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February 2016 - Refugee crisis in Lesvos

 

These images were taken when I was volunteering with the CK team, supporting arriving refugees on the island and documenting the groups work.

 

I arrived the start of February. The weather was so bad the plane had to turn back to Athens. Around 9 hours late, with no sleep I drove towards the north of the island, battling the storm with a fascinating Greek hotelier and a young journalist whom I had met on the journey.  That night I found my accommodation, listening to the wind and rain battering the building wondering what this trip would have in store.

No boats arrived for a few days, the weather was so bad, this gave us some time for first aid training and running through procedures. 

When the weather cleared you could get a sense of the devastation, not just the human cost, but the environmental cost too. Thousands of tons of rubber from boats and bulky lifejackets (most of which were fake, filled with packaging material, so would drag the wearer down when they became waterlogged) and personal possessions washed into the sea. The coastline around Korakas was black with rubber, we joined other volunteers in what seemed like a futile attempt to cut the rubber dinghies into moveable sections and transport them off the shoreline by road or sea. 

As the weather cleared boats started to come. The first arrived in the pitch dark. Night time temperatures were down to minus 5. The boat hit rocks close to Korakas Lighthouse, plunging those on board into the sea. Members of my team and the Lighthouse Relief team went into the sea in wetsuits and managed to get everyone out. I was stationed at the Cheese Factory, ready to triage, give hot sugary tea and dry clothes to ward off hypothermia.

The first to arrive were those in most need. An elderly lady, beaten black and blue by a paddle, some had sustained fractures, others had serious frostbite from sleeping on the frozen ground in Turkey before the sea crossing. There were numerous cased of hypothermia in the young, with some needing to be hospitalised. A child crying out in a piercing voice as frostbite had burned into his skin.

The other boats I met were not as hard as the first. There were moments of hilarity, joy and camaraderie. Driving a Yazidi family from northern Iraq from a boat landing on the remote beach of Palios to the MSF (Medicine San Frontier) camp, I was curios as to what they found so hilarious. It turned out it was me. A woman, driving them in a 4x4 over rough tracks and riverbeds, they could not stop laughing. We hugged and shed tears as they boarded busses to leave the MSF camp, the kids still bewildered from their rough crossing.

I was humbled to meet so many wonderful human beings, from relief workers from all over the world, doctors who gave up time in busy hospitals, lifeboat crews who plucked refugees from dangerous waters, the local Greek population who have always had to deal with refugees washing up on their shores, volunteers moving what seemed like an insurmountable amount of heavy rubber from the beaches; but mostly the refugees themselves, kindness, hopefulness and humanity.

I will always be humbled by those I met, and grateful for my experiences. I will always think about some of the people that I spent time with, and hope that they found peace after fleeing war.

When I left the island at the end of February I felt as though an environmental disaster was averted as the beaches were cleared. All done with the hands of dedicated volunteers trying to reduce the impact on this beautiful island and its people.

Lesvos, you will stay in my heart.

Those photographed on this page, where identity is shown, were photographed with their (or their parents) permission.