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Life Jackets on Lesbos

October 2, 2015 by

This morning as I got up I noticed a helicopter over the harbor. I watched it circling for a while. Helicopters are not a good sign on Lesbos; seeing one over the harbor means the coast guard is looking for people in the water; it means that a boat of refugees from Turkey has capsized.

lifejackets left on a Lesbos beach

A few days ago at the camp a man had described to me how his dinghy had sunk halfway through the trip to the island; one of the passengers had quickly used his phone to get their location and send the coordinates to the coast guard. The journey these people make is complicated: there are the negotiations with the smugglers, the ride in the boats, the stay at the camps, the trip across Lesbos to the port, and then the arduous journey through Europe. Every step of the way is dangerous, and the scale of it all is hard to absorb as you see people making the journey by the thousands.

Later in the day I was on the rugged north shore of the island in the quaint town of Molyvos. I walked the beaches where most of the refugees come ashore. It was a stormy day with waves beating on the rocks and ocean spray whipping at my face. Life jackets and the warped hulks of slashed dinghies littered the beach even though local volunteers are constantly cleaning them up. I picked up one child-sized inflatable vest. Printed across the back it read: “This is not a lifesaving device: not for use in boating.” A pink and blue object on another pile of discarded life jackets caught my eye. It was an inflatable arm band with fish printed on it, the kind of thing a kid puts on to splash around in the backyard pool.

lifejackets left on a Lesbos beach

A huge wave came in, crashing on the rock where I was standing and soaking my sneakers. I looked out across the waves to Turkey and I looked down at the cute little arm band I was holding; some child, perhaps even a child I had met at Kara Tepe, had worn this thing over this same stretch of perilous ocean.

That evening, an aid worker told me she too had seen the helicopter that morning. She had been down at the Mytilene harbor when the coast guard came in from their rescue. They had successfully rescued sixty people from a capsized dinghy, but there were also three body bags. There were one large one and two smaller ones: a mother and her two children.

lifejackets left on a Lesbos beach

Julian, another member of our team, reports: Yesterday, for the first time, some of us went to Moria, the non-Syrian camp. It is a totally different ball game than Kara Tepe, the Syrian camp where we have been until now. It is basically a detention center for all non-Syrians – mainly Afghanis, Iraqis, some Africans, and even Bangladeshis. The UN has given the Syrians refugee status which means almost all of them are guaranteed asylum in Europe. In contrast, the people in Moria are considered illegal immigrants who are not allowed to be here. Most will be end up being deported.

The conditions are far worse than at Kera Tepe. The camp is run by the police. There are hundreds of people camping on the surrounding hillsides, with only a few tents, and no toilets at all. We walked in through razor wire fences, up a steep hill through crowds of people. Men were lined up outside an administrative building waiting to be processed. Riot police in helmets and shields, with clubs, were keeping order. There was some shoving in the line, and you could hear yelling from inside the building. It felt quite tense.

But we are here primarily to spend time with the children. We set up a very primitive play area on a rocky slope; far from ideal. A good number of kids came, and it was a happy time. But after two hours the line of men got so long it went right past where we were trying to play with the kids, so we had to pack up and leave. We are negotiating for a better space to use next time.

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