The Greek island of Lesvos is separated from Turkey by a relatively narrow strip of Aegean Sea. The crossing is 4.1 miles. You can stand on one shore and easily see the other country. Getting from here to there, though, can be fraught with danger.
This video documentary from the New York Times gives a good glimpse into what it’s like to be part of the Greek Coast Guard and what they face on a regular basis. Crossings have dropped in number since this documentary was made, but the crossings are still just as treacherous.
I’ll warn you, it’s hard to watch. I saw it for the first time sitting on the island of Lesvos a couple of weeks ago and bawled like a baby. There is so much that needs to be done, so much help that can be given. I’m just honored I could play a small part in alleviating some suffering.
Imagine with me for a minute. You, your spouse and your children have a good life. You have a home, a car and a job. You have iPhones and some disposable income. You are living a solidly middle class lifestyle. Then, the troubles start. Bombs fall. Kidnappings and beheadings occur, even of children. Men come to your home and threaten to kill your children if you don’t join them, or if your sons don’t join them. You know that if you and your family are to survive, you must leave your home and sell or abandon virtually all of your belongings and begin a trek that will take weeks. You have to leave now.
Every border you cross requires payment, for each family member. You cross one, two, three borders and finally arrive in Turkey. If word has reached your caravan, you know to purchase life vests in Istanbul, but having never been swimming or boating, you must trust those selling you life vests to actually sell you something that works. You don’t know that children’s water wings, or an orange cloth vest stuffed with plastic bags, or a bicycle inner tube are not reliable flotation devices. If for some reason you miss your chance in Instanbul, you may or may not get another opportunity. If not, you’ll join more than half the other refugees who attempt a water crossing with no life vest at all.
Finally, you reach the edge of the Aegean Sea where you can see the island of Lesvos in Greece. Life in refugee camps in Greece is no picnic, but it represents a new life of opportunity, one where you and your family can live without terror. Smugglers will send you and your family across that 4.1 miles of water, in the dead of night. They will not come with you. They may or may not let you bring your backpacks. For the chance at a new start, they will charge you between 500 and 2000 euros per person and frankly, they don’t care if you survive.
On Monday, our group of two dozen volunteers with Hope Worldwide Utah went to the north shore, close to the beach where refugees typically land. We watched as helicopters left Lesvos and flew low over the water. We could see several larger ships in the water, heading to the same general area. We listened as a shopkeeper told us it was bad news, that helicopters only flew like that when there were bodies in the water. He told us “My eyes, they have seen too much.” He was right.
Late Sunday night, a raft likely meant for no more than 8 people was loaded with 25 people and sent on its way. Somewhere in that 4.1 mile stretch of water, it met with trouble. By dawn, five bodies had washed up on the beaches. By afternoon, the count had risen to sixteen, including all the children on board. There were only two known survivors. And just like that, the life and death decisions these refugees face to try and just live became very real.
These and other stories like these compelled Dr. Sarah Franklin, Assistant Professor of Cardiology at the University of Utah, to start Hope Worldwide Utah and begin serving. She could not stand by when there was something she could do. It’s what compels my husband and me to drop everything and come to Greece for two weeks. We know we cannot help everyone and in fact, it’s just a drop in the proverbial ocean. Mother Theresa said of her work: “We ourselves feel that what we are doing is just a drop in the ocean. But the ocean would be less because of the missing drop.”
Adnan and his wife Amena had a life they enjoyed, with people that they loved in Aleppo, Syria. Adnan, an interior designer, his wife a cosmetologist, had their own car and their own home that they shared with their two young children.
Then, the bombing began. It began keeping their children awake at night. It began killing their friends. Adnan and Amena knew that to stay was to submit to a death sentence. They gave up everything they had and left, hoping for not only a better life but for a chance to live.
Joined by a new baby, the family now lives in a small container called an “Isobox” that has a toilet and room for a couple of twin mattresses in a camp of about 750 people. They cook with fire in front of their box home and they long for meaningful work, for a life of purpose.
I met Adnan and Amena this week in Greece, working in one of the camps about an hour outside of Athens. Adnan thanked our group for coming and for letting him help us. He told one of the volunteers in our group that his life for the last fourteen months has consisted of waking up, eating, and going back to sleep and it was making him sick and depressed. “No purpose for me,” he said. Then, “Thank you. You give me work. Thank you.”
I know some of the benefits of gratitude, based on personal observation and scientific research: improved resilience, improved self-esteem, enhanced empathy, reduced aggression and increased happiness, to name a few. What I have been reminded of this week is how amazing it is to see gratitude expressed for things that have never occurred to me.
In one of the camps we visited, the refugees aren’t allowed to cook – they are given rations three times a day, like it or leave it. They miss being able to cook for their families. Gratitude for the ability to work, for fresh fruit, for a place to play and a place to pray – the refugees we have worked with this week are grateful for all those things and more.
On Thursday, we saw how much gratitude parents can have when you can get their child to smile. On that day, our group worked alongside missionaries from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints to hold a “Build-A-Buddy” event. Two hundred children, from tiny babies to teens, got to build a stuffed animal of their choosing and then dressed their animal as well. Everything from turtles to elephants to bunnies and bears got dressed in princess clothes, explorer outfits and as baseball players – and many other unique and interesting combinations. The grins on those kids faces lit up the tent we were in like floodlights and their grins made their parents smile too.
The Build-A-Buddy project was followed by a magic show put on by Utah magician and motivational speaker, Mike Hamilton. The tent was filled with hundreds of camp residents, from the very young to the very seasoned and Mike quickly had them enthralled, cheering, whistling, clapping and laughing at the latest trick. For a brief moment, the outside world faded away and they could be caught up in something that made them smile.
After the show, a number of the adults wanted to express their gratitude and appreciation that we would take the time to come to Greece, then come to their camp and be with them for a day. They hugged us, cried with us, shared with us some of their stories and they thanked us, over and over and over, for bringing a bit of light and hope into their world. Desmond Tutu, who saw some very dark times in South Africa, said “Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.”
Sometimes hope comes in the form of a good day’s work. Sometimes it comes in the form of a stuffed animal and a magic show.