Beach rescuers in life-and-death struggle on Lesvos

Beach rescuers in life-and-death struggle on Lesvos

As the Greek island of Lesvos struggles with a huge migrant surge, a close-knit group of volunteers works alongside Greek fishermen to rescue people at sea, provide medical care and bring comfort and basic necessities.

In the past three weeks, roughly 100,000 migrants reached Europe's busiest coastline – 10 kilometers (six miles) of shore in northern Lesbos – whose beaches are littered by mounds of discarded orange life vests. The task can sometimes feel overwhelming, as children die before the rescuers' eyes and there is never an end to the people in need. But the volunteers say the hardship is better than watching the plight of refugees on television.

Here are some of their stories.

The Palestinian doctor

Essan Daod, a Palestinian surgeon, flew to Lesvos from Israel three weeks ago to treat migrants, horrified by the scenes of drowning and anguish.

Since then, the 32-year-old Orthodox Christian has helped deliver a baby on the beach, treated countless broken bones and revived more unconscious infants than he can remember, as he scrambled along the coastline coming to the aid of hundreds in distress.

His worst day on Lesvos was October 28, a Greek national holiday, when high waves broke up a wooden boat crammed with refugees. More than 40 died and some 240 were rescued, with bodies washing up on the beach for days afterward.

“It was like a battlefield,” Daod said. “We gave CPR to 15 or 17 people, kids and others. It was a miracle that so many made it, but four or five didn't.”

Often the grueling work and tragic scenes made him break down with emotion. Daod recalled a pregnant Iraqi woman with advanced-stage cancer, who decided to make the perilous journey to Europe because she was turned away from hospitals at home. He provided her with an introduction to doctors in Lesvos's main town of Mytilene.

He said emergency response doctors on Lesvos are in urgent need of basic medical equipment, including adrenaline, intravenous lines, oxygen, and tubes to clear water-filled lungs.

Daod, who has worked in an Israeli general hospital and plans to switch his practice to psychiatry, hugged volunteer rescuers and local residents with tears in his eyes as he left Lesvos on Sunday. He promised to return.

“Working here makes you feel human again,” he said.

Spanish lifeguards

There are only a handful of volunteers from Proactiva Open Arms, but they seem to be everywhere in their yellow T-shirts, every time a dinghy in distress reaches northern Lesvos.

As the crisis escalated earlier this year, the Spanish lifeguards noticed that many refugees couldn't swim and were drowning near the coastline. They decided to come and help, and only officially formed a charity after reaching Lesvos.

They started their rescues in an abandoned refugee boat but now use jet-skis to bring stranded migrants to shore. Proactiva has raised more than 250,000 euros with an online donation drive.

“In one day here I saw more dead people than I had in 15 years while working as a lifeguard,” said Gerard Canals, who heads the current Proactiva mission. He worries about conditions at sea with the coming winter.

“When you see what's going on and you know that you can make some difference, you have to do something,” said Canals. “You can't turn your head away as if nothing is happening.”

Now, Canals said his volunteers need an 8-meter rescue boat and floating platforms to launch their jet skis from rocky beaches.

“After what you see, it's very hard and it makes you sad,” said Canals. “And after that you get angry. Because this doesn't have to happen.”

Friendly Norwegians

Rescued migrants need lifeguards and doctors but also blankets and a cup of soup, dry clothes and maybe a new pair of shoes.

A group of volunteers from Norway called A Drop in the Ocean has set up in Lesvos to help refugees as they step of the boat – lining up shoes and clothes of different sizes next to their outdoor kitchens.

“We were never prepared to see things like this – to see people dying. We have teachers, chefs, people who are not used to saving other people but now that's what we do,” said 23-year-old volunteer Hernrik Kjellmo Larsen, who put plans for a master's degree in sociology on hold.

He was on the beach the night of last week's deadly boat accident.

“The boat was overloaded. There were far too many people – and it just went down,” he said. “There were people in the water or just wandering around, cold and wet … I went with as many clothes as I could carry and … just tried to get people warm.”

Like many of the volunteers, Larsen said he was motivated to help after seeing rescue footage on television, and he wants to stay as long as the crisis continues.

“We saw what was happening and thought we just can't stand for this,” he said. “We just decided to go. We didn't have a hotel room. We asked our friends to help pay for us … and they did.”


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