Trained as a journalist, I was always told to stand a little apart from the story, not to get too wrapped up in the moment. But, what I witnessed last week, along with Refugees International advocate Mark Yarnell, consultant Renata Rendon and Board vice chair Elizabeth Galvin on the Greek island of Lesvos was truly overwhelming. And I was not the only one. Mark who has been with RI for four years said: "I have never encountered a scene like the one we saw on the north coast of Lesvos. That was truly mind blowing and it was important to see it for ourselves." The Mercy Corps protection officer who took us to the coastal town of Skala Sykamias for the arrival of "boats" from Turkey asked me to feel her pounding heart: "It always happens like this. I cannot help it."
At once, the scene was beautiful, poignant and tragic. The boats arrive -- mostly overladen, deflating rafts -- creeping their way to the shore. When the weather is good, you can spy them half a mile away, a vision of orange on the blue sea. As the raft approaches, volunteers on the shore will start waving bright flags to guide the boats to a safe landing, and the Greek coast guard or civilian boats will ride alongside to prevent any last minute tragedy -- someone falling overboard or the boat completely deflating.
There are about 40 to 50 individuals on each of these rickety boats. Men, women, infants pressed shoulder to shoulder, each one wearing a life jacket. This day the color was orange, but near the shoreline there were piles of discarded hues, thrown off upon landing safely.
As soon as the boat touches land, volunteers wade out into the water, forming a human chain, carrying babies, pregnant women and the disabled to shore. They are greeted with a wave of emotion, having survived this leg of their journey. So far in 2015, there have been about 730,000 arrivals to Greece by sea. Around 430,000 of those have landed on Lesvos, because of its proximity to the Turkish coast. In fact, Skala is only about six miles off of Turkey, but the journey can take 45 minutes to four hours, often in the dark of night with treacherous seas. Hundreds have died on this trek and many families have been separated on the journey, with stories of smugglers pushing some family members into one boat and others into another. They come with nothing but what they can carry, often having suitcases with their precious belongings yanked from their hands at the last moment so that more people can be shoved on to the rafts.
When we arrived on Lesvos on Sunday, November 22, there was an eerie lull in the flow of refugees and migrants. Nobody could explain it. According to UNHCR, the UN refugee agency, 135,000 had arrived on the island's shores in October or about 4,500 each day -- a record high. In the first two weeks of November the number slowed to about 3,300 daily. And now, almost none were coming. There were several theories. The weather could be a factor -- a fierce wind was blowing in the wrong direction, but that had happened before. Another thought was that the Turkish government was finally cracking down on smugglers, because the European Union (the EU) was putting pressure on it to do so. (Actually, that is now happening. Just yesterday, the Turkish coast guard arrested around 1,300 refugees and migrants and three smugglers near Ayvacik, the place in Turkey from which the crowded boats launch for Lesvos. This probably resulted from an agreement between Turkey and the EU, signed on Sunday, November 29, wherein Turkey will try to halt the flow in exchange for $3 billion in aid for 2.2 million Syrians already in Turkey.) The third possible reason for the lull was quite simple: the supply of inflatable rafts had dried up. After all, between 8000 and 10,000 have found their way to Lesvos alone this year. Few of these boats ever make a return trip and now, slashed and deflated, are littering the Greek coast.
But by mid-week last week, refugees and migrants were again coming to shore by the thousands and we hear that the numbers are continuing today. Smugglers on the Turkish side often charge upwards of 900 Euros ($954) for adults and 400 ($424) Euros for children. The Syrian couple we met had paid $2800 for their five young children and themselves and made it in two hours. They had fled Damascus weeks ago, spent a full month in Istanbul making connections and awaiting word. Like most of those we met, they are not intending to stay in Greece. Their destination is Germany.
With winter coming on, it is difficult to know if this is an impossible dream or not. Sitting outside the relief site where they will receive free bus tickets to Mytilene, the capital, and then be able to buy ferry tickets to Piraeus on the Greek mainland, this Syrian family was relishing one small victory.
Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote about the presidential contest: "We all need to be stirred. We need to know and believe the breakthrough is possible, the fight against the odds will end in victory, something good is just around the corner." In fact, this sentiment applies across our lives. For those standing on the shores of Lesvos as these boats arrived one after the other -- Syrians, Afghans, Iraqis, Iranians, Pakistanis crammed shoulder to shoulder -- it was stirring.