” but here they are so happy that the few Americans here are representing our nation and humanity. They don’t look at me as a monster that walked around with a weapon, but rather as someone with experience who can train medical, interpretive, and group work.
It was raining, very hard. We couldn’t see more than 10’ in front of us, it was raining sideways, and sometimes upside down, in reference to Forrest Gump. We were terrified to think that there may be people trying to cross. The worse the weather is, when there is smaller chances of making it, the cheaper it is to cross. It sickens me to know that the poor and the big families have to take the bigger risks. The roads themselves were almost impassable, mud-slides down the mountains (there’s no nets like in the states to prevent boulders from crashing down). Parts of the road/cliff had disappeared. There are no guard rails, and it’s all sharp turns. One could easily slide off the road and crash 500’ into the ground below. We risked it.
Every three hours we went to grab coffee to stay alert, and to check on the lifeguards and Doctors Without borders. We were cold and wet too, so we needed to warm our souls a little. My last hour was the worst. The road back had a river about 15 meters wide, a meter deep, fast enough for 30’ trees to be moved, as well as bowling ball boulders to move. We had to go back driving along the cliffs; we made it about a mile and we came across another river. There was no way we could go back so we floored it through. Even with adjusting with the river moving us, the car slid a good 5’ towards the cliff edge. I was staring at the side and was cringing as the edge became apparently close. We made it, but barely. That was the end of my shift, it took me a while to go to sleep. I couldn’t sleep knowing that there may be people trying to cross.
It was a pretty easy wake up this morning, I was pretty excited to start out the year. Worked my day patrol shift with Ingrid, a mature Norwegian woman in her 50/60s. Since we were in a car for 7 hours looking over the straits at Turkey we talked quite a bit. We compared generational differences, talked about dogs (she has always had Labradors), how westernized nations are slowly becoming unsustainable in reference to population, and just enjoyed the day.
It was a relative calm day, slight breeze, very few white caps on the sea. We had a boat come in around 930am. Either every volunteer and reporter were still in bed sleeping the nights’ party off, or else they must have been elsewhere because there were just a handful of us helping the refugees. It generally helps not having 30 people shoving cameras down your throat while you’re trying to get people and children on land. These are not sandy beaches, many of them have drop offs, just a few feet from the shore that children could be totally submerged in.
I was able to snap a few pics before I went running down to the beach with socks and emergency blankets. The boat didn’t even have a floor on it, just the rubber bottom of the rib boat. Everyone in the boat must have been in 8” of water by the time they got to us. It was still below freezing so everyone was happy to receive a clean/dry pair of socks.
For most of the refugees this was the first time in months that anyone had done anything nice for them. Most of them had to flee their homes, get extorted by the Turkish government and mob for what money they had remaining, were beaten, stabbed, and treated less humanely than animals. By the time they came to our shores, they were running desperately low on hope and morale. To see people in bright yellow jackets waving and smiling after the travesties mankind has inflicted upon them must have been so relieving. They were crying and happy, some had to sit down. I helped two young men change their socks, then wrapped their feet in emergency blankets before putting their frozen/wet shoes back on. They must have never had anyone do anything like that, for they were weeping tears of joy. All I could do is look at them and smile and say “Welcome my friends.”
There are some sad stories too, for though this is a tale of hope and peace, these people came from a world of hell and death. One lady had left Iraq with her husband and 5 kids. Today she was standing in the EU one month later with only 2 kids, her husband and 3 of her children died along the way. We heard stories of refugee children in Turkey freezing to death in the camps, but the Turkish government will not alibi anything since the UN paid them to help the refugees and keep them. (they’re not, they’re double dipping by letting the mob smuggle them out and take some of the profits.) Another man this morning could not even move for he had just found out that the Taliban had killed his brother. This is my last story of sadness for today’s entry. There is a mother here, who would be willing to return to war-torn Afghanistan if she knew that her daughter would be able to stay in the EU and live in safety. A mother’s love.
I have yet to see the pictures, but allegedly Green Peace coordinated with the volunteers from across the island to do something at Life-Jacket Cemetery. There was either a 100-meter peace sign made out of life jackets, or else the volunteers wore life jackets and formed a 100 meter human peace sign. For those that have visited the American Holocaust Museum in Washington DC you will probably never forget the room with the pile of shoes. One of those symbolisms of that era, well for the refugees and volunteers this pile of life-jackets was our pile of shoes. I for-see in 20-30 years we will see something in museums resembling Life-Jacket Cemetery.
I must go bid my adieu’s to some new friends. Some have to publish articles in their newspapers, some to finish their videos at home, others to publish their books, or return to school after holiday. We all have this island in common, we all together stood for humanity, and as we tell each other good bye, we tell the one leaving “Humanity thanks you.” I for one, have never been to Norway, been I guess there’s about 30+ different people that have offered me their house anytime I want to visit. I offered them a place in Wisconsin if they wanted to visit somewhere that is cold and snowy like Norway.
The tabloids call 2015 – The Year of the Refugee. This year 2016 will be The Year of the Volunteer.
New Year’s Eve was a little busy here on the island. Not that the holiday was the reason, but rather we saw a large portion of the refugees in the transition camps load up on ferries to go to mainland Greece/Europe. Over 1 Million refugees funneled through Greece last year, of which 800k crossed the island of Lesvos first.
It was very cold and windy so there were no boats that came across. All of us volunteers were happy to know that the smugglers/mafia weren’t making the refugees risk it. We still hold our concerns as to what is happening on the other side of the straits.
I spent most of my day at “Lighthouse 1” which has no actual lighthouse. This is one of the points on the island the Spanish, Greek, Norwegian, and Dr.’s Without Borders rescue boats help guide the refugee boats to. The NGO (Non Government Organization) that spends the majority of their time at that location is called “Lighthouse” therefore the name. There are a few tents that allow the refugees to change into clean, warm clothes that have been provided either by donation or purchased through donated money.
Most of the patrol points overlook the straits, so when a boat is seen, they will notify Lighthouse 1 or 2 as well as all of the rescue boats. This allowed myself and the two other volunteers from “A Drop in the Ocean” to sit inside the tents and try to stay warm. There were two different film crews there as well as three Greek lifeguards. It was nice to sit in a circle and just talk and tell stories.
The other two volunteers with me, Marian and Mari, are two Norwegian girls. They had initially planned on spending their holiday on the US west coast, but when Mari saw the story of the refugees their trip changed immediately. They decided instead of going and spending money and time on themselves that they would spend 5-6 weeks helping the refugees instead. Amazing women.
There was a duo of reporters from the UK doing a documentary on the refugees. They had traveled the whole migratory path, been beaten by cops, arrested, had cameras broken, etc. but they were going to tell the story. The producer was paying for all of this out of his pocket. His cameraman had an excellent story. He himself was from a family of refugees. His family fled from Cambodia during the deathly reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge. He felt inclined to tell the story of the refugees since he too had an identity with them that he could share. I look forward to seeing this documentary, I cannot elaborate on it much more for their sake, but what I saw was spectacular.
After the shift was up, the girls went to Camp Moria to say goodbye to some of the families that they had been working with. They were all heading to mainland Europe. It was great to hear stories like “My family stopped crying on the phone, because they knew I was safe.” But then there were stories like this, “We will go to Sweden, and if they don’t accept us, we will go to Germany. If they don’t accept us then we have to return to Afghanistan where they will make us into Taliban, for that is the only option the Western world is giving us.” Society is creating their own monsters.
Supper was a good time, I ate with one of the coordinators, her family, and a few other volunteers. Maria the coordinator had just landed on Lesvos a couple days prior. This was her second trip, and she didn’t come alone. She towed her along four of her family members as well. I was the only one at the table that wasn’t Norwegian or Swedish, but I couldn’t tell the difference. I was accepted, part of a group. I felt at home, we laughed, we cried, we told stories.
We followed our supper with some light festivities, we couldn’t go to hard since we may be needed in a moment’s notice. We went to Hotel P where a few more volunteers from my NGO and some 20 others were celebrating the Eve. There was a motley assortment of volunteers from all over, but everyone was having a good time. Even though most didn’t know each other, everyone immediately walked up to everyone said, Hi, I’m so and so from X country. We all shared food and drinks, played games, danced. It was the most memorable NYE that I can think of. I was surrounded for once in my life by good people, who all just wanted to make the world a better place at the sacrifice of their own wants. I could have asked for no better group of people to end and begin a year with.
Today I helped my first group of refugees come ashore. Only one girl was in shock from hypothermia, she had to be carried because she was losing consciousness. The event I’m going to try to describe is one of the most powerful moments of my entire life, and I’ve seen a lot.
Three of us were in a car on the day shift sitting on the edge of a cliff scanning for boats. All day we stared at Turkey, scanning the beach for any movement, for it’s only 4-8 miles across: the final leg into Europe.
It had been roughly 2 hours when all of the sudden we thought we had seen something. For about 10 minutes we kept looking until about 2 miles out we finally could see. Bright orange/red sticking out against a backlay of foaming dark water and whitecaps. Waves were 4-8 feet, the boat, scarcely 2 feet from hull to top. Most would refer to it as a zodiac or rib-boat.
We immediately notified our coordinator, who notified both the Greek Coast Guard and the Norwiegen Rescue Boat. Within 5 minutes, all 140 NGO’s on the island knew a boat was coming in, all 2000 volunteers received a text or facebook message. Every volunteer was racing to help bring in this boat. Today no one was expecting zodiacs due to the waves, we were looking for solid-hull boats. You could see the Greek Coast Guard and Rescue Boats screaming across the straits to intercept the refugees. 1). To ensure safety due to waves, wind, etc. 2) to help tow them. (a 30hp outboard is what’s used to move 40 people in a boat) and 3) to intercept the refugees before the Turkish Coast Guard turned them down or rammed them to make them sink. Time race.
The one way “road” on the cliffs to the beach would be considered more of a 4 wheeler path. We were lucky that it hasn’t rained lately because the grade is steeper than American roads would allow. They’re all gravel, just wide enough for European cars to fit on, on cliffs 2-800 feet in the air with no guard rails. But it was still a race. Though we were the first to spot the boat, we were not the first to `1 including the rescue boats. Volunteers from everywhere: Greeks, Brits, French, Swedes, Norweigens, Slovaks, The Dutch, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Americans, Pakistani’s, Iranian’s, etc.
I have both participated and observed full infantry battalions do missions that had been rehearsed for days. Today I saw the smoothest, unrehearsed, multi-NGO, mulit-national cooperation and coordination. For that matter, volunteers who spoke English as their first-language fall in a 5% category. Luckily everyone in Europe is educationally advanced and speak 2-3 languages fluently. Today I saw humanity’s heroes and I’ve have never felt so proud to wear my humanitarian reflective vest. My new uniform.
I must switch subjects now, for after all this is all about politics. While the UN payed the Turkish government to aid the refugees, it’s actually a humanitarian nightmare the way the Turks have treated the refugees. Upon entering Turkey, the refugees will be extorted the entire way, most refugees say the animals get treated better than themselves. They sit in the forest for several days while they wait for a chance for the mafia to smuggle them. To obtain passage, the refugees pay $500-$2000 a head to get across, the mob makes a half-million per boatload. The boat does not have to make it, it just has to be filled.
It gets worse. The mob makes the refugees pay for their “life-jackets.” Most have a 1/2 “ piece of material that absorbs water, some are just filled with hay.
If you can’t afford one of these then you are excluded from a “flotation device.” Day’s like this is when the Turkish government and mob extort the refugees the most. When the risk of capsizing is higher the rates are cheaper. En couth, that means that the poor and the families will take most of the risk because it is all that they can afford. Even in life and death the Turkish government and mob weighs supply and demand over humanity. There is no UN, and the Greeks guarding the camps are paid. Next fall the UN will meet to figure out a plan for the refugees, but until then it’s up to the global citizens.
It’s been too busy to log the past few days. To sum it up, 72 hours of travel and layovers, cheap youth hostels, airport sandwiches, wrong airports, cabbies (no matter what country, cabbies cannot drive), and ferries.
Dec. 28th I was on the ferry from Athens, Greece to Lesvos that I met my first volunteers. 1). Nicolas from Norway and 2) Freida from Slovakia. Both had been here during the summer to help, but even back at their homes, their heart was still in Lesvos. Assumedly the volunteers have been calling it Lesvos Syndrome. I found them the very next day at one of the warehouses/collection points for clothes, blankets, etc.
All summer long Frieda would walk the 4-8 miles several times a day leading refugees from the sea to the next transition camp. Just a small whisp of a girl, but everyone called her the Hulk. Nothing would stop her from helping the refugees, even if it meant walking so they could ride.
Back to the ferry, it was none too difficult to spot the rest of the volunteers. We were all standing at the pier with wide open mouths and eyes totally lost, yet ready to start work. I immediately came across two girls from San Fran who were heading the same way as myself. The three of us rented a car and began our hour drive north to the coastal city of Molyvos.
By the time I had eaten some supper, I had been introduced to volunteers from Holland, Sweden, France, the UK, the US, Slovakia, Norway, and Israel. Over 140 NGO’s, 2000 volunteers, all paying to help. One volunteer from Norway is a publisher, and every profit from her books paid for here and dozen of her team to aid the refugees.
The UN is non-existent here, there is no central headquarters. Instead every NGO works together via social media and smartphones to handle the largest migration crisis since WWII. The brunt of the work, awareness, and money raised is shouldered on the backs of 19 and 20 year olds. What amazes me is that we all found each other through Facebook. Millennials using globalization, technology, and networking; that’s who is working to save the refugees. I’ve begun to believe in humanity again. For once I feel like I belong. I’ve been here one day and I’ve never met so many people with almost nothing to give. Many dropped out of school, left jobs, put themselves in debt, all with a smile because they are making changes.