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Justice

I Hope God Is Here

October 5, 2015 by

I am not an expert on life jackets, but I can tell that the one I am holding is crap. It's only positive attribute is the fact that it is orange, and quite visible against the dark sea. Apart from that, I don't think it would hold you up in a paddle pool, let alone in the sea between Turkey and Lesbos. It has no writing on it at all - no indication of where it was made or by whom. I can feel that it has only four or five layers of thin foam inside.

The entire coast, as far as the eye can see, has a band of orange around it – thousands of life jackets discarded by the refugees who survived the crossing. And a local shopkeeper tells me that they have spent all summer trying to clean them up.

a heap of life jackets on a Lesbos beach

(I am writing this on the plane flying back to London from Athens, having spent a day there after a few days on Lesbos, looking at the work Save the Children is doing in the camps on the island. It has been a surreal experience, full of conflicting emotions. I have thought of dozens of different things I could write about, with a dozen different angles. I suspect the confusion of this article is similar to the confusion of the situation in Lesbos.)

Back to the lifejackets. The crossing is only nine kilometres; Turkey looks deceivingly close. Some days the sea is flat – beautiful warm water surrounding this idyllic holiday island. But today the waves are pounding the shore, and although we pray that nobody will start the crossing now, ten boats have already come across this morning.

Each boat, black rubber dinghies with outboard motors, carries fifty to sixty people. They are designed for ten passengers. We see at least forty washed up on the shore. They have all been slashed, so they don't look like much. The people-traffickers on the Greek side slash the boats (I’m not sure why) and take the outboard motors back to Turkey, to sell.

Among the lifejackets are children’s lifejackets. They all have a clear warning on the back that they are not a life-saving device and shouldn't be used for boating. They are inflatable and contain no actual flotation material. It is a sick joke to give one of these to a child about to risk their life in a bid for a better future. Except they weren't given – the refugees have to buy them for $25-$50. The jackets have cartoon characters on them, and when you first see them you feel like crying. Then you feel an incredible anger at the people who are exploiting this crisis for profit. Some kids, it seems, only get inflatable arm bands, like the ones you give to little kids at swimming pools. We hear that some children are taped into jackets that are too big. The exploitation of the refugees is one of most distressing things about this crisis. They can pay up to $3000 for a place on a boat. By my reckoning, someone is making over $10 million a day from this.

We drive up the mountain from the shore to where the buses load. It is about five kilometres and incredibly steep. The refugees have to walk up this road. The hot weather is coming to an end, but it is still 80 degrees. I can't imagine having to walk up with my kids and my possessions when it was hotter. And when it was, the refugees were having to walk all the way to the refugee camps, seventy kilometers away! Now most manage to get a bus ride. But not all – we pass several groups of people walking.

These people are overjoyed that they have reached Europe but they are being treated like animals. There are conflicting reports, but supposedly you can get a huge fine for giving them a ride in your car. I have always imagined Europe to be a civilised place, and often pondered why other countries don't look to our example – stop having wars, build proper services, get a decent democracy. My views are now being tested. And lest you think that it is just the Greeks, the UK Government’s latest immigration bill has a provision to stop illegal immigrants driving cars and to prevent people from renting them accommodations – just like here in Lesbos. My view of illegal immigrants has now changed. Regardless of whether or not people had a good reason to start travelling, there is no need to treat them as sub-humans.

After the long walk or bus ride, the refugees go to one of two camps to get the papers they need to travel on. The Syrians go to Kara Tepe, everyone else to Moria. It is hard to imagine a refugee camp until you have been to one, and I get my first exposure by walking into Kara Tepe.

If you would like to create your own refugee camp experience, just find a large gravel and dirt area in the direct sun with no shade. Provide one chemical toilet and one water tap per thousand people and you are done. You can now invite several thousand deeply traumatised families to spend 24-48 hours there, before they get the ferry to the mainland.

Nobody appears to run the camp. It is getting better slowly – more toilets have been brought. I decide to use one, more for the experience than anything else. Deeply grateful that I am a man, it takes effort not to vomit as I spend thirty seconds inside. I can't imagine how distressing this must be for mothers and children here, like the pregnant woman with six children who comes to our child-friendly space (CFS) to play with her children.

the children's play-place in a refugee camp

It is an incredible experience to play with the children. How they are still able to function after their journey is a miracle. I spend three hours playing with a two year old boy and a four year old boy who are brothers. The ages are just a guess, since they don't speak a word of English. Neither do their parents. Some other boys join us, and I later learn that they are cousins. At least I am pretty sure they are. It is a lot of fun – we kick balls and throw balls to each other all morning. I never do learn their names, but they become like friends. When they finally go, I almost cry. Like my heart is being torn in half. I never knew I’d form an attachment to some kids I don't know so quickly. Maybe it is because they need so much love. I imagine my own two year old safely at home and have to blink back the tears. I would love, more than anything, to find out if those boys make it safely to wherever they are going. I would love to see them somewhere safe. I would love to know how they are doing in a couple years’ time. Give it up – I don't even know their names.

I turn to another group of children and start the process again, getting the immense satisfaction from having fun with kids, and knowing that my heart will once again be broken when they go.

I try to talk to a Syrian man who is playing with his child. He is from Aleppo and is travelling with his wife and children. He shows me the scars from shrapnel in his arms, legs, and head. He says that Syria as a nation is “gone.”

In the afternoon, I go to Moria to see the camp there. It is far worse than Kara Tepe. This is where all the non-Syrians go. It is on the side of a steep mountain, has a razor-wire detention centre in it, and is hotter with less shade. The few toilets are hundreds of metres down the mountain. It stinks like urine, which is not surprising. There are at least 2000 people trying to get into the detention centre to get their papers. It is like people queuing to break into a prison. Someone is shouting at people and telling them to line up and sit nicely and wait in the blazing sun. They are trying, but if you treated animals like this in the UK you would be prosecuted for animal cruelty – I am not exaggerating.

The next day we come back and set up a CFS in Moria. The long queues are gone, but people keep arriving. Supposedly they figured out how to streamline the paper-issuing process in the night and cleared the backlog. I still haven’t really figured out what the paper is, and what the process is to get it, but you need it before you get the ferry to the Greek mainland.

Several families have moved into the tent we were given for the CFS, so once more we spread out a tarp on the flattest area we can find. It is really windy today, which is great for keeping you slightly cool. I forget to put on sun screen and get a bad sunburn on my arms. I spend several hours playing with a beach ball with a couple children who are about eight or ten years old. It is great fun. The ball gets popped on the razor wire, so, not having any tape or another ball, we fix it with some stickers we have.

The ball keeps rolling down against the fence where everyone was queuing the day before. It smells bad, and the ball is filthy. There is nowhere to wash your hands. The ball needs inflating three times which I happily do by blowing into the little valve before I realize just how disgusting that is. Somewhere near here the Apostle Paul was bitten by a poisonous snake and survived – maybe it will work for me.

I have a long conversation with a man from Afghanistan. He speaks good English. I ask him where he is going. He hasn't decided, but he thinks Germany or Sweden. I ask him how long he has been travelling. “One month, it has been terrible, but thank God it is over now.” I make encouraging noises while trying not to think just how far he still has to go. It is amazing how positive everyone is in this awful camp; their home countries must be a lot worse.

one of the refugee camps on Lesbos

I ask him how much he paid to get over. He tells me that he managed to get cheap tickets, only $900 per person. “But our boat sank half way across, and luckily someone had a phone with GPS, so we sent our coordinates to the coastguard and they rescued us.” I point out that $900 is not very cheap if you boat doesn't even make it. He agrees, but shrugs. “What else can you do?”

“I had to leave Afghanistan to help my relatives survive,” he says, “but it won't help. You won't fix the problem in any of these counties by leaving.” We discuss politics for a bit before I go back to play with the children.

Playing with the children is incredibly therapeutic. Once you start thinking about the politics, you realize that the problems causing this flood of human misery are not really solvable. But you can show love to some children just as Jesus commanded. In fact, that is probably the only thing we can do.

I give the beach ball to the children when I leave. There is nothing else I can do. I shake hands with my most faithful beach ball opponent and say, “I hope you have a safe trip.” I know that he doesn't understand a word I say, but I can't leave without saying something. Maybe God will hear me. Tears come to my eyes again. I hope God is here in Moria; hardly anyone else useful is.

I could write a lot more. I could write about the square in Athens where people are waiting for the bus for up to twenty-hours with no toilets. I could write about the naïve Greek woman I meet on the plane who tells me that lots of Syria is quite safe, and that people should go back there. I could also tell you all about the wonderful things people are doing – the volunteers who pull people from the sea, the church in Athens giving nappies to babies, the staff of Save the Children trying to safeguard and protect children in terrible conditions.

Crowds of refugees in Athens

I wonder what has changed in me after this short trip, and I notice that whenever I see little children, my instinct is to go and talk to them and play with them. I had to stop myself a couple times in the airport. I realize that I have badly undervalued children until now. Of course I love my own, but do I really love each child I meet?

Jesus clearly commands us to do this. So when you start despairing about this crisis, go and play with some children – then you will find there is still hope in the world.


Bernard Hibbs lives at the Darvell Bruderhof in the UK.

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  • Thank you so much for going to help in this tragic situation and for sharing your story with all of us. It is deeply disturbing and moving at the same time.

    Nancy James
  • You don't realize it, but YOU are the life saving jacket. God Bless you for being there as an image of hope for these people!

    Marty Brown