Just the Beginning: Refugees feel a mixture of relief and joy upon reaching Greece. They face untold hardships on the rest of their journey through Europe.
Heartbreak and Hope in Lesbos
Santa Barbara Couple on Front Lines of Refugee Crisis
Thursday, March 10, 2016
It was early last November, and Robert and Robin Jones were eating a late dinner with friends on the Greek island of Lesbos, their home away from home. Ahead was a small harbor bobbing with blue-and-white fishing boats; behind them, the one-street village surrounded by olive groves and sheep trails. Turkish minarets shimmered through the cold night air five miles across the Aegean Sea.
Suddenly they saw Greek coast guard officers sprinting toward the marina. The Joneses knew right away that another refugee boat had capsized. An ambulance arrived with doctors and stretchers. A crowd of villagers gathered to wait. Everyone had seen this all before.
The coast guard returned with a man and his two unconscious children, a boy and girl ages 3 and 5. Their mother had drowned. The family, fleeing a war-ravaged Middle East, had been crossing from Turkey to Greece in an overcrowded boat when rough waters threw passengers overboard. Medics tried but failed to resuscitate the little girl. The boy died on the way to the hospital.
These heartbreaking scenes are hard to talk about for Robert and Robin. The beautiful island of Lesbos, where they have lived on and off for 42 years, has now become a flashpoint for the refugee crisis sweeping Europe and Asia. But since last fall, when they returned to their home in Santa Barbara, they have felt compelled to tell their friends and community what they have witnessed: the tragedies as well as the faith, courage, and kindness displayed by the thousands of refugees and the volunteers who, like themselves, rushed to help in any way they could. “Everywhere was desperation and beauty,” said Robert.
When the Joneses arrived to their house in the village of Molyvos last April, fewer than 150 refugees a week were landing on the island. By the time they left in November, more than 3,000 a day were clamoring onto the beaches. And the numbers still keep rising. So far this year, at least 120,000 refugees have escaped through Turkey to the Greek islands of Samos, Kos, and Lesbos, a tenfold increase over the same period last year, according to the International Organization for Migration. More than 400 have died making the crossing. An average of two children are drowning every day.
Back in Santa Barbara, Robert and Robin describe grim realities beyond the statistics. They aren’t fundraising, and they don’t have a political agenda, but they have spoken before a few groups when asked. “We’re just trying to give people the opportunity to feel what we feel,” said Robin. The couple, who raised three sons and ran a travel business in Santa Barbara for 28 years, offers a lens through which we can begin to comprehend the real human toll that the violence is taking on families throughout Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq — families, the Joneses say, not unlike ours.
“These aren’t terrorists,” said Robin, sitting in their living room on the Riviera. “These are human beings. Many are college-educated, middle-class people who have lost everything.” During their eight months on Lesbos, she and Robert met teachers, construction workers, merchants, doctors, and a leather maker. “It’s every type of person,” said Robert. They’re escaping bombing, torture, chemical warfare, and wholesale slaughter. Most arrive with little more than the clothes on their backs, where they hide IDs and cash. Many carry cell phones they use to contact loved ones stuck behind or in countries they hope to reach.
At one of the island’s two transit camps, Robin met a Syrian woman named Sahar Kharsa. She recorded their conversation. Kharsa, who studied English literature in college and was six months pregnant, said she and her husband, an electrical engineer, left their country because it had become too dangerous for him. ISIS leaders in Syria have reportedly been forcing men to fight for the militant group. Those who refuse are killed. “Our dream,” Kharsa said, “is to live a happy life — me, my husband, and our baby.”
Life was normally easy and quiet in Molyvos. Approximately 1,000 Greeks live in whitewashed houses cascading down a gentle hill below an ancient Genoese fortress. Fishing and olives bring in some money, but tourism had been the island’s lifeblood. Visitors spent leisurely days in the mild climate, experiencing, as Robin said, “the joy of simple living.”
All of that has changed. The tourists have stopped coming. The groups of migrants huddled along Molyvos’s streets have left villagers — already in the vise of Greek’s financial crisis — panicked for their livelihoods. Tensions run high. A number of villagers refuse to offer aid, believing it will only encourage more waves of refugees. But they’re in the minority, said the Joneses.
The rest of the townspeople have transformed into frontline responders alongside volunteers from all over the world. They lift women and children from wrecked boats, pass out food and water, collect trash, clean porta-potties, and offer translation services and medical care. Fishermen are regularly rescuing refugees out of the sea. “The rest of the world may be Greece-weary and refugee-weary,” said Robin, “but when you’re there and you see them, it’s an easy choice to help.”