As we drove down Patission Street recently, a group of migrant families from Syria scurried past on the rain soaked streets. Headscarves covered the womens’ heads, as they passed by in mismatched layers of winter clothing. Their young children equally bundled up for the chill, clinging to their parents. Bulging backpacks and sleeping bags hung off of the backs of each man. Their entire world was on their back. Athens was a stop on a journey of so many unknowns. My heart sank.
Where had they just been? What had they seen? I wondered if all of their family members survived the dangerous sea route to land on the Greek islands.
I am lucky to know the Greek islands for their amazing landscapes and beaches — a vacation or for my work, which I love, as a travel writer/blogger. Now, these islands are another kind of getaway. They are place of hope in the face of frantic desperation — a critical stop for a majority of the migrants surviving their escape from terrible conflict in Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan. These migrants are reaching several Greek island shores in record numbers.
It is a humanitarian crisis.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) reports that more than 9,000 migrants arrived in Greece each day during the last days of October. The highest rate so far this year. According to the latest figures, more than 27,276 migrants reached the shores of Lesvos during a week in mid-October. At one point, Chios was taking in some 300 migrants a day during the peak summer period. With the deteriorating weather conditions, the island is seeing numbers rise to 2,000 a day.
Understanding the numbers tell one story. Then, the video and pictures we encounter tell another. These stories are about survival. The courageousness, bravery, fear and hope in humanity and society – the difficult path they are forced to walk is one born of politics. Moving forward, these hundreds of thousands of refugees are escaping conflicts with a dream of reaching Germany to claim asylum. Some never make it.
From another IOM headline: “In the shipwreck off Samos, the Hellenic Coast Guard rescued a 32-year-old Syrian, but 14 others, including his wife, two children and other relatives are missing, believed drowned.”
These stories are so close to us.
Images, sporadically seen on the Internet or on TV, stay with me: the rubber dinghies bobbing in the deep sea, swollen with migrants; the babies clinging to their parents; the Greek islanders and volunteer crews that literally reach out to help. Then the stories continue at the borders of countries the migrants continue onto: the hate, the kindness, the police, the authorities and always – the pictures show faces of desperation.
A short IOM video entitled “Who are they?” is a three-minute series of clips that effectively binds the stories of these migrant lives, lives that collide on the same journey to find a better life in Europe. Their quotes give identity to their struggle rather than part of a homogeneous mass.
“I want to go somewhere where I am respected as a human.”
“I lost my children in the sea.”
“We saw the death. Death. Death.”
“When we had to get in the boat, the children cried, “’Mommy, I don’t want to go in there.’”
The stories continue for these refugees that land today on the shores of Greece. Their stories move on in the face of long cold and wet nights at crowded Balkan border crossings. I hope for them, for their stories. I hope for them to survive and build a life again.
But, it can’t be done without help.
Back to those numbers. According to the United Nations Refugee Agency, the number of sea arrivals in Greece hit the half million mark. Imagine that the total number of refugees and migrants to reach Europe so far this year via the Mediterranean is now over 643,000. The numbers rise as the death toll continues to rise above 3,000. I am too close to it all — how this mass exodus moves, changing the face of Europe, my adopted home.
Of course, this migrant influx has left many local authorities unprepared. How do you really prepare? If our place isn’t on the sidelines reaching out our hands to help, let’s reach out in another way.
There are ways to help:
United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR): http://donate.unhcr.org/international/lifeline
In Greece/Metadrasi: http://www.metadrasi.org/
International Federation of the Red Cross of Europe: https://www.ammado.com/community/158955
Medical Teams International: https://www.medicalteams.org/donation/mother-child-refugee-donation
For more information on the Missing Migrants project: http://missingmigrants.iom.int/
My heart continues to sink at the images of these migrant families. Of course, seeing them pass through the streets of Athens reminds me just how close it all hits close to home. I hope to do as much as I can.
What is your perspective on this humanitarian crisis?