I sat alone at Lighthouse Beach this morning with silence except for the hum of a small generator lighting the white canvas tents and piles of bright orange life jackets. And Beach Cat who sat next to me on a rock as I watched the sun edge up over the hill. The lifeguard on watch came out of his tent and scanned the sea with binoculars.
“A boat. It will arrive in 20 minutes.”
I called Drop in the Ocean for help. I was anxious and unsure of what to expect or how I would be most helpful. In this weather, the refugees would be wet and the supply of dry clothing was low because a boat of 250 refugees had come into Lighthouse the night before. We would need a medic and a pair of arms for each baby.
Within a few minutes, a half dozen cars rolled down the dirt road and a dozen volunteers in green vests and red jackets poured out — a medic, more lifeguards and a lot of arms for babies.
The boat came into sight. Green and wooden on the bottom half. Bright orange and hopeful on the top. A few minutes later, the boat neared the shore. We waved and hurrahed. Young men stood and raised their arms in triumph.
Several lifeguards waded into the water to guide the boat in and two others rowed a rubber dinghy out to bring the refugees to shore. Although everyone in the boat was wet and cold, none appeared to have signs of hypothermia. We helped them to the tents where they changed into dry clothing. They were from Syria. They thanked us. They smiled, calm, quietly empowered.
A van arrived an hour later to take the refugees to the transit camp. The volunteers started cleaning up the piles of wet clothes in the tents and restocking the clothing bins. Imagine what’s left after 30 wet people rummage through 30 bins of clothes and change in a space the size of a large bathroom. Although there were no bathrooms.
A few minutes later, one of the lifeguards yelled “Another boat! Ten minutes.”
The second group arrived on a black rubber raft. The group was in danger because the boat was taking on water. A small rescue boat followed the raft while the lifeguards readied themselves for the worst as the boat crept toward shore.
This boat of about 40 included about 20 children, all soaking wet. We were happy to hear crying from the babies because it meant they were fighting and conscious.
The boat pulled into shore and the lifeguards handed off a dozen babies to a dozen volunteers. We quickly removed their life jackets and wrapped them in reflective blankets. One woman fainted. The medic lead her and volunteers holding the smallest babies to a makeshift medic’s tent. This group was Afghan. An hour later, they were in dry clothes and off in vans to the transit camp.
The refugees had reached a very symbolic milestone in their journey: they had safely crossed a stretch of open sea that had taken many lives and they were in Europe. But as I waved goodbye, I thought about how the vans were taking them from one set of dangers and struggles toward many more.
It is hard to write about this experience because it was one of such great emotion for me. I have fought back tears all day and I have struggled trying to understand how very difficult the lives of these people must be– not knowing when they will be able to eat or sleep , or how they will stay warm, or who will victimize them or disparage them.
It has been my great privilege to meet people with such courage and hope. They deserve peace and safety. They are not they. They are us.