How bad would things have to get, for you to spend all of your money so your family could cram into a flimsy, rubber boat with 40 other people?
Imagine you can't swim, and nor can anyone else in your family.
It's night, you have no lights, and you must travel six miles across of choppy seas. There is no captain. A man who has never even been on a boat will navigate. They tell you to sit on the dinghy's inflated edge with your son on your lap. Your husband must stand, and you cannot even see your brother, because it's so dark.
How bad would things have to be, before you put your family in that boat? How bad would things have to get, before you actually felt lucky to get a spot on that boat?
A few weeks ago, I went to Greece with the International Rescue Committee -- (the IRC) -- a global humanitarian aid , relief, and development nongovernmental organization -- to help out in any way I could. The Greek island of Lesbos is the closest to the shores of Turkey, so thousands of people arrive on these flimsy, rubber boats each day. On Lesbos, both refugees and inhabitants need all the help they can get.
We arrived by plane at in the morning. The beaches looked as if they were painted orange because of the thousands of life jacket left on shore. Refugees carry only what they absolutely need. They discard their life jackets next to the deflated dinghies.
(IRC Voice Piper Perabo visits Molyvos in Lesvos Greece to witness the arrival of refugees. While on the beach she helped clean up as well as distribute fresh fruit and water to recent arrivals.)
Hundreds of thousands of people have risked their lives on those boats. I witnessed them arriving during the day and in the middle of the night. On one occasion, I saw a woman cry out in relief and pass her children to strangers on shore as her boat struck land. One man fell to his knees on the rocky beach, raising his hands and sobbing in triumph. I have never seen anything like it.
(As you know, not everyone makes it across the water. I met a young Greek woman, who raises money to bury those who have drowned. This is not her job, but someone needed to do it. She even attempts to locate their families on Facebook, to tell then, gently, what has happened.)
Those who reach shore must cross the island to the ferry port, a grueling 40-mile walk in wet shoes on mountain roads, to the transit center so they can arrange travel to their next destination. (Refugees land on the beach in Lesbos Greece.)
What's strange is that Greece isn't a developing country--it's Europe. In fact, Lesbos is a desirable tourist destination. The juxtaposition of vacationers heading to the beach in their swimsuits, next to soaking wet refugees carrying their meager possessions was surreal.
The walk to the ferry port along the coast is long and hot. There are no stores, no toilets, no water... just dry earth and olive trees. If you're a healthy young man with good shoes, you can make the trek in almost one day, but if you're elderly or walking with children, it can take up to three days.
Once they've made it across the island, travelers must register as refugees--a confusing and ever-changing process that can take anywhere from one day to five days--before they can take a ferry off the island. Many people sleep on the streets in small camping tents while waiting for their papers to be processed.
(Refugees walk to the northern part of Lesbos to continue their journey north into Europe.)
During the few days I was there, the IRC staff, along with local officials and volunteers, helped register more than 15,000 people. But that's not all they did. They greeted incoming boats, organized buses for people traversing the mountain roads, cleaned the transit camp, and provided shelter and assistance to the most vulnerable--all the while treating people with dignity and humanity.
What stood out to me most was just how incredibly patient and full of good will the Greek people and the refugees were after all they have been through. I got to know dozens of them during my time on the island and was moved by their kindness, sheer determination, and concern for one another.
They had made it so far, but in fact, they had only just begun.
Founded in 1933 at the request of Albert Einstein, the International Rescue Committee offers emergency aid and long-term assistance to refugees and those displaced by war, persecution or natural disaster. The IRC resettles refugees and helps them become self-sufficient.