Landing on Lesvos

The Syrian family had strikingly clear eyes. A refracting blue like crystal – hard and bright and the color of the shallow waters off Korakas or the eastern sky before dawn.

But I didn’t notice.

I didn’t notice when I met the family of four on the beach, surrounded by thirty Afghanis who didn’t speak any English, but who shone their appreciation in the illuminated sigils of white smiles and worried hands resting, exhausted, at their sides. I didn’t notice when they answered questions and helped organize the other refugees and migrants, or when I spoke with the father on the walk up the steep dirt road to where we would wait for transportation.

The Rubber Inflatable Boat (RIB) is a rescue boat operated by Seawatch. Roughly 35 refugees and migrants crossed to Lesvos packed into the fiberglass boat beside it. Background: Portuguese Frontex. Deep background: Hellenic Coast Guard.

The guys in red jackets and/or helmets are EREC, a Catalan firefighter and rescue team stationed with us at Korakas. They stabilized and helped offload the boat.

Once we got to the dirt road, a van from MSF and a local farmer in his truck carried most of the Afghanis away to the MSF camp for a cup of tea and some legal advice, leaving three Afghanis and the Syrian family to wait for another car. I sat with them until that car came. It arrived carrying two volunteers and not enough room for everyone, so one volunteer got out, seven refugees and migrants got in, and it bounced away up the road, leaving behind a little dust hanging in the morning sun and two volunteers – a Colombian girl named Kayla and myself.

It was Kayla who pointed out the memorably piercing quality of the Syrian family’s eyes. As we walked back to camp, carrying a few empty water bottles and torn jackets, she mused about them with a sense of wonder.

I had to agree.

Taken as the boat was guided in for a safe landing by Seawatch, with the EREC team already on the shore.

In retrospect, I only remember a few moments with clarity: the slow fade of tension as, pacing back and forth on the shore, they came to accept they were, for the moment, safe. The hope on the father’s face when he asked if the little chapel in the bay was a church, and if it would be okay for him to go and pray for a moment. The way he swallowed with his lips turned down and his eyes focused far away as he explained, while we rested by the dirt path on our way up to the road, that he’d lost the rest of his extended family to ISIS. The mixed shame and pride as he recalled fleeing ISIS recruiters by running alone into the woods, then paying criminals to smuggle the rest of the family out of Aleppo. Their grim satisfaction at having walked from Aleppo to Istanbul by night, successfully avoiding both ISIS and the Turkish authorities. The moment when the daughter, no more than ten, grinned with delight as I showed her the first lesson on how to juggle. A futile gesture, there wasn’t time to learn and she didn’t speak any English, but it passed the time while we waited for the last transportation vehicle, and she seemed to enjoy it. Their seven month old baby’s gurgling as he woke from an uncomfortable nap to tug at his father’s beard.

And their eyes. Kayla was right about their eyes. Though clouded with exhaustion and worry, they still shone like the sky.

Another striking moment was overhearing the Seawatch rescue boat medic, Johannas, ask if anyone knew what island they were on. The answer was “no.”

Someone among the Afghanis asked in broken language and pantomime if they were in Europe or not.

I asked the Syrian Father if he knew what would happen next. He said “No. I don’t know what will happen next. Where will we go?” It didn’t matter how you took the word ‘next’ – next minute, next hour, next day, next month, next year – he didn’t know.

When they got in that boat, they chose to cast themselves utterly upon our mercy.

But he hadn’t heard of the EU-Turkey deal. He didn’t know the Pope had been here, or why. He had no idea that migrants and refugees alike were being detained at Moria, that those who didn’t ask for asylum immediately would be sent back to Turkey and possibly all the way back to Syria. He hadn’t heard about the overcrowding, the slow processing times (likely weeks or months), the failure of authorities to offer legally required recourse , the leveling of volunteer camps, the arrests, the riots at Idomeni or any of that.

A bottle of water, a helping hand carrying luggage, a ride to the MSF camp, and a little company were all the mercy I could offer.

Luckily for that family, the process of detention may be ending now, or so reports UNICEF, but we haven’t seen it yet. As I understand it, and my understanding is more than slightly wobbly, so don’t quote me: Under EU law it’s illegal to detain someone longer than X days (24 I think) without a charging them with a crime. Under international law, Refugees (legal term for those fleeing systematic persecution or war) are protected from criminal charges for crossing borders in ways that would otherwise be illegal. This isn’t true of migrants (legal term for people traveling to another country looking for better work or a better life). Migrants have to cross borders legally, or they will be deported. But those coming in boats are a mix of migrants and refugees, and sorting them out is a bureaucratic nightmare. Once each family applies for asylum, their application has to be processed, after which they get a verdict as to whether they can stay under the refugee protections, or have to go away, home, back, or just somewhere else, as illegal migrants. That processing takes time, especially because the Greek government wracks in the grips of its financial crisis, and struggles to manage critical resources.

Words you never thought you’d hear: this humanitarian crisis suffers for a desperate shortage of lawyers.

Yet, if what I’m hearing on the ground is to be believed, that is the case.

In the meantime, since people can’t be held longer than 24 days without a charge, and they can’t be charged until it’s known if they’re refugees or migrants, they have be let go.
Or so its been said.

As for the 35 or so refugees and migrants I met on that rocky beach two days ago, that was the last I saw of them.

I heard from MSF staff later that they’d managed to give the whole group a quick lesson on their rights and obligations, before the coastguard bus showed up to haul the lot off to Moria. That’s good. The Authorities have been particularly lax on educating those in their care.

We’ll see what happens. The forced detentions already violate the Geneva convention, so who knows if the authorities will feel bound by this particular caveat of EU law or just keep doing whatever they feel like? Hopefully our continued presence and voice will help keep them honest, and humane.

Imagine finding your family hunted in your own country. Imagine fleeing into the woods to carry your seven month old baby by back roads, at night, through a war-torn landscape.

It’s not The Walking Dead. It’s real life. Unlike The Walking Dead, this family has hope. Their hope is in our mercy, and by that the very real possibility of a future among good people, in peaceful lands.

I don’t take identifiable photographs of refugees or migrants to protect their identity, privacy, and families who may be endangered by publication of their current whereabouts or activities. Thanks for your understanding. Even though I maintain this blog when I can, I’m not here as a journalist, and didn’t bring my cameras, or arrange for credentials. I’m a volunteer, using a different skill set to try to help more directly.


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