Standing on the highest point of the Greek island of Lesbos in the first light of the morning, Kinan Kadouni would peer carefully through his binoculars to see if he could spot a boat. Where are they? Are they headed in the right direction? How many people does the boat have? Is the boat even moving? A million such questions would race through his head while scanning the Aegean Sea.
Lesbos is an island that faces the Turkish coast on the Gulf of Edremit, the two separated by the Mytilini Strait. It was this route that thousands of desperate refugees from Syria were taking to enter Europe to seek asylum from the conflict that continues to plague their country.
“If a boat is in the middle of the sea and it’s not moving, that means they have a broken engine,” says Kadouni, “then we call the police and the coastguard so they can go and help them.”
When Kinan Kadouni made the precarious journey from Syria in 2010, he was one of the only two Syrian asylum-seekers in his shelter in Europe. Last month, he arrived in Lesbos, Greece as one of the few Arabic-speaking volunteers in the area, there were up to 7,000 Syrian refugees arriving every single day
The real work, however, begins if the boat is moving. Volunteers like Kinan then descend towards the beaches and wave bright orange life jackets or shiny silver emergency blankets or both to show the boats where it is safe to come on shore. The other side of the island is rocky and dangerous.
Once the boat is close, Kinan springs into action. “Come closer!” he yells in both English and Arabic towards the boat hoping that no one would jump off it before it reaches the shore. “You have arrived,” he tells them, “Now you are safe.”
Some of the refugees that arrive are sick or wounded. All of them are wet. The first order of business is usually to find them dry clothes to wear, get them access to medical care, give them food and water and finally, send them to the camps. “They can get clearance papers to be able to book a ferry,” says Kinan, so they can continue their journey onwards into Europe.
In fact, before arriving on foreign shores, Kadouni thought he had a fair idea of what to expect. “When I saw it with my eyes,” he says referring to the scale of the crisis, “I realised that I knew nothing.” Up to 4,000 refugees would arrive on a ‘normal’ day, according to him. On the island where he was stationed, the number would often go up to 7,000.
But Kinan Kadouni was fortunate to meet two good Samaritans in Greece, even though that too was by chance and not by design.
Sometime in May, Belgian couple Rutgert and Kris Nolmans were strolling down the same beach in Greece whilst on vacation. Strewn along the beach were abandoned lifejackets and deflated boats — evidence of the desperate journey undertaken by those that had been there before them.
“It was the lifejackets of the children that touched us the most,” says Kris Nolmans.
As they looked on what was left back they saw something that caught them by surprise. A boat filled with frightened, tired and hungry refugees came on shore. “We didn’t say anything,” related Kris, “We just rushed to help them. There were perhaps five families on the boat.”
They helped them ashore and arranged for food and water. The next day, the same thing happened. Another boat arrived; and another the day after. As of today, the boats have not stopped arriving.
“Every day, we went back to help with food, water, playing with children. In a few weeks, we planned to go back,” adds Kris.
Helping the refugees wasn’t easy. “There were no buses at all,” she says, “Some people had to spend three nights in Molyvos.”
Kris and Rutgert knew they couldn’t go back to their home in Belgium and do nothing. They looked for Arabic interpreters and found Kadouni. As a registered refugee in Belgium fleeing forced military conscription in Syria, who had left only months before the Revolution broke out, Kadouni watched from a distance as his country descended further and further into conflict.
Unable to find employment, and determined to give back to the organisations and the country that had helped him, he volunteered as much time as he could. Kadouni spent three months with the couple teaching them basic words and phrases, often coordinating over the phone or the Internet with those already on ground.
Until a few days before he arrived in Greece, Kadouni didn’t even have a passport. When he finally got one, he faced a new kind of dilemma. Go to Greece and help thousands of people or go to Syria and rescue his family that were still stranded in his hometown, Saraqeb? Kadouni chose Greece.
With renewed aerial bombardment back home, it has become even more dangerous for his family to stay. But it is just as dangerous for them to travel — hundreds have drowned in the sea trying to make the same journey. That is the one thing that prevents his mother from leaving.
How are they keeping safe?
“By asking God to protect them; that is the only way,” he says his voice cracking with emotion.
It’s been five years since Kadouni last met his family. He’s afraid he never will. The refugee who helps hundreds every day now finds it near impossible to help his own.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 25th, 2015