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How I Became a Volunteer Refugee Gravedigger

Adonis Khan quit his job as a mortgage advisor to help refugees in Lesvos. He ended up burying the bodies of those drowned at sea.
January 9, 2016, 12:00am

A grave for Muslim refugees near Lesvos, Greece. All photos courtesy of Adonis Khan

People across the world have given up their jobs or studies to volunteer their help in the unprecedented refugee crisis in Europe. But imagine if, instead of handing out foil blankets on beaches, you ended up burying the people who died at sea.

This is what happened to Adonis Khan from Huddersfield when he quit his job in November to volunteer for charity Refugee Aid 786. "I wanted to help people during the refugee crisis," he says. "I was a mortgage advisor for HBOS, but I left to volunteer." He thought he'd be handing out food parcels but instead, he was put to work with a team of men washing, clothing, and burying dead bodies in a Muslim refugee graveyard in Lesvos, Greece.


Some 3,771 people drowned or went missing at sea in 2015, according to the UNHCR. Despite this, people are still coming to Europe. Yesterday, at least 21 refugees believed to be from Syria, Iraq, and Algeria drowned off the coast of Turkey trying to get to Lesvos.

Last September, when images of two-year-old Aylan Kurdi's dead body washed up on a Turkish beach appeared, it made people understand that being a refugee was dangerous—that refugees think they might die at home so are willing to take the risk that they might die at sea. Adonis and his co-workers confront that brutal fact every day that they bury the people who failed to make it to Europe.

We spoke to Adonis about life, death, humanity, and Islamic duty.

Adonis Khan

VICE: Why did you quit your job to go to Lesvos?
Adonis: When I went out there the first time, I didn't know I'd be doing the graveyard work—I thought I'd be helping to feed and clothe people. But when I arrived, Qari Dalal, a man I was working with, told me and a group of six other Muslim lads that we needed to help them complete work on a burial ground. There were 72 bodies in total. I'd never washed a body in my whole life. I wasn't expecting to do it—I showed up and was asked to do it so I agreed to it.

What made you say yes?
Every Muslim has a duty to wash a body once in their life. So I knew I had to do it. It's a positive thing because if someone in my family passes away I know how to wash a body. It's part of life.


How do you even go about doing something like that?
The body would be in a container after the Greek authorities carried out the post-mortem. They have a white sheet over them, so we go and pick it up, put it in the van and take it to the graveyard, where we have to wash the bodies with water and dress them in white clothes. Women have to wash the women's bodies and the men have to wash the men's bodies. Each body takes an hour and a half or two hours to prepare for burial.

We'll have already dug the graves, and then we have two people to lift the bodies into them. The graves have to face Mecca. Once the body is in the ground, we then fill the grave in by hand. The body then gets prayed over, and then we move on to the next one. The whole project was a bit hush-hush at first because we didn't want local people or the media creating a fuss around a Muslim graveyard.

Refugees arriving via boats in Lesvos

It must be impossible to describe the experience properly.
When you walk into the container [in the morgue] the smell of death is there. I'll never forget it. Even some of the bodies, some of the faces, when we are washing them… It made me think about life a bit more. You think, Tomorrow it could be me dead on this bench.

The mental and emotional strength you need must be huge. How do you cope?
My family has been a tremendous support. I think what I do is an amazing job—a phenomenal job—and that's helped me. Knowing that I helped bury someone and take them to their final resting place… It's bittersweet. The only comfort I get is that I would want someone to do the same for me. But it is very sad as well. There were a couple of children and I didn't want to wash their bodies. That was obviously heartbreaking. And there's no parents there, there's nobody who knew them there to bury them.


What is the mood like in the graveyard?
We support each other as a group—we all go out for a meal afterward. After working in the graveyard we try and put it behind us, you know? Still, at night time we're quiet and no one talks. Even at the graveyard it's quiet—you can't talk that much just to respect the bodies so it's not "tense," but…

Yes, serious. You can feel it in the air. We work from first thing in the morning until the night. Sometimes until nine o'clock, until it gets dark and we have to put our car lights on.

Gravestones being prepared in Lesvos

How do you describe the experience to your friends and family?
My friends ask me but I don't like to talk about it too much—they ask about the bodies. I just say, "Look, this is how many bodies we buried and there may be more," but I like to leave it at that. I don't like to talk about the children. You can only understand it if you're at the graveyard—it can emotionally wreck you.

You came back to the UK in December. It must have been surreal after everything you'd experienced.
I felt weird. I felt much more appreciative of my life and what I've got and the people around me. I see things from a different perspective. I don't see the point in arguments and things like that. I see more to life now. Before, I was a bit more materialistic. After we buried the bodies we started helping people off the boats. A lot of people go over to help but they don't see the reality of the situation. We've done the whole process—helping people off the boat, helping feed and clothe the people. We've done the whole shebang.

Was it a relief to help people who had made it over alive?
I felt really good. Like: "They're all on the boat they're all OK!" So I felt really happy. I don't know how to explain that feeling. "Everyone's here and everyone's all right!"

Adonis is back in Lesvos, volunteering with Refugee Aid 786 along with his family members Musrat Banr, Mahreen Khan, Moreen Khan, Massa Hussein, and Zahra Khan.

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