Just when you start to get complacent…

Today started not much different than yesterday… A boat had arrived late last night, but all the people were taken care of and were already being processed. We also found out around the time I arrived at Tabakika in the morning that some boats might land, because the seas were a bit calmer. But, until that happened, I was lined out by the volunteer coordinator as to what needed to be done, which involved either going back to the port to finish yesterday’s work or continuing to make progress on the containers in Tabakika.

Some new volunteers arrived, so I helped explained everything of the duties required for clothes distribution and left them with the containers at the camp and then went back to the port with two NRC staff to finish the work that we had started yesterday. We cleaned, re-organized and stocked the small warehouse there and went back to Tabakika around 15:00ish, thinking that our day would soon be over. When we got back to Tabakika, there were indeed 55 new refugees that had arrived and were settled in (as much one can be settled into that place). This group was a bit different in that they had landed on one of the smaller islands to the northeast of Chios, even closer to Turkey, Oinousses, and then were picked up by the Greek Coast Guard there and brought to Chios.

It seemed like it might be another normal work day, and I planned to write a boring blog about facts, figures and thoughts on the refugee crisis in Greece (another time!), but then we heard that the Coast Guard was going to bring another group to Chios that had been in the same situation (landed on Oinousses), but there were two hitches to this new group.

The first was that they were going to bring them to the port staging area where we had been working the past two days, which was unusual, because it’s only supposed to be used for overflow from Tabakika, which was at 15-20% capacity with hours left in the day to register people. The first hitch was because of the second, however. This is when complacency, because it had been slow, kicks you in the butt.

In the attempt to land on Oinousses, which is very rocky with steep inclines leading up from the water (no beaches, apparently), the boat had been rocked hard 20 meters from the coast and a 3-year old boy was thrown into the water. It’s hard to know exactly what happened, but he ended up drowning. These are the kind of stories that break you.

There are a few routes to get to Europe from Syria/Iraq, where most of the refugees are coming from. The primary one this year has been through the Greek Isles. People/families start to organize their trip to Europe in their hometowns in Syria/Iraq and pay smugglers up to $1,200 for the crossing to Greece. I’ve heard that they will pay up to $3,500 for fake documents, as only Syrians, Iraqis and Afghanis are allowed to continue on to Europe whereas the other nationalities that arrive at the borders (Moroccan, Eritrean, Pakistani, Iranian, etc.), are separated out, sent to different camps, and eventually deported (unless they can succeed in applying for asylum).  This is big business.  (Small note here in that I’m not positive about all this, but it’s what I’ve heard/read).

The refugees arrive on the west coast of Turkey via various forms of land transport and make contact with their smugglers who provide them with the transportation to cross. These guys are often armed and don’t necessarily travel with the refugees between the two countries. I learned about the latter part today, because this was the case of why a child tragically drowned.  The person driving the boat was a refugee himself and not experienced, so when what must have been a wave struck the side of the boat, he was not able to control the boat and the child went overboard.

When arriving back at the port with two NRC staff, the first thing we saw was a family of seven walking around just crying. I thought it was the family of the drowned child at the time, so it was heart-breaking to see in that moment, but it turned out it was the family of the boat pilot, because he was/is under investigation for the death of the child. I can’t see how this can’t be ruled anything but an accident (unless the police find out the boat pilot was a smuggler himself and not just someone who volunteered to pilot the boat, because no one else wanted to), but since the child died in Greek waters, I imagine an investigation has to be carried out by the Greek authorities. For the family, though, it has to be traumatizing to have come all this way, under extreme hardship, only to be arrested for something like this.

It seems like there was probably more than one hero on the boat, as men who came later on in the second wave from that raft (Greek Coast Guard boats can only hold ~30 and there were 61 people on the crossing boat), were soaked and explained in broken English how they had held on to children while the boat went all over the place. I’m guessing the amount of people who know how to swim is a rather low number.

The first wave to come in, mostly, women and children, were just walking around with glazed eyes, very much in shock, even the small children. What other reaction would you have just watching a 3-year old drown? One of the NRC staff stayed in the small clothes boutique in the warehouse to get the wet people changed as quickly as possible and I went with the other to put the registration bracelets on everyone else, not something I’m allowed to do at Tabakika, but with the shortage of people at the port, a necessity. It just meant that I was the first non-Coast Guard person they interacted with in Europe, so I tried to put on a sympathetic smile, attempted to make the kids crack a grin and hold myself together.

The father of the drowned boy was in the hospital, because his other son was suffering from hypothermia. The boat pilot was (and still is) in the Coast Guard station being interviewed about what happened. A few hours later when the first group was settled into the large tent (that I shared yesterday in a photo), the second group from the raft came in, mostly the men. I was on door duty for the clothes distribution (making sure they have wet clothes, that they are not coming in for a second time, prioritizing women and children), when the father of the drowned child came in with his other son.

Talk about one of those powerful moments in life. He was extremely rattled, but he was so focused on taking care of his other son, to make sure he was in warm clothes, that he didn’t care about getting himself out of his wet clothes. I did what I could, but he was on a mission to get out of there as fast as possible and get back to the Coast Guard office. They had recovered the body of the boy and they were waiting for an ambulance to come take him away.

Can you imagine? I don’t even have children and this feels like a nightmare inside of another nightmare given their already difficult situation. Deaths during the crossing are indeed reported, but it seems like you read about one every week or so. My guess is that the number is far, far higher than we know.

Not the first time I’ve been in a situation like this (another story for another time), but with a 3-year old boy?………………………

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