When I heard the news that some governors in the United States were trying to forbid the resettlement of Syrian refugees in their states, I remembered the wet infants I’d been handed on Lesbos. As rubber rafts overloaded with refugees floundered in the surf off the Greek island, photographers weren’t exempt from helping to get people safely ashore. The boat is bouncing, people are yelling, children are falling in the water, and someone hands me a wet shivering child. Making images, at least at times, has to wait.
In the wake of the Paris attacks by ISIS militants, right-wing politicians in the U.S. were quick to promote what could, in all seriousness, be termed sodomy. Ezekiel 16 defines the sin of Sodom as refusing hospitality. Now this was the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were arrogant, overfed and unconcerned; they did not help the poor and needy. Sodomites in the U.S. not only opposed the Obama administration’s proposal to carefully vet and resettle 10,000 Syrians fleeing violence and oppression, but some proposed using troops to detain the 2,000 who’ve already been resettled here. Presidential candidate Ben Carson compared refugees to rabid dogs, and one mayor in Virginia even went so far as to praise the internment of Japanese-Americans during the war years, and suggest we replicate the painful experience. Such xenophobia contrasted dramatically with French President Francois Hollande’s announcement after the attacks that his country would welcome an additional 30,000 Syrian refugees. “France will remain a country of freedom,” he said, refusing to leverage fear into political favor.
Over the last couple of months I made two trips to Europe to document the mass migration from the middle east and South Asia toward northern Europe. I photographed and interviewed migrants and refugees in Greece, Serbia, Hungary, Austria and Germany. It was often an emotional assignment, and I’m grateful to so many people who let me be a voyeur for a few moments of their journeys toward a place where they can raise their children in peace.
This mass movement of people is an incredibly complex phenomenon. I have written before about the plight of Iraqi and Syrian refugees in Lebanon and Jordan, and before that of Iraqi refugees inside Syria. And others are producing eloquent writing and powerful images that capture the spirit of the current exodus. There’s also good background material available on the crisis’ roots in climate change and in U.S. policy toward the region, as well as on the political origins of ISIS. So I feel no need to reproduce what others have done better. Instead, let me just offer a few glimpses of who I met and what I saw along the way.
The Hungary-Austria border
Mayada Ari got off a train and walked three kilometers through the dark streets of Hegyeshalom, Hungary, until she arrived at the border crossing with Austria. As a cold wind whipped around them, she thankfully received blankets from a church agency and wrapped them around her four children, embracing them in lengthy hugs to keep them warm. While her husband grabbed some food for the family, she found some warmer clothes for one daughter who kept shivering.
She had been a math teacher in Deir ez-Zor, Syria, when the constant dust in the air from the bombing caused her eyesight to deteriorate. And she said she was constantly afraid for her children. So the family left its home behind and set off for western Europe. “We heard that the best life is in Germany,” she told me, reflecting a typical sentiment among refugees; they often didn’t know much about the differences between European nations, but they did know that Chancellor Angela Merkel had said that refugees were welcome there. So they had traversed Turkey, crossed the Aegean to Greece, then passed through Macedonia and Serbia until arriving in Hungary. She wearily acknowledged that the journey had been difficult and dangerous. “But it was more dangerous to remain at home,” she said. She and her family then walked off into the night toward Austria.
At that same border crossing, I met Rosala Holzschuh, who’d come on her own from Vienna to help out. As the refugees walked past, she was handing out food and blankets, but also keeping a close watch for children with no shoes, or inadequate shoes for the cold weather. When she spotted one, she grabbed their parent and steered them toward a pile of donated socks and shoes.
As Europe faces its largest refugee crisis in decades, governments and aid agencies are overwhelmed, and the shifting lines of the mass migration called for a more agile response than they could often provide. So tens of thousands of volunteers from across the continent literally came to the rescue, shepherding the tens of thousands of refugees and migrants crossing their lands, helping the strangers to feel welcome.
Many, including Rosala, were organized through social media. “The children are freezing, and they arrive here after hours on the train with no food or water. So we need to help. I found a group asking for volunteers on Facebook, and so I come here and prepare sandwiches and try to give the refugees a warm welcome,” she told me.
All across Europe, wherever I found refugees, I found volunteers helping them. Some came on their own, like an old man I met walking through a park in Belgrade, pulling small toys out of a bag to hand to children lurking in tents on a cold morning. Some were extremely well organized, like the Austrians who had turned the main train station in Vienna into a place of hospitality (with its own clinic), or the Norwegians who waded into the surf on Lesbos to shepherd babies safely to shore.
Along the Serbia-Croatia border, a group of volunteers from the Czech Republic was providing the software for the migrant response. Several NGOs were present, providing medical care and raincoats and food and blankets, but it was the Czechs (in yellow vests) who walked the migrants through the border crossing, explaining to them where they were and what options they had.
In places like Lesbos, the volunteers made the difference between life and death. With the Greek Coast Guard overwhelmed, lifeguards from Spain pulled people from the water, sometimes dead, sometimes alive. They saved lives daily, including this Afghan refugee who was pulled from the water with a body temperature that had fallen to almost 80 degrees. I was later told he survived.
In places where my own denomination was present, I was proud to see the compassionate response from ordinary people. Helene Blindl is a retired teacher in Linz, Austria, and when a local church facility took in several teenage Afghan refugees, she knew they’d need to learn German. So she quickly volunteered. Here’s a photo of her with the youth, and following that there’s a video of Rolf Held, a pastor in Messstetten, Germany. I love his calm, pastoral response, which contrasts dramatically with the hatred and hysteria spun by sodomite Christians in the United States.
While many of the volunteers brought specific skills with them, the most important thing they offered was their presence. They proclaimed with their presence that the newcomers were welcome. Nowhere was this more obvious than on Lesbos, where many refugees crawled onto the rocky shore traumatized by their often harrowing journey across the sea.
The nuns of Samos
In some cases, volunteers got involved, well, involuntarily. On the Greek island of Samos, thousands of refugees disembarked from their flimsy boats and spent several hours climbing a steep hillside to knock on the door of the Zoodochos Pigi monastery, where 15 Orthodox nuns live what was once a relative quiet life of prayer.
“We give them water and bread, and we call the police to come pick them up,” Sister Evniki, the monastery’s mother superior, told me when I visited the picturesque monastery. “But sometimes the authorities are so overwhelmed with the number of refugees landing here that they cannot come, so we tell the refugees how to walk to town.”
The refugees have been instructed by the traffickers who provided them the boats that they should seek assistance from the nuns. “One man showed me Google Maps on his mobile phone, and the traffickers had marked our monastery as the place where they should seek help,” said Sister Evniki (who declined to be photographed).
The refugees have complicated life in the monastery. The nuns’ limited water supply has run out at times, overtaxed by the thirsty immigrants. Trash has piled up where the refugees wait, the lack of a toilet is a problem, and while some tourists arriving to visit the monastery have shared their own food and water with the refugees, others take one look at the refugees and leave. For a monastery that depends on selling embroidery and painted icons to visitors, that’s a problem.
Yet Sister Evniki says the nuns will continue to respond with compassion. “We believe that in each person we see the face of Jesus Christ, and we have to help them,” she said.
Waiting with the dead
When the body of 3-year old Aylan Kurdi was found on a Turkish beach earlier this year, it provoked a huge controversy about the use of such images. At times people seemed more upset about the photo than the dead child. Despite that discussion, refugee children continue to die attempting to cross the Aegean.
One morning on Lesbos I went out before dawn to see if any boats were arriving early. As I drove along the rocky coast from Molyvos toward Skala Sikamineas, I found some Greek fishers who had discovered the body of what appeared to be an Afghan boy of about 8 or 10 years of age. He had drowned, apparently one of the passengers on a capsized raft late the day before. I had seen the Coast Guard helicopter the night before searching the sea with a spotlight, looking for survivors.
I waited with the body until some Spanish lifeguards arrived and covered the body with a raincoat that was lying on the rocks nearby. Then I waited another hour or so until a van from the local funeral home came to collect the body. It was one of several stops along the beach that morning for the funeral van.
As I sat with the boy, I thought about what the journey must have been like for him. Fleeing war toward the promise of a new life. He had lost one shoe, and the one that remained looked new. Had his parents bought him new clothes for the journey? What happened to the rest of his family? And what happened to their dreams?
One windy day on Lesbos, I watched the Greek Coast Guard pluck people from a raft just before it went under. I saw some bodies floating on the sea from rafts that didn’t make it. There are some Spanish lifeguards who were volunteering on Lesbos, riding their jet skis with a rescue swimmer on the back. They were true heroes. But then they tried to save one guy they found floating on the Aegean, clinging to a partially deflated raft, trying to swim to Turkey. Despite his assurances that he didn’t need saving, they rescued him anyway. Brought him to a beach. But some people there remembered him from earlier in the day when he’d tried to take a raft back out after dropping off some refugees on a particularly difficult beach to access. He apparently hoped to drop them off before the volunteers arrived and stabbed the boat–a standard protocol to prevent the smugglers from reusing the rubber boats. I took photos of him, but from atop a cliff, furiously tossing people’s belongings out of the boat. Some volunteers did reach the beach, however, and stabbed the boat over his protests.
When the lifeguards drug him ashore, people started shouting that he was a Turkish trafficker. And some wanted to kill him. They threw rocks at him. Some cooler heads prevailed, brought him to the shore, but people kept coming up and kicking or punching him. They were especially angry today because on the same beach the day before, they had failed to resuscitate some children who had fallen in the water from sinking boats. Amid the kicking and punching, they searched his waist pack and found some watches and jewelry. Whether that was some sort of payment from the migrants or loot he had taken from people who had drowned wasn’t clear. But it was incriminating, and the scene turned even nastier. I learned some new expletives in several languages.
People tried calling the police, but there was no connection, and the police were very overworked here. Finally a Norwegian volunteer, worried that the crowd would kill the guy, offered a compromise where he and one of the angry people would drive the trafficker to the police station in Molyvos, the closest town. I was asked to come along to document the process, just in case something happened. So we drove him to the police station, while the angry guy (a Palestinian living in Denmark who spent several weeks as a volunteer on Lesbos) tried to show him pictures on his cell phone of a dead child on the beach the day before. The trafficker didn’t want to look.
We walked him into the police station, me doing my thing and taking photos, and one officer, apparently having seen too many movies about movies, quickly yelled “Cut!” and pushed me out of the office. But they took custody of the smuggler, and we sat out in front of the police station for a while listening to the police hit him as he repeatedly denied everything. We were assured by a source that he would be prosecuted. Unfortunately, he’s at the bottom of the Turkish Mafia food chain; the criminals who make big bucks off the suffering of people fleeing war will not be in the docket.
While the xenophobes in the U.S. love to claim the refugees will be a drag on the economy, the facts say otherwise. That’s part of why Angela Merkel wants refugees in Germany: they will help revitalize the economy of a country with an aging population. Yet some are not content to wait for the long-term benefit, and all along the migrant trail there are traffickers of one kind or another, including bus and taxi drivers who upped their prices for the refugees. At one point I was talking with a group of refugees and volunteers in Serbia, and I made a joke that children in the United States dreamed of growing up to become Serbian taxi drivers. They all thought it was hilarious.
The phrase I heard over and over along the refugee trail was “Thank you.” From speakers of Arabic and Farsi and other languages, everyone knew how to say “Thank you” in English. As volunteers handed them blankets or food, they said thanks. As hands reached into a wet boat to lift out a child or an elderly person and carry them to safety, the words “Thank you” came forth. As new neighbors said, “Welcome,” the travelers, even when weary from the road, inevitably responded with “Thank you.” It may have been the only thing they knew how to say in English, but they said it a lot. Offering thanks, as with these Eritrean refugees in Germany, became a way of life.
They even said it to me as I was capturing images of them walking across borders or disembarking on a rocky Greek island. Or shopping in a grocery store in Messstetten, Germany, where I found one refugee family and started shooting, then afterward followed them home to the army barracks where they stayed. The closest I came to taking a selfie on these travels was when I helped to carry their nine-month old son Mohammed. I tried to teach Moe the song “The Purple People Eater,” but my Arabic wasn’t quite up to the task. Here’s Moe and me, and then Moe safely back with his mom.
It was I, of course, who owed the refugees the thanks for letting me into their lives for a brief moment, and for giving all of us an an example of courage, of loving their families enough to risk their lives to seek a place where their kids won’t be bombed. But it was they who said thanks.
Nabil Minas was one. When the boat that carried him from Turkey arrived on the shores of Lesbos in October, the Syrian refugee waded through the water to leave his children on the rocky shore, then fell on his face and kissed the ground, which was covered with the black rubber of deflated migrant boats. A Christian, Minas crossed himself and covered his face with his hands, weeping with joy. He then stood up and went around hugging everyone, including Lisbeth Svendsen, a Norwegian volunteer who was standing on the shore, embracing Minas’ wife and daughter. He then came and hugged me, getting the front of me all wet, kissing me on the cheek as he blurted out, “Thank you.”
You are welcome.
A selection of my images from Lesbos can be seen online, as well as refugee images from elsewhere in Europe. You can also see images from earlier this year of Syrian and other refugees in Jordan and Lebanon.