Volunteering in the refugee crisis. A photo essay by Laura Lewis.
I volunteered in Lesvos for three weeks of October 2017 with Refugee Rescue, a search and rescue NGO based on the Aegean Sea. I was working as part of the crew on Mo Chara (meaning ‘my friend’ in Gaelic), a search and rescue boat responsible for helping refugee boats that were in distress or beaching on the rocks. Based out of the tiny fishing village of Skala Sikamineas, Refugee Rescue was founded by musician Joby Fox and project manager Jude Bennet. Compelled by the terrible situation on Europe’s southern shores, they wanted to prevent deaths at sea. They wanted to take action, and created Refugee Rescue to help refugees and save lives in the dangerous stretches of water they were crossing.
As part of the boat crew I was on call should there be any shipwrecks or boats in trouble. Every day we worked at sea and every few days we would encounter yet another boat making the perilous crossing. I saw refugee dinghies, overcrowded and unseaworthy, carrying people desperate to find a better life. I came to learn passengers had paid as much as 1500 euros per ‘ticket’ to people smugglers to cross the sea from Turkey to Greece. The flimsy inflatable boats sometimes had up to 80 or 90 people on them. The boats were crowded, not fit for purpose, dangerously leaking and sometimes held together precariously by tape.
I’m a professional photographer, and I also volunteer as part of a search and rescue team on the River Thames in my home town of London. When the refugee crisis really began to escalate in 2015, a work contact at an NGO told me they’d had enough of seeing photography that relied on standard tropes, and that represented refugees as two-dimensional victims. It had got me thinking. I wanted to help somehow but I wasn’t sure how I could be useful.
I met Robin Jenkins, who co-founded Atlantic Pacific, an NGO who had previously created a lifeboat station for an area of Japan affected by the 2011 tsunami. Atlantic Pacific had a vision for sending lifeboats to places in the world where there were none, to train people in search and rescue in refugee-specific situations. I attended the AP summer school, met and trained with like-minded people who wanted to help somehow in the refugee crisis. I kept in contact with the growing network of people who wanted to provide assistance, and started researching search and rescue NGOs in the Mediterranean and Aegean Sea.
I hadn’t planned to photograph my surroundings while volunteering on Mo Chara. It wasn’t my primary purpose in Lesvos. First and foremost I was boat crew. However I am glad I decided to take my cameras. As a photographer I know I make sense of the world via imagery, and I hope my photographs are useful in spreading the story of this situation to others. I hope the images help raise awareness and communicate what I saw without dehumanising people or simplifying their nuanced stories.
I spent time with, and heard the stories of, many people who had made the treacherous journey by sea from Turkey to Greece. They had faced unbelievable hardships: running from war, atrocities, rape, torture. Tiny children and elderly people filled the refugee boats. I remember so clearly an elderly lady, wet and cold, who could barely walk being helped from a boat not even suitable to cross a millpond.
At the refugee camp I met a man who had lost his wife and child when being fired at in Afghanistan. He didn’t know if his family had survived. I met an older gentleman who had owned a vineyard in Afghanistan. The Taliban had taken control of his land, and he and his son fled for safety. He still has family in Afghanistan. I heard accounts of women being forced into sex work and raped to ‘pay’ people smugglers. I met people who had travelled from as far as Congo and Ghana over land.
I photographed my fellow volunteers and listened to their experiences. Omar, a Syrian refugee who had been badly injured when Isis took control of his home town, had swum for 14 hours from Turkey to Greece to reach safety. He now runs Refugee4Refugees, an NGO which supports refugees when they arrive on Lesvos, cooking food and handing out supplies in camps.
I met and photographed Alec, another volunteer at Refugee Rescue. He told me about a Yazidi man from Iraq he had met at one of the camps. The Yazidi are a Kurdish-speaking religious community based in Northern Iraq who have been targeted by Isis. The man was covered in scars from bullets and shrapnel and had fled Iraq. He was middle-aged and had young children.
I came to realise how important clothing and toy donations are to NGOs working in the refugee crisis. People arriving by boat often have only a small backpack, or sometimes no possessions with them at all. At refugee camps NGOs give out dry clothing (people are often soaked by cold sea water) and children are given toys. I saw how important it was for children to play, to be allowed to be a child again after days, weeks or months of travelling to seek safety.
The lifejacket graveyard in Lesvos is a deeply haunting place. Many of the lifejackets are fakes manufactured by people smugglers and sold to refugees – the fakes actually absorb water. Outboard engine covers are scattered everywhere. They, too, are often imitation brands, with stickers denoting false engine information. Each life jacket represents a life. A human. There are thousands of lifejackets and other possessions from refugees who have crossed the sea. Many people do not make it across safely.
The refugee crisis is still happening, it hasn’t gone away. The ‘shine’ seems to have come off it a little in the media. Perhaps that’s not surprising considering all the other hardships and atrocities occurring throughout the world at this time, there seems to be a constant flow of bad news and horrific situations. We as humans only have a certain capacity for information, it’s understandable many will not be aware this situation is still happening so very close to our shores. The roles of NGOs like Refugee Rescue are vital. They raise awareness, they help, they raise funds, give out supplies, provide medical assistance, and they work tooth and nail to assist those who are desperate to find safety.