Yousef was a doctor living in eastern Syria with his wife, three kids, his sister, and her husband. He was one year into his specialization in surgery but never got to finish school. His sister was eight months pregnant.
Back in Syria, people he knew had told him that the Islamic State was trying to recruit doctors to be field medics. Even though that wasn’t really his area of expertise, Yousef knew that if he refused them he’d become their enemy. He was already on Assad’s watch list for writing blogs about gay rights, atheism, and the importance of secular government. It became increasingly clear to him that all sides were closing in and he had no desire to side with any of them. To the dangerous people he was being forced to deal with, it wasn’t just his life that was being threatened. His whole family was in danger. He felt like he had no choice but to pack up and flee. They took what they could carry and headed to Turkey, where they found refugee camps that were overcrowded and unsanitary. It wasn’t designed for the long term and they knew they couldn’t stay. They couldn’t make a life there. That’s how they all ended up aboard a tiny, inflatable dinghy floating across the water between the Turkish coast and the Greek island of Lesvos.
The weather was bad that morning. It was windy. The waves were vicious and high. Some people didn’t want to get on the boat, but the Turkish smugglers were unforgiving. Once you’ve paid your €1000 (or more), it’s too late. You’re getting on that boat whether you want to or not. The smugglers had sticks something like baseball bats and threatened to beat anyone who didn’t get on the boat. Yousef had heard from other refugees that sometimes the smugglers carry guns so he didn’t press the issue.
The smugglers pushed over fifty people onto the little boat and picked a random refugee to be the “captain.” The smugglers don’t personally deliver the refugees to Greece. They just put them all in an inflatable, heat sealed piece of rubber with a small engine on the back, shove them off, and say good luck. The refugees have to pilot themselves across the water. It’s a journey that can take as little as three hours if everything goes well, but the people on Yousef’s boat had some troubles during the journey.
It’s an understandably stressful time and everyone’s adrenaline is pumping. People are holding on for dear life on the waves, trying to protect their children and keep dry as best they can. The people on the boat started talking about what would happen when they arrived in Greece. They knew surprisingly little about who would be on the other side waiting for them. One person said they were supposed to wait on the beach for the Greek police. Another person was concerned that there would be racist, xenophobic people waiting for them on the beach and they were worried about what would happen, who they could trust. His biggest fear was that they’d be turned away and would have to go back to Turkey. Another person said they had to walk to a camp to get registered. His brother had done it a month earlier and walked four days to get to the camp where he registered with the European Union.
One man didn’t like the way the “captain” was piloting the boat and insisted it would be safer if he steered instead. Tempers started to flare in the disagreement. The two refugees got aggressive with each other and ended up in a fistfight on the overcrowded boat. While trying to get out of the way of the fight, a bigger man accidentally stepped on a little girl’s hand. The little girl started shrieking and at first nobody was quite sure why. In the stress of it all, Yousef’s sister started having contractions.
Yousef was already concerned for his family’s safety but now the boat was rocking and he was outright panicking. He started running through scenarios in his head. His wife and kids were not very strong swimmers. If the boat flipped, he figured he could probably swim one of his kids to safety, but not all three. He wondered if his sister would be able to handle herself in the frigid water and what would happen to the baby. How would he make those decisions? The thought entered his head that he didn’t care if he lived or not as long as his family could make it.
Thankfully the men eventually stopped fighting and they tried to resume their journey. Lesvos was in sight. Everyone was soaked and cold and all they had to do was make it to land and then they could go their separate ways. As they approached, they saw some lights on the beach in the early morning that seemed to be flashing at them. They didn’t know who these people were and the new “captain” made the decision to try to land further down the beach.
Five hours after getting shoved on a boat in Turkey, Yousef’s boat landed on a secluded beach at the bottom of a cliff. It was about twenty minutes before volunteer aid workers could get down the cliff to them and start treating hypothermia, getting them warm and dry. They called an ambulance to come get Yousef’s sister and took her directly to the hospital.
Yousef said he was surprised to hear most of the volunteers speaking English. A volunteer explained to him that the volunteers were from all over the world: Spain, Germany, Holland, America, Malaysia, some locals from Greece. English was the most common second language, so that’s what they communicated to each other in.
Once his family all appeared to be safe, Yousef told the volunteers he was a doctor and offered to help the other refugees. One of the lifeguards said he didn’t need to worry about it, because they had brought doctors. He should take care of himself and his family first. The little girl’s hand was already being tended to. They got everyone up the hill to a spot where a UN representative had arranged transport directly to the camp at Moria where they would get registered. From there they were transferred to a different, smaller camp for more vulnerable families called Pikpa because of the situation with Yousef’s sister. She ended up not giving birth on Lesvos. A few days later, the hospital discharged her and they all went together as a family to Moria to get registered.
Yousef told me this story at Pikpa during some downtime a few days after he landed. I got the impression that he just needed to talk about it, to tell someone, anyone. He offered me a Syrian cigarette and we stood in a common area of the camp while his kids played in a hammock nearby. He was through the worst of it. Pikpa had clean, dry clothes for him. His family was dry and safe and fed, but clearly he was still processing the journey. It’s a moment and a story that will be a part of him forever.
He said he was amazed there were people from all over the world there on Lesvos volunteering their time and money to help people like him. He kept thanking me for being there, for volunteering, for playing with his kids and making them happy. Maybe at that moment I represented all the other men and women working hard out there on the beaches and in the other camps. Maybe I was the stand-in for the Spanish and Dutch lifeguards and doctors who rushed down the cliff to help his group. I told him I was only one small part of the process and that there were a lot of other people who deserve credit, but he wasn’t having it. He’s such a nice guy.
I’m a tiny part of his story now, and he’s a big part of mine. I’m never going to forget Yousef’s story or the way I felt when he shared it with me, shook my hand, hugged me. We didn’t share contact info or anything, so I don’t know where Yousef or his beautiful family and hilarious kids ended up but I have all the love in the world for them and what they’ve been through. I wish them the best lives that Europe can offer.
Of course, this is just one of many stories I heard. Dozens of these boats land on Lesvos every day. Each has 40-60 people aboard. Hundreds of thousands of refugees have come through Greece. I had conversations with hundreds of people, and their stories are so compelling. I hope sharing it with you helps to humanize the struggle of the crisis. These are major humanitarian issues that require international attention, but my viewpoint on it is very different now. I’ve seen the face of the crisis in Yousef and others. I’ve held the children in my arms, from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere. These are people who need help, and I’m just grateful for the opportunity and means to pitch in whatever it is that I’ve got.
I have more to say about my experience on Lesvos. Watch for more blogs in the next few days.
Note: Yousef is not his real name. Whether that anonymity is necessary or not, I don’t know, but I’d rather err on the side of safety.