Where East meets West: Refugee Work in Greece

After my adventures down under, I began a long journey to my next destination.  I planned my travel so I could have a day long layover in Dubai in the United Arab Emirates.  I had heard much about this modern boomtown of the Middle East, including the home of the Burj Khalifa, the tallest building in the world, and wanted to see it for myself.  Sure enough, the city was a strange mixture of traditional and contemporary, with women in burkas walking alongside women in tight fitting designer clothes.  The traditional Arab style was an obvious influence, but it is a cutting-edge city with so many modern trappings of Western culture.  The city is assuredly still building, as it seems there were just as many buildings under construction as those already complete.  I wish I had more than just a day in order to get a better sense of the city, but alas, I had to continue on.

View of the Acropolis, during my brief few hours in Athens before continuing to Lesvos

I finally arrived in Athens, and only had a few hours to walk around the city, mostly due to my own confusion and lack of hustle in leaving the airport as I tried to figure out the public transportation and where I wanted to go.  I was able to walk for awhile around the bustling neighborhoods surrounding the Acropolis.  While, I would have liked to actually go into some of the historical sights, this quick little fly-by would have to do for this trip.  I had booked an overnight ferry that evening to the island of Lesvos.

At one point during my travel planning, I realized I wanted to do something to help out with the ongoing refugee crisis in the world.  It has often been said that we are currently in the midst of the worst humanitarian migration crisis since World War II.  I remember first laying my eyes on this situation about two and a half years ago, while visiting Budapest, Hungary.  I arrived by train and noticed a great number of Middle Eastern people there.  I remember rearranging my bags at one point and looking up to a young boy of probably 4 years of age, shyly smiling and kind of playing peek-a-boo with me, while he sat on the floor next to his mother and siblings.  When I left the station, I was dumbfounded by the mass of humanity surrounding the station.  There was basically an impromptu camp set up there, which would actually boil into a confrontation between the refugees and the authorities the day after I left Budapest.  Ever since then, I had it in mind to try and do something to help such people.

The narrow crossing between Lesvos and Turkey

While searching for such an opportunity for this trip, I came across Refugee Rescue.  They are a nonprofit that operates a search-and-rescue boat on the north shore of the island of Lesvos.  This is the shortest crossing from Turkey and serves as a “gateway” to Europe for many refugees.  I was going to help out on the spotting team, keeping an eye out for crossing attempts, and helping at the transition camp for any landings before people were taken to the more permanent camp of Moria on the island.

The small village I stayed in is Skala Sikamineus.  It is a tiny fishing village with narrow, stone paved streets, and only about 10 of them at that.  The local fishermen started rescuing many of the refugees they noticed making the journey from Turkey.  I was informed that some of these fishermen were actually nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize for their efforts.

Volunteers from the different organizations getting together to watch the Geminid meteor shower

Soon, governments and NGOs were involved in the proceedings of the area.  The politics involved were far more complicated than I ever imagined, and far beyond the scope of this posting.  However, so many players are involved including the Hellenic (Greek) and Turkish Coast Guards, NATO, FRONTEX (basically the EU border patrol), and numerous NGOs.  Besides Refugee Rescue, the one I was working with, other NGOs that we interacted with were Lighthouse Relief, Refugees 4 Refugees, and IsraAid.  However, one brief note of the politics that I was informed of… technically, any refugees that make it into Greek waters are supposed to be rescued and brought to Greece while any ones intercepted in Turkish waters are supposed to be sent back to Turkey.  One of the coordinators informed me that the NGOs have been keeping an eye and reporting activities of some of these ships, and some times refugees that were supposed to be brought to Greece were actually sent back to Turkey, and that if it weren’t for these NGOs and their reporting, it would be happening far more often.

Trying to make the transition camp a little more welcoming

The influx of refugees was far less in December of 2017 than it had been during the height of the crisis in 2015.  Whereas back then, they were having multiple landings a day, during the two and half weeks I was there, we only had 4, including the one that happened in the early morning hours just prior to my arrival.  With this slower pace of activities, it was interesting to meet the variety of people from around the world who had come to help. Among the different organizations, there were volunteers from the UK, Switzerland, Egypt, Australia, Ireland, France, Lebanon, Poland, Israel, Canada, and the USA as well as others I am probably forgetting at the moment.  This mixture of nationalities, converged upon a small fishing village in the Greek Isles, with a relatively slow pace of life where we often waited for our volunteer shifts by sitting in the local café socializing, gave me the impression of what it may have been like during the Lost Generation years in Europe for many of the ex-pats.

However, in our case, there was a common purpose, and many of our conversations focused on the situation at hand.  It was an incredible opportunity to gain perspective from people with different specializations such as the international law student from Australia providing background and legal issues of the current situation, the journalist who had spent years investigating migrant and refugee issues and now wanted to actually do something to help directly, the founders of these organizations helping to support the refugees, and the search and rescue crew that had served not only in Greece but also in the South Mediterranean with refugees crossing from Libya.  Hearing the different stories and viewpoints of these people both gives hope but also illustrates the complexity and difficulties of the problems facing us as a society.

Life jackets marking the path from the rocky shores to safety

One day, a small group of us decided to walk along the beach towards a ferry wreckage. Some of the group went swimming for a bit and then turned back , while another and I pushed forward, but got separated for a while.  As I made my way through the ancient olive groves and stone terraces, I noticed life jackets.  There were dozens of life jackets attached to trees throughout the groves.  Suddenly, it dawned on me what these life jackets represented.  They had been placed there for any refugees who happened to make it to land without being intercepted.  The life jackets served to mark a safe path to roads and civilization.

I wanted to, but never actually made it to the “life jacket graveyard”, a staggering pile of tens of thousands of life jackets that had been worn by landing refugees or had floated ashore on Lesvos.  Unfortunately, many of these “life jackets” offer no real flotation support and were simply sold to refugees by unscrupulous human traffickers trying to squeeze even more money from desperate people who had likely never before seen let alone been on the ocean.

During my first week, I went through some different training sessions, and served on watch duty both during the day and overnight.  We would spend our shift on an overlook continuously scanning the ocean with binoculars and a telescope during the day and a night vision scope during the dark hours.  While the goal was to always have eyes on the water, due to a lack of resources, we were unable to have a lookout during the hours when we had to made the transition from day to night shifts.  As winter was setting in, it became extremely cold during the night shift, and sometimes, there would be a cold rain falling, with strong winds coming off the ocean.  There were a few shifts that had to be cancelled due to the conditions.

One day near the beginning of my second week, I was on call during the morning shift to help at the transition camp in case of a landing.  At 6 AM, my phone rang.  There had been a landing the night before.  They were already at the camp and the initial process of feeding them and giving them dry clothes had already happened.  I was to go to the transition camp mostly just to have a presence and then help out when the buses arrived to take them to Moria the large-scale refugee camp on Lesvos.

Even in a refugee camp there are prima donas that expect all your attention

There were close to 60 people that had arrived, mostly from the Middle East and some from Central Africa. When I arrived, clothes were hanging anywhere possible around the camp.  These were the soaking wet clothes that they had been wearing while making the crossing.  Most of the refugees were still sleeping in the large tent when I arrived, so I went into the food tent with another volunteer to wait by the small heater that was in there.  A stray cat joined us, and found my lap to be a warm napping spot despite never having been invited.

Soon we received word that the buses were on their way so we began to tell the refugees to get their belongs together.  The camp sprang to life as the refugees went to and fro.  Amongst the Middle Easterners, there were only a couple of men, most of the group were women and their children.  Often it seemed that young teenage boys were serving as the “men” of their families.  Some of the refugees had not received a few items (like dry shoes) the night before, so they were asking for these items now.  And often it would be these teenage boys asking for items.  It turned into a rather chaotic scene, but eventually we got everything taken care of and prepared to put them on the bus.  I handed out water bottles to each person as they boarded the bus for the two-hour ride to Moria and an uncertain future.

That night, I was on the night watch again.  The temperatures were near freezing and the wind was blowing hard.  At one point, as I stood scanning the waves with the night vision scope, my mind wandered to what it must have been for those people who had crossed through those frigid waters, facing similar conditions, in a dinghy and wearing not much more than rags.  And here I was, shivering beneath layers of high quality clothing.

Due to the low numbers of volunteers, I stayed on through the Christmas holiday to help with the staffing shortages.  My Christmas Eve was spent on night shift once again.  It may be cliché, but my thoughts during the solitary times of that watch turned to the oft mentioned fact that Jesus and his family were refugees early in his life, fleeing to Egypt to escape the persecution of Herod.  While I missed my normal Christmas festivities back home with my family, thoughts like that made me feel better about where I was and what I was doing.

The day after Christmas was my flight out of Greece.  I was on call for one final night before I was going to take the early morning bus to Mytilene to fly out later that evening.  At 4 AM, plans changed.  My phone rang as there had been another crossing.  I had to hurry and get ready in order to meet at the Refugee Rescue headquarters to get a ride to the transition camp so we could prepare for the arrival.  A while later, before dawn had begun to break, we were helping distribute dry clothing to almost 30 refugees from Afghanistan.

Imagine crossing an ocean strait with 30 other people in this…

I was unable to make the early morning bus.  But instead, I was going to be able to get a ride to Mytilene with a group from Refugees 4 Refugees who would be going to their warehouse outside of the Moria camp in order to organize some clothing that afternoon.  (This also allowed me to catch up on some sleep in the late morning.)

This unexpected side trip allowed me to learn even more.  Omar, one of the founders of Refugees 4 Refugees, drove the van to the warehouse.  Along the way, I learned a little more about his story.  He himself was a refugee.  He had originally left Syria due to a family dispute, but then when the civil war broke out, he put that aside and returned to help support his family.  They eventually decided it had become to dangerous and they left the country together.  After being in a Europe for a while, he decided to help support the continuous influx of refugees and he helped to found Refugees 4 Refugees.

As we came close to the Moria refugee camp, a place that was commonly described to me as having hellish conditions, I noticed the large numbers of people just aimlessly walking up and down the road.  Many of the refugees in these camps are in a constant state of limbo, not knowing what their status is or where they may be able to go and settle (if anywhere) so they have nothing to do except while the hours away.  Just seeing them walk as we drove along, I could sense the frustrating boredom emanating from their purposeless steps.

While in the warehouse, I began helping the Refugees 4 Refugees volunteers sorting through the boxes of donated clothing.  It was simple, but meaningful work.  A young refugee girl had come through a hole in the fence and was hoping to get a better pair of shoes.  Unfortunately, the warehouse was actually closed that day (so that it could be sorted) so we weren’t supposed to handing out items.  However, a couple of the volunteers tried to help her.  But it was taking too long, and a crowd was beginning to gather at the fence, likely wanting to get something if they could as well.  Eventually, the volunteers had to send the girl away.  But she actually did not go easily. With a smile on her face, she would walk away and then try to sneak back in another way.  It did not seem that she was directly trying to disobey them.  Rather, based on the look on her face, it was a game to her.  She was playing, trying to find some kind of distraction from the monotony of the camp.

Those scenes, including the sprawling tent settlements that were actually outside of Moria, were the final scenes and reminders of the refugee crisis in Greece.  A crisis that is still on-going, and only one of many refugee crises around the world: Africa, Asia, the Middle-East.  It is an oft-stated fact that we are in the midst of the worst refugee crises since World War II.  I wish I had definitive solutions to offer, but there is no easy solution to this.  There is so much complexity and competing aspects to the situation and how to handle it.  However, the one thing I do know is that ignoring will not cause it to go away.  What would it say about us if we just close our eyes to men, women, and children that have struggled in ways most of us could never fathom and are willing to risk everything for a chance to live they types of lives we far too often take for granted?



There are plenty of resources online dealing with the refugee crises around the world.  A quick Google search is really all you need to learn more and find something of particular interest to you.  I am mostly just going to list the organizations that I worked with during my time in Greece.

https://www.greecevol.info/  The website I used to find the program I volunteered with on Lesvos.

Refugee Rescue: The organization I volunteered with on Lesvos.  They operate the Search and Rescue craft: Mo Chara

Lighthouse Relief: The organization we worded with the most on watches and during landing operations.

Refugees 4 Refugees:  An organization that also helped out with serving food at the transition camp, as well as running the clothing warehouse outside of Moria refugee camp.

IsraAid: The program that gave medical support and evaluations to newly arrived refugees

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees: The UN agency that oversees refugee operations around the world, including on Lesvos.