Lesbos, Greece — High above on the hills on the northern coast of the Greek island of Lesbos, spotters with binoculars signaled to aid workers below that a boat carrying dozens of soaking, shivering refugees was approaching the shore.
Within minutes of receiving the alert over the radio on Friday, a caravan of vehicles was flying at top speed down a dirt road that hugs Lesbos' jagged coast, heading into the seaside village of Skala Sikamineas. The road was littered on both sides with deflated rafts, crushed plastic bottles and heaping mounds of bright-orange life jackets, remnants of the terrifying journey that has led thousands of refugees to this island in recent months.
The caravan came to a screeching halt along the beach, and a makeshift network of international aid workers, volunteers and charitable locals poured out of the trucks and vans, sprinting to the shore to receive the flimsy black boat with 63 refugees on board.
Once safely secured at the dock, aid workers shouted the few Arabic phrases they knew and transported the passengers onto dry land, providing emergency medical support and handing out emergency thermal blankets, dry clothes, food and water. The refugees called out for loved ones, filling the air with simultaneous cries of grief, anguish, sadness and joy.
Ali, 15, had fled Syrian-controlled Kurdistan, and made the journey on his own. He said his brother had been killed in a Russian airstrike, and another family member was killed by the Islamic State group, also known as ISIS or ISIL. He asked only to be identified by his first name to protect family members who remain in Syria.
"The journey was very hard. I thank God we made it," he said, shortly after the boat made landfall. "We were on the boats for hours. All of my belongings — my cash, my phone, my clothes — drowned in the sea."
The scene was one that has become familiar for those workers who helped the refugees reach dry land. Over the past year, Lesbos, a quaint Greek island about an hour by plane from Athens that once had a thriving fishing and tourism industry, has become the epicenter of the Syrian refugee crisis in Europe.
Dozens of boats come to these shores every day, carrying refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere, desperate to flee their war-ravaged homelands. It is this desperation that drives them to dare the treacherous waters of the Aegean Sea, and it is here, on Lesbos, that those fortunate enough to reach dry land begin the long journey deeper into Europe and the West. It is also here where the tangible impact of decisions made in Washington, Brussels, Moscow, Damascus and other world capitals is playing out most acutely.
The harrowing journey to Lesbos: Many of the boats that arrive at the docks here in Lesbos come from a town in Turkey called Ayvalik, located approximately six miles across the Aegean. Almost all are barely seaworthy, propelled by weak motors and featuring floors cobbled together with fragile wooden planks. Those that manage to remain afloat and reach the area off Lesbos' coast are met by aid organizations' rescue boats and the Greek coast guard, which escort the boats to shore.
Each inflatable craft is meant to carry only a handful of passengers, but vessels routinely take to sea with up to 70 refugees piled in, including women, children and the elderly. That extreme weight means the boats fill easily with frigid water. One young girl who arrived on Sunday was hypothermic and unresponsive, her teeth chattering uncontrollably. Medical workers carried her into a nearby van to be revived as her mother and two young brothers watched on in shock.
The boats that make it to Lesbos are the lucky ones — there are countless stories of ships that sink without ever coming within view of Greek land. On Friday, 18 refugees, including 10 children, drowned off the coast of the nearby island of Kalymnos. Earlier this month, a boat carrying 85 people overturned off the coast of Lesbos, killing two and sending dozens more into the frigid sea. On Oct. 28, the overcrowded upper deck of a wooden boat collapsed, capsizing the vessel. Three people drowned, including two children, and 240 more were rescued from the water.
Gerard Canals Bartolome, 34, is the coordinator of Proactiva Open Arms, a Spanish lifeguard organization. He was leading one of the few search-and-rescue teams that were operating that day, and vividly recalled the episode.
"We were in the water for over three hours," he said. "It was extremely cold and windy. I had never seen an incident like that in my life."
"The minute I got here, I saw things that no one ever sees on television back home," said Manal Shehade, the project coordinator for IsraAID, an Israeli nongovernmental organization. "There are so many stories of shipwrecks — tragic stories that never make it to the news."
The refugees who come to Lesbos hail from a range of countries. In November, 47% came from Syria, 37% from Afghanistan, 7% from Iraq and 4% from Iran, according to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. They arrive throughout the day and increasingly in the middle of the night, relying on the cover of darkness to evade Turkish authorities, who have recently stepped up patrols. The journey from Turkey can take more than five hours, depending on the wind and weather conditions.
Refugees pay smugglers exorbitant prices to make the trip, anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 euros. This means the venture is an option primarily for refugees from middle- and upper-class families. A 34-year-old man named Abdelrahman, who wished to be identified only by his first name to protect his family who remained in Syria, said he was an English teacher at a university back in Damascus before he was forced to flee the country.
The smugglers return to shore shortly after the boats depart Turkey, leaving refugees to find their own way. When asked how he and his fellow passengers knew in which direction to head, Abdelrahman replied, "God showed us the way."
From the island to mainland Europe: Once in Lesbos, aid organizations provide immediate medical care, food, warm clothes and temporary shelter at emergency camps located next to the beach. Shortly after, buses operated by international aid organizations like the UNHCR, Doctors Without Borders and the International Rescue Committee transport the refugees to temporary shelters across the island.
Eventually, refugees travel by bus to the Moria detention center, just outside Mytilene, where they are registered by Greek authorities and issued temporary visas. Over the summer, before many of the international aid organizations had established operations on Lesbos, refugees often made the journey to Moria on foot, a steep 40-mile hike over winding mountain roads that took several days.
Conditions at Moria are squalid. The center is so overcrowded that refugees spill out onto the neighboring hills. One aid worker at Moria said that several nighttime fights had broken out between refugees from differing nationalities in the past week.
Those tensions are exacerbated by the EU's recently adopted "hotspot" system, under which refugees from certain conflict zones — most notably Syria — are given preferential treatment when applying for asylum. Syrian refugees typically get bused to a separate nearby facility called Kera Tepe, which sits on the site of an old driving track. They are also usually allowed to leave Lesbos before other refugees. This disparity in how Syrian refugees are treated has fueled a thriving black market for Syrian passports, with refugees of other nationalities hoping to jump the line.
Once they have registered with the Greek authorities, refugees proceed to the shipping port in the heart of Mytilene, where they must pay for a ferry to Athens, 11 hours away. From there, many have a destination in western Europe in mind, the most popular option being Germany.
Who the refugees really are: As of Nov. 20, a staggering 406,206 refugees had arrived in Lesbos in 2015, according to the UNHCR. That number represents 58% of the refugee population that has entered Greece this year.
Despite dropping temperatures, the number of refugees arriving each month surged in the fall, with approximately 125,000 refugees coming in October, according to the IRC. Aid workers say there has been a small decrease in December, but there are still days in which up to 100 boats make the journey, bringing anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 new refugees into Lesbos docks every day.
The workers and volunteers say that no number, however, can capture how this crisis affects the individuals and families who are actually making the arduous trek into Europe.
"These people are running away," Shehade said. "They would not make this journey unless they absolutely had to."
Most of the refugees said they are desperate to build a better life somewhere safer than their home countries. Many said they loved the United States — a stark contrast to how Syrian refugees have been portrayed (namely, as dangerous jihadists) by some politicians in the West. Ali, the teenager from Kurdistan, said that he loves America, hates ISIS and dreams of traveling to Chicago one day:
Abelrahman, the English teacher from Syria, held back his tears as he recalled that several of his family members were killed by ISIS. He said his home in Damascus had been leveled by airstrikes.
"All I want is for Syria to be peaceful," he said. "I want everyone to know that I love America. I am not a terrorist. We are not terrorists. ISIS killed my family. They kill Muslims."
Hassan, 17, told the story of fleeing the city of Homs, once the capital of the rebellion against Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Hassan said he would go to any country in Europe because "anything would be better than my life in Syria."
He then asked to borrow an iPhone to message his friends back in Syria — the few who are still alive.
Who's helping: The aid workers, activists and volunteers coming to Lesbos from all over the world are in the center of the fierce political debate over the influx of refugees into Europe. But the workers themselves are quick to emphasize that they are driven not by politics, but by the sole desire to save lives.
In addition to international NGOs, local organizations are contributing in the effort to aid refugees. Among them is the Starfish Foundation, founded over a year ago by a local Greek woman named Melinda McRostie, owner of a popular seafood restaurant for tourists called The Captain's Table in Molyvos harbor.
Starfish assists in daily rescue operations and runs a nearby transit camp called Oxy. The Captain's Table has become the center of the volunteer operation in Molyvos. Vera Carlbaum, 23, who manages Starfish's media relations, said she was most surprised after arriving in Lesbos by how different her experience on the ground has been from what people hear about the refugee crisis in the media.
"The media focuses on how we, as Europeans, can manage this crisis," she said. "They've stopped writing about the actual people. These refugees are people like you and me. Some are journalists. Some speak fluent English. Some have smartphones. Often the first thing they ask for is free WiFi to call home."
Aid workers are keenly aware that there is no end in sight for the refugee crisis, as civil war continues to ravage Syria, and airstrikes against ISIS by both the U.S.-led coalition and Russian warplanes escalate in the wake of the Paris attacks. The workers are eager to stay out of partisan politics, but many are adamant about the need for the EU to create a better system for refugees, one that is legal and safe.
"What these people need is a safer, better way to get into Europe," IsraAID's Shehade said.
"It would be best if people didn't have to run away from their countries," Bartolome, the coordinator of Proactiva Open Arms, said. "But as long as they are leaving, they need a safe passage on land. They should be arriving in a normal way. This is so dangerous. If we could provide a safe passage from land, it would also be much easier to control who is coming."
Most of all, aid workers want people around the world to view this crisis through the refugees' eyes, not through the prism of partisan politics. When pressed for what message they want send to presidential candidates in the U.S., many said they were horrified by Donald Trump's callous rhetoric toward refugees and Muslims more generally.
"All these people are running from the same people we are scared of," Bartolome said. "They're running away from terrorists. Their countries are broken. They need help. We were refugees some time ago. We cannot turn our back. We have to help them."
Finally, they were clear to emphasize that if politicians in the U.S. took one step onto Lesbos, the refugee crisis would change instantaneously.
"If we demanded every right-wing politician come and stand here for a week, we wouldn't have war any longer," Carlbaum said. "You can't stand here and understand why our governments act the way they do."
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