I watched the sun rise over the Turkish Izmir coast this morning. The mountain ranges cast watercolour layers of silhouettes across the sky as a large, inky orange sun crept up through the horizon. It was 7.30 in the morning, and it had been a quiet first night on the night shift.
Meeting up at 4am after a meagre 20 minutes of restless sleep beforehand, I was nervous about what the morning might bring. Within 15 minutes of being on the road we arrived at a boat landing site with the refugees already on the shore, accompanied by many different groups of volunteers from organisations and NGO’s based in the South part of the island. It was a gentle introduction to the world of meeting boats and I spent most of the time hovering around the edges attempting to figure out how to be useful. By the end of the morning it became natural to just jump in and do what’s needed, but for now I found it a hectic and somewhat confronting environment, it was challenging figuring out how to be of help.
After the first initial rush of arriving at a boat landing, our patch of the island south of Mytilini quietened down. We retreated to our cars to cruise up and down the coastal stretch of road, listening for updates and scanning the horizon for boats. It was during a moment of tranquility, watching the clear night sky give way to a gentle sunrise across the water that an SOS light signal was spotted far off in the distance. This was to be the first of a string of three consecutive boat arrivals on the same stretch of beach over the next hour.
The process of guiding arriving boats to shore involves torch flashing, waving, flares and finally people wading out into the ocean in wetsuits to meet & pull them in. It can take 30 to 40 minutes from spotting a boat to guide it in toward a safe landing destination, as free as possible from the rocky outcrops that frequent this coastline.
Even once the boat has arrived to land, it is not yet safe. People smugglers overcrowd boats, fitting as many as 50 into rubber boats designed for just a dozen. This overloading, combined with the anxiety and excitement of arriving, can often lead to boats overturning at the last minute. A situation that sounds manageable, but results in large numbers of cold wet people and a significant increase in the risks of severe hypothermia. It is at this crucial ‘docking’ stage where volunteers and coastguards step in, jumping often knee deep into the ocean to grab hold and pull the boat into safety. Once secured, people are helped out one by one. Babies are handed out to the outstretched arms of waiting volunteers and the passengers drenched baggage is piled up on the beach. Dazed and confused people are helped out onto the sand where they often collapse from shock, hypothermia or just emotional overwhelm.
This is the most chaotic part of arrival, yet everyone manages falls into sync. Whilst doctors attend to the serious cases and ambulances are called, we all get in and do whatever is needed. Cold wet feet are dried with towels and babies are quickly changed into warm & dry clothing. Boxes of donated items sorted by type are laid out on the beach, and the mission is to get everyone changed into dry clothes and shoes before hypothermia has a chance to take hold. Emergency foil blankets are wrapped over-skin of the particularly wet or cold, covered by clothing and blankets. Refugees who arrive in a good state are free to take the clothes they need to change into, whilst the young, old and sick are attended to by volunteers. Items being handed out include everything ranging from sweets and chocolate to perk up the kids, bottles of water and bananas to stabilise blood sugar levels and disposable cups of warm tea to help in the relentless battle against hypothermia.
Once the UNCHR buses arrive, ready to transport the refugees to the largest camp for processing, it becomes a rush to get everyone on board as soon as possible – allowing us enough time to clean up the beach and organise our resources in time for the next arriving boat. Then, we do it all over again.
My day ended almost 11 hours after it began. Feeling bewildered and overwhelmed, touched by so many stories and faces. I was an exhausted shell that needed time to reset myself and re calibrate from the experience.
I walked home along the coastline this afternoon to clear my mind. The orange skies transformed to a brilliant blue, reflected in the crystal clear ocean. If it weren’t for the reflective orange catching my eye from a wayward lifejacket bobbing in the surf, or the ominous black shadows of deflated rubber boats sitting on the sea floor, I could have almost believed this was a holiday.