Every volunteer leaves the island with the image of at least one refugee seared onto their heart. For me, it is the image of a young woman from Afghanistan.
She and about 50 other refugees were brought to the Molyvos harbour by the Greek Coast Guard. They had been rescued at sea. Many were completely soaked to the skin and, to make matters worse, several people from the boat, including children, had been taken to a different part of the island. This meant some parents and children had been separated. The group was cold, wet, terrified - many were in shock.
I was not on shift when the boat arrived. I was having lunch at the Captain’s Table, the headquarters for the Starfish Foundation, when word went out that there was a group coming in. It was all hands on deck, so lunch was forgotten and we started to prepare for the group’s arrival. We gathered clothing of all sizes from our temporary storage at the harbour, along with shoes, bottles of water, a box of bananas and bags of sandwiches. We carried the supplies the short distance to the wharf where we had been asked to meet the refugees.
It is hard to imagine what it must feel like. These people have been plucked from the sea by officials who don’t speak their language. In some cases, the refugees don’t even know whether they are in Greece or if they have been taken back to Turkey. They are confused, tired, and hungry. When they arrive on shore, they are greeted with as much warmth as we can offer without being able to speak their language. Then begins the difficult task of helping them get some dry clothes and shoes.
We don’t have anywhere for them to change into the dry clothes. An enterprising Danish architect created a couple of portable screens that we set up on the side of the wharf. Otherwise, we hold up shiny emergency blankets for them to change behind. We don’t always have the right sizes, particularly when it comes to pants and shoes. On this particular day, several men ended up in bare feet. We didn’t have any dry shoes for them. I quickly grabbed some plastic bags and encouraged them to put on dry socks, cover their feet with the plastic bags and then put on their wet shoes. Not ideal, but at least they have something.
Because the group was picked up by the Coast Guard, they have to be treated differently than refugees who arrive on the beach. Everyone has to be registered. This too presents as challenge as they are required to fill in a form with their name and other information. It is not alway easy to communicate what is required, but there is usually someone in the group who speaks a little English and somehow it always works out.
Once they are clothed, fed and registered, they have to make their way to the bus. It is about a 1 kilometre journey, mostly uphill. If there are cars available, we will try to shuttle those people who look like they are ill or who have small children. This is when I met the woman whose face will haunt me for the rest of my life.
She was standing near the front of the line as we prepared to march the group to the bus. She was accompanied by her husband and two young girls aged about 4 and 6. She was beautiful, but terribly thin and obviously pregnant. And her skin was completely grey. She looked very ill and very tired. We decided that she and her family should come with me in my car.
I gestured to the small family to follow me and I settled them into the car. Immediately, she leaned back against the car seat and closed her eyes. I turned up the heat and headed through town. As we neared the bus loading area, I noticed a roadside vendor selling fruit. Technically, we are not allowed to stop for any reason when we are accompanying the refugees, but I just had to.
The man on the side of the road was selling local oranges and apples. I selected 4 apples for my Afghan family and then bought a 20 kilo box of oranges. When I got back to the car, I handed the apples and some oranges to the man and his family. They looked somewhat surprised and when the man realized that there were only four apples, he offered me his. I am always struck by the incredible generosity and willingness to share that I have experienced with the refugees I have met.
When we arrived at the bus loading area, the woman opened her eyes and looked around. She was still grey and looked so sick and exhausted. There was nothing I could do for her. She was being taken to Moria, the camp for non-Syrian refugees. I have heard horror stories about the conditions at the camp and I knew it was very unlikely that she would be able to see a doctor.
As they got out of the car, I filled up their hands with more oranges and, at the last moment, I noticed that there was a blanket in the trunk of my car. It was one of a stack of blankets I had brought over from Canada. When my physiotherapist heard about my plans to come to Greece, he went into the back of his office and came out with a stack of warm blankets. I had given out all of them except one.
As the young woman started to walk away, after having smiled and thanked me, I stopped her and wrapped the blanket around her shoulders. She smiled again and I gave her a huge hug. As I hugged her, I could feel her bones. She was painfully thin with a prominent baby bump. She hugged me back and, for a moment, I hope she felt loved and cared for.
When the rest of the group arrived walking, I distributed the oranges to the rest of them. I also found the one man who spoke some English. I begged him to try to get some medical help for the woman when they arrived at Moria. He said he would try. That’s the best I could do.
I don’t know her name or her age. I will never know where she came from or where she ends up. I fear the worst for her. I can’t imagine her being able to make the long, cold journey through Europe. Her face and the feeling of her frail body will always be with me. And this is why I will come back to Lesvos, if this crisis continues.
I missed several days of blogging. It was often just too exhausting at the end of the day. This is my final post from the island from this trip.