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I Spent a Frenzied Night Saving Children Washed Up on a Greek Island

The diary of a refugee volunteer on Lesvos as worsening weather makes the journey to Europe more perilous.

As more Syrian refugees try to reach Europe, worsening weather is making their sea-crossing from Turkey to the Greek islands more perilous. There have been numerous reports of capsizing boats, and the toll of drowned refugees, including children, is rising. The following is the diary of a volunteer on Lesvos.

Wednesday, 29 October 2015, Lesvos, Greece:

5.00 PM:
Like so many things here in Lesvos, it starts with a WhatsApp message, "FIRST BOAT HAS 10 unconscious children". So I run to the harbour, armed with nothing but a desire to help, a handful of emergency blankets and a dim memory of CPR training undertaken over a year ago. Rushing down the hill, I see an ambulance, sirens blaring. We have had flimsy, overcrowded dinghies, stuffed with refugees, arriving in the harbour before, but this time, the increasingly alarmed messages on my phone tell me that something is more badly wrong than normal.

I arrive to see people everywhere, faces pale and drawn. Scrambling to unwrap blankets with my fellow volunteers, I'm informed that one of the wooden refugee boats sent by Turkish people smugglers has sunk, leaving an estimated 300 people in the sea. Ten children are in a critical condition and have been taken to Mytilini hospital, over 65 kilometres away. We prepare makeshift beds out of rescue blankets on the cold stones of the harbour.

Then the coastguard comes in. They take the children off the boats first. There are so many. Nothing prepares you for being confronted with the sight of an unconscious child. No breath – just foam covered blue lips. I am handed a girl. She looks Syrian, around seven years old. I pull her clothes off and wrap her in an emergency blanket. Where is the doctor? They are all busy with other children. I tilt her head to try to check her airway, but her jaw is clamped shut from the cold. I hold her face and say "Habibti". No response. I start chest compressions. The nearest medic is doing to the same to a little boy, whom I later learn is her brother. I check for her breath again. Nothing. So I turn her around onto her front and try to knock the seawater out of her. Still nothing. More chest compressions, more foam at her mouth, still no breathing. I turn her again and strike her from behind once more. This time, she vomits, but her breath is weak and ragged. Finally, a doctor comes. It's been barely a minute, but it felt like hours. My body floods with relief as he takes over. She and her brother will survive.

6.00 PM:
The coastguard brings more people. We desperately need oxygen as there are children teetering on the brink of life and death. We are lucky. The Frontex team are in the harbour and they have O2 to spare. The next few hours are a blur of emergency blankets, car runs for dry clothes, food distribution. And howls of grief from mothers of missing babies, men who can't find their wives. Many bodies are still floating in the darkness.

9.00 PM:
Several of us volunteers look after children who have lost their parents. Some of them we might find, some definitely not. The smallest ones don't understand, but the teenagers understand all too well. I don't know what to say them. I just distract them and keep them warm. We order them chips. We try to hide our tears from them.

10.00 PM:
The village of Molyvos opens the church and a restaurant so that traumatised people have shelter. We have 118 people in the harbour and 124 of the rescued refugees are transported to us from the neighbouring village of Petra. But there is not enough space for everyone. Some people may have to sleep outside. I see mothers and fathers reunited with their children. Relief is tainted with the despair of those who are still searching for loved ones.

A refugees child is comforted by a volunteer on Lesvos. Photo via Oscar Webb

2.00 AM:
I meet a woman from Iraq and her husband. She is is 35 weeks pregnant. She was in the water for hours, along with her two sons, aged eight and three. I tell them "Yalla, you are staying at my house tonight." I take them home and put them to bed. They are asleep within minutes but I can't catch a wink.

8.00 AM:
The woman tells me she can feel her baby kicking. Then the family share their story. They paid $3,000 each for their voyage, more than double the normal price, as they were told this was the safest kind of vessel. The same journey would cost me about 10 Euros. The smuggler captain left the ship after ten minutes, going back to Turkey on a little boat. The ship began to creak and nails began springing out from the timbers. Then it fell apart. The husband and wife managed to find a life-ring and kept their children close. They told their boys, "Today is not the day we are going to die". While the woman was swimming, she felt the limbs of drowned people brushing against her belly. One of her sons was scared of sharks. She told him that Jaws didn't live here and when they got to dry land she would buy him the roller-skates he always wanted.

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10.00 AM:
I take the Iraqi family to the harbour to wait for their bus. There's an Afghan girl there and she is screaming. She has lost her whole family. She speaks no English. She will not get up from the floor. Grief consumes her. She is undone.

12.00 PM:
I have a coffee. I reflect. I am surrounded by broken people – volunteers and refugees alike. But we have to keep going. Whilst big aid agencies are doing their best, it's the volunteers across Europe who keep this refugee crisis from collapsing into the biggest humanitarian disaster since the Second World War. But we are very, very tired. My organisation, Starfish, was started by one woman, Melinda McRostie. One year later we have over 30 volunteers, run a transit camp and we work alongside the UN, the IRC, the Red Cross and many others. But we need more help. We need more money, medical staff, volunteers and translators. And we need more compassion so that men, women and children stop dying on the water.

I say goodbye to my Iraqi family as they leave for registration in Mytilini. We will meet again. They give me their prayer beads to keep me safe from harm. I can't help but feel they need them more than I do.

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