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How Volunteers From All Over the World Have Transformed the Refugee Crisis on Lesbos

We went to the Greek island of Lesbos to meet the hordes of people from all over the world who have gone to to try to help after being horrified by what they were seeing on the news.

by Andrew Connelly
Dec 18 2015, 7:05pm

Foto di Nicola Zolin

On a windswept, rocky outcrop high above the north coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, a small group of volunteers peered through binoculars at an inflatable boat bobbing across the waves a few miles away. Their jackets bore the insignia "A Drop in the Ocean," the name of an NGO which sprung up from a Facebook page in August, populated by self-funded volunteers from all over the globe, which monitors boats bringing migrants from Turkey and prepares help for them when they arrive.

A Turkish coastguard ship loomed large and approached the little dinghy, briefly eclipsing it, before sailing away and anchoring idly nearby — raising questions about how effective the billions of euros recently pledged by the European Union to Turkey to help with sealing its borders to refugees will actually be — but boosting spirits among those on board.

Further down the coast, Joaquin Acedo stared out to sea and braced himself. The 33-year-old is a one of a small group of trained lifeguards from Barcelona who have traveled to Lesbos to rescue refugees. 

The Proactiva Open Arms group, who work unpaid, are feted as heroes on the island after saving countless lives at sea. Suddenly Joaquin's radio squawked. He paid close attention to its message, then relaxed.

"Everyone on board is fine. They are getting towed by Greenpeace now," he said. "The engine works, the weather is good, not rainy. Everything is cool."

NGO A Drop in the Ocean monitoring the sea and the new arrivals. Photo by Nicola Zolin

Related: Migrants Suffer as Greek Islands Buckle Under Dual Crises

The dinghy was towed gently to the beach of Skala Sikaminias where the bedraggled occupants were met by a motley crew of Greek anarchists smiling and bellowing 'Khosh amadid' ("Welcome" in Farsi) to the mainly Afghan group who were fed, clothed and drinking tea within ten minutes of arrival. Many of the Greeks had been helping out in Athens' notorious Pedion tou Areos park, host to swathes of refugees and other homeless people during the summer months, before decamping to the islands.

This Aegean island was once synonymous with being the birthplace of tangy liquor Ouzo and the ancient poet Sappho who professed her love for women. In 2015, it became the symbol of Europe's refugee crisis, as the principle landing pad for refugees mostly fleeing war in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan.

'The refugee story is eternal'

More than 460,000 are estimated to have passed through the island this year, their usually defective orange lifejackets becoming one of the iconic images of the refugee exodus to Europe, one now burned into the collective memory of the island of 90,000. The majority of the population are themselves descendants of refugees who fled from Turkey during the population exchanges of the 1920s.

Hordes of volunteers have transformed the welcome that refugees receive on Lesbos. Photograph by Nicola Zolin

The humanitarian effort evident on Lesbos is a far cry from the summer, when those arriving by sea were met by just a few local volunteers and benevolent tourists who would drive weary refugees to the port of Mytilene. The rest would face a 40-mile hike through the mountains. A few months later, after the crisis on the island belatedly grabbing the world's attention, there is an profusion of helpers from the grassroots groups to international NGOs up and down the island, hailing from all over the globe.

Related: 'Those Who Arrive Here Want to Become Ghosts': Milan's People Smuggling Trade

For the islanders, it was not always easy to cope with the deluge of incomers. Late one night in a Mytilene bar, Tasos, a local IT worker, spoke of his initial reservations of the situation.

"During the summer I thought we had lost the city, like we couldn't come here anymore as there were so many migrants around. But then I saw them arrive by boat, and heard their ordeal, and I started to help them. I drove there, gave them food and water. My ancestors are from Ayvalik in Turkey — the refugee story is eternal."

New arrivals in Lesbos, which has seen 460,000 refugees and migrants in 2015. Photo by Nicola Zolin

Nobody wants a repeat of October 28, the mere mention of which elicits thousand-yard stares and halting conversations. Everybody on Lesbos remembers the "day of death," when almighty storms on the Aegean did not stop smugglers sending rickety fishing boats loaded with more 200 passengers, most of which smashed and capsized a few hundred meters from the shore. At least 15 people, including 10 children, died within 24 hours.

'The boats with children are the scariest'

Volunteers, lifeguards and journalists there at the time still appear traumatized when they remember trying to resuscitate one baby after the next and children dying in their arms. Mytilene's morgue and cemetery has since overflowed with the dead. Around 600 people are estimated to have died in the Aegean sea this year, out of at least 3,625 who have drowned in total in the Mediterranean, according to United Nations Refugee Agency figures.

Middle Eastern refugees disembarking on Lesbos, particularly Palestinians, might be surprised to see an outstretched hand from someone wearing a T-shirt with the star of David. Yet since September, Israeli humanitarian NGO IsraAid has been present on the beaches. Israeli medic Salil spoke to VICE News as she rested alone on the rocks after a barrage of boats arrived near Mytilene airport.

"Most don't notice we are from Israel," she said. "Half of our team are Palestinians so they are just relieved to hear someone speaking Arabic. When the first boat came in I was terrified, there were four passengers unconscious. The boats with children are the scariest. I'm only one hour away from home, but here feels like another world."

Related: Through Hell and Hungary: Riding the Rails With Refugees in Budapest

The influx of media and volunteers onto the island has not always created a harmonious blend. On December 4, AFP photojournalist Aris Messinis was allegedly beaten by a group of volunteer lifeguards as he was documenting refugees arriving. It is common for overprotective volunteers to block photographer's lenses and arguments to break out.

"They all came here because they saw the pictures," muttered one photographer.

Yoris, a Dutch doctor, watched as a gaggle of clucking volunteers swirled around some newly arrived refugees. "I'm not really the guy who hugs people," he said. "I'm a professional and I just want to do my job. There are too many volunteers here, and I am touched by that, but there is a lack of co-ordination."

'Our goal is to let them be kids for just a few moments'

Conditions have also drastically improved at the the refugee camp in Moria, where people await registration before onward transport to Athens, typically leaving the island within 48 hours. As late as early December, hundreds were sprawled in squalid, threadbare tents next to rivers of raw sewage and were stranded for days or weeks. Today the scene resembles a surreal festival. Campfires dot the hills, the strains of Johnny Cash fill the air and entertainers keep children occupied.

Swedish organization Clown Without Boarders has fun with refugees in the Moria camp. Photo by Nicola Zolin

"Our goal is to let them be kids for just a few moments, psychologically it helps just to remember some laughter," Ulduz, a Swedish-Iranian actress and member of the NGO Clowns Without Borders told VICE News. "The parents get some relief, and they remember to play with their kids as well. I saw my first boat come in yesterday…but I don't allow myself to [think about] that, because then I can't do this."

For Afghan refugee Noorullah, the sea crossing was not the most traumatic episode in his journey. Waiting for his registration documents, he vividly recounted days of trekking out of Afghanistan through the mountains of Pakistani Balochistan, running a gauntlet of smugglers and armed, sectarian kidnappers before dodging trigger-happy soldiers on the Iranian border.

'Close your eyes and imagine we are dancing'

"Take it from the first thing you see — when we arrived, ladies gave us water, some British journalists said 'welcome to Greece' and the UNCHR transported us by bus," he said. "That was the happiest part."

Some can laugh off their traumatic crossing. On the other side of the Moria camp, a group of exiled Kurdish Iraqi journalists huddle under the floodlights and barbed wire fence of the registration center. Aral Kakl, a producer at Sky News Arabic, and his new wife Shevin, had to flee Iraq after death threats directed were towards the family.

"She was a Syrian refugee in Iraq. We met, and now we are refugees together. This is like the honeymoon!," said Kakl. "Our honeymoon is running for freedom. When I was on the "death boat," I was thinking that after five minutes I will be in the water. And I just embraced my wife, she was crying, we were more than scared. I said 'Close your eyes and imagine we are dancing.'"

Many children are among the refugees being helped by volunteers on Lesbos. Photograph by Nicola Zolin

Olga Cronin left her job as a journalist in Ireland to help out on Lesbos in September, and has been volunteering ever since.

"It's quite difficult to believe this is happening," she said. "When I tell my friends and family about what I'm doing, it almost feels like I'm making it up. We found a body one day just lying on the beach wearing a lifejacket…When does that happen in a normal person's life? There was no option for that person other than to get into a crappy boat with seventy other people. Why isn't there safe passage for these people?"

Related: So You've Made it to Germany: On the Ground in the New Refugee Mecca