Nikolaj first thought about volunteering in December 2015. Now in September 2017 he stayed with us for a couple of weeks to support our boat crew. Thank you, Nikolaj for allowing us to share your experiences.
September 2017: I'm sitting in our small Nanaimo airport waiting for the first of several flights that will finally take me to Lesbos myself. I've been up for several hours, but it's still dark out. I am deploying with Refugee Rescue for two weeks. It's been two years since the pictures of Alan Kurdi went around the world, and things in many ways are just as dire on these islands as they were before:
"In Lesbos, the island on the frontline of the human drama in 2015, the main camp at Moria is currently at twice its holding capacity with 4,825 people registered. ... The latest surge is placing growing strain on Greece’s eastern Aegean islands where reception centres in Lesbos, Chios, Kos, Leros and Samos are vastly overstretched." (Read the whole article here: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/sep/29/surge-in-migration-to-greece-fuels-misery-in-refugee-camps)
To which the corollary is: What are we doing here? Do these human beings not deserve dignity and our help, rather than being stockpiled in ill-equipped camps, their lives in limbo? Why do we still need to rely on NGOs to help save lives at sea? It's not nearly enough. We need more, much more. And we're undoubtedly on the wrong side of history.
"The NATO warship looking for refugees and the chapel offering refuge."
I've been with Refugee Rescue on Lesvos exactly a week now and whoever said that it would be like nothing you've ever experienced was right.
Oct 1: Got my vessel orientation, SOPs, and gear sorted today. First SAR patrol tomorrow at 6 AM.
Trying to shake off jet lag after arriving from the west coast of Canada, I went for a morning run to the landmark simply known as "The Chapel," about 3.5 km due west from Skala. There's HCG, NATO, and Frontex all patrolling up and down the coast, 24x7.
The Mo Chara crew operates out of Skala Sikamineas on the north shore of Lesvos. Of the 4500+ refugees who arrived in Greece in September 2017, 2300 came to this northern stretch of coast on Lesvos alone. Almost a thousand (out of 2300) were children, many unaccompanied.
In reality, no one ends up at the chapel. Refugees are helped to shore by volunteers like the Refugee Rescue crew or by government vessels and then brought up to the "Stage 2" UNHRC temporary camp with the help of the land crew provided by organizations like Refugee4Refugees and Lighthouse Relief.
"Area familiarization run and first SAR patrol"
Oct 2: First time out on the boat, we went looking for early morning arrivals at 6:00 AM just before dawn.
Refugees tend to arrive either between 10 PM and midnight or early in the morning at the moment, and we look for arrivals that might need help. Many boats land at Korakas lighthouse, which is easily visible, but not very accessible, and refugees can end up stuck on the rocks, exposed to the weather. The past few days have been rough, with high winds and big waves.
We went east from Skala, past the spotters at Korakas lighthouse and towards Palios Harbour, then turned around and went west all the way to the lookout for the spotters next to Efthalou Beach and the hot springs.
From the Mo Chara, there's evidence of refugee arrivals everywhere. The beaches are covered with life jackets, discarded boats, and other debris. Many of the life jackets are fake, sold to desperate people. There is a life jacket graveyard on Lesvos with thousands upon thousands of these, each worn by a human being looking to escape war, abuse, or oppression. On SAR patrols, you quickly learn to ignore those that clearly have been there for a while.
I've been here all of 24 hours and I already know that I will be back. The group of volunteers that has sprung up here and the sense of community draws you in like you've finally arrived and found your tribe.
"A long run, an encounter with a harbinger of many deaths to come, and a first encounter with refugees at night. Then we beach a boat."
Oct 3: I've been here two days and feel like I haven't pulled my weight, yet, but that feeling is about to change.
Trying to shake off the tail end of jet lag, I run west to the RRS lookout near Molyvos in the morning, about 17k on a dirt road from Skala and back. Lesvos is achingly beautiful with olive trees everywhere and scenic views of the Turkish coast across the strait. I run past the cats and dogs in town, past the end of the paved road and then on a dirt road that runs all the way to Molyvos. Near the far end of my run, I explore a rusty shipwreck we saw the day before and the lookout. Just as the day before, you find evidence of refugee arrivals everywhere, with discarded life jackets dotting the landscape.
The rusty ship wreck was a harbinger of many deaths to come. This vessel shipwrecked early on in the refugee crisis, and a number of people drowned. It was these early deaths that prompted groups like Refugee Rescue to form and bring in volunteer SAR crew. Atlantic Pacific brought a boat down at the same time. Without them, there would often be no help for people in desperate circumstances who get dumped on a shore cold and wet, with nothing more than they can carry.
RR lookout is one of two lookouts used to spot incoming boats with refugees. Refugee Rescue needs more spotters that work in shifts during peak hours during the day and night to find boats and relay their position. If you want to help, get in touch with Refugee Rescue. (Seriously, want to become a spotter? We need more of you.)
At night, a Frontex boat comes into Skala as we are about to leave on a night SAR patrol, with 30-40 refugees on board and a black dinghy in tow (one of three that landed yesterday). We delay our departure and stand by to help. I end up filming the process of getting the new arrivals off the boat for Refugee Rescue with a helmet-mounted GoPro some 12 feet away from the Frontex boat. Surprisingly civilized, but slightly surreal. Suddenly, this is no longer something you read about in the paper. Men are separated out and sit near the bow. Women and children sit on the back deck. There are armed maritime policemen guarding them as the landing of the refugees unfolds.
Skala is a little slice of heaven that turns into a refugee processing centre at the flip of a switch. Volunteers set up a landing station with a lit path towards the buses to take people to the Stage 2 camp, a doctor from IsraAID examines the refugees on the Frontex boat and determines who needs help quickly, and then the refugees disembark down the lit path. It takes a while and there is a lot of waiting initially, but as soon as the last refugee has walked to the bus, the switch gets flipped back and Skala turns back into a sleepy fishing village.
There are little signs of humanity showing through the cracks. An armed policeman with a shaved head on the back deck makes faces to cheer up a child cradled by its mother. A little boy really needs to pee and is taken to the side of the quay by another policeman. The policeman holds his hand as they climb off the boat and walk to make sure he is safe, speaking in a reassuring voice. A refugee with a bad limp takes a wrong turn from the lit path and stumbles towards the bus to take him away. I put my arm under his and walk with him, until another volunteer from the land crew takes over.
Afterwards, we go for our SAR patrol, have an interesting encounter with an unlit border patrol boat stalking us, and at the end of our patrol we take the inflatable boat the refugees arrived in and beach it near the To Kyma hotel for disposal. It was quite the evening and we are all beat after four hours on the boat.
One big difference to our RCM-SAR SOPs: RNLI-trained SAR crew is not afraid to get wet, and they have rescue swimmers. When we beached the boat, we put two people in it, ran it up to speed towards the shore, and then let it run aground. Afterwards, the crew we put into the inflatable boat simply swam back out and we retrieved them safely.