In hindsight, it’s difficult to differentiate one day from the next, but while it’s all unfolding, events seem so specific to the time they occur. Time has a funny way of morphing itself here. If you’re not working you’re sleeping, but even when you sleep, your body and your psyche are at the ready to respond to any number of urgent situations, at the drop of a hat. I can’t fall asleep anymore without my head first dreaming up visions of bodies washing ashore. It seems a morbid thought process, but in all honesty, I think it’s more a coping mechanism for preparing for possible realities and normalizing life on these shores.
There was a day last week we received no boats at all. The European Union’s escalated pressure on Turkey to prevent refugees from crossing, the suicide bombing in Istanbul, the new nighttime patrols by the Greek and Turkish coast guard, and a day of high and stormy seas have all been cause for the lull in arrivals. But it never lasts long. There are quiet mornings few enough boats arrive for each camp along the shore to welcome and host one, and there are mornings, like Thursday, when twenty-eight boats dotted the seascape and arrived within moments of each other. Last week, four and six-year-old sisters arrived unaccompanied. The exact circumstances were not clear, but after days of waiting to cross, their mother had to briefly leave them to fetch something, and while she was gone, the smugglers sent the boat off with her daughters still inside it. I’ve heard the mother made it to Greece the following day, and they’ve since been reunited. It seems unlikely, but I choose to believe it.
Many of you have inquired about the magnitude of discarded life vests, hundreds of thousands of them, coloring the coastline and towering over the landfill on Lesvos. I can tell you this; of the hundreds that I’ve personally inspected, I have yet to find one that isn’t counterfeit and filled with thin sheets of open-cell foam that, once waterlogged, force you to sink. There are black-market factories in Turkey that “employ” refugees unable to afford the crossing to manufacture life vests to sell as the real thing. Some look legitimate, others not even close. I found one this morning that had a car taillight screwed into the foam to make it look reflective and official. Others are made with less attention to detail, or even to fabric. A handful of life vests from this morning were made out of a textured, green pleather.
The anatomy of a counterfeit life vest:
There are some small groups and organizations that have been going to the landfill to recycle and upcycle life vests, even using them to make mattresses for refugees. It is a fantastic means of reinvesting in the local community and raising continued awareness abroad. It seems a hopeful way to make a dent, however minuscule, in the immense waste of materials that has far surpassed the resources of the local community to absorb. Earlier this week, seven volunteers were arrested by Greek authorities on charges of theft for taking life vests from the landfill. And on Thursday, five volunteer lifeguards were arrested on charges of human trafficking, after rescuing overfilled boats of refugees. I’ve observed, and personally received, nothing but support from the local communities on Lesvos, but with Greece put square between a rock and a hard place in the politics of it all, I imagine these arrests are the Greek authorities’ way of voicing some bravado, however imbecilic their actions are.
After days of countless shifts, I took my first day off last week, after waking from a comatose sleep. I drove west to Molyvos, and I have to admit, coming from countless days within the confines of a village the size of Skala Sikamineas, Molyvos felt like Manhattan. Even just the feeling of hopping in my rental car and taking a drive was therapeutic. It gave me some much needed perspective, and I spent the afternoon sat in the sun, drinking coffee and decompressing.
During another quiet moment, I walked down the same beach so many boats arrive on, and I followed the coastline, combing the surf and the contour of the rocky shore for anything that washed-up or had been left behind.
Last night I volunteered for another nightshift. I’ve come to prefer them. It’s the shift that contains both sides of contrasting worlds. The typical calm of the nighttime, covered deep in darkness, with constellations overhead and lapping waves to monitor with night-vision. And the busy chaos of the daytime, feet in the water, reaching for wet hands, prioritizing, multitasking and face-to-face with those you’ve kept night-watch for.
After meeting an overfilled boat of 60+ on the shore this morning, I brought a group of new arrivals through the camp’s entrance and pointed the men to the men’s clothing tent and had the women follow me, with their children, to the women’s clothing tent. I jumped behind the counter, made a mental note of the size and age of the children and began riffling through the clothing bins to find appropriately sized undies, long johns, socks, trousers, shirts, sweaters and shoes. With any luck, there are a minimum of 4 volunteers in the clothing tent together, but sometimes we get separated from each other in the orchestration of it all, so you have to take the clothing bull by the horns and just dive in. After most of the children were dry and warm, a medic came in with a young girl, saying she was stage-one hypothermic and needed to be changed right away. The girl was silent, kept her gaze downward, and was unresponsive to the commotion around her. She looked to be maybe nine or ten, and I wondered if she was one of the unaccompanied minors who are all too frequently sent over to make the crossing alone, for lack of their family’s ability to pay the smugglers’ unaffordable fees for their own crossing. Sometimes the circumstances are so dangerous and urgent, it is safer to send their child/children to Greece by themselves than to have the family stay together in Turkey.
I was reminded of something I learned at a pediatric trauma workshop I took in San Francisco; one of the most straightforward ways to work through trauma is to help normalize the traumatic situation for the child. I rested my hand softly on the center of the girl’s back, and when she looked up at me, I smiled and began talking to her as if she could understand every word I was saying. I hoped the tone of my voice would do the communicating for us, and when I took her hand in mine, she seemed content to follow me. I tried to behave as though there wasn’t a more common or normal thing on earth to be doing than to change out of sopping wet clothes in a loud and crowded tent of strangers, and that the fatigue in her fingers and toes was a perfectly healthy response to being so cold (it was). We carefully climbed over the others changing on the floor, and I brought her into the cramped volunteer area. I had her hold onto me by sticking her hands in my warm jacket pocket while I searched for a full set of clothes. She didn’t make a sound. I kept talking, mostly to myself, but as a way to keep a soft tone to the situation, and when I handed her a pile of dry, wool and cotton layers and a pair of shoes, she took them and paused. I could see the hesitancy in her eyes, so I grabbed her wet coat from off the floor and held it up as a privacy curtain. She relaxed and smiled in acknowledgment. I kept talking, and she kept changing. Each layer she took off fell to the floor with a heavy thud of wetness, and with each layer she put on, her eyes got brighter and brighter. With her properly dressed, I found her a pink set of gloves, and we giggled at each other as I tried to cinch the material down around each of her soggy, pruned fingers. I kept looking at this beautiful girl as she so bravely faced the immense uncertainty of the new world she so suddenly found herself in, and my heart sank to think she was facing it alone. I bundled her up in a warm coat, rolled up the sleeves so it fit her a bit better and wrapped a purple scarf around her neck. We kept smiling at each other, and when I motioned that I was going to take her out of the tent, she got up on her tip-toes and kissed me on each cheek and on the tip of my nose. In that moment, all I wanted to do was wrap my arms around her and protect her forever. I gathered up all of her wet clothes, sneakers and coat, grabbed an extra sweater and pair of dry socks, and folded everything into a backpack I had found. Wet clothes in one section, dry clothes in another, and I tucked a bar of chocolate and a lollipop in her coat pocket. She kissed me again and wrapped herself around me.
We exited the overfilled tent, hand in hand, and when we turned the corner she let go and ran up to a tall, slender, bearded man. The man looked at her with such pride that I instantly breathed a sigh of relief to know she wasn't here alone. I greeted the man in both Arabic and Farsi before learning he was Syrian. His fingers and neck were beautifully inked with traditional tattoos, and I noticed he placed most of his weight on one hip, almost certainly the permanent result of a traumatic injury.
“You are family?” I asked with a smile.
“Yes, yes. Father. I am father,” he replied.
The girl and her father doted on each other, and it was all I could do to keep my tears of relief contained. I introduced myself, but our conversation was limited to the few vocabulary words we knew in each other’s language. He thanked me for caring for his daughter, and I told him it was my absolute privilege. The words between us were few, but they are words I will protect and carry with me forever.
“Her mother is also here?” I asked.
Lifting his hands to the side of his head to make a pillow, he responded, “Mother sleep in Syria.”
“Her mother is still in Syria?” I wondered out loud.
“Yes, her mother sleep in Syria,” he replied again.
“And will she come to be with you and your daughter someday?”
“No. No. Her mother, sleep.”
At which point he flattened out his hand, brought it to his ear, and swiftly cut across his neck. “Behead. Behead. Her mother stay sleep in Syria.”
I looked down at his brave daughter, who was holding my hand again, and smiling up at me.
I looked into her father’s kind eyes, and I responded the only way I knew how. I squeezed his daughter a little tighter with one hand and lifted my other hand to my heart.
“I am so happy you are here,” I told him.
“Thank you. Thank you so much.”
Somewhere on Lesvos tonight, a little girl and her father are sleeping.
. . . While her mother stays asleep in Syria.