I've put some pictures at the end of this piece instead of dotting them throughout- please take a look.
Aid workers from Doctors Without Borders, also known as Medicines sans Frontieres (MSF), set up a control center on the top of a hill on the island of Lesvos. From there they could watch the boats laden with refugees as they neared the island. Follow the lights, the refugees were told upon leaving Turkey- follow the lights. Little did they know however, those lights on Lesvos were to mark rocky cliffs and outcroppings- places where there was no way to get onto land. That is, if they made it that far at all.
This is how Kris, an MSF aid worker, began her presentation on her mission in Lesvos, Greece during the peak of the refugee influx into Greece. Her presentation was part of an MSF event called: People on the Move- MSF Response, Voices from the Field in which three women shared some of their experiences working with MSF.
Kris was a head coordinator of the mission in Lesvos, Greece where, for approximately 6 months, she and a surprisingly small team of MSF aid workers worked closely with Greenpeace as they pulled refugees out of the Aegean Sea, saved lives, witnessed the loss of life, and made a difference.
Refugees boarded boats- if you can call some of them that- in Turkey. Men sat along the outside of the boat, women and children sat in the middle. Their only directions were to look across the water to the mass of land ahead and to go in that direction. Most did not know how to operate the boats. Many did not have life jackets. Most had nothing more than a small bag of possessions. And, so, when the engine died, which Kris said happened with great frequency, the refugees sat in the midst of the Aegean Sea just drifting. Or, they used their hands to paddle- leaning over the sides but hoping not to capsize. And, when the boat, grossly over weight, began to take on water, as also did with great frequency, the refugees used their hands and hats and even soaked and wrung out their shirts to get the water out.
At first, MSF was not granted permission by the Greek government- or by anybody-to conduct the search and rescue operations they carried out. They just did it. They saw the need to help and for immediate medical intervention and they answered the call. In the beginning, the Greek government told them to stop. At other times to start. There was no precedent to follow. But, with only one ambulance on the island at the time and only two government boats available to assist in the rescues- not to mention not enough medical personnel to assist- MSF had to help.
With orders sent out via radio from the top of the hill, MSF working closely with three boats from Greenpeace, ran rescue boats back and forth between refugee boats and the beach in Lesvos for MONTHS. Months. These rescue boats were not very large and therefore most times, the aid workers would remove the most vulnerable refugees from the refugee boat and tow the remainder of the refugees behind. But even towing these boats could be a problem. Most of the boats the refugees used were in such poor condition that a tow rope could not even be attached- the boats would just pull apart. An MSF worker would hand a rope to the strongest looking man on the refugee boat and the MSF boat would pull the refugee boat in.
Also on the MSF boats, were 1 or 2 "cultural mediators." Kris could not say enough about what a vital role these workers played. The cultural mediators, speaking in Farsi and Arabic, were the first people to speak to the refugees. Their message at first was simply, "You are in Greek waters. We are going to help you." Key at this first contact, was to make sure the refugees did not panic- for panic would disrupt the boat sending all the occupants into the frigid Aegean Sea. The refugees often feared they were going to be sent back to Turkey. On the MSF boat was also a medical professional who provided immediate triage and assessment of the refugees- allowing for the most in need and most vulnerable to get help right away.
It is estimated that at the peak of this exodus, 7,000 refugees landed in Lesvos daily, and approximately 200,000 refugees landed in Greece overall. It is estimated that 2500- 3500 refugees lost their lives attempting the crossing.
Days after listening to Kris speak, I am reflecting heavily on what I heard. A quirky fact sticks in my mind. Some refugees were making calls on their cell phones from the water. They used What's App and other apps, to call people, perfect strangers, living in Lesvos and even other areas in Greece, asking for help. All this technology and yet...
In time the beaches in Lesvos were utterly littered with life jackets. And, using only a fraction of them, this was created...
Near the close of the evening I was honored to be asked to speak to the group assembled about my upcoming row. I tried mightily to share my feelings of awe and gratitude to all those there who work for and support the work of MSF. Needless to say, I will take these stories with me across the Pacific as a source of strength and perseverance.
Photos from msf.org and greenpeace.org