As told to Jacqueline Ronson by her sister, Kimberly Ronson.
Five days ago I arrived on the island of Lesvos in Greece. I had heard, as most of us have by now, of the hundreds of thousands of refugees arriving by boat from Syria by way of Turkey. Over the past few months, an amazing volunteer effort has sprung up on the coast of Lesvos to save lives and try to make the journey a little more comfortable for the migrants, who have been through so much, and still have so much to go through. I figured the volunteer numbers might dwindle a little over Christmas, and hoped I might be able to make myself useful.
Already the regular greeting of boats has started to feel routine. “Routine” greeting of boats sounds so crazy. The first boat was crazy. All the boats are crazy. They just keep coming so you keep going.
I’ve learned my job and gotten better at it. I follow the smallest children as they leave the boats and wrap them in emergency blankets. They are the most prone to hypothermia. They are usually soaked through, the crossing is long, and the nights are cold. I take the women and children to a tent where they can trade wet clothes for warm dry ones. I offer them warm, sweet tea. I’m getting better at picking the right pair of shoes to fit the kid I am with.
Almost half the people on the boats I have seen have been children and babies. It’s amazing how quickly they bounce back. We give them little backpacks with things to help them on their journey. As soon as they are warm they are laughing and playing again. That part of the job is really nice.
I don’t want any of this to sound like it’s about me, but I want people to hear about what’s happening here and hopefully inspire others to help. I’m going to tell you a story about one of the days I have spent here, that was more than routine. It has a happy ending.
But first I want to tell you about some of the organizations I have encountered since I have been here, that I have personally witnessed doing amazing work. A financial donation will go a long way to ensuring that these groups can continue to help. Your money will be well spent.
Proactiva Open Arms
This group of Spanish lifeguards came out to the Aegean at their own expense to do what they are trained to do: Save lives. They are totally on top of things, and have laser-eyes over the water at all times. They are literally saving lives every day, pulling people out of the water and helping to bring in boats for safe landing. They are completely amazing.
Lighthouse Refugee Relief Lesvos
This is the group I am working with. It’s an entirely volunteer-run camp that has sprung up over just the last couple months, and it runs amazingly well. People from all over the world have come to contribute what they can. It’s amazing — there are generators, lights, tents, and a very good medic center. By the time we’ve got people warmed up, people mostly seem happy and calm, and the kids start playing again. The camp is saving lives for some, and making the journey more comfortable for others.
Dirty Girls Of Lesvos Island
They are the best way to get warm things, which can be an actual lifesaver. I woke up shivering in my rented room the other morning, which says a lot about how cold the people arriving can be after several hours soaking wet in a boat. This group collects soaked, discarded clothing from arriving refugees that would otherwise go to the dump, and launders it so that it can be reused by others. They’re amazing ladies. They somehow magically turn up at the exact right time when we’ve run out of a particular item of clothing at the camp.
The UN recently started running buses so the refugees no longer have to walk 50 kilometers, sometimes with no shoes, sometimes all wet, often with babies and children, to the place where refugees are being processed. It’s a little more formal and professional and doesn’t have the same heart as the volunteer-run groups — with their makeshift Christmas trees — but their work is very important. I hear that they have a great need for volunteer help, too, but for now I will not worry about whether my help is needed more elsewhere, and trust that I am doing my job and making a difference where I can.
OK. Here’s the story of my day yesterday. It was more crazy than normal, but not exceptional in the grand scheme of what is happening here.
I woke up after eight hours of sleep — the first full night of sleep since I’ve been here, since I have been working a lot of night shifts. I thought I would sleep 12 hours after so many sleepless nights, but woke up feeling pretty good. I wasn’t on shift but with nothing else to do I headed down to the beach to see if I could be useful. I helped with the routine greeting of boats, handing out emergency blankets, warm tea, and dry clothes.
I had mentioned to a volunteer coordinator that I was interested in environmental cleanup duty. A local fisherman took me and three other volunteers to a remote beach so we could collect items left behind. It was such a beautiful day, and I felt for the first time since I’ve been here like I was on the Mediterranean. I wore a wetsuit that made me look silly and got in the water to swim with an abandoned dinghy into shore.
We filled two of them — that had carried maybe 100 migrants each across the sea — to the brim with the discarded lifejackets that littered the beach, clipping them in as we went. The work was fast because there were so many of them. We could have returned to that beach 20 times and filled two or even four dinghies on each trip, and we still would not have collected all of the lifejackets on that beach.
In a rare moment alone, I took a walk through the olive groves near camp. It was so beautiful. I noticed some discarded emergency blankets and teddy bears in ditches near the road, that made me think that families had camped out there. I hope it was in the summer, when the weather was warmer.
As I was heading to a cafe to get some dinner, I saw a boat coming it. It looked a little off from normal, and was coming in from a slightly different direction. The lifeguards with Proactiva Open Arms were shepherding it in. I stuck around to see if they needed an extra pair of hands.
As they got to the beach, it was clear that something has gone wrong. People were shouting and pushing to get off the boat. The lifeguards were collected during the chaotic scene. They just kept saying “one at a time, one at a time,” keeping people calm, and helping people off the boat.
Children were passed into the arms of volunteers. I did the only thing I know how to do — I grabbed emergency blankets and followed the kids to wrap them up in them.
One young boy was passed off the boat, and immediately a medic came to him. He cut off his clothing and began to check his vital signs. I think I heard him say, “I think I found a pulse.”
I sat next to them with an emergency blanket, hoping to be useful. Then a woman came off the boat, screaming and crying. She was clearly the boy’s mother. She was standing there sopping wet and completely freaking out, so I went to her and just held her.
We all stayed there on the beach for some time — the medic with the baby on the ground and me with the mom. Time is a weird concept here — I can’t say for sure how long. Eventually the mom’s other child, a daughter of about eight, was located and she was comforted, too.
The boy was taken by stretcher to the medic station. All the other refugees that had been in the boat were taken to a separate camp nearby. Just this family stayed behind.
I was with two other volunteers, including a 16-year-old Brazilian girl who helped hug and comfort the mother. Together we took mom and daughter into a tent to change into warm, dry clothes. We just kept repeating “Good doctors, good care,” to the mother, who calmed down a bit but obviously was still very distressed.
The mom’s feet were very big, or maybe they were very swollen, and we couldn’t find a pair of shoes big enough to fit over the thick dry socks we had put on her feet. I went to the men’s tent and grabbed the biggest pair I could find. Still, I had to pull the frayed laces out to get them around her feet, and they would not be easy to get back in.
Just as I did, someone came from the medic centre, suggesting that maybe mom and daughter could go see the young boy. I signaled that I would follow and we could finish dealing with the shoes there.
Inside, the boy was still unresponsive. The mom became a little bit frantic again. I think one of the medics would have been OK to have her stay, but another suggested she wait outside.
She wouldn’t go further than the porch outside the building where they had her son, even though she was shivering. She wouldn’t take blankets or tea, or sit down, so she just stood there, crying. I didn’t know what else to do so I knelt down and very slowly threaded the frayed laces through the eyelets of her boots. The other volunteers were giving her some space, but she seemed appreciative and didn’t push me away so when I was done I stayed to hug her while she cried.
I don’t know how we were out there, but it was too long for her to be shivering outside in the cold. At one point a doctor came and asked her if the boy had been in the water, and she said that he had. Finally someone came and said, “You can come in, mama.”
With her voice, the baby responded for the first time. And you could just see this big grin come over her face. She had the most amazing smile. I left her there with her son, and she stayed there for maybe an hour.
I puttered around camp, not willing to leave until I could see the outcome for this family. By this time, the eight-year-old and the Brazilian teen had become best of friends. They were running around camp and playing with Carolina, the camp’s lamb, who is bringing joy to so many young children.
A little later I came out of the women’s tent, and I saw the mother and son sitting around the fire. They were there with friends — teenage Afghan boys who knew the family. I wasn’t even sure she would recognize me after all she had been through, but she did. She gave me the most incredible thank you. She gave big hugs, and big kisses, and with translation help from the Afghan boys she said “Thank you.” It was the most amazing gift.
And the little boy had bounced back already. He was overjoyed to receive his backpack and smiled ear to ear as he pulled out the contents to inspect them. I was so blown away by his resiliency. It was amazing to see.
I asked the family for a picture before we sent them off on the UN bus. It’s blurry and it doesn’t show how beautiful the smiles of the mother and her son are, but I’m glad to have it.
After, some volunteers and I went to get some food and process the events of the day. Before we had finished eating, a phone call came to say that a boat was arriving, and could we offer some extra hands?
It was a false alarm. I returned to my room. As soon as I got there, the call came again. Another boat was landing. I went to help.
It went smoothly. That is to say, that everything is overwhelming when a boat comes in to the camp, but people deal with the problems directly in front of them until the refugees are clothed, dry, and fed.
And then the camp becomes beautiful again almost by the magic and heart of all the people who come to help.
Photos via Carl Court/Getty Images, Kimberly Ronson, Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island / Facebook