A Close-up View of the Refugee Crisis on the Island of Lesvos

Children at Pikpa Center, Mitilini

Syrian children at Pikpa Center, Mitilini

We had been on the island of Lesvos, the epicenter of the refugee crisis now swamping Europe, for a few days and were enjoying a relaxing late-night dinner after a long day of volunteer work at an emergency aid station, when we heard the frantic phone conversation.

“Try to stay calm, Christo! Yes, we will have a doctor waiting here! Try to keep the baby warm and just get them in here to the port as quickly as you can! Yes, the doctor will be here!”

Melinda, the de facto coordinator of the all-volunteer emergency relief effort in the tourist town of Molyvos, had received the call from a Greek Coast Guard official who had rescued yet another group of refugees from the sea on their short but tumultuous journey across the strait from Turkey.  A baby’s life is hanging in the balance as the distraught Coast Guard captain races his boat into the port at Molyvos. Our group of volunteers rushes out from the restaurant armed with metallic warming sheets to wrap the arrivals, while others run off to bring in the medical team.

Within a few minutes we see the lights of the boat and hear the chaos of screaming and shouting passengers and crew. The boat docks, the baby is rushed off the boat and onto the port, and the remaining passengers, in a daze, disembark among the café and restaurant tables in the heart of the tourist center. We wrap them in sheets and watch anxiously as the doctors frantically perform CPR on the infant, who looks to be under a year old.

Molyvos camp

Informal Molyvos camp organized by volunteers

We lead the refugees, many of whom are women and young children, into the emergency aid station set up by the local volunteers, just a hundred meters or so from the port. Priority number one is to get them dry and warm—despite mild temperatures, the water is cold and the refugees are soaking wet. We rush them towards the area where clean, dry clothes are laid out in boxes and fit them up as best we can. But it isn’t easy—several times a day this scene is repeated and the neatly sorted and stacked boxes of clothes become a chaotic mess each time, the refugees’ wet and dirty clothes mixed in with the clean and dry, and children’s and adults’ and men’s and women’s clothes all mixed up. It is full-time work for several volunteers just to keep the clothing boxes stocked and sorted.

As we lead the group towards the food table, one of the refugees, a handsome young man of about 21, approaches me. “Thank-you,” he says in very clear English. “All of you are human. We are not human.”

“We are all human, of course—all of us,” I say, indicating refugees and aid volunteers alike.

“No, we are not human,” he insists. It is a simple fact, in his view. It is not the only time I heard this sentiment from the Syrian refugees. They are in despair over their country and their people and have lost hope for their country’s future.

The refugees politely and calmly line up and we pass out simple white bread and cheese sandwiches (made by the thousands by a remarkably dedicated crew of volunteers in Molyvos), bananas, and bottles of water. It is not much, but it is something. The refugees are incredibly grateful for this meager repast, each one offering their heartfelt thanks. The children come in crying but once they are warm and dry, are scampering around the camp, laughing and smiling. Their parents prompt them to say thank-you and each one does so with a shy smile.

After the initial rush for dry clothes and food, we begin to talk with the group and hear their stories. They are all from Syria (“Soo-ree-ah,” I quickly learn, is how they pronounce it), except for an odd group of four young men from Afghanistan, who sit off by themselves, completely isolated from us and from the Syrians by language barriers. The Afghanis had simply been thrown by the smugglers into the boat with the Syrians on the Turkish side at the last moment. The departure scene was nearly as chaotic as the arrival, they told me, as the group of 50 or so was pushed into the rubber dinghy that was designed for 15. Remarkably, the smugglers do not accompany their customers, simply picking out one of the group at random and designating them to operate the tiny motor and steer the boat towards a set of lights on the Greek side.

Even on a relatively calm night, the waves quickly becomes too much for the overloaded and underpowered dinghy. Halfway across, the motor stops working and the boat begins to take on water. “At that moment, I thought I had made the biggest mistake of my life,” Minas, a well-educated, middle-class, 30-something man with fluent English told me. “We were going to drown, I was certain. But, thank God, the Coast Guard found us and saved us.”

Minas (second from right) and friends)

Minas (second from right) and friends

The Syrians are exhausted from the ordeal but also exhilarated to be alive and on European soil, the first step of their journey successfully completed. They are remarkably calm and remarkably unconcerned about the details of their future life. “Where would you like to end up?” I ask several of them. “Anywhere,” they all reply. “Maybe Germany, maybe Sweden, but anywhere that will take us.” They aren’t picky.

After getting officially registered here on the island and receiving an official transit document that will allow them to go through (but not stay in) Greece, they will board a ferry boat to Athens. “Do you know how to get from the port in Athens on to the border of Macedonia?” I ask them.

“Not exactly, but we’ll figure it out,” they tell me, not the least bit concerned about these little details. “Many people are doing it and they post the info on Facebook. We’ll find our way.”

Living through war, months in Turkish refugee camps, and a harrowing journey across the sea instills resilience and confidence. They are survivors.

They are among some 400,000 migrants and refugees who have arrived on the Greek islands this year, many of them just in the past several weeks, completely overwhelming local authorities, who simply do not have the resources to host and process this enormous number of arrivals. The Greek Coast Guard, now assisted by crews and boats from Norway, Portugal, and other European countries, are doing their best to rescue those whose boats fail along the way, saving thousands of lives.

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

Syrian girl resting by the port in Mitilini

The wonderful volunteers who have come from all over Europe and North America to help with the crisis are almost enough to restore one’s faith in humanity. David, a pilot for a regional airline based in Cleveland, takes his four days of vacation to fly across the Atlantic to work long shifts at a camp, before dashing back home and back to work. Alistair, an Aussie who lives in Istanbul and says he doesn’t really know a thing about cooking but has taken on the job of unofficial kitchen manager at the Pikpa camp in Mitilini town, cooking up huge pots of stew every day to feed hungry migrants. (When asked how long he would stay, he said he couldn’t leave until someone capable of doing the job appeared to take his place.) Nina from Denmark, a workhorse in the kitchen, who took time off from her job at a local recreation center to feed and clothe refugees. Kenny, a truck driver from the UK, who had been saving for eight years to buy a house, but who has spent all his accumulated funds to support himself while volunteering on Lesvos, spending the last of it on a jeep to transport the refugees so they wouldn’t have to walk across the islands. Charlie, a young TV producer at the BBC, who had planned a vacation but couldn’t bring herself to lie on a beach when she saw so much need for help with the refugees, so changed her plans to come to Lesvos and work. Ordinary people who saw a need and came to do whatever little bit they could. So many good people from Germany, Norway, France, the UK, the US, and the Netherlands (thank goodness for the Dutch—a lot of compassion in that little country.)

In the morning, the group prepares to walk to a bus organized by the local police, who will take them in for processing. (Having been rescued at sea, they are officially “under arrest,” which means that they will get a free ride to the processing center, rather than having to walk or find transport from volunteers.) We ask around about the fate of the baby from the night before, hoping to hear a happy tale of a heroic rescue by the medical team.

But there is no happy ending to this story. The baby did not make it, we are told.

As the group packed up their meager belongings, we took photos, exchanged handshakes and hugs, and got email addresses. I promised Minas to send photos and he promised to keep us informed of their progress. (They are on their way to the Macedonian border, he told me in an email today.)

There were many things that surprised me in our week’s experience working with the refugees, of which I will have to write more another day. But perhaps the biggest surprise was just how much I liked the Syrian refugees, who almost to a person struck me as kind, gentle, and extremely grateful to those of us who welcomed them.  “Thank-you for everything you are doing for our people,” Majed said to me as he and his family were departing. “But most of all, thank-you for your smiles.”

Banal, maybe, but true–just a welcoming smile can mean the world to a refugee preparing to start a new life.

You can learn more about the volunteer efforts on Lesvos and how you can help at lesvosvolunteers.org or at the Molyvos volunteer Facebook page.

Majed and family

Majed and family



  1. Tom and Helena,

    Thanks for sharing this story. I don’t know what to say, except that it really brought home the crisis. Thanks for helping out in person(!), and we will definitely include refugee help in our annual giving. I’ll check out the website you shared. I wish I were more of a social media person because this definitely deserves to be broadcast. I’ll at least share with close friends and family.


    Monique Morrissey
    Economist | Economic Policy Institute
    1333 H St. NW, Suite 300, East Tower Washington, DC 20005
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