By 2016, the world was in a crisis of a different sort as more than a million refugees fled war and unrest in search of a better life. They braved treacherous crossings in unsafe rubber dinghies to arrive on European shores that were often hostile. Many died at sea or watched their loved ones drown. In this moving account from our archives, one Vancouverite shares her story of volunteering in a refugee camp in Greece, the families she met, and the children she’ll never forget.
I woke up from a dream, and in it I was drowning. When my eyes opened, I wasn’t drenched in sweat or gasping for air. I was simply lying on my back, looking up at the beige, cracked ceiling of my West End apartment. There was nothing special about the moment that indicated something within me had changed, but something had nonetheless. Sometime in the night, an idea had crept into my brain and burrowed deep, so when I woke on that February morning, it was not a passing thought I was struggling to remember, but a distinct feeling boldly taking up space. Before bed the night prior, when I read the news of another boat of refugees sinking while trying to reach Greece, a line had cast out from my heart and hooked on the tragedy.
I knew I had to go help, to follow the pull of that feeling. My dad decided to join me, and together we raised $1,800 in donations from friends and family, booked our flights, and left our current world on hold to spend 10 days aiding refugees in Greece. The following daily travel entries were first posted on my personal Facebook page, and are now reprinted here as a collective memory.
I am back in my apartment, but I am not the same; and the crisis wages on.
Since my arrival home, the European Union and Turkey struck a deal that will see all new migrants arriving by boat returned to Turkey. Camps on Lesvos island are quickly being drained of refugees, as busloads are transported hourly to mainland Greece to apply for asylum in Europe. Many of the small non-governmental organizations have been asked to leave. Moria, where I primarily volunteered, is now a detention centre as opposed to the registration site that it was before.
While the situation is always changing, these 10 days never will.
Day one (February 26, 2016)
It’s 9:30 p.m. and I’m at a small fishing village called Skala Sikamineas on the island of Lesvos. The road to get here wound alongside the sea. I leaned my head against the bus window, catching the occasional flash of an orange lifejacket left behind among the jagged rocks below. My heart rose until it felt lodged in my throat. It was suddenly so real, and I felt tiny. “It’s better to do something than to be paralyzed by fear that you won’t make a difference, and do nothing,” said a German volunteer I met in the airport terminal in Athens. At the camp run by Lighthouse Relief, I sat by a fire discussing my options as rain pounded on the makeshift roof above.
What do I see right now? Twenty other volunteers sitting at a table in the restaurant, a few stray kittens begging for food, and absolute darkness outside. I have decided that tomorrow I’m leaving to help at Camp Moria, where the refugees must go to register. I read that trenches were being dug by hand to divert some of the water, and life jackets were being stitched together to make mattresses.
That is all I know, but still, I’ll go.
Day two (2 p.m.)
Tonight I will help with registration at Moria camp (formally a prison) until 1 a.m., making sure refugees have a place to stay. “There are a few rules,” said the volunteer coordinator. “Syrians and Afghans can’t go in the same room because they will argue, and we can only take in families: so a mother, father, and their children. Sometimes a group of 20 will show up and say, ‘This is my family,’ but no, that’s a village.” Instead they will go to Kara Tepe camp.
Greece is currently grappling with a blockade of refugees after Macedonia closed its borders to Afghans, with thousands of migrants still crossing the Aegean daily. These people standing in line, some of whom have no more than a garbage bag of belongings, have left their whole life behind; a desperate decision in search of sanctuary. How caustic the wreckage at their backs, and how unsteady the earth must feel beneath their feet as they shuffle towards the ferry.
It’s estimated that 56 per cent of the arrivals on Lesvos are women and children. But what that number can’t show you is the mom I saw cleaning her child’s runny nose while waiting in line, or the one who planted kisses on the face of a tired boy until he broke a smile. Hope is a buoy anchored in a rocking wave. Another boat, another shore, another life. You go forward because there is no going back.
Day three (3:45 a.m.)
“Masaa il khayer,” I say to the wide-eyed family entering their sleeping quarters. “Good evening,” I repeat in English. All I want to ask is, “AreyouokaywhathaveyouseendoyoufeelsafehowcanIhelpyou?” But this is impossible to convey through body language. Instead, I bring my hands to my lips, a universal motion for food. It takes me 15 minutes to decipher that a woman wants sugar in her tea. I’ve now been awake for 20 hours and time is beginning to feel like one steady stream.
I have been travelling (and rented an apartment) with a political activist from Spain who has a fiery personality, is killer at getting us a bargain, and questions everything. She spends six months of the year trying to change the world, and the other six as a wine sommelier; so yes, we get along very well. Our shift at the camp consisted of helping refugees into their sleeping area, distributing food and water, and making sure people were comfortable. It can get crowded and there aren’t enough beds, but they have shelter for the night, they have warm blankets, and families are together.
How caustic the wreckage at their backs, and how unsteady the earth must feel beneath their feet as they shuffle towards the ferry.
Once the refugees and migrants arrive by boat, they all have to come to Moria camp to register, so many arrive in wet clothes. They are given dry pants, a shirt, and hopefully shoes if their size is in supply. One child needed medical attention for a fever. The pictures are of an illegal camp called Better Days for Moria, located beside the one I’m working at (which has a very strict no-photos-inside policy).
My camp is based on an old prison, so it’s all concrete and barbed wire fences. As more kids arrived throughout the night, it became almost strange to see them running around, playing with the few toys available, and laughing with one another. But they are, after all, children. Maybe they do not see the barbed wire as we do; maybe it’s just because they have seen worse.
I have learned that “mai” means water in Arabic. I have also learned that kindness—a smile or a hand rested for a moment on the shoulder of a tired mother—speaks loudest of all. At the camp below us, a woman kept looking around and repeating, “This is nice, it is safe here.” I knew about the crisis before I arrived, gathered from what I read in the news like everyone else. I have been humbled. Especially by the volunteers who have been here for months, who have left their jobs to stay here, who see the temporary faces come and go, such as myself, and remain tethered to the land and the tragedy.
My stories are not new and my time here is short. Sometimes, when I let the magnitude of the situation weigh down on me, when I see another family walk through the gate, I hear another bus pull into the camp, or even when I’m standing around waiting for something to happen, I feel hopeless. Another one million migrants are expected to head to Europe this year. It is difficult to comprehend the human cost of this journey; that the more than 400 who have drowned making the treacherous trek by boat are mothers and fathers, daughters and sons.
Then I hear a voice and I am snapped from my daze. A woman needs a bottle of formula for her baby. For those that do make it, like this mother, I am but a small part of their journey, a nameless Caucasian stranger offering food and tea. Even so, I make sure my eyes are kind when we meet, to make up for all the words I cannot say.
Day four (6 p.m.)
As you read this, a young girl is in a coma in Athens. She is not expected to wake up. This morning at breakfast, a doctor from Denmark told me that she was brought into their makeshift medical centre unresponsive. She drowned in the boat, not in the sea, trampled down by overcrowding and suffocated in a pool of shallow water. He took a sip of his coffee and we sat for a moment in aching silence. A recap of last night’s Oscars played on a TV in the background.
On this island, stories weigh on your heart like a bag of stones. You collect them from others, even though sometimes you don’t want to. The weight of the truth is lessened only by giving a piece of your heart away.
Mike Buss, a journalist and former soldier from the United Kingdom, tells me to look for a man wearing a camo baseball cap when I get to the restaurant. “One moment,” he says when I arrive, as he puts a hearing aid into his right ear. He is nearly deaf because of a car bomb that exploded while he was on duty in Northern Ireland, killing two and injuring over 30. That was a long time ago, but he retells it vividly. Now, at 42 years old, he is volunteering at Kara Tepe: a camp primarily for Syrians. He tells me that while working in the tea tent, a man who didn’t speak a word of English came up to him and started talking on, and on, and on. Finally, Mike was able to ask a translator what he was saying. “I won’t go into too many details because I have seen those details firsthand and it isn’t pretty,” he said, “but he had to pull the bodies of his wife and children from the rubble after his home was bombed. He knew I couldn’t understand what he was saying, but I think he just needed to tell somebody.”
Today is hard because news has just come in that a riot broke at the Greece-Macedonia border. Hundreds of stranded refugees smashed down a gate guarded by security forces. The camp is reported to have little food, is overcrowded and unhygienic, and nighttime temperatures are freezing. Of course they would want to leave, desperately. The police used tear gas and smoke bombs in order to disperse the mass. Media outlets have reported 50 refugees are allowed to pass through the border per hour. Mike shakes his head. “I have a contact on the ground there—it’s only 50 per DAY.” Now, we’re hearing it’s none.
As you read this, a young girl is in a coma in Athens. She is not expected to wake up.
You see people in situations you can’t imagine and that you wish they didn’t have to be in. They don’t have a choice. But I have a choice. And I will continue to gather all the stories I can, even if they weigh me down and make me want to cry, or scream, or sleep.
Of all the stories repeated on this island, there is one that helps you come up for air. “There was a boy walking along a beach. There had just been a storm, and starfish had been scattered along the sands. The boy knew the fish would die, so he began to fling them into the sea. But every time he threw a starfish, another would wash ashore. An old man came along and saw what the child was doing. He called out, ‘Boy, what are you doing?’ ‘Saving the starfish!’ replied the boy. ‘But your attempts are useless. Every time you save one, another one returns. You can’t save them all, so why bother trying?’ The boy thought about this for a while, a starfish in his hand; he answered, ‘Well, it matters to this one.’ And then he flung the starfish into the welcoming sea.” That is all you can do: hope that every small act matters. And never, ever stop trying.
Day five (9:30 p.m.)
On this island, the refugee crisis is expressed in many ways—on the faces of families walking through camp, endless rows of tents under the shadow of a prison, and in the town of Molyvos—a pile of discarded life jackets at the end of a rocky trail. Here is a look at what is known as the life jacket graveyard. Bright orange under the afternoon sun, the mountain glows like the sizzling embers of a dying fire. More than 450,000 life jackets have come to symbolize one thing: the risk that thousands are forced to take to flee conflict. We have become numb to the sound of screaming missiles and thunderous bombs on the news. Maybe a pile of orange life jackets, sitting silently on the hillside of a small town, will help the truth of this global crisis be heard once and for all.
Dispersed throughout the mound are deflated rubber dinghies—some bound together by seat belts, inner tubes ripped from car tires, and life rafts that are visibly torn. Many of the life jackets were taken off bodies, yes. But others are simply discarded on the beach when the living make it to shore. I am told that many of the life jackets are made of material that actually absorbs water and sinks, stuffed full of grass or paper. Refugees—people like you and I—are buying them from smugglers, who are hastily making them in Turkey or importing them cheaply from China. If their flimsy rubber boat sinks during the passage, entire families are stuck treading water and grasping for something that actually floats.
Too often, there is nothing.
Day six (3:22 a.m.)
Wherever in the world, a dog just knows when you need to cuddle. At an old castle that overlooks the ocean, the groundskeeper showed us where he was standing when he saw a ferry sink. Almost 40 refugees drowned that day and there was nothing he could do. Sitting on the stone steps, I ask myself if being a volunteer is too difficult. The stories are heavy, the needs are endless, and the heartache is plenty. But the truth is, it is as easy as breathing. Breathe in: when someone is cold, you bring them blankets. Breathe out: when a child is hungry, you find them food. Breathe in: when a hand reaches for help, you reach back. It is this instinct that makes us human. Breathe out.
Sometimes change comes like a tidal wave, but more often it comes one drip at a time until the dam bursts.
Day seven (3:00 p.m.)
Sometimes, it seems that history is made in a single moment. A jetliner punctured an office tower in New York and the whole world broke open; we saw a photo of a three-year-old Syrian boy lying face down on a Turkish beach and we felt the same thing.
Sometimes change comes like a tidal wave, but more often it comes one drip at a time until the dam bursts. In the case of the refugee crisis, it is not an isolated issue; it is a global movement that will change the lines we draw. Clashes broke out in Calais (Northern France) after demolition workers tore down shelters in the “Jungle” refugee camp. The Schengen Area (comprising 26 borderless European countries) is at risk of collapsing, the four Balkan countries (Macedonia, Serbia, Croatia, and Slovenia) have tightened entry conditions, and Greece, the gateway for thousands of migrants, is nearly buckling under the backlog.
For months, locals on the island of Lesvos have watched people arrive from some of the world’s most conflict-ridden regions, pushed forward by the hope of a safer, more prosperous life. Right now, history is unfolding incrementally, like a leaking faucet. From our warm beds at home, our office desks and daily lives, I think it is easy to patronize refugees or to look down on them, to think of them as less human somehow; so unlike us. These are not people fleeing poverty; they are fleeing war. They had jobs: engineers, doctors, lawyers, teachers. Many were wealthy, they had homes, they had favourite coffee shops, and in the camps, they still ask for an outlet to charge their phones to text their friends or to check the score.
Almost 130,000 migrants—more than 2,000 each day—have reached Europe by sea since the beginning of this year. With so many new people arriving daily, passing in and out of camp, it can become a blur of numbers and words without faces.
On the clipboard we write:
-Family of four. Afghani. Walk them to room two.
-Three adults. Nine children. Syrian. Walk to room eight.
-Family of three. Iraqi. To room seven.
My dad and I made 50 sandwiches and went to hand them out in the harbour, where many refugees and migrants wait to board the ferry. There, we met a single mother travelling alone with her six children. Back at camp, a woman sits on the steps crying, as her child plays at her feet. Her husband, this boy’s father, died one week ago.
No, I will not let you become just another number on a sheet of paper; just another stat in the news. I see you, and I know your journey is long. Let me walk with you for a moment, even if it’s just to the room.
When you think of a Syrian, what do you see? I see a small child shyly tapping me on the shoulder to show me his painting of a flower. My dad and I have started an art program at the refugee camps Moria and Kara Tepe. We bring in all the supplies, set up a station, and paint with the kids for hours. This would not have been possible without your donations. Because of you, they are able to share their thoughts; I see boats, hearts (some broken), I see their homeland, flowers, and faces.
I also see blobs, and the parents look at me like, “I don’t know, either.” There is so much laughter. Afterwards, everyone helps to hang the paintings on the wall as decorations. Every artist gets a free high five. A prison has now become a classroom and the camp is no longer a place of boredom. Instead, it’s where kids run around wildly with colours on their hands, leaving the concrete walls a little brighter for all those who will come after them.
I’ll never forget the word: lionhearted. It’s what has come to define this journey, as a daughter to my dad, as a humanitarian trying to put my hand over the world’s bleeding heart, and as a writer, asking how far I’m willing to push myself. Once you choose to open your eyes, the world will never look the same.
When I was little, I remember being afraid to hold my dad’s hand because of the tattoo on his forearm of a grim reaper. So, he went to get it covered up with a new tattoo, and he chose a lion. It’s still one of my favourite tattoos because it reminds me of love, nobility, and courage. My big, tough-looking biker dad changing his tattoo so his little girl would hold his hand. To me, that lion is all the times that he has stood by my side, that he has protected me ferociously; it is the moment I told him about the trip, and he called me back to say, “If you go, I’m going with you.”
As a volunteer, you learn quickly that there will never be enough time. But still, after 10 days here I know we are not leaving the same. At least 18 people drowned off the Turkish coast while trying to reach Greece yesterday. Among the dead were three children—those who grew up too fast and died too young. Twenty-four hours before, I wonder if their parents discussed their plans, ballooned by the hope of reaching new land and a new life. Deep water denies most of the sun’s light, but what did they see of their dreams as they sank?
The decision to leave their homeland is not easy; families take what they can carry, sell off the rest if possible, and use all their resources to buy passage. To save money, Turkish smugglers will equip a boat with just enough fuel to make it across. Engines often malfunction, and any swell of water that tumbles over the edge of the boat risks taking it under. Often coastguards reach overcrowded vessels with its occupants standing knee-deep in water, minutes away from being completely submerged.
Looking out at the ocean, it’s hard to believe that on nearby shores people are huddled together in the dark waiting for smugglers to load them into boats. It’s more money to cross during the day, even more to cross in calm water. There are often guns at their backs and a storm up ahead. When I came here, I did not know what my purpose would be. I made a decision to follow my heart and intuition, and I trusted the rest would fall into place. I can tell you with honesty and from experience that no matter how short your time, you can make a difference. I remember the little girl who laughed when I put a blob of paint on her nose, who followed me around holding my hand, who taught me how to count to 10 in Arabic. If that’s all there is, that is enough.
I’ll never forget the word: lionhearted.
During my time here, I have seen children’s faces light up with happiness. If I could capture that and bring it home to you, I would. Love can be found in the darkest of places, and you can be the light. If you are even considering coming, then you must.
I am leaving this island tired, frustrated, and with a heart that feels just a bit too vulnerable. But I also leave with a better understanding of what it means to be human. My dad arrived on this island as a prejudiced man who needed to heal. He thought refugees were “not his problem,” and he didn’t want them “invading our country.” The courage it took for him to step off that plane carried the weight of a lifetime of ignorance. I have seen his heart shatter to pieces, his eyes well up with tears, and have heard his voice catch in his throat when he tells other volunteers how he has changed since being here. It’s true; he is still my father, but he is not the same man who landed on this island.
Today, when I was painting a little girl’s face, she watched my eyes the entire time. I wonder how different her opinion is of my home. Has she been woken up in the middle of the night to the sound of bombs, the same way—across the world—I may wake up for a glass of water? When I paint her tiny hands, I can’t imagine them gripping the side of a boat. I think of the three who died yesterday.
I believe this closeness to the kids, this interaction through art, is crucial to bridge the gap between “them” and “us,” and break down barriers. We have passed on all the material needed to continue the art program when we leave, because more children will come. But I wish they didn’t have to.
I swear I landed on this island yesterday, got in a cab, and figured it out from there. My heart still breaks for all that I cannot do, because too soon, it is time to leave.
The sun is setting in Greece. The children wave goodbye and run inside to bed. I don’t know where they will go in the morning, but I know I will never see them again. My dad and I stay outside to clean up the paint on the floor. As soon as it is dark enough, we let ourselves cry.
This article from our archives was originally published on March 16, 2016. Read more Impact stories.