Thousands of lifejackets line the shores of Lesbos, Greece—abandoned bits of blue, pink, green and orange glowing eerily against shredded black dinghies and the dark wet rocks where they were discarded. Following a surge of 27,276 refugees arriving on the island 17-21 October—the highest number this year according to the International Organization for Migration—a short stretch of stormy days briefly stemmed the tide of people risking the Aegean Sea crossing.
One Thursday night along a beachfront nine kilometres (about six miles) from the Turkish border, close enough to pick up a Turkish cell provider’s signal, a handful of people huddled around parked cars, peering through binoculars. Despite the choppy water and fading light, three rafts headed steadily toward the shore.
Hein van der Merwe, OM’s project manager on the island, pulled his rented jeep to the side of the muddy road, preparing to re-enact the routine he’d performed countless times over the past month and a half: splashing into the waves, securing the boat, carrying strangers’ children onto the beach. Other volunteers started unravelling roles of “space blankets,” emergency foil sheets to hand out to the refugees coming ashore.
The first boat to land contained Syrians, families from Aleppo unsure of their final destination but certain of their choice to leave. Volunteers on the island said that per-person prices for the dinghy trip depend on the amount of risk involved. Daytime crossings on calm seas run up to 2,400 euros (2,600 USD) Hein said. That night, for a dusk voyage pelted by wind and rain, Mohammed, one of the boat’s passengers, had paid 1,000 USD per person for his family of five.
While volunteers welcomed the refugees onshore, hugging them and instructing them to put the silvery-gold space blankets on under their wet winter jackets, a handful of men quickly deflated the dinghy, slicing the rubber into pieces and loading the wooden benches and engine into the back of a small pick-up.
Collecting engines is common practice on the island, Hein said, where setting up tents is forbidden “because it might invite the refugees to stay.”
With their transportation from Turkey now a dismantled mass on the beach, the refugees headed toward the road, trudging through muddy ruts towards their next stop. Then, in short succession, the next two boats beached, one carrying more Syrians, the other Afghanis.
The coastline paralleling Turkey, where most dinghies land, is around 75 kilometres (about 47 miles) from Mytilini, Lesbos’ capital and port city, where refugees can register and catch a ferry to Piraeus on Greece’s mainland.
Klio, a small island town, sits somewhat closer, as does a bus stop turned camp, manned by Christian volunteers, including those from OM, working through a Greek aid organisation. With one large tent, designated to sleep 150 people at most, the site should act as a temporary resting point, a place to filter refugees headed for Moria or Kara Tepe, the two official refugee transit camps on the island. However, the recent influx of refugees arriving in the dark, including a rush of 2,000 people one night in late October, has tested the limits of both the site and its relief workers.
Because of the rain, fewer people had risked the sea that Thursday night. Still, Hein’s team of volunteers had refused to return that night, overwhelmed by their experience the evening before. Instead, a handful of people working with OMNIvision, OM’s international video and events team, and four additional volunteers accompanying them showed up. After the camera crew left the camp, three of the others stayed until the next morning, handing out blankets that arrived in the wee hours and comforting the men and women shivering through the night.
When the video team first entered the camp’s tent, the refugees already huddled inside blended into the blackness. The generator wasn’t working, and the buses transporting the people to the larger camps had yet to arrive.
Jay, associate producer for OMNIvision, pulled his camera light out of his bag and turned it on, not to capture the scene on film but to illuminate the tent’s interior. Outside, the other volunteers used small keychain flashlights to organise supplies, lead people to the outhouses and, eventually, guide them down a steep muddy incline to the busses. Inside, Jay held his light steady, replacing the first battery when the glow began to dim. That one light, bright enough for everyone within the white canvas walls to see, facilitated other tasks. The rest of the team handed out bus tickets, smiled at mothers and their babies and, later, distributed water and bananas to the people waiting to leave.
“You are the light of the world,” Jesus told his disciples in Matthew 5:14 (ESV). Just like Jay’s camera light, shining for a few hours inside a dark tent, OM staff on the island act out Jesus’ words and bring light to the thousands of people passing through.
From handing out Bibles to talking to people who want to become Christians, on Lesbos, Hein said, “opportunities poke out [their] head everywhere. We don’t even have to do the work. It’s almost like God is here Himself… Of course He is, but we feel it almost tangibly.”
“I’ve started to realise the more open I am about my religion, the more questions people ask and the more Bibles I hand out,” he noted. “It’s become easier and easier to share with Muslims: ‘We are Christians. We are here to help because that’s what Christ expects from us.’”
Offering that help in Jesus’ name is key to OM’s role in Greece and throughout Europe, according to Robert Strong*, who is coordinating OM Europe's refugee response.
“If we are not here, then some other group will pick it up and will maybe run that camp gladly, but they will not do it in Jesus’ name, and that’s where the difference is,” he stated. “I believe that right now, especially in the first couple of months when these people arrive, you have a window of opportunity to speak into their lives about Jesus. Many of them have never had that chance… This is a wide open gate for God to use us to be His hands and feet to proclaim the name of Jesus to these people.”
Would you consider serving the refugees passing through Greece? OM Greece needs people who can offer a week or longer to help. Particularly, the team needs volunteers who have the ability to speak Arabic, Farsi or Dari, who carry an international driver's license, and who are willing to share Christ's love and compassion with others.
An OM project, called Safe Passage, focuses on meeting refugees at their initial entry points, providing information as well as water, food and essentials. To give to OM's relief efforts, or for more information about how to get involved, please contact your local OM office.
Nicole James is a freelance journalist, ESL teacher and adventurer. As a writer for OM Middle East North Africa, she’s passionate about publishing the stories of God’s works among the nations, telling people about the wonderful things He is doing in the world.