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Between Wind and Water: A Dialogue with Members of MSF/Greenpeace’s SAR Team in Molyvos

[Image of MSF staff, Sami, in the conversation during a rescue. Image by Greenpeace volunteer Will Rose] [Image of MSF staff, Sami, in the conversation during a rescue. Image by Greenpeace volunteer Will Rose]

Description of piece: A conversation I was able to record and edit between some of the MSF/Greenpeace search and rescue team members based in the Greek Island of Lesvos. It’s a rare sneak peek into the minds and insights of the people behind these types of assistance projects. 

During the dusk of November and dawn of December, a joint operation to rescue people risking their lives on the dangerous sea crossing between Turkey and Greece was launched by international medical organization Médecins Sans Frontières/Doctors without Borders (MSF) and environmental organization Greenpeace. 

Nearly a month has passed since the initiative began, with already more than 100 rescue operations logged and over 5,500 people saved and assisted in times of distress along the Greek side of the Aegean Sea.

The joint operation is a new animal in the world of humanitarian action, especially for MSF and Greenpeace. Without safe and legal passage to Europe and elsewhere, hundreds of thousands of people have been forced to take desperate risks in their search for safety, freedom, and a future. They continue to do so despite the winter.

One night in mid-December, in the northern town of Molyvos of the island of Lesvos - while the winter wind blew outside, and during a moment’s respite waiting for a call to go out to sea - three members of the MSF/Greenpeace team had a conversation about how they view the rescue operation and shared their thoughts on the nature of migration.

The following is an edited transcript of that discussion:

First thing, introduce yourselves.

Martin: I’m Martin. I’m from Amsterdam, Holland. Traveled extensively, mainly with theater groups all around the world. Working in a local theater in Amsterdam at the moment with multiple nationalities. 53. Born and raised in Holland.  Dutch. And non-Arabic speaker.

And you work with Greenpeace?

Martin: Yeah, I’ve worked with Greenpeace for over 15 years as a volunteer and joined the boat team 14 years ago so I’m a very experienced driver. I do all kinds of actions, quite high profile, difficult things. Lots of organizational logistics, worked on boats, engines. It’s a fun group.

Sami: I’m Sami. I’m 30. His twin [Points to Martin, everyone laughs]. Working with MSF in the Emergency Pool, basically covering our activities in places like Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Tunisia. I’m here training these guys for a while in terms of the operation we are having. My experience is quite new. Not only for me, but also for all of us in MSF. None of us have worked at sea before. We are land people. [Everyone laughs].

Martin: Well I think the Bourbon Argos has been huge. But it’s totally new for you. 

Sami: It’s recent. We launched this year and it’s been totally successful. We learned a lot. And we learned the unfortunate reality that this may not be the only time people like us at MSF will need to work at sea.

Martin: That’s the first time I’ve heard, because I thought [MSF] were a ‘seafaring nation’ as well.

Sami: No, no, not at all. Our real maritime experience started with the Bourbon Argos and our other two rescue boats this year. And all of us here [in Greece] have been previously on the Bourbon Argos for months. There we were responding to the same crisis we have here in Greece but also facing it from the Libya/Italy side.

Elsa: I’m Elsa. 31 years old. I’ve been a nurse for seven years, and working with MSF for three and a half years. I’ve done four missions before this one. Nine months in Burundi, six months in Congo, and six months in South Sudan.

Martin: That’s a lot!

Elsa: And I was in the Bourbon Argos before.

That’s quite a change.

Elsa: This is a very different mission [Laughs].

It seems there is exceedingly the need to be on the sea. As if ‘refugee-ness’ is moving away from land to water.

Sami: If you look at all these routes that migrants/refugees/people/patients are taking, we are present at almost all of these points. And the simple fact, to be honest, of having these people at sea means that we are all somehow responsible. In all of the countries these people are passing through, we failed in addressing the key problems. Whether it’s myself, the organization I am working with, the organizations that we are supposed to work with these people, and basically our countries.

If we are to talk about Europe for instance, where three of us come from, Europe is spending money on development that obviously is not working, and financing the problems in one way or another. Definitely we are held responsible.

Martin: It’s perhaps a good thing that this crisis is happening at sea because no one is in charge at sea so everyone needs to step in, because that’s the international law at sea. Anything that happens, you can bear witness to it, you have to go in and out. In the country itself, it’s the country that bears responsibility.

Assumed to bear responsibility.

Martin: Yes, yes of course. If you talk about Libya, what is happening in Libya?

Sami: You find these people at the gates of Europe and unfortunately you end up with a situation where you have Europe claiming that they have nothing to do with all of that, when the reality is that we absolutely have a responsibility for what these people are fleeing from.

Martin: Most of them, if not all, conflicts started with Europe dealing in those countries. Climate impacts have a role also, like the agricultural system in Syria gone bankrupt by years of drought and people fleeing into the cities. It’s why Greenpeace also stepped in. It’s not only about plants, animals, or humans. It’s about the whole line of command from how do you make a living. Nobody would ever leave if they could make a living in their own country.

Basically it’s trying to deal with the entire biosphere. A kind of holistic view.

Martin: It sounds holistic but it’s pretty much down to earth. I mean if you don’t have water to grow crops, you have to go somewhere else.

This experience is fairly new doing rescues at sea. For you, Elsa, you were working in South Sudan, working in conflict zones and you found yourself in the Bourbon Argos and all of sudden here in Greece. Do you find this is much radically different from that type of work?  

Elsa: It’s difficult to face a huge situation. You are in an emergency.

Sami: It’s an emergency of a different type. What is weird in Greece in the Aegean Sea or in the Mediterranean Sea facing Libya is that what we are used to seeing as MSF is that when you have an emergency you’ve got everything around it to indicate an emergency. Here, everything around has nothing to do with the emergency you are addressing. That’s the weird contrast. How should I respond to an emergency that shouldn’t take place?

Elsa: I saw the difference when I was speaking about the other missions. When I come back home and speak about the other missions, people say it’s nice and are interested. When I explain that I’m going to the Mediterranean to help migrants, they don’t know how to react.

Sami: It’s really disappointing. We are talking about politics or xenophobia, we have to understand that this has been happening for a few years, and countries in Europe are still refusing to admit that. Many people lost their lives in this journey, not just this year, it’s been happening for a while.

In the Aegean Sea it’s more than 500, and in the Mediterranean Sea it is thousands.

Sami: Yes. But at the same time, look at some countries in the Middle East. They also have an issue of classifying refugees and deciding who can enter, and we spend years and years in ‘teaching’ these countries lessons on ‘human rights’ and then when it comes down to us we’re even worse.

Elsa: We should feel even more empathic.

When you are out on the boats, what strikes you?

Martin: At least you can do something real. Make a difference. That for me is quite important.

Sami: Whether it is here or Libya, it’s the amount of challenges these people had to go through to reach here. Here you spend less time with them. We don’t really have the time needed to understand what these people went through. But the few discussions I’ve had with the refugees has shown to me that this this journey has been going on for a while.

Martin: They walk for two months from Afghanistan!

Sami: Some of them for years!  For some of the Syrians we’ve met in the Mediterranean north of Libya, their journey started since 2011. Then when they really lost every single hope in finding a place to go, they ended up on a boat.

Martin: Even then you can’t tell. You put them on shore, get them dry clothes, and then the journey just starts all over again.

Elsa: I want to show another face to Europe. I want to be someone to welcome them better, with a smile, with care, with humanity. It was difficult to be on the Bourbon Argos, because [the migrants/refugees] were so happy to be there, to reach Europe, and for two days you are with them, and you are really happy for them because they are happy…but you know that the journey is not finished. You don’t know what happens to them next.

Sami: The days when we were on the Bourbon Argos and you end up with more than 20 nationalities on board, not including the many nationalities of staff, it’s like a little floating planet. Everyone was getting along. The beautiful thing of that is we had the luxury of spending more time with them, like 30 hours at sea, we shared responsibilities. People wanted to do tasks together.

Martin: The girl we met yesterday reminds me of that. She was 12 years old, already grown up. Fluent English, Afghani. Amazing. She was the party leader. You have to point to one, and address to that one person. She was a tough girl leading the party.

How do you not emotionally break down?  

Elsa: Just listen to yourself. Try to relax yourself. Sometimes it does get to me. I do sports, sleep, speak with people.

Martin: Heavy drinking. For the soul. Speaking about it helps. Within Greenpeace you are often in severe situations. I’ve done a lot of sailing so you know where the danger is so you can cope with it.

Sami: For me it’s also talking about it. Trying to get people to understand what this is all about. It is a win. It’s also a way to convince yourself about it. For me, it’s also about my child back home, for him to think I’m a hero. I’m trying to impress him!

Martin: I agree on that as well! To teach my children that this is important. I also agree with Elsa, this is the first thing they see from Europe. They don’t see fences, they see open arms. That’s a real difference.

Are you afraid when you get on the rescue boats?

Elsa: I get scared for the migrants and refugees. I’m already cold and wet. [Everyone laughs] We work in safe conditions so I’m not afraid for myself.

Martin: It’s the images you get. You drive high speed and you’re afraid of crashing into boats or finding dead bodies in the water.

Sami: Here you luckily have a visual on the boat. I remember on the Bourbon Argos, sometimes you receive an alert you don’t have any details of the conditions and you have no visuals. You head there not knowing what you are expecting. Sometimes you might end up on an empty rubber boat. It’s a weird feeling when you see an empty boat, you only wish that they had been rescued.

How long does it take your team to get ready?

Martin: Five minutes to scramble. We are really good at that.

Elsa: I hate the suit. It’s too heavy and you cannot move properly.

Sami: I like it. You’ve got plenty of space below. [Everyone laughs].

Elsa: It’s really good material, but for me as a medic it can be really uncomfortable. Luckily there hasn’t been a medical emergency yet.  

Tell me a positive experience.

Sami: Yesterday morning was extremely happy. It was my first time working with Greenpeace.

Martin: We were surprised you fit in so well [Sami and Elsa laugh].

Sami: It’s only a few minutes but we communicated with people in a critical moment, and even afterwards when everyone was safe, we were talking, and I still am unsure what language I was using. I have the impression that they were talking in my language, even though they spoke broken English and no Arabic, but I still understood. It was telepathy.

Martin: First night we were out here, we were looking for people, no idea where we were going. It was pitch-black. And then we saw a boat. It’s always the last five minutes, things tend to go wrong but it didn’t. Everyone was watching as the boat was moving slowly to shore and they were safe!

Elsa: Yesterday, there was a small child and she was on the boat after we rescued her, just playing with me. It was nice.

Martin: You give them a small portion of normality. It’s going to be hard later. But this is what you can give.     

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