You know those stories you live through that leave behind a scar? The ones that change the way you think about big questions and make you ask hard questions about yourself? The stories that seem almost impossible to tell in their enormity and their rawness and their horrible, weeping truth. This is perhaps my hardest story. And though I’ve told it before, it needs to be told more. It needs to be told and told again, louder and clearer, until it becomes an anthem.
This is the story of the time we turned away from a boat full of refugees in the middle of the ocean, and how that’s affected how I think about myself and the world today.
I first wrote about this experience a year ago. At the time, there was a lot on the news about the Syrian refugees. Paris had just fallen victim to an act of terror. A three-year old’s body had washed up on a beach. And the memories of my story, though never far beneath the surface, bubbled up fresh and grieving.
In the year since I first wrote about it, the horror has continued. We hear less about the refugees. And we hear more about attacks. Brussels, Orlando, Istanbul and countless others.
There are news outlets that profile everyday heroes, people doing selfless things that jeopardize their own wellbeing in order to save someone else. There are stories about horrible things that are happening to those who are less lucky, to those who fall behind or are left behind or just don’t make it. And there is news about terror, about the worst case scenarios that come to be when someone filled with evil sneaks in with others who might have died had they not been allowed.
I can’t offer any answers. I’ve read the points of view, the ideas about what we can do from afar and what we should do as neighbors in the world. I can’t offer any new ones.
But what I can offer is perspective. I can tell you what it feels like when it’s right there in front of you and your decisions are going to forever change the life of a refugee. A refugee who is going through indescribable pain already, and who is only asking for help. I can tell you the thoughts that went through my head, and that would maybe go through yours too. I can tell you how we reached our decision, and how I feel about it years later. I can tell you what questions I’ll forever wonder and never be able to answer.
Calm Seas to Start
It was 2007. I was leaving the Canary Islands on a sailing ship filled with students, bound for the Caribbean by way of the Cape Verdes. We had taken our students onboard two months earlier, just south of Barcelona, and had spent autumn cruising around the Mediterranean while the students began their coursework, learned the boat and worked on their diving certifications. By November, we’d left Gibraltar behind and skirted along the west coast of Morocco, making calls at Casablanca and several smaller ports along the way.
It had already been an eye opening journey, going from the plush crispness of the French south coast to the poverty of Africa almost immediately after. On the one hand the world was feeling suddenly very small, since we really had not traveled all that far but had seen such broad varieties of life. And on the other hand the world was feeling incredibly vast, such different people and different cultures and different values, all spread before us.
We left Las Palmas on the first leg of our Atlantic crossing a few weeks before Thanksgiving. The atmosphere onboard was electric; there was so much excitement and nervous energy about the three weeks ahead of us, leading up to our triumphant landfall in the Caribbean. Students and professional crew alike were ready for the challenge of a long ocean voyage.
Just a day into our passage to the Cape Verdes, we spotted a small boat heading towards us at speed. This was immediate cause for concern. We were 150 miles south of the Canary Islands, about 120 miles west of Western Sahara, in waters with active piracy alerts. What could someone possibly be doing all the way out here in such a small boat?
Just south of the Cape Verdes, pirates from Nigeria had contributed to the 10% increase in pirate attacks for the year 2007. And on the other coast, off Somalia, 4 ships had been captured in just the past two months. The topic was fresh in our minds and we had established standing orders for the event of a pirate attack.
As our first mate squinted through the binoculars, he waved me over. There. There just beneath the horizon, the tiny dot. It was getting bigger quickly. I went to get the captain who was down below with the students, teaching a course on navigation. By the time he came on deck, we could see the boat clearly through the binoculars. It was filled with African men. It seemed impossible that it was even floating but there it was, about 50 feet long and open like a canoe. It was low and wet, but moving surprisingly fast directly for us. We could count at least 50 men onboard. We knew that our big schooner would not be able to evade it so we activated our anti-piracy orders which mostly just consisted of charging our fire hose which shot like a geyser into the sky. We couldn’t out-maneuver them, and we couldn’t outnumber them, but we could maybe sink them if we had to.
Desperation At Sea
When they saw what we were doing, they didn’t speed up or alter course to our other side like we thought they might. Instead, they turned so that they were no longer heading right for us, and they shut their engine off. They were parallel to us and they were waving flags, an international sign of distress in the maritime world. It hit us suddenly and all together.
They were not coming to hurt us. They were not the enemy. They were asking for help. They were lost and they were dying.
We could have left right then, and there’s no denying that that would have been the absolute 100% safest decision to make for ourselves. If we wanted to guarantee no chance of an interaction gone wrong, we should have left. They outnumbered us and they had nothing left to lose. But how can you look at someone who is dying, who has lost everything, who has put it all on the line for the chance at a better life; how can you look him in the eyes and turn around? Could you do that? Would you do that?
We loaded supplies together. Food, water, compass, fishing line. We tied them all up in bags and attached them to some old lifejackets. We set the supplies adrift and then slowly motored away. They approached them, picked them up and made huge waving gestures of gratitude. Like they were praising us and God all at the same time. Then they waved their fuel tanks, so we filled tanks with gas and floated those over too. Again the waving praise. But then what?
We couldn’t bring them on our boat. There were already 30 of us packed in like sardines. To bring another 50 onboard? And then there was our own safety. We were carrying other people’s children onboard with us. We were responsible for the lives and safety of the college students aboard, and we would be the ones to answer if something went wrong. So we did not bring them onboard. We offered them everything we could spare. We would be at sea for weeks still, but we gave them all we could. And then we called the Rescue Center in the Canary Islands, and we left.
We Turned Our Backs
I cannot believe we left. I still think through that decision every time I see a headline about refugees. I think of it every time I see a picture of the Syrians camped at the closed Hungarian border. I thought of it when I saw the picture of Alan Kurdi, the three year old who drowned and washed ashore and whose body was photographed on the beach in Turkey. He is the same age as my boys. What would I do if they were drowning? What would I do if someone turned their boat away from us?
It has been nearly nine years since we turned away from that boat full of African refugees. We will never know what ultimately happened to them. We do know that a ship and a plane from the rescue center responded to our call, and the boat was rescued and towed to the Canaries. But rescuing a boat is not the same as rescuing a person. We know that they reached land, but we don’t know if they were allowed to stay. More likely, they were sent back to wherever it was they came from.
Later I learned that at the time, an estimated 800 refugees were leaving Africa EACH DAY bound for the Canary Islands, their closest entry to the European Union. Most of them spend their entire life’s savings for the chance to sit in one of those boats and pray that they will make landfall on their own. Imagine the horror of spending all your life’s savings and risking everything, only to be sent back to where you started. Imagine a life such that taking to sea in a boat like this seemed like your only escape.
The World Turned Their Backs
The reality is that the men in the boat were probably sent back to Gambia, or Senegal, or Sierra Leone. They were probably held in a detention center for months, only to end up back where they started. Some of them maybe began saving again to take the same perilous journey and pray for a different result. Others maybe resigned themselves to the lives they led before. We couldn’t change the course of their lives, even as they were risking everything they had to make change for themselves.
The system is broken.
We wanted to save these people. We wanted to know that the risk they took was worth it. We wanted to know that there was a happy ending, something that these days seems so rare. We wanted to help. And we couldn’t do it ourselves.
We needed a system in place that treated strangers the way we would treat our own brothers and sisters. We needed a system in place that was built upon a foundation of love.
Living in Fear
When we act in fear, we perpetuate a disconnected world in which only those of the same skin color, country, or faith can support us. We enforce an existence in which we are all up against the same great big evils in the world, but somehow we all have to fight our own battles against them. We ignore everything we have in common, and we focus only on the small things that make us different. In fact, we fear the differences enough to let others die rather than overlook them. We live our lives rooted in fear.
Of course there are logistics. Where would everyone go? Who would pay for it? Who will be responsible if something goes wrong? These are questions that demand answers, but these are not excuses.
Last year, while 31 governors of US states announced that they would not welcome Syrian refugees, France, the country that had just experienced the deepest imaginable loss of trust, vowed to accept 30,000 Syrian refugees. And just yesterday a prominent public figure, the son of the Republican nominee for president Donald Trump, tweeted an analogy between accepting refugees and digging our hands into a bowl contaminated with poisoned Skittles.
Rooted in Love
Imagine what could happen if we rooted ourselves in love. We can’t change the system by ourselves in a single day, but when we act out of love and we treat others, even those who are different, the same way we would treat our own, small changes start to happen. It sounds cliche. It is cliche. But it is true.
It is natural to be afraid of something that you don’t understand or something that you’ve never experienced before. But when you step outside of your fear and ask yourself what you would hope and pray for if the roles were reversed, you will find an answer rooted in love.
Like those who came before them, they are not coming to hurt us. They are not the enemy. They are asking for help. They are lost and they are dying.
Will we turn our backs again?
To learn more about organizations helping Syrian refugees and how you can support them, click here.
A version of this story was originally published at 365Outside.org.