A couple of weeks ago, along with 30 other volunteers, I went to the Greek island of Lesbos on a project called Startupboat. Over 4 days, we planned to identify solutions for the refugee crisis and connect our ideas to reality. The experience, while intense, was invaluable in its teachings. I would like to share the single most striking episode I experienced on Lesbos. This is one of those memories I’m sure I will carry for a long time — and it’s the experience that made me realize ensuring refugees’ safe passage to Europe should be a priority for all of us.
On the second day of our trip, a sunny Saturday afternoon, I ended up on a beach called Skala Sikamneia in the north of the Lesbos. This is one of the closest points between Europe and Turkey (about 10km) and hence an ideal location for refugees willing to take the risk of crossing the Aegean Sea to gain a better future.
As soon as we arrived, we saw a small black rubber boat with some 50 people on it approaching the shore. On the beach, volunteers from Norway and Denmark in fluorescent jackets waved their hands and guided it to a safe harbour. Just as the boat hit the shore, the volunteers rushed to help out newcomers get off. Kids with their parents were first. Volunteers greeted them with a welcoming smile and few comforting words. On land, volunteers helped them get rid of their life jackets, gave them warm blankets and dry clothes / shoes if theirs were wet. Refugees even got some food if any was left. Most people asked for some basic information: Where are we? What should we do now? How do we get to the next destination? (Sadly this involved walking 60 km to the next refugee camp). Since I speak Arabic, I found myself helping a bit with translations.
As we finished taking care of the people in this boat, I heard someone shouting at the other end of the 100m-wide beach. A second boat was coming! Looking up, I saw black dots decorating the horizon. Dozens of rubber boats — too many to count — were arriving. At this moment, I switched off completely. My mind jumped into the void without a parachute in a spiral dance. I realized the impossible scale of this inhuman tragedy. Frankly, nothing in my life has prepared me to see this!
Throughout the whole afternoon, one boat came after another, nonstop. Each carried 40–50 people of all ages, nationalities and genders: a group of young friends, a newlywed couple, a pregnant woman, a dad with his three daughters, an old woman in a wheelchair, a baby just 50 days old, all escaping war-torn areas, economic distress and inhuman living conditions …all the imaginable and unimaginable stories of human horror were here before us, packed into a 9 meter long boat with little protection except their thin lifejackets, talismans and Allah-intensive prayers.
The influx continued until late that night. In fact, thousands have arrived on the shore of Lesbos each and every day since June. Each time, the same procedure plays out: volunteers guide the boat, help people get out, comfort them with few words, and give basic information. As soon as they finish with one boat, they run to the next one. Again and again.
As the tragedy unfolded, I witnessed some of the most beautiful moments I have ever seen. You could not possibly describe the joy and relief of migrants as they set foot on European land, leaving behind chaos and destruction and looking forward to a hopeful future and a fresh start. Tears of joy, hugs and kisses, soujoud, selfies with the volunteers, facial gymnastics that conveyed an overload of excitement for which the appropriate word has yet to be invented. Everything intertwined into a bizarre atmosphere of a monkey’s wedding. The heart-wrecking sorrow intertwined with infinite joy was the most difficult to make sense of.
These migrants have left behind the most tragic chapter of their whole histories. They have escaped certain death and journeyed across the sea for up to 9 hours with 40 people in a boat which is meant to carry 4. Oftentimes, the engine stop and water would flood the boat, which meant refugees had to lighten their load by throwing all their belongings overboard so the engine could start again. Sadly, some of these boats do not make it to the other coast and thousands of Aylan Kurdis have been swallowed by the open sea.
We need to keep these people safe. This is the most urgent and pressing humanitarian crisis we, as human beings, are being called to address right now. Every other challenge can be dealt with later. Safe passage is particularly critical as winter approaches and the influx of migrants is not stopping (i.e. it’s getting riskier).
The EU’s plan to tackle the issue by paying Turkey to keep migrants there has clearly missed the point and will only make things worse. However, effective solutions exist. Migrants should be able to apply for refugee status in Europe from host countries (such as Turkey, Lebanon and Jordan) or they should be able to travel via safer means, such as airplanes or ferries. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station and other citizens’ groups are exploring some innovative workarounds.
We, at MakeSense, are supporting “SOS Mediterraneen”, a European NGO which is chartering a boat to rescue migrants crossing from Libya to Italy. You can learn more about this initiative and support their crowdfunding campaign here.
To find out about and help other projects addressing the refugee cause, please have a look at the dedicated page we have at forward.makesense.org/refugees
Please do lend a hand, whether it is via crowdfunding for a project you like, discussing this with friends or contributing your time and creativity to address the cause which will define our generation.
Many thanks to Tania Karas who contributed extensively to this story.
Ismail Chaib launched the German chapter of MakeSense in 2011 and has been spearheading MakeSense refugee effort in Berlin this year (You can read more about this here). He is a happy Algerian living in Berlin. His background is in software engineering and financial technology.