The moment the refugee crisis became real to me | ActionAid UK

Claire Smith

Supporter Communications Team

Standing on the sandy shores of a Greek island just as the sun is colouring the horizon pink, you’d almost be forgiven for thinking you’re in paradise. Until you see the boat coming in.

Then the extent of the tragedy that is the refugee crisis really begins to sink in.

Volunteers rushing to help the first boat of the day land safely as it approached the rocky shore on Lesvos.
Volunteers rushing to help the first boat of the day land safely as it approached the rocky shore on Lesvos.

Nothing can prepare you

Back in the UK, sitting in my heated office with a warm coffee in my hands, I’d read the stats showing the refugee crisis in numbers: upwards of 1,500 people arriving on boats daily in Lesvos, over 3,500 people dead from attempting to cross the Mediterranean. And I'd seen the pictures and read the heartbreaking stories. I got it. Yup, I got it.

I didn’t get it. Not even close.

Last week I travelled to Lesvos to help with ActionAid's response to the refugee crisis there, and our first morning started bright and early on the beach, waiting for the first of the morning’s arrivals. There I was: three layers of clothes deep due to the freezing winds, waiting eager and excited to see first-hand what I had read and seen in the papers for all these months. I couldn’t wait! What an adventure and how lucky was I to be there and to be able to actually help.  

And then the boat touched the shore and everything changed.

Volunteer passing baby to the shore

Volunteers and aid workers raced to try to get any kind of grip they could on the flimsy dinghy in which 53 people were crammed; small travel bags were being flung from somewhere inside the boat’s centre; young babies were being passed forward; women were falling out of the boats shaking and collapsing. 

Suddenly there was so much going on around me. And people’s responses to landing were so different: some were laughing and cheering, others were hugging and weeping; some were vomiting or fainting, others shaking and praying.

I fell into complete shock, taking in nothing and everything at the same time. And when I looked down, I suddenly realised there was a tiny baby in my arms.

Refugee father hugging his child as they land on Lesvos

I fell into complete shock, taking in nothing and everything at the same time. And when I looked down, I suddenly realised there was a tiny baby in my arms.

That moment changed everything

That was when all the chaos and noise around me became muted, and it felt like I had forgotten how to breathe. In that brief moment when I felt the weight of that little baby, and felt the dampness in the blue onesie his mother put him in before they started their journey, I got it. And the feeling overwhelmed me.

Claire holding refugee baby

I got what it must have felt like for his mum to weigh up the risks of taking him across an entire sea in nothing but a small boat with the knowledge that many just like him have died making the same crossing... or staying in the country he was born in, where you never know if the next bomb to go off might explode right where you are standing and kill you both. And I understood that no mother - irrespective of their nationality- should ever have to make that decision for her child.

Mother hugging her child

Because for the refugees arriving in their thousands every day on those sandy, paradisiacal beaches of Greece, the only difference between them and me is that they were born in countries now plagued by war – they are people who, in different circumstances, could have been my doctor, or my university lecturer or the pilot who flew me from London to Greece. Holding that baby, I saw no difference between us apart from geography.

The only difference between them and me is that they were born in countries now plagued by war.

Every boat arriving is like another emergency

Being in Greece and meeting with the incredible women, children and families who have all made that impossible decision and been brave enough to face its consequences, was really tough for me. With every boat beaching the shore, you feel you are in the eye of a storm. Every boat brings with it the horrors being carried by a new set of passengers. And the trauma expressed by people arriving on the boats does not diminish with the arrival of the next. It stays constant and unrelenting and rather, it is your capacity to bear witness to it that diminishes with new arrivals.

Volunteer carrying girl to shore on Lesvos

As each set of passengers walked onto the bus to be taken to the camp, you feel for each and every one and carry a small part of their struggle with you into the next arrival. And when that little, wet baby moved from my arms and safely returned to the frantic arms of his mother on that beach, I felt what it means to drown in emotion.

Mother and baby in a tent

I never learnt what her or her tiny son's names were. It was not a time for questions. It was a time for unquestioning human compassion. But I will never forget that moment. A moment I certainly hadn’t planned for, drinking that coffee and reading those stats in that long-forgotten, warm office back in London.

It was not a time for questions. It was a time for unquestioning human compassion.

A place to catch one's breath

The only reprieve was when I got to visit the mother and baby centres that ActionAid have set-up and run daily in the camps. In amidst the disorder and confusion of the camps themselves, when I first sat down on the comfy cushions surrounding the floor of the centre it felt like for the first time since I held that baby, I could really breathe.

Mother and baby in ActionAid mother and baby centre

There was no one rushing around, no lines to queue in, no weather to contend with. There were just mums breastfeeding their babies, some having quiet conversations with each other or with the ActionAid staff, some just sitting looking lost in thought whilst their babies played with bright toys on the soft mats nearby. And that’s when I got exactly what it is that ActionAid are providing: a place for mothers who have gone through real trauma, who have come so close to losing their life, and that of their precious children, to catch their breath.

For many mothers with young babies who have been forced to leave their homes and have no idea when they will have a home of their own again, the ActionAid mother and baby centre is the closest thing to a home before they soon embark on the next stage of their long and perilous journey.

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Photo credits: Karin Schermbrucker