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This Man Is Burying the Refugees Who Die Before They Make It to Lesbos

On the Greek island of Lesbos, one man who previously had no experience working with the dead has taken on the job of giving Muslim burials to the refugees and migrants who don't make it.
Relatives come to pay their respects at the graveyard where migrants who died at sea are buried on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

Fatima Taous sobs and tries to hold back her six-year-old daughter as she watches her husband Moustafa's grave being filled in. "Father, father," screams the little girl, the oldest of the couple's four children, as she struggles against her mother's grip.

Last Saturday, at around midnight, the Touas family boarded a flimsy rubber dingy on the Turkish coastline along with 65 others. The boat was so crammed that they could barely move. Water began to seep in and, in the panic, passengers threw their belongings overboard to stay afloat.


After more than five hours floating in the darkness they were discovered by a search and rescue mission. But for two men, Mohammed Saeed and Moustafa Taous, it was already too late; their lifeless bodies were pulled from the dinghy, crushed under the weight of the other passengers.

A boat of migrants arrives on the island of Lesbos in the early hours of the morning. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

Standing at the side of the two freshly dug graves Mostafa Dawa pauses, raises his hands, and leads a short prayer. Assisting him with the burial rights a group of Muslim volunteers help him first with washing the body, and later covering the coffin with soil and grass.

Until recently, Dawa, 29, had never seen or touched a corpse. A student of Greek literature, he moved to Athens from his native Egypt eight years ago. After completing his studies he worked as a translator, first moving to a town in the north of the country, and later to the picturesque island of Lesbos, a popular tourists destination less than 15 miles off the coast of Turkey that has become one of the epicenters of Europe's refugee and migrant crisis.

Since January 2015, more than one million people from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and other impoverished and war-torn countries have arrived in Europe — the largest movement of people the continent has seen since World War II. Most arrive on the Greek islands by boat from the Turkish mainland. The journey to Lesbos is short, but the sea is treacherous for the small and overloaded vessels being used. According to the International Organization for Migration, more than 4,000 people have died or gone missing at sea trying to reach Europe over the past 15 months.


Last summer, with scores of boats arriving every day, the number of casualties rose so high the morgue on Lesbos reached full capacity and local authorities had to store bodies in refrigerated shipping containers.

A pile of life jackets discarded by migrants who arrived by boat to Lesbos. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

It was then that Dawa says he was inspired to act. "Every day there were more bodies in the sea and there was no space left [in the morgue]," he told VICE News. "It was my duty as a Muslim to give these people a proper Muslim funeral, to give these people some dignity."

Islamic custom requires bodies to be buried as quickly as possible after death, so Dawa, who studied Sharia law in Egypt, set to work straight away. On his first day, he buried 11 bodies.

Initially the dead were interred in a cemetery at a local church, but with the flow of people and bodies showing no sign of slowing down, the local authority offered to provide Dawa with a small plot of land for burials in the south-west of the island

Formerly an olive grove, the plot has a box-shaped, white-washed concrete outhouse, which serves as a space for Dawa to perform the Islamic tradition of washing a body to purify it before burial, known as ghusl. Inside, two benches form his workspace, with one used to clean the bodies and the second to wrap them in a simple white cotton shroud — as is customary among many Muslims.

So far, most of Dawa's work has been financed by private donations. In total he has raised some $14,000, enabling him to build the outhouse. Previously he washed the bodies in a makeshift tent hung between two cars.


The money, he says, has also been used to buy marble headstones, the kafan used to wrap the bodies, and special oils ordered from Turkey that are used to perfume the shroud. Soon he hopes to also construct a small seating area at the graveyard, for families visiting their loved ones.

The work is grim. Some of the bodies spend several days in the sea before washing ashore and sometimes only body parts are retrieved. Last month, Dawa buried a single leg, severed just above the knee. Four more bodies, including two children, arrived without heads.

Relatives come to pay their respects at the graveyard where migrants who died at sea are buried on the Greek island of Lesbos. Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News

While Dawa acknowledges the psychological toll the work has taken on him, he says it is better than the alternative. "How could I sit on my sofa and watch television, when there are people in the [morgue] freezer? How could I sleep in my bed at night?" he asked. "This is bad, but staying at home would be worse."

Of the more than 70 graves now in the cemetery, more than half are marked with a small marble plaque simply stating "Unknown," and the dates the body was found and buried. A serial number engraved below ties the body to a DNA sample — offering hope the person who lies there may one day be identified.

Last week, European and Turkish leaders agreed a new deal aimed at stemming the flow of migrants. But having already carried out three burials since it came into effect, Dawa is not optimistic that his work is over. "Only the desperate get on those boats. They know the danger, look…" he says, gesturing at the rows of headstones around him. "They won't stop."

Back at the latest funeral, Fatima has hushed her daughter. Together they lay flowers on the fresh mound of earth, a bouquet of daisies and other brightly coloured wild blossoms picked from the field. She takes her daughter's hand, and silently they wave a final tearful goodbye.

A volunteer reaches out to the daughter of Moustafa Saeed as she leaves the funeral of her father on the Greek island of Lesbos. (Photo by Harriet Salem/VICE News)

Follow Harriet Salem on Twitter: @HarrietSalem

Related: Migrants Keep Coming — And Dying — as EU Deportation Deal With Turkey Takes Effect