“No one leaves home, unless home is the mouth of a shark … no one puts their children in a boat, unless the water is safer than the land” — Warsan Shire, poet
It’s one thing to travel and see different parts of the world. It’s another to do so with a purpose. And that sense of purpose is what motivated 75-year-old Broomfield resident Barbara Kelly to spend eight days on the Greek island of Lesvos as part of a disaster relief team aiding refugees in early February.
“I’ll be honest, I am one of life’s lucky people. I’m healthy, my daughters are healthy, my dog and my silly cat are healthy,” Kelly says. “And it’s payback time for me.”
Since the beginning of 2015, approximately 500,000 refugees have embarked on the 6-mile journey between Turkey and Lesvos in rubber dinghies. Half of these people are escaping the Syrian civil war, while others are coming from the ongoing conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, in addition to a few other countries. According to a January 2016 survey conducted by United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) in Lesvos, 60 percent of the refugees are women and children while 74 percent are traveling with someone else, whether a parent, child, spouse or other family member. The journey from Syria to Greece alone takes approximately 53 days; from Iraq and Afghanistan, obviously longer.
Like many, Kelly had heard the news reports about the migrant crisis hitting Europe as the Syrian civil war continues into its fifth year. She had seen the images of refugees arriving by rubber rafts on Greek shores soaking wet, carrying loved ones, some having drowned on the journey. After traveling to both La Paz, Bolivia, in 2014 and Port-au-Prince, Haiti, in 2015 on medical missions trips, Kelly decided to sign up for the disaster relief trip to Lesvos with International Medical Relief (IMR), a medical missions nonprofit based in Loveland.
“I got to see history — what will be regarded as history — with my very own eyes,” Kelly says. “How often do you get to do that?”
It snowed for the first time in four years for two days after Kelly and the team arrived, during which no boats made the journey from Turkey to Lesvos.
But on the second night, Kelly and the rest of the 23-person IMR team were in their guesthouse when one of the team members ran in saying a boat was coming up to the shore. The team, including Kelly, hurried down to the little beach the guesthouse overlooked and found 52 refugees approaching in a rubber dinghy.
“Women, children, men. Some shoeless, some gloveless,” Kelly says. “I remember blowing on a man’s hands because they were numb, before taking him up to the guesthouse. … We got them warm and fed.”
The team then waited with the refugees until a UNHCR bus could come pick them up. Kelly says that once it stopped snowing, anywhere from seven to 20 boats arrived on Lesvos’ shores each day.
“The gratification of when it works, I’ve just not felt anything like it,” Kelly says. “Blowing on the hands of the man, who was freezing, just that my breath could help. Ain’t nothing like that.”
In addition to part-time substitute teaching for Boulder Valley School District, Kelly also volunteers at the Broomfield detention center and at the Broomfield library finding books people have reserved online. One day, while working at the library, she came across a book about volunteer trips and read about an upcoming trip to visit the prisons in La Paz, Bolivia with Flying Doctors of America.
But she didn’t want to go just as a volunteer who the team leaders would have to find a job for, so she started collecting prescription glasses to distribute to the prisoners.
“I figured collecting glasses wouldn’t be a big deal, but rather than just putting them out on a table and say, ‘Try them on, see what works’, that if I could learn to test vision that would be great,” she says.
So she asked a local optometrist in Superior to train her in basic vision testing using eye charts and the corresponding code that determines prescriptions based on which line a person can read.
Kelly says the experience was “eye-opening” as the team visited both the men’s and women’s prisons in La Paz. She describes large facilities like cities, ruled by a hierarchy of prisoners. Children lived with their imprisoned parents due to the lack of social services to provide foster care. Despite the conditions, Kelly enjoyed vision testing the inmates and handing out glasses so much so that after her return she soon started looking for another medical mission trip to be a part of.
“I wanted to go to Haiti because of what I had read about the earthquake and the fact that it was still very much damaged,” Kelly says. “And I figured I had a successful run in Bolivia, so go to Haiti.”
As the team traveled over roads still unrepaired from the earthquake more than four years before, Kelly observed intense poverty, as people gathered on the roadside trying to sell anything they could get a profit for. The team traveled to villages unseen by doctors and again, Kelly was able to vision test and hand out glasses to those in need.
“The mission trip to Haiti, because it was a mission trip and not a disaster-response trip, was beautifully organized. We knew where we were going, all permissions had been obtained,” Kelly says. “This was not the case in Lesvos.”
For Lesvos, she collected and sorted more than 1,900 pairs of glasses through the local Lions Club. However, when she arrived on the Greek island, she was told that the government wouldn’t allow her to vision test or hand out prescriptive glasses, although she still isn’t sure exactly why.
Instead, she joined the hundreds of other volunteers on the beach in the city of Molyvos, waiting and then welcoming arriving rafts.
“The rubber rafts that they came over on were cut up immediately because there is no beach on the part of Lesvos that faces Turkey. It’s only rocks,” Kelly says. “So the dinghies would start getting cut up as the refugees approached. They may have been dry on the trip but they got wet as they got closer.”
When a dinghy approached, volunteers would swarm the arriving refugees, cutting off flimsy lifejackets and wrapping the people in space blankets to warm them. “Maybe we were as terrifying to the refugees as the trip itself, I don’t know…” Kelly says. “It was tricky because mothers didn’t want to let go of their children’s hands, for obvious reasons, so getting wet clothes off, space blankets around them and getting them to the area where they could get donated clothes [was difficult].”
But most of the refugees arrived relatively healthy. The IMR doctors really only treated people for colds and congestions — normal symptoms associated with being cold and damp for long periods of time. “There were no terrible medical conditions so that was a good thing,” Kelly says.
At times Kelly and other volunteers worked without translators, simply communicating through motions as they warmed the refugees and found them dry clothes and shoes.
Other times they would find translators in especially sensitive situations. One such incident happened to Kelly, when a Greek Coast Guard boat arrived full of refugees rescued off of dinghies further out in the ocean.
“When the Coast Guard boats land, people really swarm down because there are so many refugees,” she says. “So I was one of the swarmers, and I saw a little boy, maybe 7, just standing and sobbing.”
Through the help of a translator, Kelly learned the boy had been left in charge of his little sister, but while his mother was away he had lost her. When his mom came back she was so distraught that she screamed at the boy, hit him and ran off to find her daughter. The boy was left crying on the beach alone.
“And he was just soaking and his shoes were all wet,” Kelly says. “So between the translator and me, we managed to get him dried off and dry shoes.”
Kelly took one of his wet shoes and was able to find three different pairs of donated shoes that were his size. “I was able to give him his choice of shoes so that made him really happy,” she says. “Because these people don’t have any choice in anything.”
After feeding the boy, Kelly and the translator took the boy to a designated area for people missing family members, where the boy was reunited with his mother. Kelly doesn’t know if they ever found his sister.
Kelly says the process of getting clothes, shoes and food for the refugees when they first arrived was efficient. As was getting the people on the UNHCR buses and transported to the area where they received documentation for the next step of the journey. What happens after that, she doesn’t know.
“We saw hand-drawn maps of where you need to go next but we couldn’t make out what those maps indicated,” she says.
The IMR team was just one of many groups on the beach helping to welcome the refugees. While they were waiting for boats, Kelly talked to volunteers from all over the world with different backgrounds, some with actual skills to help, like the medical doctors, and others who just felt like they had to do something.
“People who just can’t stand what they see on TV and have to do something, which was basically my motivation,” Kelly says. “I mean you don’t even know where to send money so you figure if you have any kind of skill, I’m going to take it.”
There was an Irish woman in her late 20s who had paid her own way and traveled alone to help in any way she could. And a former Army combat diver, who was suited up to rescue anyone who fell off the dinghies. There was a Colorado firefighter, who knew how to handle emergencies, a dentist who spoke Arabic, and a recently graduated doctor who spoke Urdu. Plus, Kelly noticed a Catholic priest who showed up everyday on the beach.
“There were no boundaries, people just wanted to help. On that end it was wonderful and restorative,” she says. “Even if people didn’t know what they could do, they felt it important to be there and that was pervasive.”
But although Kelly was encouraged by attitudes and exchanged smiles of other relief workers, she isn’t that optimistic about the situation of the refugees.
“I think there are a number of humanitarians in the world,” Kelly says. “Do I think that bodes well for finding a solution for all these refugees? No. I’m pretty hopeless about it. It’s not exactly uplifting, but I just don’t see answers.”
Kelly describes the refugees as almost robots, moving from one step in the process to the next, without any sort of enthusiasm or relief that they had made it this far.
Although most of them said thank you to the relief workers, none of them did so with a smile.
“There was no joy once they made it to the shore,” Kelly says. “It was just one more step on the road, and I don’t know how long that road is or where it’s going to lead.”
In the end, Kelly returned disappointed.
“Disappointed that I couldn’t do more, whatever that more meant, I couldn’t do it,” she says. “I had hoped to come up with something that I could write my congressional representatives, that I could write [John] Kerry, that I could come up with something, having been there I might see a way forward, and that’s what I meant about disappointment. I just don’t see any solutions, full stop.”
While Kelly was on Lesvos, Aleppo was undergoing the most intensive airstrikes of the five-year civil war, pushing more refugees towards the Turkish border. “There was no place for the people who had come from there to go back to,” Kelly says. “They couldn’t go back and they didn’t know where forward meant. … They don’t know where they are going, tomorrow or long term. They just know they can’t go back.”
Regardless of the disappointment and perceived lack of solutions, Kelly still thinks the trip was worthwhile and encourages others moved by the situation to do the same.
“It’s worthy of attention. These are human beings who were living just like us…” Kelly says. “The humanness of people when you warm them, we cannot let that go unanswered. We have to help.”