Over Seas: The helpers of Lesbos


Over Seas
A photo-documentary about the helpers of Lesbos. Refugees undertake a life-risking journey to the Greek island Lesbos, on which they seek to find some rest before continuing their journey to Europe.

It is impossible to ignore the refugee catastrophe in the media. Europe is falling apart while negotiating a strategy to deal with so many new arrivals. For many people the pictures that are broadcasted from the Aegean Sea into their living rooms are hard to digest. They take action, donate goods or their own time. In January 2016, I myself decided to take action and accompanied volunteers on Lesbos with my camera.

All that counts is to get things done, prepare food, sort clothes, distribute and transport. On the island of Lesbos, there has been built a good network of volunteers and NGOs that provide initial help. They distribute blankets, cook tea and give out new aid supplies. Whenever there is a shaky UNHCR bus with refugees in the transit-camp “Moria” on Lesbos, the help system starts (meanwhile UNHCR stopped their work on Lesbos on 22nd of march 2016). On average, there are about 1.130 people that arrive on the Greek island Lesbos in the Aegean Sea every day (stand 01/2016 UNHCR). Also, everyday there are many volunteers that come to Lesbos via airplane or ferry.

“These aren’t masses of people, that are people”, says Ayesha Keller (26). It is her second time on Lesbos, but this time permanently. In November 2015, Ayesha started to build an independent help-camp next to the transit-camp ‘Moria’ called ‘Better Days for Moria’. “In November, the situation was horrible here. For me, this is a mixture of pride and outrage. Normally, these people shouldn’t be here, but they have no other choice. But as far as I am concerned, I think we did pretty good job”, says Ayesha. She cannot explain what exactly it is that she does, because it changes from day to day, dependent on the situation. Mainly, she organizes operational processes and does PR for the project.

“When I came back in January, so many things have changed within such short time. The camp functions as a little firm with budget and many helpers. It is not about the money, we do it together for the people.” She tells that the borders between the refugees and the volunteers become blurred. If someone wants to take on a responsible job, it doesn’t matter where he is from or what his societal status is. That’s how some refugees became important authorities in the camp. After a long discussion with the team of “Better Days for Moria” the camp project was packed up into storage on April 1st. “We’re ready to build it up again somewhere, either on Lesvos or on the mainland” they write on their Facebook page.

A touching story by a refugee in “Olive Grove”-camp is being told by Zakaria Rahal (25) from Morocco. If you step foot on camp-ground, the first person that you will encounter is “Zak”, as people call him. The word “good” escapes from his mouth, even before you get to ask him anything. Zak has been here for about 1,5 months: “I have paid 700€ in order to be transported by boat by smugglers. Only two people were wearing swim vests. I didn’t need one, because I am a good swimmer. The ride took 3 hours and then I was here. The first two weeks were really horrible for me. By now, I have a roof above my head. My daily routine is that I go to the camp every day and stay until the end of work (1.30 am). What else am I supposed to do? I don’t know how long I am going to stay.”

Neither the 32-year-old Hannibal Bilom from Hamburg is in possession of return ticket. He just dug a deep furrow in the external borders of the camp so that the water that has aggregated in the middle of camp can retreat. “I am here, because I can engage, no matter if it is by digging, with the tent construction or whatever is needed. I find it really important to offer a friendly welcome to Europe”, says Hannibal. He is currently touring through Europe and for him, helping is a duty.

By and by, it becomes obvious that people from all over the world come to Lesbos to fight what is being shown in the media. Many renounce their vacation and organize big help convoys. For them, helping goes without saying and without great political support.

The case of Danish Salam Aldeen (33) displays a perfect example of what it means when politics get involved. After having rescued 51 people with his Sea-rescue-team “Team Humanity”, he and 4 other members got arrested. He is accused of human trafficking, because they found a knife on board of his boat.

“I need this knife in order to cut open rescue vests. I also possess a Walkie-Talkie. I am not informing any smugglers, but my team at “Lighthouse” about our current situation. In the 48 hours that my team has been captured, 8 people died in the Aegean Sea. Maybe we could have saved them.” His mood shows anger towards the authorities and towards the coast guard. In contrast to other helpers, Aldeen is not allowed to leave the country until the lawsuit against him starts.

The mood between the helpers and the authorities becomes more tensed. This case shows that the volunteers can themselves liable to persecution by saving lives. This fact will not keep the people, who build tents and drag garbage bags on Lesbos, from doing the most essential thing in the world: Help.

About the author:
Paul-Ruben Mundthal is born 1989 in east Germany. He graduated in media arts and design at the Bauhaus–University Weimar.
Paul-Ruben is the co-founder and editor of HANT – Magazine for Photography. Since September 2015 he’s an exchange student at the Mimar Sinan Güzel Sanatlar Üniversitesi in Istanbul and studies photography.

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