The Siren’s Welcome

It’s pitch black at 5.50am, December 23rd. I’m clothed in layers of thermals, pants and heavy winter jackets, ready for near-freezing temperatures but, against every normal instinct, I’m swimming into the Aegean sea. Behind me, the North Coast of Lesvos island is a minefield of slippery black boulders, discarded life jackets and broken chunks of fiberglass boat hulls, knocking rhythmically in the swells. In front of me the ocean is stained with diesel. All around me are soul-piercing screams. This chorus of voices sings the most genuine kind of terror.

Thirty-five refugees have just been tossed from their inflatable boat as it capsized on the rocks of this remote headland known as Korakas. It’s easily one of the most dangerous places they could have chosen to land in Greece. Men, women, and children are spread as far as I can see by the light of the tiny lamp on my head, thrashing to stay afloat in the sea water; a substance many of them are unlikely to have touched before.

It’s like an awful, cold, human soup. Prepared by chefs that brandish Kalashnikovs and follow recipes of cruelty in the Middle-Eastern kitchen. Seasoned with the blood of a holy war. Dropped on the table by a careless Turkish waiter, splashing it over the edge. But it’s not his problem, as far as he’s concerned. He just delivers what the kitchen sends out.

It’s at this point when reality truly slaps me in the face. This is fucking real. Maybe the realest thing I’ve ever experienced. Like Morpheus handed me the red pill and I grabbed the whole packet. We’re so numb to things. I saw that iconic photo, of the little boy lying face down on the beach, but he wasn’t real. Images on TV are just colored pixels, all academic when you’re disconnected, save for a few photons. So much of life is just a simulation, but the VR goggles just got ripped off by my own personal Tyler Durden. I’m staring death in the eyes, so close I can feel it’s cold breath. And we’re really the only ones here. Just the small team I was sharing a bowl of pasta with earlier, and a hostile sea filled with real humans. Real infants, floating face down. Real elderly women, crying, distraught, waterlogged men, struggling with their fake life jackets, searching for their families. Really screaming for their lives. Really swallowing icy mouthfuls of ocean. Really watching their only remaining possessions float out to sea in lost bags. Really drowning.

Korakas [Photo: Katerina Moujourelis]

Three weeks earlier, I was on vacation in India, being recklessly rickshawed through the rabbit warren of Delhi, surrounded by silk scarves and spices. A message popped up on my phone, from my friend Kim. “Hey, I’m going to Greece to do volunteer work with refugees on Lesvos”. Interesting. I’d heard about the Syrian refugee crisis but it wasn’t really on my radar much until now. I thought for a minute, as I was jolted past a mosque, and a toddler selling bobble-head dogs. “Hey! I’m in India right now, but I’ve never been to Greece. Maybe I’ll join you.” A man was carrying a goat down the road and blocking traffic. “By the way, can you pick me up a pair of size 39 sandals from the Joy store at the Taj Hotel?” “Ok.”A few days later I booked a ticket to Athens.

I arrived on Lesvos island in mid-December, having done more research, but all I had with me were my Indian travel clothes, some cricket gear, several boxes of tea, and a carved stone elephant. I’d booked my first few days in Molyvos, an Instagram-ready little town of tiny cobblestoned streets, nestled below a stone fortress on a hill of bell-jangling sheep. Exactly how I always imagined Greece. It was little more than a dart thrown at a map while I figured out my place in the volunteer universe. The island provides an ironically stunning backdrop to the drama playing out there. The sky, with gradients from turquoise and pink to milky winter white, plunges down to a jagged coast where, over the seething water, Turkey is almost a perfect mirror of Lesvos, staring back silently, as though a twin separated at birth.

The picture of daily life on Lesvos soon became clearer. Like clockwork, rubber boats appear like black ghosts in the night, filled with Syrians, Afghans and Iraqis. Refugees fleeing war, persecution, ISIS or the Taliban. Every story different but the same, and hard to hear. They often travel for weeks, and spend their life savings getting there. Their future is uncertain and the route filled with dangers but it’s better than the alternative. To paraphrase one refugee I met, if your castle is burning down, and surrounded by a shark infested moat, you grab the kids and start swimming, because at least you stand a chance against the sharks.

The fraught travelers are greeted with dry clothing and sympathy at the finish-line of their long race to the Western world, by a rotating cast of international helpers on the Greek beaches, then shepherded to Moria for ‘processing’. Not the Moria of Middle-Earth, but not so far removed from it either, with a wild hillside, excavated like a strip mine, dotted with crackling fires warming hooded strangers. Tents are pitched crookedly throughout olive groves and caked in mud, like a bizarre music festival. Refugee purgatory for several-thousand at a time, while they await papers allowing them to seek asylum, promised under the Geneva conventions. Some get them quickly, others wait for weeks. It all depends on which lines on a map they were accidentally born inside. The whole situation is a geo-political hairball that won’t be unraveling any time soon.

Greece & Turkey [Photo: Josh Webb]

After a few days I moved to Skala Sikamineas, a tiny fishing village where volunteers gather in the Goji cafe, chuffing cigarettes relentlessly, creating a thick nicotine haze as they share stories over breakfast. Vendors sell fish off the back of trucks outside as hordes of cats patrol for scraps. A happenstance meeting led me on a visit to the cape of Korakas (‘Crow’ in Greek) — the closest tip of land to Turkey. It’s about the most remote part of the island I think you can find, and kind of a harrowing journey just to get there. A dirty 4WD road, ruts decorating it like veins, jiggles its way down a ridge to reach the point. There, a tiny lighthouse is perched on a jumble of rocks that spill into the sea, and flanked by a couple of crumbling stone buildings with imploded roofs. A rusted steel crane extends from the larger one as though a giant steam-powered robot had died there long ago, still reaching out for a long-forgotten purpose.

Refugee boats routinely land near Korakas, choosing seemingly random, perilous locations to plonk powerless families on the shore. Common sense dictates that you shouldn’t steer a boat towards a lighthouse in the middle of the night. That’s kind of the point. But there doesn’t appear to be a lot of sense in the Turkish human-smuggling industry. The timing is unpredictable. The routes unclear. The passengers, almost invariably, can’t swim. Their passage costs them 1000–2000 Euro, depending on the weather. In other words, the Uber of the underground smuggling world has ‘surge pricing’ too. Refugees are sold ‘life jackets’, which are more like death jackets. Fake Yamaha logos covering non-buoyant material, crudely stuffed in to a candy colored shell. It’s little more than packing foam, shrouding these unsolicited parcels spilling in to the default mail room of Europe. The passengers are sent off in throwaway boats, so cheaply made that they don’t even withstand normal use, and powered by motors that aren’t fit for toys. They’re so overloaded that every wave threatens to swamp them. Sometimes the smugglers themselves are driving. More often, the nearest refugee is forced to take helm. Sometimes at gunpoint. Their complete inexperience often sees them head straight for the lighthouse like moths to a flame. The rest is up to Allah. It’s the maddest water taxi business ever.

In response to all this, a volunteer group keeps watch at Korakas. As I looked around the tumbledown facilities, I realized that this was a serious clique of hardcore volunteers. The kind of person who puts up their hand to spend their nights on top of a blustery cliff, scanning the dark horizon, carrying people across rough terrain, and occasionally jumping in the mid-winter sea. Firefighters, medics, divers, climbers, and miscellaneous Scandinavians. You can always count on the Nords to be found in this kind of place. If Lesvos was Westeros, then these folks would be the watchers on the wall. I immediately volunteered. My peeps. This was the kind of stuff I used to do for fun back in New Zealand... But then all manner of curveballs can be thrown over from the shadowy pitchers on the Turkish coast. I had no idea how soon I’d be handed the catcher’s mitt.


Wrecked boats and life jackets on the East shore of Korakas [Photo: Josh Webb]

I’m with seven other volunteers, sitting in a tiny stone hut, heated by a small fire that may as well not have a chimney for the amount of gummy, grey smoke it belches in to the room. People are dressed in a variety of high-vis gear, wetsuits and goose down jackets. Whatever will keep them warm. Perched on makeshift furniture, fashioned from broken outboard motors, salvaged planks and spent life jackets. Hekla is doing the nightly briefing. She’s an Icelandic girl, who does search & rescue back home. Cherubic face, with striking white, beaded dreadlocks packed up tightly on her head. She’s the team-lead tonight, and the most seasoned, having been camping out here for a couple of months already. Four people are on water duty — steadying boats, and attaching rope lines for people to hold as they flounder to dry land. Tonight, I will be on shore duty with the rest — keeping lookout using thermal vision gear, and helping get people up the cliffs to the compound.

Tonights team includes a few new faces. Mine is one of them, as it’s only the second time I’ve been to Korakas. The doctor, Freeha, has just arrived. Joost too. There’s also Sten, who has been doing day shifts, but now taking his first night. He pronounces his name with such a Swedish twist that I can’t understand it the first few times and need to ask him to spell it. It occurs to me that it’s quite a remarkable mix of nationalities in this small room — an Italian, a Brit, a Swede, a couple of Dutch, an Icelander, an Indian born American, and myself, a Kiwi.

Arnab is the senior guy on my shift. A boisterous cartoon of a man, head shaved, and with a face that goes from intensity to jest in the blink of an eye. I already got to know him earlier. He’s a medic, and has experience with search & rescue, the peace corps, and fire fighting, with team-issue tattoos as testament, dotted across his shoulders like passport stamps.

Brendan sits to my left, talking nonsense to Giada, the Italian. “Cacciatore piazza vespa parmagiano.” He likes to have a bit of fun. A genuine Englishman, with a military background and a Northern twang. He’s got an honest face, and you can read his personal history in the wrinkles around his eyes, telling you of his time as a medic in Afghanistan. He’s spent almost every night here since he arrived, but it’s his last shift after two weeks and he’s looking forward to getting home to his kids.

My shift is first up. Three of us will take turns as lookout, equipment organizer, and coffee maker. Most of the team head off for some shuteye before their later shifts. Sten shoves a bag of ‘snuss’ up by his gum and announces that he’ll take first turn as lookout. He’s got a youthful face, but seems like the kind of guy who would know his way around a pair of cross-country skis, and is probably into wing-suit flying. He disappears in to the dark with walkie-talkie and a pair of binoculars.

I sit and talk with Giada for a few minutes while getting my gear together. She’s a traveler with no fixed address, and a warm passion that radiates off every word she speaks. She reminds me of the kind you would find at an outdoor techno party, fire-dancing on the beach in Goa. She’ll stay here in Greece indefinitely, or at least until she has to return to Italy for her next dental appointment, she tells me. I wonder if there’s something wrong with Greek dentists. She goes off to get some rest too, leaving me and Arnab, along with a single rechargeable solar light, crammed into a crevice in the wall to dimly illuminate the room.

We walk to a high vantage point to try out some new night-vision gear, which makes everything look like rainbows. We can see every boat’s heat signature far away. I’m the predator for just a minute. Later, I head down to the lighthouse perch a bit closer to the water. The best location to listen for boats, and taste the sea. With the cold wind blowing up the cliff face while you open your eyes wide to see only blackness, the boats sneak up on you. They have no lights, so they can avoid detection by the coast guard. I kind of enjoy peering in to emptiness and listening. Like I’m blind, my other senses sharpen. The boats have small outboard motors that you can hear buzzing like mosquitos in a dark bedroom once they get close enough. Normally, before you see them. That’s if they haven’t run out of gas. Smugglers aren’t generous with fuel.

I switch on my headlamp and look down at the rocks below, strewn with discarded life jackets from months, years, of refugee arrivals. They litter the entire island but, at this location, there are more than usual. Clean up crews can’t easily reach it. Too many hidden dangers lurking under the seductive surface. Every one of those vests tells a story, heartbreaking or triumphant, but I’ll never know any of them.

A few hours later, our shift ends. I lie down and close my eyes with my sleeping bag pulled up over my head as the wind buffets the side of our tent. I’m stiff-necked from the lack of a pillow but, still, I did volunteer, so I’m ok roughing it. I then lie awake for most of the night, hearing phantom voices calling in the wind.

Looking in to the darkness [Photo: Josh Webb]

“Get up, boats coming.” Brendon’s dutiful voice delivers the news. I open the tent flap and it’s pitch black, clouds obscuring the full moon. He’s seen something about 200 meters out, and already woke Hekla. They’re taking turns peering through binoculars. We all rush to get ready. Just as my frosty fingers fail to tie my laces for the third attempt in a row, a noise rings out like a shot in the distance. Screams. “People in the water, lets go!”

I slip the last of my clothes on as fast as I can. The on-shift team had a head-start, so they are already in the water with wetsuits. I grab a light stick from the equipment box, like what they wave at airplanes as they park, and run down the East steps. Since I’m missing the new Star Wars film back home, it feels like kind of a small win to have a glowing wand in my hand, but as I reach the rocks on the shore the light fizzles out. I smack it a few times to try to fix a loose connection, hoping for that crackling ‘light saber on’ sound. Doesn’t happen. Toss it. I’m almost awake now.

Only when I get to the waters edge do I realize exactly what’s happened. A boat tried to approach from the worst possible angle, hitting a rock before it was anywhere near the shore. It must have capsized and now I can’t even see it. It’s like it evaporated. Thrashing arms and foreign cries are spread through the water for, I don’t know, as far as I can see right now. The sound is like a nightmare. I tell myself to stick to the plan: shore duty. But as I see Giada, my new Italian friend, holding a boy of about 8, calling for help, and struggling to stand as the swells lift her up and down like a frond of sea weed, I realize this won’t be a regulation episode. I wade out to grab the kid, so that she can swim out again. As I carry him to shore, he wails in a language I don’t recognize and pants like he just held his breath for too long. Top-heavy, with both hands busy carrying a person my balance is reduced and my knee smashes against something hard. I’m not sure what. There’s all sorts of things lurking down there. It seems like it should hurt but I don’t feel anything below the water line except for goosebumps forming. I hand the boy to the first person I see on shore and turn back towards pandemonium. I’m still not convinced this is happening after my sleepless sleep, but I snatch a coagulated bunch of discarded life jackets, thinking it could be of use as a towing line. They have clumped together like a strange, orange, deep-sea creature that washed up and dried out in the sun. Neon driftwood.

As I wade back out again, the water clings to my clothes and tells me to stop. I cast off as much as I can from the top half. Think about getting my jeans off but there’s no time, I can hear too much spluttering and screaming in the night. As I get to waist depth I remember my phone in my pocket. It’s less than a month old. I have a fleeting conundrum, trying to decide if I should spend the ten seconds wading back to shore to put it somewhere safe, or just keep going and forego my little electronic luxury. I’m searching my memory banks for a procedure, but there’s no rule book installed. I’ve entered moral philosophy territory. Two worlds collide. Kant’s categorical imperative springs to mind. The right thing to do should be to jump in now, shouldn’t it? But what if Schopenhauer was right in his criticism? Everything is hypothetical... Curse you, liberal arts degree! You taught me nothing but navel-gazing. No time for debating maxims, but isn’t fitting to be in the birthplace of philosophy, considering the ideas of two Germans, from the exact place most of these refugees want to reach. Sheissenhausen! This internal monologue only lasts the blink of an eye but it’s already too long. My reptilian brain and neocortex are wrestling. The lizard wins.. I turn and frisbee toss the device into the darkness behind me, aiming for something softish. A pile of life jackets. Bullseye! I’m definitely a Jedi now.

Some of the people who are closer to shore are frantically gesturing in to the night. “Baby, baby, baby.” They are pointing to some distant shapes. Some seem to be drifting in the wrong direction. I speed-wade through the black water. It gets deeper much faster than I expect and I feel icy fingers reach through my shirt and grasp at my chest. Someone swims up to me with a small baby which I grab and ferry up the rocks and pass off to someone again. It’s becoming a human relay, in a sadly modern olympiad. Then I spy an older woman on her own. I pull her to shallow water and try to walk with her but she keeps losing her balance, so I throw her over my shoulder and wade with knees bent to stay low in the water for stability. They keep coming. The scene around is growing more surreal by the minute. I’m aware of the team doing things around me but not exactly what. We’re all focused now, isolated by the glow from of our tiny head-mounted suns, penetrating just far enough to create eight little bubble universes around us. We’re shouting to each other across alternate dimensions.

A couple of the male refugees seem to be doggy-paddling on their own, so I ignore them on my way back out in to the water. Ad-hoc triage. I can see more people struggling. I transition to a freestyle stroke, and my face contorts. Some emotion squeezes its way out of my tear ducts as I realize that it’s likely people could die tonight. Maybe I’m one of them, swimming out here, like an idiot in jeans and boots. A shiver runs through my body. Time slows down a bit. I can’t really describe the feeling because I’ve never had it before in my normal life in New York, 5,000 miles away. Somewhere between shock, disbelief, hope, and WTF?! Whatever that feeling is, it’s now crawling across my face, over my scalp and down my neck, like electricity, making its way to my throat where it’s forming a lump, and the pit of my stomach where I’m a little bit sick.

I’m trying to keep my headlamp above the swells to spot people. There are a couple of volunteers in the water to my north, so I head East where I don’t see any other lights. There are two outlines splashing, but they don’t seem to be going anywhere. I’m starting to gag because the water is thick with what I guess is Diesel fuel — the motor must be leaking. I feel the vapors burn in my sinuses. On the bright side, the water isn’t as cold as it looked before I got in. It’s probably just the adrenaline though. One of the figures is a woman. I shine my lamp at her face. Two pointy eye teeth peek out from her top lip like a vampire as she cries out and reaches for my hand. She has a young, round face, partially hidden under a scarf, but I can see her eyes, wide and afraid. “Baby, baby.” Another one. Nobody has ever cried at me with such fear in their voice. Hopefully they never will again. I wonder what’s going through her mind. She has no idea who I am, or why I’m in the water right now. It must be strange for her. She’s hanging on to a young boy, probably about one year old. His lifejacket is way too big for him and I can’t see his head because it’s bobbing low while the jacket rides high. She’s unable to help much because she’s barely staying afloat herself. As I pull the kids jacket down I can see him taking mouthfuls, so I grab him under my right arm, lifting him up as high as I can, and start to swim side-stroke. I decide I’ll come back for the mother but, after going just a few yards, I realize the kid was her stability, as she’s flailing like a cat thrown in a bathtub. She clearly can’t swim. I go back and grab her jacket with my left hand and kick as hard as I can, hoping that I can tow them both with just my feet doing the work. The woman looks right in my eyes and I look back at her and say “you’re gonna to be fine now, I’ve got you” as if she could understand, and as though I know it for sure. Luckily, we get half way back and I find my life-jacket creature from earlier and guide her hand on to it. I shout for someone to assist as I swim the little boy back to shore and hand him to an older refugee man who is sitting on a rock, crying and shivering. He needs to get inside by the fire but that can wait a bit longer. Now he’s a babysitter. The process of delegation is rapid on Lesvos.

A few more minutes must have passed. Hekla is now standing on a large rock, directing people from the vantage point, like a boss. Somehow I spot her stripy, knitted jersey on the sea bed nearby and scoop it up for her. She will probably want that back. Someone has spotted the mother and is now helping her out of the water so I shout and point to where her son is. I know that Arnab is out in the deeper water somewhere, because his voice is twice the volume of most normal people’s. He’s paddling around looking for people like an underwater Saint Bernard, barking into the wind.

I start to swim out again. An older woman is alone, not making a noise. I think perhaps she’s just being polite, but I can’t tell. She’s not too far from the shore, so I haul her towards a large, flat topped rock near the edge, which will provide temporary safety. In the shallows, she’s unable to support her own weight, so I half drag her, supporting her weight by throwing an arm over my shoulder and folding her body around my hip. I eventually roll her on to the rock. She lets me move her limbs like a crash test dummy but doesn’t seem too lucid. Maybe she’s in shock. I shout to someone on the shore that they should get her in front of a medic, and leave her sitting sideways with her soaking, ankle length snow jacket clinging tightly to her body and legs, making her look like a mermaid.

We’re now going up to objects and examining them. There’s all manner of flotsam in the sea, and nothing can easily be identified. What looks like a bag might be a child, and what looks like a person could just be a wet jacket. Underwater Where’s Waldo. At this stage my body is shivering constantly. Even with all the movement I can feel that I probably can’t keep swimming for much longer. I see a capsized boat. Maybe it’s the one that just ditched all these people? It’s hard to tell because these mass-produced safety nightmares all look the same, floating around out there in the sea of refugee shrapnel. I lift up the side and duck my head under, trying to get my headlamp in to make sure nobody is trapped. As I get inside the inverted vessel, the pontoon drops down behind me and rests on the surface again. It’s suddenly peaceful, like a tomb, sealing off all the sounds around it, but amplifying the tiny noise of the water droplets falling from the roof and hitting the surface with a ping. The shouts outside are almost serene, conducted through round rubber walls, like I was listening to a song with balloons pressed against each ear. My light illuminates the water like a shimmering emerald grotto. In this moment of respite, I see a small bottle of perfume floating in the corner. Once precious cargo, now it may never scent the air of this person’s new world. It’s like a dream in here. I’ve been reading a book of Greek mythology and the images have started to follow me around. The characters are all metaphors, born as people make sense of the things around them. Human nature. Temptations. Conflicts. Dangers. I could be channeling some of the ghosts of the ancient thinkers right now, as I’m tempted to stay and float in this magical cave where everything’s ok. It could be the call of the same sirens that sang songs of seduction for our Syrian sailor friends… I’m getting lost in a mind maze again, and grasp for the thread of Theseus. My head ducks out from under the boat and the commotion rushes at me, bringing me back to reality. I shout to Arnab to see if he sees anything else, and swim around to check more objects, but there’s nothing. I think we’re the last ones left in the water now. The sea is quiet again. Somebody must have escorted my mermaid to the lighthouse because the flat rock is now bare. I get out of the water and shunt a few of the final stragglers up the rickety steps to the camp.


People are filling the fire room. Wet clothes are littering the floor, along with soaking bags, discarded diapers, soggy cigarettes and lost shoes. I pile this stuff outside to make room for more people in the area where they desperately need to warm up. The pile is already 4 feet high and growing. At this point we need to identify the most severe cases. The worst is a tiny baby girl that I now see in the medical area where Doctor Freeha and Brendan are working frantically. Brendan found her face down and alone in the deepest water, not breathing, eyes rolled back in her head. He swam her to shore while simultaneously performing CPR. He later described this like trying to rub your stomach and pat your head at the same time. The baby spluttered back in to life as he paused to give it a rescue breath, standing on the first rock his feet could find. He literally exhaled life into this small being after it had drowned out there. They are now putting an IV drip together. I’m trying to get the space heater to run hotter to warm the hypothermic child, while trying to keep her hysterical mother from getting in the way. My duty now is to make sure the experts have room to work. I also need to control who gets close to the fire in the other room since everyone always wants to stand near it, but it’s the only major heat source for the young and weak. I have to keep sending the adult men outside. Selective crowd control. Like being a bouncer for the worlds dingiest, smokiest club, in the worst location, at the end of the world, with big, breezy gaps in the walls. With nothing but soaking wet, non-English speaking patrons. Where nobody knows your name, and the only bottle service is infant formula.

I walk in to the med room again, bringing some shivering children through to the clothing area to get them changed. The doc is providing oxygen to the baby with a plastic mask that almost covers its whole tiny face. Someone else is now trying to get the gas heater running, but it’s just clicking evilly, without giving a hint of a spark. The doctor is so calm in crisis mode, and just now the tiny girl starts crying for the first time. A good sign. Brendan straightens his back and stretches with relief. “That’s the best sound I’ve ever heard in my life,” his voice cracks with emotion.

Most of the men are now standing outside around another fire drum that we torch on cue when people land. They’re wrapped with silver survival blankets, still shivering, but looking a bit more calm. Cigarettes everywhere. Some of the crew keep a spare pack on hand for the folks from the boats. Medicinal tobacco. A nouveau peace pipe welcoming them to the EU. I go over to the fire and share a few moments with them, trying to restore a little warmth to my own body since I’m still dripping and freezing. I’m greeted by knowing looks and broken-English gratitudes. One man offers me a cigarette too. I don’t smoke, but I thank him and shake his trembling hand. Another man hugs me. “My family. Thank you. My family.” Everyone is staring in to the flames.


Small comfort [Photo: Thom Held]

By this stage dawn has begun to break and we can see things around us. We count the people and confirm all are safe. A wave of relief passes over the whole team. We take a collective breath and look around at each other. High fives. More hugs. We all need a moment to collect ourselves. I change out of my wet clothes and in to the only things available — a survival blanket, some borrowed sweatpants, and a woolen donation jumper with arms so short that it’s previous owner may have been a T-Rex. So this is life in someone else’s clothes.

I see Giada sitting on the rock wall overlooking the East bay, sobbing silently in to her hands, so I walk over and put my arm around her. Brendan is lying nearby and sits up — his face is red from emotion. He puts his arm around her too, and we all sit a few moments. It doesn’t feel like there’s any need to say anything. We’ve transcended words just for a short slice of time, and tapped in to something more universal.

The transport drivers start to arrive. Greek farmers with 4WD vehicles, scrambled by Matt Llewellyn, the refugee traffic controller of the North. He never sleeps. The new arrivals don’t have any more comfort on these vehicles than they did on the boats, sitting in piles of hay and rusty tools, but at least they won’t drown if they fall off. I make sure that the mother and child I towed to shore earlier are safely inside a vehicle’s cab with the heater running. I feel weirdly responsible for them. For a brief moment, the woman looks at me and I can see that she wants to say something but doesn’t know how. She reaches for my hand and holds it for a moment. I wonder if I’ll ever see them again. It’s unlikely. I wave to them and close the door. I don’t know what else to do.

Just as the vehicles are starting to move off, as if on cue, someone calls out a heads up, “another one’s arriving.” About 800 meters out we see a fiberglass boat, stacked with orange-clad bodies on all of it’s decks, heading in the exact wrong direction — the rocky area on the other side of the bay. The team flicks its switch from relief to work-mode once again. By this stage, though, it’s business as usual and the landing runs like clockwork.


The first light reveals a new collection of discarded life jackets and belongings [Photo: Josh Webb]

All told, 70 refugees passed through this tiny facility on the morning of December 23rd. I’ll never forget that morning in the water for the rest of my life. None of us will. The team at Korakas that day probably all arrived in Greece with much the same plan as I did: do whatever you can, and try to make a difference. So… achievement unlocked. And each one of them no doubt has a story just like mine, but different. Another angle on the same insane scene. It’s like a dark fairy tale that we all know by heart now. As we later discussed the events, Brendan tells me that in thirteen years as a fire fighter, he’s never seen a situation as dire as this one. We wondered if it could be a Christmas miracle that there were no casualties. Or perhaps Poseidon was helping from his throne below the waves.

Meanwhile, episodes like this are still happening all over the Greek coast. Another refugee boat capsized on the same day near Farmakonisi, with no rescue teams nearby, and 13 people drowned. Two weeks later, 34 bodies washed up on the Turkish coast. They didn’t even make it half way. The few lives saved by our team were just a drop in the refugee bucket. A bucket that will never be big enough as long as the deluge from the East continues. There’s a mantra that I’ve adopted lately, though: you can’t help everyone, but everyone can help someone. It makes sense. The world just needs more of those ‘everyones’. The white blood cells of the global immune system, moving to the scene of distress in the earthly body and cleaning out the disease one cell at a time.

This story is just one tiny snapshot of a bigger picture that people around the world should look at. It seems like it should follow some official blueprint, with an artist filling it in like a coloring book. But, in fact, it’s just an accidental mural, with many artists, each adding a small detail here, some color there. Imperfect anarchy. Some parts will be forgotten, others drawn twice, but you have to respect people who dare to pick up those brushes and help paint the future they think is right. Taking action.

I left for India, looking for something, but I think I found it in Greece. Reality. Away from my media fantasy world of a life in New York. It’s a place I can’t unvisit now, but wouldn’t want to. Where action trumps everything. I’m inspired, more than anything, by the thousands of brave refugees who have dared to make this journey, choosing to escape wars they never asked to be part of. I’ve spoken to them every day here, and made new friends among them. I wish more people could hear their stories. One day we’ll probably look back on this time, the largest mass-migration since World War II, and view these folks like modern day pilgrims. They don’t speak my language, but their courage says more than words. They are the true heroes of this story, and their children will be the first generation of a new world. Future Germans, Austrians, Swedes, or Americans… Inshallah.

For now, though, there are still dozens of boats arriving every week with no end in sight. Sometimes they get in safely by themselves. Other times they don’t arrive at all. They take their chances with the moat, but the sharks are still eating them. But remind me… why do moats need to have sharks at all?


Dedicated to the Korakas team, Dec 23rd, 2015. Love you all!

Arnab Sinha, India / USA [Photo: Thom Held]
Brendan Woodhouse, England [Photo: Thom Held]
Giada Degrandy, Italy [Photo: Thom Held]
Josh Webb (Author), New Zealand / USA [Photo: Josh Webb]
Dr. Freeha Arshad, Netherlands [Photo: Thom Held]
Sten Undin, Sweden [Photo: Thom Held]
Hekla Maria Fridriksdottir, Iceland [Photo: Thom Held]
Joost Rentama, Netherlands [Photo: Thom Held]

Update (Feb 1): https://www.gofundme.com/HumanActionForce

I’ve launched a ‘gofundme’ campaign to help me make another trip back for 2 additional months of volunteer work in March/April. If you connected with my story and are interested in supporting the cause please donate if you can. 100% will go to refugee relief :)

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