Horror, Humanity and Hope: Thoughts From Lesvos On The Global Refugee Crisis

Kathryn Schotthoefer
Jan 5, 2016 · 12 min read

It was an unexpected thought.

“You should really consider making the trip,” my friend suggested.

The trip, in this case, meant Lesvos, the Greek island that has become the nerve center of the global refugee crisis. I’d read stories and seen photos of people fleeing war and extremist violence, boarding boats (often a generous term) in Turkey and crossing the eight miles of the Aegean, but as with so many things, it was viewed through a casual observer’s lens — side by side in social media feeds with industry news and friends’ vacation photos.

My friend had been volunteering in Lesvos for several weeks, and through his firsthand experience I learned more about the nature of the operations there. Due to Greece’s financial crisis and a deeply complicated web of EU and global politics, the care of the massive number of refugees has been left in large part to a contingency of small relief organizations and independent volunteers.

At first, the notion of joining the effort seemed unrealistic. I had every excuse in the world why I should not go. I’m the single mom of an energetic five year old. I run a large business with a lot of people depending on me. I was already traveling a lot for work and shouldn’t spend any more days away. It’s almost the holidays and there will be so much going on — how could I possibly leave? But I couldn’t shake the feeling that I needed to make the trip.

I sat in my office a few days later, clicking through the various Facebook groups and blog posts that serve as command central for the volunteer efforts. There were posts coordinating response efforts for arriving boats, requests for assistance in warehouses and processing areas, and updates on critical life-threatening scenarios in progress. I booked at ticket to Greece.

I found my way to Skala Sykamineas, a small fishing village on the north shore. I asked around to find the small apartment I would be renting from an elderly couple. My friend had told me the easiest way to start volunteering was just to go to the café and talk to someone, and he wasn’t kidding. The café was obviously built for summer weather, but its weatherproofed porch was the unofficial HQ of Skala’s volunteer community. There were people gathered in groups in a consistent uniform of wetsuits and parkas. Within minutes, I had my hi-vis vest and some brief instructions. Then phones started buzzing with the message of an incoming boat and everyone left — clothing, laptops, bags left on the tables — and headed out to meet them at the beach.

There’s really no way to prepare yourself for the sight of a refugee boat arriving. You are seeing other human beings in their most challenging, most vulnerable state. They are often soaking wet and freezing cold, afraid and unsure. For many, this boat trip was the final leg of a long, difficult journey that originated in Syria, Afghanistan or Iraq.

On my first boat landing, we waited at the rocky shore, ready to distribute dry clothes and blankets. The first person I saw was a little girl about 5 years old, exactly the same age as my daughter. She stood in soaking wet clothes, freezing in the cold morning air. Her large brown eyes were vacant, her lips blue and shivering as she waited next to her mother, who was desperately trying to find all of her family in the chaos. One of her other children was being treated by the medics. Using one of my few phrases of broken Arabic, I told her ana mamman, I am a mother, and gestured to the child by her side. We locked eyes for a moment, and then she picked up the girl and handed her to me while she turned to attend to her sick child. The little girl lay motionless while I quickly changed her into dry clothes. Wrapping her back in the blanket and holding her close to me, she felt heavy, tired, just like my own daughter when she’s sick with a cold. Instinctively, I began to rock her gently and hum, the same as would do for Caroline. Her eyes were wide open, peering through the fold of the blanket, expressionless. And there we stood on the rocky portside, humming and rocking. After a few minutes I looked down, and she was asleep. I stopped humming after a while and felt a little jab in my rib. I looked down and saw one big eye open and staring up at me, and a tiny smile beginning to form. Kids really are amazing.

The boats continued to come, one after another, throughout the day and night. You would think after a while the faces would begin to blur, but they don’t. How can you forget someone handing you their child over rough waves, grabbing your hand as they step off the boat, allowing you to wrap them in a blanket as they collapse to the shore? But there are definitely the stories that haunt you. The grandfather who reached the shore clinging to his 18-month-old granddaughter with tears running silently down his face, who would later share that they were the only members of their extended family who had not been murdered by extremists in Syria. The mother who had seen both of her children drown on the short, treacherous trip across the Aegean.

It is important to remember 2 things at this point. First, these stories are not isolated incidents, there are over a thousand refugees landing each day on Lesvos. Second, the same journey from Turkey that carries with it so much suffering and risk for these people is easily made via ferry by anyone with an American or EU passport and $30.

Arriving on the shores of Greece is not the end of the journey for the refugees; it’s merely a stopping point. From the beaches, refugees are often cared for in Stage 1 camps, such as the one operated by Lighthouse Relief in Skala. Lighthouse is only a few months old, established by a group of Swedish volunteers who wanted to fill the gap in critical infrastructure in the north, and they offer essential services to the newly arrived, such as medical care, dry clothing and a warm cup of soup or tea. They also offer something a bit more intangible, but that can best be described as a sense of comfort. In the most tense of times, the volunteers from Lighthouse exude a warmth and welcome to refugees that recognize them as fellow human beings, which may be the first such treatment many of them have received since beginning their journey. It is an amazing thing to watch people settle in around the campfire, their faces relaxing as they communicate with one another in a medley of languages and gestures. They will try to guess where the volunteers are from — I was always pegged as Australian. When I said “American,” I was met with looks of surprise. The anti-Muslim rhetoric that is dominating much of our domestic media these days has been getting plenty of airtime in ISIS strongholds, since it is directly aligned with their narrative.

It’s around this campfire that we heard story after story of the violence and horrors that finally forced so many of them to leave their homes, their belongings and the life that they knew and that ultimately brought them to this place. We see videos of ISIS on social media or television and shake our heads at the brutality — the refugees have seen it happen in real life, to their friends, their family, the people that they love. To hear these stories and see the tears in the eyes of these people as they tell their stories of “Daesh” in hushed tones, still fearful, and then see the ignorant hate speech that populates so many social media feeds these days, directed at these same people who were victims of extremist violence — it’s challenging to reconcile the two. You would need to be a morally and emotionally vacant person to hear about brutal violence and witness the physical evidence of it and not feel compelled to defend its victims.

Yet despite the suffering, the refugees we met were some of the kindest, warmest people I have ever encountered. I will never forget the eleven-year-old daughter of a young Afghan family with five children who insisted on sharing the seeds that she was eating as a snack with me. I only took one, as a gesture. It’s sitting on my kitchen counter now, a reminder of kindness and generosity in spite of the worst of circumstances.

In a neighboring camp known as Platanos, I was introduced to some independent volunteers that reminded me that what we were seeing was not the worst of the refugee crisis… these were the ones who made it out. They talked about their travels to the Turkey-Syria border and the horrific conditions in the camps there. Some refugees are there for years, without the means to pay a smuggler to continue the journey, and living in small tents without enough water, sanitation, or access to education for the children. Alongside this abject poverty are the very groups that the refugees were attempting to flee, including ISIS. Despite the threat to their personal safety from extremists, these guys concealed their blonde, blue-eyed Norwegian identities and delivered humanitarian supplies in Syria border camps to these refugees most in need. Again, it’s important to remember — they aren’t special ops or military professionals. They are just twenty-something guys, determined to make a small difference in the lives of people who have been robbed of so much of their humanity.

The volunteer community on Lesvos is nothing short of remarkable, a collection of small relief organizations and lots of independent volunteers from all over the world, coordinated primarily by social media. It’s not always perfect, there are disagreements and frustrations, but they are almost always caused by the fact that everyone is trying to do the best they can and, when the stakes are so high, it can sometimes be tough to remember that there can be multiple paths to success. These volunteers come from all different backgrounds and occupations, and cultural differences are very quickly sorted in the interest of the task at hand. Since most of the volunteers are not first responders in their “normal” lives, many are unprepared for the emotional weight of the loss of life. There were three casualties on my second day, including two children. That night, we sat in the same café in Molyvos where earlier in the day rescue teams had attempted to resuscitate a five year old boy who had been pulled from the water, listening to loud arguments about what could have been done better from some volunteers and quiet expressions of loss from others. We all grieve differently.

The refugees who make it to Lesvos will eventually be transported to the prison-turned-registration-camp known as Moria. The chaos of Moria is difficult to describe, though one is inclined to liken it to a scene from The Hunger Games. There are thousands of people waiting in makeshift camps all around the compound. Winter weather and insufficient shelter has people huddled together around trash fires, while refugees are divided by their country of origin and wait for their turns to be registered. Volunteer groups are managing incredibly challenging logistics, attempting to provide medical care, clothing, childcare, warmth and shelter to far more people than their resources will allow. I went to Moria one afternoon while working with Disaster Tech Lab, a group focused on providing critical tech services like wi-fi to disaster and crisis locations. I stayed to walk around the camp, hoping to see one of the families that I had met the previous day in Skala. It was starting to get dark and I was losing hope, when I heard a young voice yell “Hello!” I looked over and saw them, the Afghan family with the daughter who had insisted on sharing her seeds, jumping up and down and waving. We hugged and talked about their trip. They asked about my daughter. They promised to find me on Facebook and let me know when they arrived somewhere safe.

While I was in Lesvos, I received a lot of notes from friends and family stateside. Many included the phrase “stay safe.” It’s hard to explain, but I felt guilty receiving such wishes. I was safe, surrounded by an incredible community of volunteers and the supportive Greek locals. It was the refugees who deserved those words, the people who had suffered so greatly in their homelands and then risked everything to seek out a chance at survival. Frequently in print, you will see these people referred to as “migrants” and references to “seeking a better life,” which I think does a great disservice to their predicament. This is not a migratory population seeking economic opportunity; these are people escaping war, torture and death. When you see a 12 year old that has been shot in the face, an elderly man who was stabbed 18 times, a family with young daughters who were violently raped and assaulted, a woman whose breasts were caught off, a grandfather who watched his entire family be murdered and they are there, in front of you, it is impossible to remain a bystander.

In such circumstances, we are reminded of our own purpose and our own humanity. I’ve run countless miles in my life, but I’ve never run the way I did to tell a heartbroken mother that her missing daughter had been found. I learned how to ride motocross bikes as a child (thanks, Dad) but it never seemed important until I needed to reach a remote dirt road that would have been inaccessible by car. I’ve sung thousands of love songs, but it never felt the way it did when I was singing in a smoky dockside café at 4am, for new friends who had seen things that day that no one should ever have to see, watching them all drift off, finding comfort in the memory of a love present, long lost, or yet to be found.

When we give of ourselves passionately, in service to others, we live our lives as the absolute best version of ourselves.

And in all of this, I recognize that there is a luxury to having this experience voluntarily and now, as a source of introspection. As I arrived at the airport in Lesvos to return home, I wasn’t prepared for the crushing guilt that comes with knowing you are leaving when the need is still so great. In the days that followed, it was impossible to separate myself from the people and activities on the island.

And then today, back in the same Los Angeles office where I first decided to make the trip, my phone rang. It was a Facebook video call from a familiar face. When I answered it, I was greeted by the Afghan family I had last seen in Moria, all of the kids crammed around the phone. They smiled and laughed and said “Hello!” as their parents waved from the background. They are at a camp in Germany, they said. It’s cold, but they are happy.

As I hung up the call, I sat in my office and allowed myself to remember all of it. The roars of jet engines and the crashing of dark ocean waves. The cries of children and calming voices of the volunteers. The dark eyes of the little girl I carried and the warm embrace from a grandmother who took my hand. The smell of the fire in the camp and the thick blanket of cigarette smoke in the café at the port. The feeling of mud caked against my skin and the biting chill of the wind at the lighthouse at Korakas. The taste of the ouzo I toasted with the friends I was lucky enough to meet on this journey.

With everything that the trip meant to me, that wasn’t the point. The point was on the other end of that call — a family who took an incredible journey from tragedy into hope, risking everything for the chance to live. It’s my obligation and my privilege to share their story, and those of every other heroic refugee and survivor that I met. It’s my hope that by reading this, someone might think about the hundreds of thousands of refugees as people rather than numbers, and that this year might be the year that we allow decency and humanity triumph over fear, politics and hate.

Happy New Year, my friends.


If you would like to support one of the very worthy relief organizations working on Lesvos, I would encourage you to check out the following:

Pro Activa Open Arms

The beach rescue team from Barcelona, managing high-risk rescues on the open water in both Lesvos and Chios. Refugees arrive on boats that are not stable or safe, and counterfeit life jackets being sold to refugees (stuffed with Styrofoam or cotton batting) make the trip even more dangerous. Their bravery and skill is critical to saving lives, every day.


Better Days For Moria

This group is handling all of the substantial overflow at Moria, the registration camp on Lesvos. They provide medical and other services, as well as purchasing everything from food to firewood.


Lighthouse Relief

Lighthouse operates a camp and relief efforts in the north, as well as manages a volunteer team that does a whole lot of everything — food, clothing, medical and care.


Third Wave Volunteers

This group works in disaster situations all over the world, including medical care and providing solar lights to the refugees in camps. Those nights can be very dark and scary, their small, solar-powered LED light collapse down to the size of and envelope for easy transportation.

Disaster Tech Lab

Disaster Tech Lab provides rapid response communication networks for use in disaster relief and humanitarian aid work.

Kathryn Schotthoefer

Written by

CEO, Original Media Ventures. Raising a small person. Singing in my kitchen.