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"We are fleeing a situation in Syria worse than death."
Filmmaker Sharron Ward writes about her experience filming the mass exodus of refugees who washed ashore bereft and broken on the Greek island of Lesvos this summer.
On the first day in Lesvos I found myself in the village car park of Molyvos which had become a makeshift transit camp for the thousands of mainly Syrian refugees who had endured the perilous journey across the sea in flimsy inflatable dinghies.
I noticed an anxious Syrian woman holding a tiny baby who was frail and limp. Samar Joukhadar explained in her broken English that her two-and-a-half year old baby, Aieh had a hole in her heart and Down’s syndrome.
She had carried her from Syria in a sling with her three other children and tried to come to Greece in an inflatable boat. But in Mercin, Turkey, heartless smugglers stole all her money – her life savings of $12,000. She was forced to borrow the $1,200 for herself and her kids to travel to Greece in what she called “the death boats.”
There were no aid agencies or medics in the camp and no one would help baby Aieh in the village. It was down to Eric Kempson the ex-pat British humanitarian I was filming and his daughter Elleni to come to the rescue.
It turned out she was desperately dehydrated. In the fading light, Samar told me more about her story. She wanted to go to Germany, she said because she no longer trusted Arabs. Bitter at her experiences she said: “We want to feel the humanity that we missed in the Arab world.” She told me she risked taking her children on the ‘death boats’ because “we are fleeing a situation in Syria worse than death.”
It was now pitch black in the car park. Refugee families had no option but to bed down on filthy bits of cardboard or bone crushingly thin mattresses. Everyone was desperate to get out of there and continue their onward journey.
Crouching down in the darkness I noticed a Syrian man trying to comfort his children who were sleeping on flattened cardboard. He asked me to help him get on a bus in the morning. “Please help me Madam,” he politely implored.
He told me his name was Leith Azobi from the village of Al-Yadudah near Daa’ra. Huddled in the darkness he quietly showed me pictures on his phone. From the faint flicker of light, I saw a picture of his daughter Louna who was wrapped in bandages – he said she had been hit by shrapnel from a barrel bombs. She was now lying next to us sleeping in the dirt. He quietly told me that the explosion had killed his wife, his baby and his mother.
Two days later, Eric and I stood on the rocky shores waiting for yet another boat. An inflatable dinghy heavily weighed down by too many people struggled to land. Young children wearing inflatable toy vests that smugglers cynically sold as “life jackets” were thrust out of the boat into waiting arms.
I focussed my camera on a young boy in a bright orange toy inflatable. As I did, I heard a woman sobbing and looked up to see her kissing her son. She broke down as she hugged her children and looked out to sea towards Turkey to give it one final longing look, wiping the tears from her face as if cleansed.
She told me they were Sunni Muslim from Baghdad living in a predominantly Shi’ite area. It was dangerous, there was no security and there were kidnappings every day. She broke down again too upset to continue.
There is something deeply moving about watching this sea of human misery come towards you as they stagger ashore bereft and broken, shaking with tears of relief. It is the frontline of a humanitarian crisis.
As there are no international aid agencies helping on the northern shores, journalists and tourists inevitably end up filling the void. I put down my camera to pick up soaking wet babies and ferry little kids and their mums in my car.
Coming back with Eric along the bumpy dirt track, I watched in dismay as a young Afghan man hunched over in a body brace, clung on to his friends as they helped him walk. Every step in the blazing sun must have been agony. As he clambered into my car constrained by his neck brace he looked at me – sweat dripping down his face, “thank you thank you,” he gasped with exhaustion nearly in tears. I’ll never forget the look of gratitude on his face.
There are too many stories of suffering etched in my mind.
By not providing safe passage, Europe is forcing these people to risk their lives. Many Syrians I met told me they had applied for Visas to European countries - but were denied asylum.
As more men, women and children drown in the death boats, I wonder if the tide will ever turn for the sea of human misery I found washed ashore on the Greek island of Lesvos. If not, that will forever be Europe’s collective shame.
You can watch Sharron Ward’s short film on the refugee boat crisis in Lesvos for Channel 4 News here.