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.
Please think about contributing to our cause to help us to continue our life-saving work on and around Lesvos:
Why would a musician leave Northern Ireland, fundraise to purchase a boat and set up an organisation with friends to rescue people on the Mediterranean Sea? “The crossing”, a documentary that airs on October 30 at 10.40 pm follows the path of Joby Fox and Jude Bennett, the founders of Refugee Rescue. The documentary is directed by Sam and Ben Jones. They followed the work of Refugee Rescue for some time and we are looking forward to the product of their work.
“I recall Sam calling us at the start of the crisis and asking us where we were going to be at a certain time and date and whether they could film us. I remember just saying: I have no idea. How would we know that?”, recounts Joby Fox, founder of Refugee Rescue.
During this time, there were countless calls and questions at all hours. Often these media requests did little but increase the stress of our volunteers on the ground. Sam Jones and his crew were persistent, but also respectful and patient. “We said, as long as you don’t get in the way, you can follow us. My god, they worked for it!” recalls Joby Fox.
While Joby, Jude and the crew at that time will be featured in the documentary, Refugee Rescue truly lives through the spirit, energy, time and resources that all our volunteers and supporters have dedicated to our cause. “I recall one of our earliest volunteers giving out cookies to traumatized people after a landing. It is these small gestures of kindness that make a difference”, says Joby Fox.
We thank Sam and Ben Jones and their team for their efforts to pain the full picture of our organization. As Joby says: “To me they will always be part of Refugee Rescue”. We encourage all our supporters and followers to tune in tonight BBC 1 NI, North and watch “The crossing” at 10.40 pm. You can also watch it on October 31st, 2017 on BBC 2 Northern Ireland at 22.00.
You can now also watch the documentary in the bbc library until November 30th. Check it out now: bbc.co.uk/programmes/b09cf9ct
"Another SAR patrol, we're tired out of our brains, and the weather turns nasty. Mo Chara gets mostly fixed. Polychronos reminds me to talk about life in Skala."
Oct 7: Early morning SAR patrol, nothing found.
We start at 5:30 AM, well before dawn, and work our way eastwards from Korakas lighthouse towards Palios, then return westwards, past Skala and all the way to the RRS lookout near the rusty wreck described in one of my earlier posts east of Molyvos. (I'll cover what you do on a SAR patrol in more detail during my Oct 10 update.)
After we return from our SAR patrol and refuel Mo Chara, Daisy and I undo our hack job made up of bungee cords and zip ties and disassemble the lights to remove the broken A-frame extension pieces so that they can go into the shop to get welded up today. It's a delicate operation, as we can't really afford to drop any pieces into the harbour. We have to stand on the rear arch with the boat tied up to the quay, carefully undoing bolts and removing cables one by one until we have the two broken extension pieces safely in our hands. Shortly after, Jan and Daisy drive back to the work shop to get the pieces welded back up.
The whole crew is fatigued. Yesterday was a long day followed by today's 5:30 AM SAR patrol. All of us are short on sleep and everyone on Mo Chara's crew catches forty winks at different times during the day. It helps, but only some. We've been switched on for so long, it's hard to get a proper rest. People in Skala have mentioned volunteer burnout to me, and I think we're getting a taste of it.
Whilst having a belated breakfast at Goji's, Polychronos the dog pees on my left foot to remind me that I haven't really talked about life in Skala much. Time to fix this oversight! (Also, bad Polychronos, bad! It took my fatigued brain a few moments to figure out what the sudden sensation of warmth meant.)
Life in Skala in a nutshell: A community amidst a small Greek fishing village that sprung up spontaneously in response to human tragedy, with people from all over the world descending on Skala to help. There are several volunteer organizations here, such as Refugee Rescue, Lighthouse Relief, and Refugee4Refugees, along with IsraAID, all joining in for a common cause, from all walks of life. Mo Chara's current crew is a good example of this: We're made up of an RNLI member as our team coordinator, an ex-Royal Navy diver and submariner, an ex-Forces member, and a mountain rescue specialist, plus myself from RCM-SAR 27 in Canada. People here connect with an immediacy that is rare: I've met so many new people in the past week and a bit that it feels like I've gotten to know a whole new world. Everyone is friendly, everyone takes an interest in what is going on, and there's a common bond created by the desire to do good. Ages range from university students to retirees, with everything in between. Some people are here for months, others only for a couple of weeks. (There are other lifeboat institutions represented here as well. For example, a Dutch KNRM member helps run the show in the Stage 2 camp.)
Life in Skala often revolves around Goji's, a small café right near the harbour. Goji's is open from early in the morning to late at night and people trickle in and out of there all day long. Meetings are held, food and coffee are consumed, and there's friendly banter and discussions to be had all day long. Most locals are accepting of the influx of volunteers and some are clearly very supportive. Besides English and Greek, you hear many other languages spoken every day. If you ever get to eat at Goji's, I highly recommend the Greek yoghurt with fruits and honey, which has turned into a bit of an addiction for most of the boat crew. The coffee here is excellent.
There are cats that belong to the community in Skala everywhere, plus a few dogs like Polychronos and some geese. Near Volunteer House, there's also a braying donkey.
The community of volunteers has come up with all sorts of ingenious names and programs, like Suspected Fitness and Confirmed Yoga, named after suspected and confirmed refugee boat sightings. One problem with Confirmed Yoga: It's difficult to confirm the time for it, since its name implies it's always confirmed. They are currently working on sorting that out.
The crowning glory of Skala is Dimitri, the Queen of Skala. Every day, this gentle soul prances through Skala in a different outfit, greeting people and adding a certain flair to this place that is unique. Skala would not be complete without her and I am grateful that she was kind enough to let me have my picture taken with her. (She looks great and I look ... tired. Also, I'd just been peed on by a dog. You really can't predict what each day brings here on Lesvos.)
There's evidence of refugee arrivals not just on the local beaches but also in Skala itself. Refugee boats get recycled in all sorts of ways. For example: The cover for a large pile of fishing gear right next to where Mo Chara is moored is the recycled skin from a refugee boat. You can tell from the inflation valves that are still present. This rubber skin was part of a boat that carried somewhere between 30 and 50 people across from Turkey to Lesvos. Elsewhere, I've seen part of a recycled emergency blanket used to cover a drain, weighed down by a metal plate. The aluminum floor boards are also a valuable commodity and used to make all sorts of things. As each boat arrives, it's disassembled bit by bit and reused until very little remains.
That evening, we fix Mo Chara just before dusk, reassembling all the pieces we took off earlier. We're goofy tired, but happy that the boat is back in one piece. We still need to open up the radar dome and make sure it seals properly at some point, but Mo Chara more or less looks the same as before she got damaged at the shop. The completed repair gives us all a much needed boost, and we laugh and crack jokes as we wrap up for the day.
The wind picks up again that evening and then the weather turns downright nasty. During the night, a torrential downpour sweeps over Lesvos and washes all the dust off the streets of Skala into the ocean. No boats arrive during the night, a first in quite some time.
Refugees are still arriving on Lesvos every day. Lesvos remains the main point of landing for people crossing from Turkey. UNCHR statistics show that while considerably less people arrived in the early months of this year, the opposite is true for the months of May, June and July. During these months 37% more people arrived than during the same period last year, most of them women and children.
We wanted to share this video to remind you and everybody who sees this that cooperation is possible. It is our primary goal to avoid shipwreck and make crossing the Aegean Sea safer and our work remains as important as ever. Cooperation between authorities and NGOs is possible and should be a key component in achieving our goal.
Increasingly we have been helping when people land on rocks and parts of the island that remains inaccessible for the Coast Guard and its boats. We often assist to transfer people from bigger boats straight to the coast to help them reach safe land faster.
Over half of the people arriving are women and children. We often witness boats that have more children than adults on board. On August 18th, such a boat landed in Korakas, with 7 men, 9 women and 17 children on board.
Families often try several times to cross the Aegean Sea as they stopped by Turkish authorities. The potential risk of being stopped by Turkish authorities contributes to the fact that crossing the Mediterranean remains dangerous. In order to avoid being stopped by Turkish authorities, people take high risks when crossing. The EU-Turkey Deal is still risking lives of innocent people fleeing war and violence every day.
We also observe that children are often dehydrated leading to vomiting upon arrival. Many adults that arrive also suffer from pre-existing chronic conditions. Conditions like diabetes or high blood pressure do not only form a risk in themselves, but they furthermore lead to anxieties that often result in panic.
First medical aid and professional search and rescue is more important than ever! We commit to providing those in need with help and work hard to make the Aegean Sea safer.
Here a little glimpse of what this cooperation looks like:
As the rhetoric within Europe takes a turn towards criminalizing NGOs, rescue teams on the ground, in Lesvos and elsewhere, are facing harsher interference that puts a strain on their life-saving operations. Refugee Rescue has been operating on Lesvos since 2015, always cooperating with other NGOs, rescue organisations, and the Hellenic Coast Guard.
During the past months, the Hellenic Coast Guard and local authorities have made operations increasingly difficult for Refugee Rescue and their SAR boat, “Mo Chara”. This has now reached a point where lives may be at risk.
The Hellenic Coast Guard has threatened fines should Refugee Rescue fail to give 24 hours notice before launching a rescue mission. A 24H report requirement is unworkable, since a refugee boat may appear at any given moment. This has prevented Refugee Rescue performing immediate rescues and has greatly constricted their operation.
Crew on land have been met with threats and demands to leave their posts. These posts are vital for spotting any incoming boats. In one incident, Refugee Rescue volunteers were threatened with a firearm. Previous threats were less brutal, although all threats are a challenge to diplomacy on the island.
After a long period of diplomatic difficulties with the Hellenic Coast Guard, the land crew has now been forced to leave their positions. This is despite compliance and successful collaboration in the past.
The safety of the Refugee Rescue crew has been compromised to such an extent that rescue missions are in danger. These arbitrary conditions, imposed by national and EU-authorities, ultimately put the lives of refugees at risk.
Refugee Rescue is present in Lesvos because refugees keep coming in. The crossing in unsafe and unseaworthy, overloaded vessels can be swamped with water, gasoline, or both. The people who arrive on these boats are heavily traumatized, physically injured, and are often in shock when they reach the shore.
Refugee Rescue is a professional SAR team with the ability to provide medical aid. There is no doubt that NGOs are needed, as, to date, they have saved thousands of lives. Governmental rescue-institutions and most of the larger help-organisations have left Lesvos, which leaves refugees under perilous and life-threatening circumstances.
Refugee Rescue is here to help and ready to cooperate. By remaining in Lesvos, we help ensure compliance with international Search And Rescue standards, as well as international human rights.
For more information, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
This photo sees the shared smiles between Refugee Rescue crew member Isabel and a young boy she helped off the rocks and to safety.
At 04:53 this morning we had a shout that refugees were on a beach around the coast from Skala. Our fantastic crew were 9 minutes from bed to boat. The Mo Chara crew assisted 26 people, amongst them many tiny little children, off the secluded cove they had been smuggled into, around the coast again and into Tsonia harbour.
There, our land crew, along with our partner NGO's, helped these 26 with medical care, water, food and dry clothes.
This was a really nice landing for our crews and for the refugees. We needed it after the darkness of this past week.
Happy smiling people, relieved and safe.
Photo permissions kindly granted.
Article from Frontex who was on scene who we cooperated with and they boarded our boat Mo Chara so they could help us get the people to safety:
Monday 24th April 2017 - a sad day. The crew received an SOS call that there was a shipwreck and bodies in the water. The crew worked hard for hours to find survivors to unfortunately only recovered this teenage girls body. Many souls perished this day but through a miracle 2 survived including a pregnant lady.
There was little world news reported on this tragic event and if they did they don't mention the humanitarian rescuers that were there finding and taking bodies from the water. We need to remain to prevent anymore deaths at sea.
It was 3rd April 2017 at 6:15 in the morning when we saw the fire in the distance. 26 people were on the rocks waiting for help. Smugglers are increasingly dumping desperate families in the waters, reportedly at gunpoint. Refugee Rescue found them cold and wet. The operation took over 3 hours to complete and we called in the help of fellow rescuers Proactiva so we could board all the refugees and bring back to port safely.
Refugee Rescue reacts to a 'shout' were their dinghy was taking on water. We worked with the coastguard to get them to shore safely for urgent medical attention. We need your support to ensure there is aid for these desperate people at sea.
Refugees towed by Frontex unnecessarily for 2 hours and people are hypothermic, when we could have helped. Refugee Rescue go to assist a refugee boat. When we get there Frontex (Border Control) have decided to tow them to a far away port rather than safe lands closer due to Golden Dawn (Fascists) tensions in that area. Towing is a dangerous option, particularly in these conditions. We need to be there to help.
The news report pbs.org/newshour/bb/tensions-rise-in-greek-fishing-village-that-welcomed-migrants/ shows the people landed on the shore, freezing. #stayhuman #togetherwecanhelp #welcomemocharas date with our team on Lesvos....
Today a smuggler dumped 12 people into the water on rocks on sheer cliff face, including a small baby, 3 teenage girls and an elderly woman of 80 who was hyperventilating. Refugee Rescue team completed a very difficult rescue with our boat Mo Chara, the only vessel that could get close enough to board the refugees and bring them to safety. Well done crew!! THANK YOU. Our hard work continues and we still need your support