I’ve just heard the news that another boat has sunk trying to cross to Greece. The bodies of seven children, the youngest just three weeks old, later washed ashore.
Since coming home from Lesvos, Dan has found it hard to put his time on beach patrol, bringing the boats to shore, into words; so many feelings and emotions to process…
It’s a difficult one, more and more volunteers are arriving on the island to line the beaches, waiting for boats, but Dan ensured he stuck with the seasoned from Pikpa Lesvos, and the island’s scrappers (always the first to get to the boats, ready to take the engines or any other usuable, sellable parts.) When word spread amongst the other volunteers that a boat was arriving at another beach, Dan and Matt found themselves welcoming a boat packed with 50 adults (4 elderly), 10 children and 3 babies to shore, alone.
Well equipped with their head torches, night vision binoculars and a car full of warm clothes, emergency blankets and water, Dan was as prepared as he could have been for what he was about to experience.
Matt, known to regularly put on a wetsuit, swim out and single-handedly pull a boat to shore himself, prepped Dan for what was about to happen…before jumping in.
The boats cross at night, less likely to be intercepted by Turkish or Greek coastguards, but the poor visibility in the darkness means the chosen refugee driving the boat cant see the rocks, and the plastic boats struggle to make it safely to shore. Dan told me about a run in with some local fisherman, unwilling to be seen helping the boat for fear of being accused of ‘trafficking’, instead turning a blind eye to the hundreds of terrified people squeezed into dinghies, so close to solid ground, but still so far from safety and warmth.
Dan told me that the most important thing for him, the key, was to stay true to his normal self, his humanity, by approaching the situation as calmly and collectedly as possible, as if it was a regular part of his day. He smiled at each and every person he carefully extracted from the packed boat, lifting them (starting with women and children) above the water, and carrying them carefully in his arms to solid ground.
That moment, feeling the earth below their feet, triggered huge relief and emotion. Some crying, shivering, hyperventilating, praying, whatever they needed, Dan and Matt systematically tended to them, wrapping them in emergency blankets or warm hugs.
“Welcome to Europe,” they told them.
“Well done, you’ve made it.”
Congratulating them on this huge achievement maintained that sense of elation, positivity and pure relief amongst the crowd as they kept voices calm, tones positive and expressions warm and loving.
There was no shouting, no raised voices at all, no pushing, chaos or panic, just the quiet urgency of the two of them working to bring these people to safety.
You would think that at this point the boat has made it, so close to the beach, the water shallow, what could go wrong? But lots of people are injured at this very stage, as people push to the front of the boats or step onto the rocks, breaking their ankles or panicking in they enter water, many for the first time ever, many suffering shock or post traumatic stress, many hungry or dehydrated.
The adrenaline kept Dan going, preparing the new arrivals for the UNHCR bus to take them to Moria camp to be registered. “Relax, the coach is coming,” he told people, knowing that the difficulties of their journey are not yet over.
Dan has brought in many boats whilst working in Lesvos, and carried everyone from a 100-year-old man and his wife, to a tiny, freezing cold little girl, separated from her family, shivering, crying and struggling to breathe.
Finally on safe ground, no water, no bombs, many people kiss the ground, search for their families or belongings (bags, papers that they have become separated from in the boat), or walk away and fall into the sand to pray. Whilst reactions vary, one consistent emotion is the enormous gratitude towards Dan, Matt and any other volunteers there to make this life-changing, unforgettable moment that little bit easier to process.
I wonder if this child will remember this moment? The arms of Dan or Matt? The feeling of relief? Is he young enough to be innocently oblivious, or young enough to be even more vulnerable, mentally and physically to the trauma he is experiencing?