Remember that ethics class where you were asked “What would you do if you lived during World War II and such and such and such happened?” I used to think I’d never have to make a difficult decision of that sort. Somehow, those complicated dilemmas we hotly debated seemed more of an exercise in theoretical morality than anything close to what we’d face in reality. Life, however, has a way of surprising you with both beauty and horror. The long war in Syria and the conflicts in the Middle East have set off the biggest humanitarian crisis since World War II. This has recently put me on strange ground.
For the first time I was confronted with a moral dilemma not while sitting comfortably in a classroom chair, but as the tragedy of an unending war haunted me as I went about my daily routine. It has been nerve-wracking. For months I felt paralyzed as I watched and read the unfolding drama seen through the eyes of others. On one hand, news upon news of increasing violence in the wake of the westward migration instilled fear about the consequences of this movement. On the other hand, the plight of the refugees who have to make a dreadful journey across the Aegean Sea in order to escape brutality and death entrenched me in shock and pity.
The problem of the refugees’ loss and relocation is not only their problem; it is mine too, because people are being hurt, and I have to make a choice about it. Inaction, just as much as action, is a choice. What am I to do?
A surprise awaited around the corner just as 2015—the most distressing year I have lived— approached its end. I went to Lesvos (also known as Lesbos), the Greek island where most refugees enter Europe. I was fearful, intrigued, and excited about this last-minute enterprise.
I won’t go into details about how this trip worked out. Suffice to say that it was a miracle with lots of unexpected twists: the way this idea of traveling to Greece was born out of a church stewardship challenge; an airport encounter with a former high-school roommate that led me to crucial information for the trip; last-minute financial support vital for the success of the endeavor; and reconnecting with a former college classmate who had just returned from a volunteering trip to Lesvos—to name just a few aspects of this journey that I believe are divine interferences. I was there for two and a half days, and now, two weeks later, I am still processing the overwhelming experience.
Once I arrived on Lesvos after an overnight ferry ride, a kind volunteer offered to give me a ride to Moria, a registration camp often full beyond capacity. As soon as I set foot in the camp, I cut through the breakfast line to get to the volunteers’ center. A refugee’s voice commented behind me: “Nice girl!” That was precisely what I hoped not to encounter while there. Evidently, it was not a welcome comment, and I dare say it was inappropriate. Still, I made my way to the volunteers’ tent. I spoke with some veteran volunteers, as well as some newer ones, who were kind enough to give me an idea of what had been going on there. I spent the two days walking around in the camp, speaking with some of the refugees as much as language permitted, interviewing some volunteers, and taking photos.
The conditions in the camp were pretty bad. From lack of sanitary toilets, which also lacked the necessary privacy, to the crowdedness, to insufficient blankets and warm clothes, this camp looks like the last thing someone who flees war and has been through a long and difficult journey needs. Still, people come, and try to make it through.
The refugees wait in long lines to register; they wait in long lines for every meal; they wait in lines for clothes; they wait in lines for tea. That is a lot of waiting and a lot of standing every day, especially after a difficult recent journey through Turkey. I met a young couple and an elderly lady from Afghanistan who had traveled for one month on foot, crossing mountains. They were very tired, and it was evident from my brief conversation with them that they had left behind a very bad situation.
Moria houses a family compound unit that accommodates vulnerable individuals overnight. At 4 pm the doors open for the elderly, the sick, pregnant women, and women with very small children. They sleep there and leave the unit at 8 am. People often get in line early hoping to get a spot. If they do get a spot, it is really just a piece of floor, often with cardboard as a bed. The mattresses are either insufficient or in such bad shape that a cardboard is desirable over them. The unit is not heated; neither are most other tents. The weather has gotten very cold in Lesvos, with temperatures below freezing at night. There are never enough blankets. Some people sleep outside, and I wonder how they survive the cold. I wonder if they survive.
A Pair of Wet Shoes
One morning I went to the shore to meet the volunteers who greet the boats. Much heart and care is put into providing the basic needs of new arrivals. When the boat lands, the children are taken out first, then the women, and lastly the men. Some boats land smoothly, while others have a very rough landing, depending on the type of shore and weather conditions. Rocky shores and high waves have proven very treacherous for the flimsy rubber boats and have threatened (and in some cases taken) the lives of refugees. Sometimes the refugees have no control over where the boat lands—for example, if the motor stops and the wind drifts the dinghy wherever it blows.
Once the refugees have made it onto the shore, the volunteers wrap them in emergency thermal blankets and then help them change their shoes and clothes if they are wet. They are always cold, and most of the times wet. The journey usually happens at night. In some places there is a medical person on site who provides immediate care to those suffering from hypothermia or other issues. Not all boats have this privilege, though. Blankets are also passed around, and sometimes tea and/or food and water are provided.
The refugees then load a bus that takes them to the registration center, where they wait until they get their papers that allow them to move through Europe. They cannot travel anywhere on the island before being registered, so until they get their papers they are completely at the mercy of others for their basic needs. For some this is a days-long wait due to backlogs.
As I observed the volunteers do their work that morning, I noticed a little girl who was just standing there, unmoved. She had come with her mother, father, and older sister. A volunteer was tending to the mother, who could not stop crying. I went to this little girl and wrapped the emergency blanket more tightly around her, then hugged her and held her tight. She was shivering and had a blank stare. She was obviously in distress.
I kneeled next to her, and she fell onto my lap. As I patted her down to her knees, hoping to get her to warm up, I felt the bottom of her jeans and shoes: soaking wet. An overwhelming feeling of desperation came over me. She had to change her shoes and socks immediately!
I asked around for a pair of shoes for her, but everyone was busy tending to someone. In the momentary confusion, I also got the impression that there weren’t enough dry shoes available. I felt desperate. Helpless. Frustrated.
The journey across the water takes from half an hour to six hours, depending on weather, the condition of the boat, and how many people are in it. I don’t know how long her feet had been wet, but she could not stop shivering.
Suddenly, my entire world was reduced to one single need: a pair of dry shoes. I heard my voice rise above others as I desperately repeated: “Can someone please give me a pair of shoes!” I could not conceive of letting her go like that. Yet I had to. The bus arrived, and the refugees all made their way to it. The little girl left with her shoes wet.
From what I’ve heard and read from volunteers, there are never enough shoes. And they constantly run out of warm clothes and blankets to hand out to the refugees.
I knew that being in Lesvos wasn’t going to be vacation, but I wasn’t ready for this. That moment of desperation and frustration was a glimpse into the long, difficult, and perilous journey of the refugees. For a moment there was no “we” and “they,” there was no “I” and “you.” I was them. I was her. She was I.
Which Innocents Should Suffer?
And with this experience my trip came to its end. To be honest, I didn’t really know what to expect from it. Maybe I naively hoped that my moral dilemma would somehow dissipate and a clear answer would emerge. Being there, however, did not dispel the dilemma. It just made it real for me. And that made a huge difference. I no longer think of the refugees as strangers. I met them; I spoke with them; I hugged them. The closeness makes everything look so different. So, what am I to do given the circumstances of war and its massive ongoing aftermath?
As I sat in the airport chair waiting for my flight, I asked myself: What is the image that has had the strongest impact on me? There was no difficulty in answering this. The little girl’s distress and my panic over not finding dry shoes for the freezing child was definitely the most powerful image. It still is, and I have no doubt it will be a lasting memory. Then and there, I realized that my desire to help an innocent child survive is stronger than the fear of potential negative effects in the future—on me or on others. Somehow, before, I had felt that either way I went I would betray an innocent. To lock ourselves in is to protect “our own” innocent, but also to endanger “the other” innocent. I want no one to suffer. So if either way we go there are going to be victims, how can we decide which innocent should be a victim?
The only comfort I found in my decision to help is that I choose to alleviate actual suffering over potential suffering. And if/when this potential suffering actualizes, I need to mobilize myself as well. Simply put, innocent lives must be protected. All of them, no matter the skin color, religion, ethnicity, age, or gender. They must be protected now, because they are endangered now.
As for the future, we each have a part of responsibility in how it’s going to play out to make sure any casualties are minimized. I hope and pray for no casualties, but I am well aware of the statistics pointing otherwise. Still, even there, I don’t feel as helpless as before. Each of us can make a difference for the better, where we are, in our personal lives, in our outreach projects. Love and education are slow change agents, but they can go a long way.
A Bible passage that was often on my mind as I struggled to make sense of this tragedy and moral dilemma is the parable of the wheat and weeds (Matt. 13:24-30). If God is so invested in saving the good that He is unwilling to lose it even at the cost of preserving the evil engulfing it, how am I to deal with the mix of good and evil in my life?
There is much more I could share about this trip. The generosity of the hundreds of volunteers who choose to spend days, weeks, and even months helping the refugees is something for which I am especially grateful. The beauty in their hearts began to melt a little my disillusionment with humankind that had set in deeply lately. I was particularly moved by a group of Spanish firefighters working with G-Fire, with whom I got to spend a little time. Their golden hearts and resilient dedication were so uplifting.
During my last couple hours in Lesvos I went for a walk on the beach in front of the airport. Many traces of the refugees’ passage pepper the beach: pinched rubber boats, medicine, blankets, food, all mixed in with sand and algae. I took photos and walked by reflectively.
At some point my eyes fell on a tiny glove, dirty, wet, and half buried in sand. I zoomed in and snapped a photo. Then I stared at it for a while. Finally, I bent down and picked it up. The moment I held it in my hand, I realized I could not let go of it. On my hour-long stroll I found a few other such items: children’s and babies’ socks, gloves, and shoes. They are now sitting in my home as a silent witness of history-in-the-making and are a most precious belonging.
Each time I look at them, I am reminded of the children who made it safely to the shore. Sadly, not all make it. Some of it depends on me: on how I choose to invest my time, my money, my energy and efforts during this ongoing crisis. I cannot avoid making a choice. Inaction, as much as action, is a choice.
Lastly, I must say: my heart feels lighter and happier now that fear has given in to love.
How You Can Help the Refugees
Anyone interested in helping the refugees can do so. There is a constant need of donations such as walking shoes, socks, warm coats and winter accessories, blankets, large backpacks, rain ponchos, new underwear, sleeping bags, and tents. Likewise, there is a constant need of volunteers to help run the basic services provided to the refugees, such as cooking, serving food, sorting through donations and organizing warehouses, serving tea, providing clothing and other items, fixing up and cleaning the camp, playing with children, and meeting boats at the shore. Of course, medical staff is much valued, and various other skills can be put to use.
Much of the work is done by grassroots organizations, often locally organized. The Seventh-day Adventist Church has been involved through Adventist Help and ASI Europe, which have done a fantastic job in Lesvos. Unfortunately I didn’t get to meet them because the team had dispersed during the holidays, but I have heard wonderful reports about their work. Many of these organizations need volunteers as well as donations. Here are links to some with which I have become a little acquainted:
Adventist Help: https://www.facebook.com/AdventistHelp/?fref=ts
Lighthouse Refugee Relief on Lesvos: https://www.facebook.com/lighthouserelief?fref=ts
Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island: https://www.facebook.com/dirtygirlslesvos/?fref=ts
Disaster Medics: https://www.facebook.com/disastermedics/
Stitching Bootvluchteling: https://www.facebook.com/hulpactiebootvluchtelingen/?fref=ts
Drop in the Ocean: https://www.facebook.com/Dråpen-i-Havet-1133308640019917/?fref=ts
Positive Action in Housing: https://www.facebook.com/paihltd
Health Point Projects in Lesvos: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1086720568006408/
Better Days for Moria: https://www.facebook.com/Better-Days-for-Moria-1025571667507571/?fref=ts
Off Track Health – Moria Medical Center: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1222083871150539/
Several groups have come together online to help coordinate the volunteering efforts on the Greek islands and in Turkey. A few I know of are:
Infomation Point for Lesvos Volunteers (was crucial for the success of my trip): https://www.facebook.com/groups/informationpointforlesvosvolunteers/?fref=nf
Samos Volunteers Discussion: https://www.facebook.com/groups/766219550168182/
Information Point for Chios Volunteers: https://www.facebook.com/groups/421759534684819/
United Aid Solidarity (AidLeros): https://www.facebook.com/groups/460007497517533/
Immigrant and Refugee Support Group in Kalymons: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1420997938186432/
Refugee Support Volunteer Info Turkey: https://www.facebook.com/groups/211227759210944/
 I need to mention that I have been told no volunteer has been hurt while working in Lesvos. Unfortunately some refugees, especially vulnerable ones, have been targets of different crimes at some point during their journey.
All photos courtesy of the author.