“All of the boats have children on board,” Darcia Christiana Fleur says as she stands on the rocky shore and waits for the first raft of migrants and refugees to arrive from Turkey.
Ms. Fleur has travelled from the Netherlands to this Greek island near the coast of Turkey as a volunteer to help mothers and their children. The founder and CEO of The Urban Baby Wearer, she came here with the intent of giving away (and instructing mothers on how to use) specialized baby carriers in which the mothers wear their babies against their bodies. But the huge demand for basic services means Fleur spends her days doing everything from walking into the sea and carrying babies off the incoming rafts to fetching water and blankets.
“Yesterday I had a baby of five days old in my hands,” she says. “It came in a life jacket. Somebody handed me a life jacket and I was like, ‘Why am I getting a life jacket?’ And I looked inside, and inside was a five-day-old baby.”
On this day, more than 40 boats arrive on the island. Each raft carries roughly 50 people, each who paid a smuggler approximately US$1,300 to make the short but sometimes dangerous trip from Turkey to Greece.
“I’m a mum, so what inspired me is to see other mums in need,” she says. “Because if I’m fleeing a war, with a child, I hope there is another mum saying, ‘OK, let me help you.’”
About a dozen volunteers, including two doctors, are working alongside Fleur today. But that’s not always the case.
“Sometimes you’re here and you’re just the only one here, and there are seven boats coming,” she says. “It’s also very hard to coordinate, because you don’t know how many [boats] are coming. You just have to wait and see.”
Ms. Fleur stands on shore looking across the water towards Turkey and sees another raft appear in the distance.
“Boat number eight? Boat number nine? I’ve lost count,” she says, exhausted. “Too many. Too many. And I promised that family (points to a family resting on the ground nearby) I would take them away (to a nearby registration center) because I thought there were just three more boats approaching, but since that family, I have seen four more boats coming, and this is probably the fifth.”
Hours might pass without a raft appearing, then all of sudden, there might be half a dozen appearing at once. Fleur carries binoculars to help her see the incoming rafts.
Volunteers wave to refugees as they approach the island of Lesbos. The Aegean Sea is now becoming especially rough as the first winter storms begin. As a result of dehydration and the cold, many refugees were seasick, with some conditions life-threatening. © UNICEF/NYHQ2015-2618/Gilbertson VII
“As soon as you spot them, you just have to find their course,” she says. “You have to see where they are going. And the other thing is, they don’t have a captain. So the traffickers put them on the boat, they are with them in the boat, but as soon as they are offshore, the traffickers jump out of the boat, and that’s when the refugees realize they have to man the boat themselves.”
One of the mums she helps today had an infant daughter who was panicking from the crowded, bumpy journey in the the raft. As the mother of a 2-year-old boy, Fleur tried a familiar technique to calm the child.
“On my iPhone is an app that plays lullabies. It’s now playing, actually, ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm.’ And the kid was being hysterical, so I know that screens calm my kid down, so I gave my iPhone with ‘Old Macdonald Had a Farm’ and I think in combination with the mum holding the child close, it worked.” Within seconds the child relaxed.
“I don’t see myself as doing something special,” Fleur says. She’s been here only four days and will be leaving soon. “I think we’re just doing a humane thing. That’s why I’m coming back. It feels like it’s not done.”