By Dale Gavlak Catholic News Service
LESBOS, Greece (CNS) — Greece is bracing for thousands more Syrians and other people to land on Lesbos and other key island crossings from Turkey, as those fleeing conflict remain undeterred by the worsening weather and colder autumn temperatures in their desperate search for safety in Europe.
“The waves were rolling fiercely with the salt water nearly choking us,” said Syrian Um Tariq, who identified herself using the familial Arabic nickname, meaning mother of Tariq, her eldest son. “We thought we were going to die.”
“The trip, meant to be a half-hour long, was a painful three hours in a tightly packed dinghy we feared would overturn,” she told the Catholic News Service of the sea voyage from Turkey to this Greek island, better known in the past for its olive oil and ouzo.
Women cried out in panic and men shouted, desperately holding onto their babies and young children, appealing for assistance from the volunteers gathered on shore to help them land. Among the relief groups that help those coming ashore are the international Catholic Caritas organization, the interdenominational OM Greece, EuroRelief and A Drop in the Sea.
Um Tariq recounted what pushed her family of four from Hama, Syria, to make such a dangerous trip.
“The Syrian regime arrested and jailed my eldest son some time ago. We haven’t heard about him since. My husband and I escaped with another son and his wife. We were afraid that the Syrian army would conscript my son because it has lost so many men in four-and-a-half years of fighting,” she said.
“If he refused to join the army, they could kill him,” said the woman, who wore a black headscarf. The family hopes to join another son who is now sheltering in Norway.
And so the tide of humanity fleeing violence in Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq continues into Greece, a key entry point to Europe. Some 169 people reportedly drowned crossing the Aegean Sea in September; 44 of them were children. As the seas become more violent as colder autumn weather sets in, aid workers fear the conditions will only worsen.
In one week in early October, 7,000 people a day came ashore in Greece, said the International Organization for Migration. Recently, a 1-year-old was found dead on a boat after it partially capsized.
After Syrians, Afghans are the chief nationality among the nearly half-million people who have landed on Greek shores from Turkey this year, marking a tenfold increase from 2014.
“We help them to get out of the water to get safely onto land,” said Hein van der Merwe of OM Greece.
“As soon as the refugees see they get closer to land, they just jump into the water. Sometimes they put themselves at risk doing this,” he said. Afterward, they are given towels and dry clothes and something to eat and drink.
“We give them information about the 44-mile trek to the camp for registration and where they can catch buses,” van der Merwe told Catholic News Service.