Thousands of refugees from Syria and Iraq are enduring danger and desperation in their homelands, facing hunger and hostility in Turkey, and risking everything crossing the treacherous Aegean Sea. When they reach freedom on the storied Greek island of Lesbos, the gateway to Europe, Conscience International is there, helping asylum seekers as they disembark on shore, handing them dry clothing and water and making sure they are safe in the transition camp managed by our staff. Our relief team files the following reports from the field:
|Conscience International Project Director for Greece, Angelo Velis, with refugee children who have just arrived on the island of Lesbos|
"It is you!"
Multitudes of cold and hungry refugees tumble onto the beach at Lesbos, Greece, some 1300 a day—10,000 per week-- crossing wave-filled waters that divide the island from Turkey. They arrive in dangerously over-crowded vessels—fifty in a rubber raft rated to hold fifteen. They are wet, exhausted and frightened, fleeing a homeland that is no longer a home, unsure of what lies ahead.
The early crossers, arriving in darkness, suffer the bitterest temperatures. The crossing has taken an hour but some days the rough seas prolong the journey, taking four or more hours to reach safe land. This is only one more phase of a long journey they have already taken over land, walking for days or weeks away from war, seeking freedom. Their immediate need for dry clothing and shoes is met by a Conscience International team working in shifts around the clock to lead people off the beach and to higher ground for processing before they board busses to their next unknown destination.
Imagine thirteen hundred people each day demanding shoes and socks and pants, while there are only about six or seven pairs left each day. Staff and volunteers with limited resources, tired to the point of frustration, can easily become less than hospitable representatives of love and kindness, but volunteers arrive to rescue the tired few that had been left exhausted. The mood changes, unity and cheerful smiles abound, generating a response that becomes more prevalent day by day. ”Thank you for smiling,” they say humbly, sensing this place is safe and welcoming.
More volunteers arrive from different parts of the world, motivating talented people to create activities for our guests: little ones with balloons and bubbles, older children playing soccer or chasing games. Sad faces turn into smiles. Parents watch from a distance as their children are shown generous love by caring people. Mothers weep, seeing in their children what freedom and hope looks like, strangers lending a helping hand to the brokenhearted.
Sahid from Syria, about 11 years old, speaks little English and likes to draw. As we sit together, his family chants blessings of “peace unto you” in Arabic. Sahid draws a boy in the forest holding hands with an adult, both smiling. He writes between the characters, “I love you.” I ask if that is his father. He looks up from the paper, smiles, and points at me. “It is you!”
A special Encounter
Traveling down the beach road we witnessed forty or fifty refugees in a rubber dingy designed for fifteen or twenty trying to make a safe landing to freedom. As they approached land, cheers from the boat could be heard a mile away, although what awaited had to be a mystery for them. As they waded toward shore, volunteers rushed into the water to help them onto the beach.”
When we started back to camp, I noticed a Syrian family walking up the beach road. What caught my eye was an elderly gentleman in the large group, wearing a robe, who was having difficulty walking. We stopped the car and I jumped out to make room for this man and part of his family so they would not have to walk any further. While they drove off to the first check point, I stayed back to walk with the rest of the family and help carry their possessions until a vehicle was sent back to retrieve them.
What made this encounter special was my conversation with the family as we walked. They repeatedly expressed their gratitude and told us what good men we were. I told them that God wants all people to be treated with love and compassion. This idea seemed foreign to them, because they had been treated so badly in Turkey, taken advantage of every step of the way, paying four thousand dollars each for the boat ride, and two thousand dollars to get through Turkey. They even had to pay to stand on the dock. Life jackets were $125.00 and were of poor quality. Once I reached camp, I saw the family reunited. The smiles we shared were worth more than you can imagine. A simple gesture made such an impact. That's what it's all about isn't it?
Finding Kindness and Compassion on the Shores of Lesbos Island
Masoor and his wife Rehana had set out for the crossing to Lesbos Island with their two children at night, searching for a safe and better life. I was the supervisor for the night shift in this transitional camp when they arrived in a rubber boat from Turkey. Rehana told me the story of their journey to this point, including how badly they were treated by the Turkish border security and the experience they had at the Turkish shore when they were told to pay $1000 per person for a place on a boat. When they realized the boat would be loaded with more than its registered capacity, they expressed concerns and finally paid fifty percent more for places on a less crowded boat.
During the conversation Rehana wanted to know about my identity and why someone would come all the way from America to spend the night in a very cold winter in difficult conditions to help them. She had only encountered people who would do something for money. Now she found someone who was there to help without any expectations.
Next morning, when it was time for them to get into the bus for the next camp, she looked at me with tears in her eyes. Both she and her husband gave me a hug, expressing their gratitude for the kindness and compassion they had found on the shores of Lesbos. It was an emotional good-bye to people I had known only for a few hours.
The Heartbreak of Separated Families
A Syrian male passed through our transition camp with a six- month old baby. His wife and oldest son had been attacked and pushed off of the boat on the Turkish shore. While he tried to protect his wife and shield the baby he was holding, his bag, including his phone, was knocked into the water. He was pushed backwards, falling into the boat that suddenly took off, leaving his wife and older son behind. He arrived at the transit center unable to contact his wife, unsure if she was safe. I took him to the kitchen tent so he could prepare a bottle of formula for the baby. He hung around for hours but eventually had to take the bus to the next stop. Another family, from Afghanistan, passed through with a baby who was less than 48 hours old. He had been born in the forest in Turkey during their long journey.
In another case, a Syrian man was forced by smugglers to drive a boat of refugees to Turkey. If he wanted to take his family with him he would have to return with the boat and drive it back across with another load of refugees, including his family. But before he could do that, he was arrested by Greek police for trafficking.
On Saturday evening, two small boys were silently crying, staring blankly ahead. Their father told us that their mother had died on the crossing. And from a nine- year- old Afghan boy who drew a picture of his family on the raft and wrote the words, “we want peace.” His family had been traveling on foot for more than a month to reach Greece.
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