It’s seven in the morning and a boat full of Afghan refugees is approaching the shores of Lesbos’ Katia Beach. Teams of volunteers are ready to welcome them. The children are their priority, they must get them safely ashore.
Ahment and his family have just arrived from Afghanistan.
“We fought with our smuggler,” explained the 15-year-old boy. “He told us that it would be a very easy task for us, that we could walk around the hills over two hours. We had 31 hours walking around those hills. The boat was very dangerous, we were scared and it took 2 hours.”
As we drove towards north Lesbos the weather got decidedly worse. The “Hellas Lifeguard’s” base is next to Molyvos.
We met up with professional lifeguard Mania Bikof and her team as they were about to set off on another patrol in poor weather conditions.
A mother of four, Mania had to leave her children in Athens to come to Lesbos as a volunteer.
“Our body temperature falls significantly when we get wet,” said Mania. “We have long shifts and work every day of the week.”
“We don’t have the right to approach a boat without the coastguard’s permission,” she added. “We can stay close to the boat so that it won’t sink but that’s all we can do. The coastguard goes out to collect the refugees.”
Back on land, the refugees from Iraq and Afghanistan can have boiled eggs, a piece of bread and a banana for breakfast, mostly relying on the help of the volunteers for food.
Joost, a Dutch volunteer, brought this truck all the way from Amsterdam and has turned it into a kitchen.
Back home the 32-year-old was a television creative director. It all started when Joost, along with some friends, went to welcome refugees at Amsterdam’s central train station. He then decided to come to Lesbos for a week, but he has been here since November.
“We started to talk to Swedish NGO’s who actually had experience in making 1000 meals a day, but they didn’t have a food truck,” explained Joost. “We had a food truck, but we didn’t have any cooks. So that’s how we started to join forces. This truck is now able to produce 10.000 meals a day.”
Volunteers from all over the world work continuously to help feed the refugees while members of “Knitting Solidarity in Mytilene” meet once a week in a coffee shop. They knit scarves and hats for the refugees. If someone wants to help, they don’t accept money – just wool.
“We knit together for the little children who come here,” said Olga Plakiatou. “We want to make them warm and give them our love and wishes. We are always thinking about those children. When we’re in our warm houses we’re wondering where they are and what they’re doing. Should we be doing something for them? Let’s knit a bit more.”
Twice a week they visit the camps, beaches and the port where they meet the refugees and put the hats on the children’s heads. They could give them to the NGO’s, but they want to do it themselves.
At the port of Mytilene they met Moustafa. The 30-year-old man had managed to get to Austria where he got a permit to stay, but he returned to Iraq to get his family. So he is doing the same cold and dangerous trip twice.
There is no doubt that the regugee crisis has changed life on Lesbos. Some locals who own restaurants, hotels and taxis have made money.
However, the tourist industry is suffering. Lefteris Karablias, a tourist agent, said he was facing economic catastrophe and added: “For the summer of 2016 we are expecting 60 – 70% fewer tourists than in the summer of 2015. That is the situation now and I can’t see how it will change. It might get worse but I definitely don’t think it will get better.”
Back on the beach, the lifeguards and volunteers light fires to keep warm. They also serve as a guiding light for any refugee boats.
Mania and Joost join forces and share their experiences while life and death walk side by side on Lesbos.
“Out of the 120 nights we have been here, the toughest one was when we were in the icy water for 3 hours looking for bodies from a shipwreck,” recalled Mania. “As dawn broke here at our base in Limantziki we discovered the body of a dead baby.”
Joost, who occasionally helps as a lifeguard as well, had a happier memory to share.
“I’m not used to this, I’m not a lifeguard but I can swim. I had a baby in my arms and I continued swimming. It was unconscious and I thought the baby might die… but she made it.”