I departed Athens at 1:00 this afternoon to make the 40 minute flight east to the island of Lesvos. I took out my book about the science of treating hypothermia, and the woman sitting next to me asked if I could teach her what I’d learned. She was an oncology nurse, traveling to Lesvos from Israel, to volunteer with the Israeli equivalent of Doctors Without Boarders. Neither of us knew very much at all about what exactly we had signed up for, nor what to expect when we landed, but we agreed we were over prepared for many different outcomes. I look forward to keeping in touch with her and to swapping stories of our experiences.
I was so jet lagged and cold-ridden during my first 48 hours in Athens, it wasn't until our initial approach for our landing in Mytilene that I finally felt like I was in Greece. Fertile, stoney terrain, olive groves as far as the eye could see, and dark, turquoise waters crashing against rocky cliffs polka-dotted with sheep.
I hauled my luggage from the petite baggage claim area and was relieved to see the young man (a teenager) from the rental car agency happily waiting for me with my car. I excused myself to the toilets to count my money, and after I handed over the cash, he tossed me the keys, bid me a happy new year and disappeared into the parking lot. It was me, my Nissan Micra, 50 pounds of medical and emergency supplies, 40 pounds of long johns, fleece and woolen layers, and a tin of my mom’s chocolate chip cookies… On Lesvos. At last.
Now, after having completed the journey, I can tell you there isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell I would have successfully made the drive to Skala Sikamineas without my dad’s GPS. And I say that especially after being forced to drive for a brief moment down a sidewalk to access the road. My 1.5 hour drive north brought me through quiet nooks and crannies of towns too small to have a main street and still sleeping off their new year festivities. As I drove on, it quickly became evident that I didn’t overpack at all. Any significant purchase I’d need to make, shy of the bare necessities, would involve the 1.5 drive back to Mytilene at some point.
Skala Sikamineas (Skala Sykamineas/Σκάλα Συκαμινέας) is an ancient, compact, tiny fishing village at the bottom of a range of stone cliffs below a mountain (which were far more intimidating to drive down than the sidewalk!). It meets face-to-face with Kuruoba, Turkey, with nothing but a miles-wide arm of the Aegean Sea separating the two countries. The room I rented at Pension Niki is a miniature apartment, of sorts. There is a toilet and shower drain in the bathroom, a sink, electric burner and mini fridge tucked inside the front door, and a lofted bedroom less than twice the size of the bed itself, accessed by walking around yourself once to get up the stairs. It has a corner window that looks out over the top of an orange tree, the neighbors’ rooftops, and with a view of Turkey beyond. It is clean and well cared for, but obviously built for the summer season. There is a breaker to switch on a half-hour before you need hot water, but only to the shower tap. The sink runs on the ground tap which, in sub freezing temperatures, verges on too cold to drink. There is “heating,” but it does very little to heat the damp air, and the bed is covered with a springtime blanket. I am so relieved my mom insisted I pack her fleece blanket. I may investigate taking a day off at some point to drive to Mytilene to purchase a sleeping bag. Until then, I’ll sleep fully clothed in multiple layers.
After I unpacked, I walked around the corner to the harbor and the restaurant where my orientation was to take place. I was the only volunteer to show up, and alas (and admittedly not terribly surprisingly), my orientation was without any orientation at all. One thing quickly became clear to me though; Skala is packed with dedicated, hardworking volunteers from all over the world. And those who come (and choose to stay) to aid the refugees who are so desperately seeking safety and constantly arriving, will only last if you are self-reliant, resourceful, communicative, take initiative and jump in wherever help in needed. And help is needed everywhere. Here, the ability to be efficient and systematic at the same time as being constantly flexible can mean the difference between life and death for those arriving.
I stayed at the restaurant to help pack cheese sandwiches to send to the registration refugee camp in Moria. Hundreds of sandwiches later, I looked up to see a parade of cold and wet refugees walking past the window. They had arrived in the dark on a stretch of shore that was without a night watch and walked down the beach to the glowing lights of town to seek safety. We all dropped the sandwiches and ran outside. I partnered up with an EMT from Virginia and combed through the crowd to assess priority cases for care and first aid. There was an Iraqi man holding a baby, and at his feet was his wife who had fallen to the ground. We got her to her feet and she said enough words in English to communicate she had fallen on the rocks when she climbed out of the boat. Having still not been oriented to the locations of the two shore camps, I followed the EMT who had clearly done this many times before. We slowly made our way down the dirt road to the Lighthouse camp, under starlight. The mother and father stayed quiet and calm, but I was suspicious of how quiet the baby was. Once we entered the medic station, we sat the mother down, mimed to the father to help her take off her wet socks, and took a closer look at the baby who looked to be about 4 months old. Her name was Bandra. She didn’t start crying until we were inside with electricity. Her parents had lovingly clothed her in as many layers as they could, but she got wet during the crossing, and now those layers were doing nothing but refrigerating her. The EMT checked Bandra’s vitals, and I peeled off her sticky, wet layers and found a dry diaper. As the mother was being seen by a doctor, Bandra wouldn’t stop wailing, so the EMT motioned for the father to come change his daughter’s diaper. But the father hadn't changed a diaper before, and neither had the EMT, so I gave them both a lesson. Bandra cried, and she cried, and she cried. Even when she was dry and warm and bundled up. Even when she fell asleep she actively cried. I could hear her crying as I left the medic station and walked back to the harbor to meet another incoming boat.
A volunteer coast guard sent word they had found a small inflatable boat filled with about 40 people and they’d be towing them into the harbor from the sea. We gathered emergency blankets and stood on the stone dock, waiting for them. The freezing night sky was lit with nothing but thousands of twinkling stars, and the clouds from our warm breath touching the frigid air was the only movement we could see. Eventually I spotted the coast guard’s searchlight as the boat cut through the dark. I struggled to hear anything more than ripples lapping on the dock over the calm and silent water. But soon the sounds arrived. First of the children crying. Then of the babies crying. And then the apprehensive, terrified and relieved whispers of the adults.
We led the new arrivals to the camp and sat them around a bonfire. As I handed out hot chai I found Bandra's parents. Warm, content and with smiles of relief on their faces. And a peacefully sleeping Bandra snuggled between them.