DISPATCH FROM CHIOS: Water Landing

By on January 17, 2017

It’s 3 a.m. and a dinghy teeming with shivering people has arrived to the shore.

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Left: Refugees queue for the bus to Vial, where they will be processed. Right: Noor donned in her new kitten hat. (Photos: Natosha Hoduski)

JACKSON HOLE, WY – I awoke to my phone buzzing. It was the Chios Eastern Shore Rescue Team’s “Alpha” number calling (the person who carries the Alpha phone for the night is the coordinator for boat landings). It’s always jarring when your phone goes off mid-REM cycle, but when I’m on-call for boat landings I always nearly jump out of my skin when my phone rings. That night my best friend Thomas Hinkel rolled over in the bed next to mine.

“Is it Alpha?” he murmured, half-asleep.

Depending on wind conditions and the Turkish Coast Guard’s patrol patterns, these days we have one refugee boat landing a night in Chios. However, there was a time when rubber dinghies, 20 at a time, full of families bobbed across the Aegean. Since the European Union closed its borders, global political forces have suffocated the influx. But not even the harsh winter conditions and mounting political pressure have tamed refugees’ quests for safety. Many still attempt the harrowing journey.

It was so frigid when I was on-call for boat landings that I didn’t think anyone would dare cross the straight. The shore was crystallized in rain, but the wind had died off, so it was possible.

Our coordinator was still relaying details as I nodded my head, taking a few mental notes about the conditions outside and how far the refugees would need to be ferried in by the Greek Coast Guard before they made it to the Port Hut. Once they reach the hut, we try to provide dry clothing and food to as many people as possible before the military bus whisks them away for registration.

It’s a miracle we have so many safe arrivals. For refugees donned in fake life jackets, to get off course in a flimsy, overloaded rubber dinghy crossing four miles of choppy water can spell disaster or death. People with little to no aquatic experience are given a crash course on starting the engines on the rubber rafts and then pushed out to sea where they are to captain themselves across the rough channel. If they get caught in a current and pushed south, it becomes nearly impossible to make a safe landing.

That night the boat was picked up by the Greek Coast Guard, and was then ferried into port where we met them with hot tea and as many comforting smiles as we could muster at that hour and in that weather. Half of the refugees were soaking wet and shivering. All of our volunteers have had hypothermia training for situations just like this.

A pregnant woman, another woman with damaged cartilage in her knee, and a man about to go into hypothermic shock were all immediately taken to the emergency room. The rest of the men queued outside in the whipping winds, and the women and children moved into the Port Hut where we store supplies. Chios’ governance has cut electricity and heat to the Port Hut, because it’s on a “historical site.” The veracity of this claim has not been substantiated, as far as I know. Nevertheless, the place refugees are first met in Europe is a dark and cold one.

When the refugees are unloaded from the boat, it’s our job to get them into warm, dry clothing as fast as possible. I was put in charge of a mother and her two daughters. The baby appeared to have been carried, because she was relatively dry, but the mother and the toddler were soaked to their waists.

Shaking all over, the little’s girl’s teeth chattered in that psycho-mechanic sort of way.

“Shoo esmeek?” I kept asking the girl, trying to get her to focus on me. “Shoo esmeek?”

Her mother replied, “Noor, she Noor.”

I nodded my head with a wince at the mother who would not let us help her into dry clothing until her daughter was warm and dry. The whole time that mother’s fingers shook so violently she could barely hold her baby. She kept trying to help us change her toddler’s clothing, but her fingers were too stiff and cold to undo the buttons.

I wrapped Noor in a big, thick scarf and put animal hats on her and her sister, one of them a fox, the other a cat, and I couldn’t help but wonder what their story was, that they were desperate enough to cross the sea on one of the coldest nights of the year.

When we had them settled under piles of UNHCR blankets with piping hot “shai,” we encouraged them to sleep. It was still three and a half hours until the bus would come to take them away for processing, and in the meantime I wandered outside to see how the men were getting on. Half of them couldn’t fit in the port hut. When people are lying down, the capacity of the small structures maxes out around 30. Everyone over that number is forced to stay outside. Women and children have priority for enjoying the warmth and protection of the Port Hut’s walls. Men are left to their own devices in the surrounding area, cuddling into their blankets with their backs to the wind as they are denied even a semblance of privacy, forced to strip and change beneath the boom lights of the streets. Once everyone is in relatively dry clothing, the waiting game begins. The bus will come, they’ll each report their country of origin and get their mug shot taken before being driven to the military camp where they will claim asylum.

In the meantime, we wait. Thomas and I stamp our feet, murmuring about whether or not it’d be horrible if we sat in the car for 15 minutes “just to warm our hands. Just to get out of the wind for a minute.” My ears ache in the cold. That kind of ache that gets down in your eardrum and makes your eyes water. This is the new world these people are being born into. Second class citizens, treated with a “race to the bottom mentality” by every country they flee to.

After hours of me sneaking off to the car for a few minutes of warmth, the bus pulls in.

“Yalla! Yalla! Yalla!” the Frontex guards start shouting, raising the refugees from their slumber as they’re herded onto the bus. Soon, I’m surrounded by silence. Everyone is gone, and the only evidence they’ve left behind is the empty shai cups.

I hate knowing that tonight, as the clouds clear, I am waiting for that jarring call from the Alpha phone that means this whole process is about to start again. PJH

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After volunteering this fall at a refugee camp on the Greek island of Chios, reporter Natosha Hoduski couldn’t stop thinking about the people she had met there. So she packed up all her things in Jackson Hole and returned to the island to continue her work with refugees.

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