Last week, I was on Lesvos Island, in Greece, filming the relief efforts toward refugees. I had an incredible experience, one morning, and I want to share it:
I pulled back the curtain, gaging how long I had until the sun rose. The distant lights of Turkey flashed in the darkness. Down on the beach, a single illuminated window reflected on the water. Perhaps it was a fishing boat, I mused, or one of the small boats filled with refugees that drove, pilot-less into the rocks like in the photo above. I couldnâ€™t begin to speculate how that tiny light would shatter me.
Nearly an hour later, I drove along the beaches of Efthalou. I scanned the horizon for any sign of the dingies in which the refugees frequently arrive. The water glimmered and seethed with white foamy chops. There was no sign of a wake or the tiny orange life vests the refugees often wear. My plan was to film the morning arrivals, but it wasnâ€™t going well. I hadnâ€™t seen a single raft.
As I drove up a hill, the road dropped away to reveal another beach in the distance. A large vessel â€” Greek coastguard, I guessed â€” seemed to slice through the chaos of the waves. Finding a place to turn around, I headed back to the first beach. Still no sign of rafts. Another beach: nothing. As I climbed the hill the second time, the boat was still there. Despite the waves breaking across itâ€™s bow, it wasnâ€™t moving very fast and was listing heavily seaward. I stopped the car and looked through my telephoto. It wasnâ€™t advancing at all. A Turkish flag flew above it. This wasnâ€™t a Greek coastguard boat. This was a boat full of refugees trapped on the rocks. Unlike one of the small fishing or tourist boats, this was massive. Docking points for smaller boats lined itâ€™s sides and it was large enough to carry hundreds of people.
Eager to witness the rescue, I took a rough dirt track that appeared to head in the right direction. Following it down, I emerged on the beach. The road simply crumbled into the Mediterranean and the beach itself was little more than generations of piled up seaweed. The boat was still far away, at the other end of this stretch of coast. I looked through my long lens. Now I could see the mass of people crammed onto the decks and into the cabins, life vest to life vest with little room to breath. As the boat lurched and sawed in the frenzied waves, dread began to clutch at me. It was clear the beach-ward side of the boat was caught on rocks. Each new wave lifted the boat as it beat in toward shore. The waves might dislodge the stuck craft, but could as easily push the boat higher onto the rocks where it would tumble sideways into the water. Those few people on the deck might escape, but the people crammed together in the cabin would have little chance against the water as it flooded in.
I frantically scanned the water. Yesterday, thereâ€™d been coastguard patrols and helicopters hovering over potential smugglers. Today, there seemed to be no one. The beach was empty. The boat was alone. I waited, watched and prayed. No one came. Alone on the island, I didnâ€™t have so much as a phone number to call. I tried to reach a colleague in Athens. No response. I kept praying. Frustration prodded me. I had to do something. Backing my car up the dirt track to the road, I drove to a hotel that hosted many of the relief workers. In the breakfast room, I found a young dutch man, working on his laptop. I explained the situation. He told me heâ€™d also just arrived and didnâ€™t know many people. He had a phone number for a British gentleman working on a different part of the island. I made the call. The British gentleman happily gave me the number for the Greek coastguard. However, we agreed that they were unlikely to help since neither of us spoke Greek and I didnâ€™t even know the name of the beach. I approached the hotel staff, explained the location of the boat, the desperation of the situation, and asked them to call the coastguard. After a while, I was told that theyâ€™d made the call. The coastguard were â€œalways talkingâ€ and â€œprobably knewâ€ about the boat. I wasnâ€™t sure what that meant, but I hoped a rescue was forthcoming. In any case, Iâ€™d done what I could.
My plan was to return to my hotel, but as I got in my car, I thought I should make one more pass at the beaches. Pulling out of the hotel parking lot, I noticed an intersection Iâ€™d previously ignored. At a nudge from the holy spirit, I made the turn. The large road narrowed into a dirt track that finally ended with a car blocking the road. Parking behind the other car, I grabbed my camera and walked through the trees. After a few steps, I was stunned. The trees opened directly onto the Mediterranean and right in front of me was the boat. This close, I could see the frantic passengers without my zoom lens.
People waved and shouted at me. They wanted help. All I had was a camera. I wasnâ€™t getting anyone to shore.
A flicker of motion caught my eye, and my heart jumped. A middle eastern man, dressed in a black hoody and jeans melted out of the shadows between a tree and a stone wall. His first step put him at my elbow. He wasnâ€™t a threatening figure, young, slight, and scared. He asked me if I spoke English. Abdullah was his name. Perhaps 17, a refugee from Syria, heâ€™d arrived on the boat. Wet and shivering in the frigid wind, he explained â€œI canâ€™t do a lot, but I know I can swim.â€ They needed help. There were 35 small children on that boat. He told me again and again. I explained that the coastguard had been called. Help would come. The passengers continued to wave and yell at me. I stood powerless. I was there to take their pictures. What was I supposed to do? Earlier, Iâ€™d wondered why they didnâ€™t just swim to shore themselves, but it was becoming more clear to me, the high waves, the rocks, the small children, the coldâ€¦
Abdullah was worried. Everything he had left in the world was on that boat. His clothes. His phone. His friends. Like me, he was helpless. Unlike me, he had everything to lose. More cars arrived. Greek men in waders came to stand on the shore, gesticulating and shouting at one another. I think they were fisherman.
After a time, a small white boat appeared, and an enthusiastic cry went up from the deck of the trapped vessel. Here at last was a rescue. The small craft came in close, and then turned and motored away. More cries but this time the cries were desperate. I was shocked. Why were they going away? Shame burned me, as I realized I, too, had brought them nothing but false hope.
Finally, in the distance, we heard a motor. Inexplicably one of the refugee dingies appeared on the horizon. There were no orange life vests. The pathetic outboard motor, fraudulently stenciled with a major brand name and a high horsepower number â€” as they all are â€” sputtered and struggled. In the stern sat another fisherman. He brought the boat into the beach.
Another fellow appeared with a bunch of rope. In the space of a few minutes this group of Greek men had rigged a line between boat and shore so they could ferry the passengers to safety in the rubber dingy.
As the first passengers stepped up onto the beach, a smiling Syrian woman, her head wrapped in a colorful scarf, said â€œplease, no more pictures.â€ Seemingly out of nowhere a crew in red cross vests had appeared to assist the refugees. I felt dumb. If I wasnâ€™t taking pictures, I had no purpose at all. Her words seemed a scathing indictment of my failure to help them. True, the rescue was now in progress, but I had done nothing. These men were unquestionably not the coastguard.
I walked away from the beach. After loading my gear, I tried to drive away. So many cars had come now, I couldnâ€™t get out. Leaving my camera, I resolved that I would go be helpful â€” truly helpful, not just a gawker at the tragedy. I waded out into the seaweed and met the next raft, trying to offer a steadying hand to the women and children who emerged. Mostly, I found myself holding luggage, and getting in the way of the professionals.
After several more rafts of passengers, I let my overpowering sense of uselessness carry me back to my car. The way was now clear. I was certain everyone on the shore was taking the measure of the man whoâ€™d been the first on the scene and done nothing to help.
Stumbling back into my hotel room, I felt numb and broken. At the window, I peered down on the boat where Iâ€™d just looked into the eyes of people narrowly escaping death. It was the bobbing light Iâ€™d seen that morning. Then I realized what Abdullah had done. In the dark, their boat grinding on the rocks, heâ€™d left everything he had in the world. Jumping blindly into the Mediterranean, heâ€™d swum for the lights of shore and gone pounding on doors. He didnâ€™t speak a word of Greek. He simply hoped to find someone who could help them. When heâ€™d done all he could, heâ€™d sheltered from the cold wind, cutting through his wet clothes, between a tree and a stone wall. Heâ€™d waited. He could have hiked to a refugee center and shelter, but heâ€™d stayed. This slight young man, who had already endured so much, had incredible courage. Iâ€™d looked into his eyes on the beach, and weâ€™d bonded on the one thing we shared: our sense of powerlessness to help the people on that boat.
Itâ€™s hard for me still. I stood there, with a camera, as the boat swayed on that rock, hundreds of lives swinging back and forth in the balance, unable to do anything more than pray. But as I think of Abdullah, his words come back to me. â€œI canâ€™t do much, but I can swim.â€ I couldnâ€™t do much to help the passengers of that boat, but I can tell their story. Each of us has a role to play. Perhaps we arenâ€™t all capable of shuttling refugees away from a floundering boat, but we can pray, we can give, and when called, we can go. If you feel God nudging you to get involved with outreach to refugees or with the relief efforts, I would encourage you to check out the special site GEM has established: www.gemission.org/refuge