SKALA SIKAMINEAS, GREECE — Standing in the harbor of this Greek village on the island of Lesbos, I am holding yet another soaking wet little girl with blue lips. Minutes before she had been sinking in the deadly Aegean sea crossing from Turkey to Greece. Her parents had fled Syria with only a cellphone and cash after their house had been bombed and ISIS had shot three generations of their relatives in cold blood.
My heart swells as I spot tiny specks of orange lifejackets bobbing like oranges in a low-riding boat. The rescue whistles blow, and volunteers from all nations jump into action. The refugees are closer now, and 50 feet from shore the screams of terror begin as two panicked refugees jump out, setting off a crushing stampede as children and babies are catapulted from the boat into the dark sea.
Most Syrians don’t swim. I catch sight of a small body in a puffy pink jacket floating away and I plunge into the water to reach her in borrowed time. I struggle to plant my feet on the slippery rocks below as the weight of her lifejacket and wet clothes strain my lazy muscles to work even harder.
By the shore, volunteers call for stretchers in five different languages, but I am focused on one child’s heartbeat. Finding no pulse, I fumble at her clothes, free the airway and pump her tiny chest looking for life. After two cycles of CPR, water sputters from her mouth and I turn her over to allow the sea to escape. She is not in good condition, but she is alive. Children and babies are quickly being passed, volunteer to volunteer, to the safety of shore, and we smile and hug the families who were almost swallowed by the sea.
Back on the shore, I reach for a bottle of bubbles to help calm another restless baby and eye the two teenage girls who have been raped by ISIS. They remain silent, and their dark lashes spy my every move. With new eyes, I scope the refugee journey of heading toward the “promised land,” but finding only paper towns. In Lesbos, I have seen the face of all our gods, where humans embrace and pain is absorbed into a love without borders.
Volunteers work day and night in rain and snow, huddled together around fires and in rental cars, tracking the boats and sending rescue teams out into the angry sea. We rush another hypothermic pregnant woman along the darkened shoreline now lit with magic bright solar lights and wait and pray, always ready with emergency blankets and food and dry clothes.
The volunteers share jubilation in the safe rescues — and bottomless despair when we learn they have capsized and everyone has drowned.
After five months of volunteering in Lesbos, my brain can’t solve the larger problems of a world where leaders are also struggling to find answers. I do know that I can help these suffering humans, but I am not naïve enough to think that a terrorist couldn’t get through any border or inspire people across many nations.
Syria’s civil war is the worst humanitarian crisis of our time. Half the country’s pre-war population — more than 11 million people — have been killed or forced to flee their homes. Last year, more than 800,000 Syrians arrived by sea and in them I have met beautiful, educated families who are just like us.
When did we become so fearful? The Sept. 11 attacks taught me not to live in fear or give in to terrorism. If the world turns its back on the refugees, they will be forced to return to Syria and then ISIS wins.
Where has all the love gone in the world? We are not being asked to go shave our heads and become monks, but to imagine a world where everyone does their part, so that the karma banks will overflow with blue-chip stocks of compassion and we all become “billionaires on the inside.”
Imagine a world where souls are more valuable than money. Isn’t that the way it was meant to be?
It’s easy to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but now humanity asks us to transform fear into love. To be in the wrong place at the right time.
Alison Thompson is a paramedic and the founder of Third Wave Volunteers working with Syrian refugees on the Greek island of Lesbos. She is the author of The Third Wave and lives in Coconut Grove.