22 October

What a day among the refugees of Lesvos—and the many people dedicated to serving them—taught me about compassion

On the drive from the Lesvos airport to the island’s north shore, life vests were scattered everywhere. Neon orange exoskeletons were peppered all along the brown shores of the Aegean Sea—the flamboyant hue puncturing the otherwise downcast tone, dotting the landscape far into the horizon. It was easy to hear that hundreds arrived on Lesvos every day, but the visual representation was startling.

Hein was the first person we met on the island. Aside from being our guide for the day, he was also a missionary from South Africa. He had lived in Athens for the previous year, but was brought to Lesvos to assist with the growing migrant crisis. He’d packed to stay for a couple weeks but had now been working here for six months.

Orange life vets dot the northern shore of Lesvos. Gray skies loom over the island.
 

When we first saw him, he appeared much like the island itself: damp, disheveled, overrun. Despite the gracious attitude, there was a weight behind his eyes that could also be seen in most people working on the island. The magnitude of the crisis, as well as the depth, were getting the best of him.

“We work six days a week, pulling rafts of 50 people or more out of the sea, and helping them get to the temporary camps along the shore of the island,” he explained. “By the time our rest day comes, I’m ready to pass out. But when I look out my window and see two or three more rafts coming our way, how can I not go back out there to help?”

***

Driving us along the shoreline toward the camp where he volunteers, Hein noticed us marveling once more about the life vests. “And those are just from the last couple days,” he said. “These shores are cleaned up a few times a week.”

Ahead of us, we saw a car struggling to rise out of a ditch on the roadside. After a long day or so of rain, most of the dirt roads we had been driving on were becoming more difficult to traverse. We pulled over to assist and saw four Syrian refugees rounding the corner, presumably just having made it onto the island. They saw us all working at getting the car unstuck and joined in as well, wordlessly but beaming.

Together we were able to successfully move the car, and the men who had been walking continued down the road, smiling and waving.

***

The dark skies and rough water usually means smaller numbers of people crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey to Lesvos.
 

Driving along the edges of Lesvos in caravan, we noticed two black dots bobbing in the distance. “Those are rafts,” Hein pointed out, his eyes adapted to spotting them. We pulled the cars over and joined a group of volunteers and journalists, ready to assist as needed.

I first saw Father Christoforos as we began helping a raft come to shore. His black cassock publicized his Greek Orthodox priesthood, and his black kalimavkion hid most of his long red hair. He stood off to the side of the excitement, a lit cigarette in his hand. The smoke blended into the downcast skies. Even as rain started falling, he was unflinching.

I don’t know why I did not trust him. Perhaps it was the way he just stood there—so nonchalant and appearing to be completely unsympathetic. How could someone watch from afar and not help those seeking safety? Something seemed off.

After getting men, women, and children of varying age off the rafts, we walked with them to the nearest temporary camp, where they would receive food and blankets and wait for a bus to take them to the port nearby. Father Christoforos followed, distant and apart from the group.

The magnitude of the crisis, as well as the depth, were getting the best of him.

At the camp, Hein began walking us through all the procedures. At the site, there was a large chain-linked fence around an enormous canopy. “That canopy can cover 250 people at its maximum,” Hein told us. “But we usually have two or three times that. Last night we had over 2,000 people in this location alone. And there are several of these every few miles along the shore.”

While Hein showed us the inside of the canopy, the front entrance opened, and Father Christoforos walked in as if he owned the place. My suspicion of him had been growing, and as I sat stewing, he very calmly and kindly addressed us. “Thank you all so much for being here and being willing to assist us.” He introduced himself and proceeded to give us a crash course in aiding the refugees that were staying the night. He spoke Greek to volunteers from the island and Arabic to those from Syria. Having worked at this camp nearly every night for the past six months or more, he had every step and routine down to an art form. Much like the way Hein could now pinpoint rafts with a distinct and otherworldly accuracy, it appeared Father Christoforos could predict upcoming complications.

Born and raised in California, Father Christoforos converted to Orthodoxy in his early 20s. After studying in seminary, he was given the opportunity to serve at a church on Lesvos. Since the migrant crisis began, he had spent most nights along the shores, waiting for people to arrive. “When there are only a few people to help, I join the other volunteers. Lately we have had an influx of assistance, so I watch and wait for a specific need. But I’m always here,” he said, “Where else could I be?”

***

Having worked at this camp nearly every night for the past six months or more, he had every step and routine down to an art form.

It was nearing midnight, and it appeared that much of the island was calmer than normal. Because of the sporadic thunderstorms, fewer rafts were making the dangerous voyage across the Aegean Sea. Air temperature was hovering around 50 degrees, but the occasional strong winds made it feel much cooler. As those still waiting were settling in and eventually getting some much needed rest, we were visited by a couple of volunteers from a neighboring camp a few miles away.

“It has been rather slow at our camp tonight, we think because of the rain,” one of them said to us. “We wanted to see if you guys might need any help.”

The two men wore matching bright yellow shirts that read “Dråpen i Havet,” or “A Drop in the Ocean,” the name of an organization based in Norway. They both were concert cellists from Oslo who decided to spend their couple of weeks off volunteering on the island. I asked them about the needs of such humanitarian organizations so we could let people back in the United States know. “Really, the biggest need right now is hands and feet,” one of the men said. “There will always be food and blankets. Right now there has been more help than normal, which is fantastic. But there’s never enough.”

***

Our sleepless night was calm, but still busy. While most of the refugees were sleeping through the night, possibly for the first time in many days, some were awake, offering to handle any small tasks, like doling out food or adjusting the canopy flaps when serious gusts would damage them. A man named Ahmed and his friend were eager to share their story and pulled out smartphones to show pictures of their children.

We were visited by other groups, some bringing blankets and extra bananas, simply because they had more than they needed. Volunteers from Samaritan’s Purse, an organization based in the United States, stopped by to check on our generator and provide mechanical repairs and fuel.
We were bombarded by care.

A diaper, bottle, and Quran are among the remnants of a recent arrival.
 

Around 7 in the morning, while most in the canopy were still sleeping, Hein showed up to take us back to where we were staying. He slowly navigated the vehicle around potholes and the occasional felled branches. The shores were calmer than normal, and with the overnight storm finally past us, this was the first time since landing on the island that we could see blue skies.

We asked Hein what was ahead for him during the day, even though we probably could have already guessed. He sighed.

“More of the same. We’re not sure when this new surge will end, but last night was certainly the calmest it’s been in a while.” He thanked us for staying at the camp in his place—it was the first time he had been able to sleep in nearly 72 hours.

Every moment on the island was a needed reminder of the constant and quiet work of love happening all over the world. After experiencing it, I feel guilty at times for doubting it was ever there in the first place. It may not hit our news or Facebook feed, but maybe that’s because it is a persistent force that works in the background and on the margins. It doesn’t grab our attention because it is an ongoing and inconspicuous work.

I don’t know if there will ever be a world without need. One can only hope. But my time in Lesvos—with Hein and Father Christoforos and Ahmed and the volunteers from A Drop in the Ocean—taught me that no matter how hard it may be to see dire need, there will never be a world without compassion.

 
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