Although the stories may not be as prominent in the news, the refugee crisis in Europe has by no means abated. Many of the Greek islands that are set just off the coast of Turkey continue to receive hundred of refugees per day. The sea, however, is growing more treacherous by the day, as the fall/winter brings with it rougher waters. Several teammates from Helping Hands recently made a visit to the the island of Lesvos to see the situation firsthand. Here’s an update from a friend and one of our former teammate serving in Athens…
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Hello again from Athens. I would like to share a few stories with you from my time on Mytilini (also called Lesvos) island. I sat down many times to write this, but I haven’t been able to come up with words to express what I saw there. During the two days we were there, 49 people lost their lives at sea, many of them children. The seas are getting too rough for passage on boats not made for the sea, but people keep coming anyways. I can still see the expressions of terror, exhaustion, and relief on refugees faces as they landed on shore. Below are some stories from my time there…
The first day we were on the island the seas were very rough. One of my coworkers and I were on the shore when an overcrowded raft washed up. Everyone was soaking wet and had looks of sheer terror on their faces. Four different women fainted when they got out of the raft due to shock and one man was suffering from hypothermia. His entire body was shaking. As people were trying to get off the raft the waves kept tossing it and throwing people. One man broke his leg against some rock and another woman hurt her knee.
Many refugees told me that the smugglers on the Turkish side forced them into boats at gunpoint. There are thousands of refugees living in the forest away from the coast of Turkey waiting for their turn to get on boats. When it is their turn a smuggler comes and gets them. When they get to the boats and see how rough the sea is, many of them want to turn back but the smugglers force them on at gunpoint. They don’t want people backing out and they don’t want people piling up more than they already are on shore.
A two month old baby slipped out of her mother’s arms when a strong wave hit their raft. Luckily the mother recovered the baby quickly. We found the baby dry clothes, but the mother didn’t want the baby back while she was dripping wet. I held the baby while her mother looked for dry clothes for herself. I had tears in my eyes thinking about how this precious little girl almost became another statistic of a life lost at sea. Just thirty minutes earlier she could have been lost. I prayed for the little one and asked God to bless them and protect them as they continued on their journey.
It was late in the afternoon our first day there and a raft full of refugees had just come in. After all the refugees piled into vans we stuck around and talked a little on the shore. A Greek woman who’s house is along on the shore came out with a trash bag to start cleaning up refugees’ belongings that had washed up on shore or been left behind as people moved on in a hurry. We asked if we could help her clean up for awhile. She talked about how her home had been in the family for a long time and they used to vacation there when she was a child. She now lived there permanently and said it was anything but a vacation spot. She looked out at the sea and said, “This sea has become the graveyard for far too many people. I don’t know if I will ever be able to swim in it again or see it like I used to.”
We also spent time at one of the camps on the island. It is run by many different organizations. We translated, picked up trash, sorted clothes, and one of my coworkers used her medical training and language to help in the clinic. An Afghan woman was so stressed she started having symptoms of a heart attack. My coworker was able to talk with her and calm her down. After a few hours she was calm enough that she was able to leave with her family as they continued their journey.
(Back in Athens) This past Tuesday we cooked for over 150 refugees, many of them having recently arrived from the islands. I was so excited when two families recognized me from the island! We had a great time talking about the rest of their time on the island, their journey to Athens, and where they hoped to go next. I was able to pray for them again and was invited to be their guest whenever they get established somewhere!
Most of the refugees arriving on the island haven’t showered or had a real meal in weeks. They are exhausted, scared, unsure of what lies ahead, and extremely grateful for the kindness they’ve been shown. There are so many more stories to tell, but this has already gotten quite long! I can’t think of my time there without tears coming to my eyes. Many nights as I’m praying for the situation there I begin to weep again at the horrors people are going through every day. Thank you for praying with me and standing with myself and the ministry here. Lives are being impacted and I’m extremely grateful for you!