For a week, a month or even longer, Greenpeace staff and volunteers have been lending their maritime expertise to Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors Without Borders (MSF) to help rescue refugees in distress at sea.
They come from all over the world, from different countries, cultures and backgrounds but they have one thing in common: the Island of Lesbos, the frontline of Europe’s biggest refugee crisis since WWII. It’s also an island where MSF and Greenpeace crew alike can rely on each other like family members.
Camille Ghislain presents below a selection of stories from some of the many people working with MSF and Greenpeace to provide safe passage across the Aegean Sea.
Chris Petts – boat driver
“We have the chance to be born on the right side of the border, at the right time.”
Chris Petts is a photographer who comes from the UK but lives in Paris. He arrived on Lesbos on February 26 to work as a boat driver.
“The images I saw in the news and on social media made me think that someone had to do something. I was also pushed by the fact that I have five children and every time I see a child endangered or even worse: dead, I think I’m lucky that it’s not me and not my children. We have the chance to be born on the right side of the border, at the right time.”
Chris, like many others, went to Lesbos with a sense of wanting to ‘pay something back’.
His best memory from Lesbos comes from assisting a refugee boat at sea for the first time. Never before had he seen such broad and genuine smiles – the moment when the refugees were told they were in Greek waters and that clean, dry clothes awaited them on the beach 20 minutes away.
Chris reiterates that Greenpeace is providing a short-term solution to save lives but what is really needed is a long-term solution: “It doesn’t matter how effective we are, there are still people drowning.”
Oussama Omrane – cultural mediator
“The Greenpeace and MSF collaboration is like putting Messi and Ronaldo in one team together, victory is assured.”
Oussama is a cultural mediator working for MSF. He arrived on Lesbos on January 13. He is the connection point between the refugees and rescuers at sea or the on-land NGO support staff. It’s not just about translating one language to another – you have to be calm, find the right words and know the refugee’s culture, he says.
While out on the water during the joint MSF-Greenpeace boat operations, Oussama says his presence was often the only clear way for refugees to interact with and communicate to the rescue boats, often in tense and difficult situations.
He says that MSF was a life-changing experience and that being able to work with Greenpeace on this mission had made him “a better man”. Working side by side with both organisations has helped him learn so much and surpass his own boundaries.
Daniel Rudie – boat crew
“We have to do things spontaneously.”
As a boat crewmember, Daniel’s role has been to facilitate the work of MSF medics and translators by ensuring the boat gets them to where they need to be at sea in any situation.
For him, it’s obvious that MSF and Greenpeace have played an essential role in helping people on Lesbos:
“Greenpeace is uniquely qualified to be able to act quickly, because of the boat training that we have and experience. In the past Greenpeace has also performed some similar refugee-type missions, such as after big typhoons.”
Mariadina Lilis – radio operator
“We are all humans and we have to treat everyone humanely. Let your heart speak. Let your heart help whomever is in need.”
The story of Mariadina starts in a refugee camp in Athens where she was working as a volunteer one day per week. On December 20, she was given the opportunity to go to Lesbos and start volunteering for the Greenpeace mission.
“In the beginning it was only for 10 days,” she recalls, but three months later, she is still on Lesbos as an active member of the team and now employed by MSF.
Perched high on top of the hills overlooking the small stretch of water between Lesbos and Turkey, Mariadina works as a boat spotter from the observation point and communicates with the rescue boats on the water.
For her, the collaboration between MSF and Greenpeace in Lesbos is the perfect match. It combines the right people with the right skills. This makes the best mix ever, she says.
Mike Harms – boat driver
“Everybody is on the same line. We can trust each other very quickly. We are all from different horizons, but in the end, we are all a big family, with the same goal.”
Mike came to Lesbos because he had the strong feeling he really had to go. After asking permission from his manager and wife, he arrived on Lesbos on February 26.
As a boat driver, he’s been learning a lot during his stay. He will never forget feeling like a member of one big family, of how MSF and Greenpeace have created a strong feeling of team spirit.
Hussein Khalili – cultural mediator
Hussein works with MSF as a cultural mediator. It’s a new role introduced by MSF because of the unprecedented situation on Lesbos.
Usually MSF tries to works with local staff, but due to the unique situation on Lesbos – where refugees can come from many different places, such as Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq or Pakistan – they needed to employ people with both the language and cultural knowledge of the people they were trying to help.
Besides his work with the refugees in Lesbos, Hussein also wants to highlight the great generosity the locals of Lesbos have shown in the midst of the crisis.
“On the island, fishermen saved a lot of lives, but there are also many residents who opened up their arms and doors to the refugees,” he says.
Unfortunately, the locals of Lesbos are facing severe financial hardship this year.
The island lives on tourism, but tourist bookings have dropped drastically due to the refugee crisis (some suggest bookings have dropped 70% to 80% compared with last season). As a result, many locals fear financial ruin.
It’s why Hussein and a group of volunteers have created a new project for the summer: an art festival, focusing on the island’s heritage to attract another type of tourism – ethical tourism.
Grant Oakes – boat coordinator
“I don’t think you can separate humanitarian from environmental work”
When Grant was 11 he already knew what he wanted to do when he was older: fight for the environment on a Greenpeace boat. His dream came true and he has been navigating with Greenpeace for 20 years.
Grant works in Lesbos as a boat team coordinator. For him it was clear that Greenpeace should be active on the island because as it has the necessary expertise, resources and logistical support network for maritime operations.
“I don’t think you can separate humanitarian from environmental work, both impact each other directly. I think whenever there is a need, especially a need like this and because we have the capability to assist, we should always consider deploying effort and resources to it.”
He will never forget December 16 when a boat carrying about 85 people capsized off the northern shores of Lesbos. MSF and Greenpeace crews responded, helping to save 83 people. Tragically though, two people died.
On that day, Grant and his team participated in the rescue operations.
“It was chaotic. We didn’t know how many people were in the water … we just had to respond and everybody did an amazing job.”
Anwahr Athahb – cultural mediator
“It is not their choice. No one will do this – quit their home, their job, their family if they are not forced to do it.”
Anwahr speaks Arabic and is often the first point of contact with the refugees. It’s a special situation for her because she was also a refugee when she was younger.
Her best memory from Lesbos was the time she went to Mantamados, a transit centre run by MSF where new arrivals are offered first assistance. She had the opportunity to talk to the people there and listen to their touching stories. All of them have a different story on how they fled the country but harsh reality has brought them together on the same island.
“These well educated people possessed a job and a home, but have been forced to leave everything behind,” she explains. She will never forget the smile on the children’s faces.
Olga Darkadaki – boat spotter
“I have to keep on acting and advocating for a safer passage”
Olga is a passionate environmental activist working for Greenpeace. She felt compelled to come to Lesbos after hearing about the experiences of her Greenpeace Greece colleagues.
She will always remember the first time that she saw from the observation point how the MSF-Greenpeace crews assisted an overloaded refugee boat after arriving on the scene before any others.
“I remember seeing from the telescope how ‘our guys’ waved and smiled and then received so many smiles back. I was far from the actual scene, yet I could see their emotions and felt so happy at that moment, proud, relieved and hopeful.”
Olga stresses how the experience in Lesbos has given her faith in humanity and perspective on life: “It has made me feel part of this crisis, which means that I can no longer just read the news and move on. I have to keep on acting and advocating for a safer passage and humane treatment, even after leaving.”
Camille Ghislain is a Social Media Officer for Greenpeace Belgium.
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