As I have written a “Before” piece on my experience volunteering in Lesvos, Greece for the refugee crisis; I have decided to post an individual day by day account as well (some details were already posted on my facebook, but a lot were not) so as to contribute to giving a better overall picture and summary of my experience in my “After” piece (which you will see as a separate, concluding post at the end of my 5 day series), that will not be so focused on all the fine details I care to share with you in these day by day postings. To me, every experience was important. But perhaps it will be more useful to someone who is looking for specifics (perhaps a potential volunteer, it’s OK to just be curious too!) to read about what my daily experience was like. Whereas those of you who cannot physically come to volunteer in person, an overall summary of my experience might be more useful to you and hopefully provide a better idea of what is being done currently, what needs to be done, and how you can help. Either way at the end of the day, this format made the most sense to me for purposes of documenting my experience, so read on…
LESVOS DAY 1: Wednesday October 28th, 2015
My first day in Lesvos I was scared. I felt an overwhelming sense of impending doom in presence on the island. It also felt incredibly calm before I made my way to the camps and the points of entry. I was feeling confident in my efforts, having launched an online fundraiser in hopes of buying some supplies on the ground. My new French friend Brice, whom I hosted as a couch surfer in Istanbul weeks before, greeted me at the airport; he had been on the island for a few weeks before me. Brice had already been volunteering in the camps and on the beaches so I was relying on him for the “inside scoop” but nothing could have prepared me for the experience. We met our rental car at the airport and started our day with a much needed nap; I did not sleep the night before due to my overnight layover in the Athens airport and we knew we had to pick up our other friend Katie at the airport later that day. The action did not start for us until later that night.
When we returned to our hotel in Molyvos later from the airport in Mythilini (about an hour drive north), the employees at the hotel informed us of an earlier SOS for all volunteers to go to the Molyvos harbor, a short distance away from where we were staying. A double decker boat had capsized, leaving 300 people in the sea to be rescued. It was dark at this time and I actually considered not going because it seemed for a moment that maybe everyone had reported and everything was under control. But Katie pushed to go and so go we did. I’m so glad we did. When we arrived to the harbor there were hundreds of people everywhere. News teams, cameras, lights, life jackets, clothes, volunteers, refugees, locals, medical teams giving assistance, translators; it was complete chaos and far from under control. The first thing we walked up on was a shivering, wet man being interviewed under bright camera lights. He was crying, and talking about bodies floating everywhere around him. I will never forget his face.
Since it was so chaotic, there wasn’t really time to ask what to do or where to go so we just jumped right into the ginormous pile of donated clothes and started helping people get out of their wet clothes and finding dry, clean clothes, preferably to their size. This was extremely difficult in the dark but we managed. To be honest, I think I was in shock at how gravely I underestimated the situation, and for that reason I think my few hours of help there that night are somewhat of a blur. “What do you need?” and “Are you ok?” was lost in language barriers and my miming skills came in extremely handy while helping people pick out clothes. Some people seemed to think it was a yard sale, “shopping” for an entire wardrobe. It broke my heart to be stern with them in denying them assistance because their clothes were “dry enough” and they didn’t seem physically injured. There just weren’t enough donations to give out “just because”. It was the quiet ones we were told to worry about. The ones who were in shock and didn’t even realize they needed to change out of their wet clothes because of the trauma they had just been through. I was briefly informed at the beginning of our time there that this boat was the biggest tragedy the island had seen thus far and that is when reality of the situation set in. Initially the number of deaths reported was under 10. This happened on Wednesday, by the end of the weekend it was confirmed that 47 people died from that boat capsize alone. And this was not the only boat to capsize that day. Nor was it the first, and throughout the weekend, it certainly was not the last. I was told the two story boat was built for approximately 125 people and since it was holding about three times the accommodating weight, the top deck collapsed onto the bottom half, sinking the vessel immediately. Many of the survivors were in the water for 5 hours before being rescued by the coast guard. This is also when I learned about the business of faulty life jackets being sold on the coasts of Turkey, they actually retain water resulting in a faster sink.
As we wrapped up our hectic night at the harbor in Molyvos, there were still many refugees there who would stay the night in make-shift tents or cardboard boxes because there simply wasn’t enough transportation or room in the camps to take them in. Normally the refugees are bussed to the nearest transit stop, Oxy (named for the nearest building which just happens to be a nightclub closed for the season). And from Oxy, or the police station (everyone rescued by the coastguard is technically under arrest upon arrival), they are taken to one of the camps to be registered so they can take their papers to seek asylum in a further European country. Thousands of refugees slept out in the cold that night, thousands more than normal. We met so many people from so many different countries. There was one older man who spoke Turkish (maybe mid 40s) that I got to practice my broken Turkish with. He just would not take no for an answer when it came to multiple outfit changes. He was the only one to make me smile that night as he set up his bed in the middle of our clean-up operation and started snoring abruptly, his hairy belly hanging out. As we jumped over him going to and fro, Katie and I decided to wrap him up in whatever we could find and left him a very warm, as comfortable as you can be man, wrapped in foil thermal blankets with rocks on all sides to keep the wind from blowing the sides up, talking in his sleep and waking himself with his own sounds. I am fully convinced he was perfectly content and it was just one tiny victory but we really needed it that night.
There was one family in particular we tucked in at the end of the night (about 2am). The children jumped into an oversized box, the women and children found a tent, and we helped the men make make-shift “beds” out of yoga mats, towels, blankets, and boxes to shield their heads from the cold breeze coming off the water. This was the coldest night in every sense of the word. We did everything we could and they were so grateful but my heart sank as we walked back to our car knowing that we were going to sleep in comfortable beds in a warm room and they were sleeping on the cold hard ground. Welcome to Europe. At this point I still had no idea of the journey they would need to endure in the next days or weeks. But they made it to shore, and that was good enough for them for that night. With a broken heart and a heavy soul, Brice, Katie, and I headed back to Hotel Akti; now fully prepared for the weekend ahead.