Monday, March 7, 2016

On the Beach--My First Boat Arrival

This is a hard post to write. I'm not sure I can adequately describe what it's like being on the beaches watching for boats, but I'll try. After doing it the first time, I tell every volunteer who hasn't experienced it that they really should.

We left Better Days in the wee hours of the morning and drove out to the campfire on the beach. The lifeguard in charge gave us a briefing about what we should look for and what we should do in case of a boat landing and we began scanning the sea for the tiny glimmer of a regularly blinking light.  As a newbie, I kept seeing lights blinking on the Turkish shore and thinking they were signals, but when I finally saw one, there's no mistaking it. Even though it may start as a faint flicker far away, it blinks  regularly. Some refugee on a tiny rubber boat out in all that black sea--indistinguishable from the black sky sometimes--is huddled together with maybe 50 others in a low riding boat, shining his little flashlight in a signal pattern, looking for an answering flash from us on shore.

A little after 3 am we saw the first one. One of the experienced lifeguards estimated arrival in about 10 minutes, based on the distance. But ten minutes came and went and the boat didn't seem any closer. The tension on shore mounted. We kept flashing. The boat didn't seem to come any closer. Another 10 minutes crawled by, and another. The refugees were clearly in trouble. Finally, around 4 am the boat was close enough to see, a dim grey shape, low on the water and filled with black silhouettes--the refugees.

Right now, writing this in a cafe in the port of Mytiline, I'm shaking again remembering, reliving, the fear we all felt for them.

As they approached shore six professional lifeguards in wetsuits waded out and, three to a side, hauled the heavy boat up onto the beach. After all the fear and tension of watching their approach, after all the fear and tension of  their dangerous sea crossing, they had reached land and there was a moment of universal joy and celebration like I've never seen before. Every single person there shared this moment of such joy. It was the best high ever. But then we went to work. We quickly formed a corridor to lead the refugees off the front of the boat--going off the side is dangerous--and helped them out onto land and up to the blankets we had spread as they neared. We helped them sit down, figured out those who needed special assistance, passed out water, helped remove life-jackets and wet shoes, helped them put on dry socks and wrapped their feet in squares of emergency blankets. Other emergency blankets we wrapped around them inside their wet coats. Hypothermia is a real issue. The water and air are cold.

Within minutes, the UNHCR bus, called when arrival was imminent, drove up and we ushered the refugees on board. The bus left and we cleaned up the beach, and went back to watching for the next boat. But during clean up, when looking at the boat I noticed the lone paddle left behind in the boat. We knew the engine had quit, but it was only then I realized they only had one paddle to propel them across miles of the Aegean Sea. More horrifying was when I noticed the cheap toy pumps next to the partially deflated boat and realized that the refugees had been pumping all the way across to keep their overloaded boat afloat on the water. Then a lifeguard showed me the life-jackets. They were all fake, filled with a substance that would actually soak up water and ensure  their drowning if they tried to rely on them.

The sheer horror and unmitigated joy of that night will live with me the rest of my life.

these are pictures from my first experience--the deflated boat, the paddle, the pumps, the fake lifejackets. sorry for the quality--i phone in the dark

the following pictures are from a later boat arrival, in sequence

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