NEW YORK – Harriet Dedman and Fahrinisa Oswald are graduate students at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism but during the past few months they have spent more time on the coast of Lesbos with refugees than in classrooms on Morningside Heights.
Humanitarian crises by definition reflect both the best and worst in humanity. For the world to be aware of them, journalists and aid workers have to make the journey and connect with people. Among them some are veterans who keep an eye out for places where they are needed, others had different plans for their lives but set them aside.
Last year Dedman and Oswald’s priorities was to find Master’s Project, but it seems that their project found them and they are now covering the refugee crisis working as freelance journalists.
Predominantly photographers, they have also been shooting video and soon after New Year’s they produced coverage of what is going on at Lesvos’ beaches for the BBC.
They had just filmed one of the largest boat landings – about 350 people – and a group called Hellas Lifeguards who helped the boat come to safety and whose story they want to tell, when TNH caught up with them.
“They are about 17 lifeguards from all over the Greece who have come to one of the main beaches on Lesbos where the landings are happening…they man the beach 24 hours a day,” Dedman said.
They use a powerboat donated by a British organization called Atlantic College to patrol the waters and help the boats. For more information, visit www.lifeguardhellas.gr.
The four kilometer stretch of water between Turkey and Lesbos it is plied by large black inflatable craft and “it’s incredibly dangerous,” Dedman said. “The boats are built for 14 people and are packed with 30 or 40. Most are half submerged by the time they arrive, with people sitting in water for hours.”
The craft, which are motorized, are driven by the refugees themselves. “They are effectively thrown into the boats – sometimes at gunpoint – are and told by the smugglers “just drive.”
Oswald had been monitoring the Syrian civil war and the refugee crisis for two years, and when the refugee crisis took a serious turn last August, she resolved to go to Greece.
Arriving there in October when people were dying and washing up on shore on a daily basis, what began as a project has taken on greater significance.
The current trip is Dedman’s second and Oswald has been there three times.
“I plan on going back as often as possible and Harriet and I are talking about perhaps relocating here after graduation this Spring,” she said.
Both had different careers until recently. Dedman, who is from England and studied at Oxford, had worked five years as a lawyer, and Oswald is originally from New York. Her father is Italian and her mother is British.
“My parents are Moslem converts. That’s why I’m so attached to what is going on” she told TNH.
But they spent quite a bit of time travelling and living abroad.
HEARTBREAK IN SYRIA AND THE GREEK ISLANDS
Greece had been on Dedman’s radar since her first trip there when she was 18, and Syria captured her imagination after back-packing there in 2009 just before the war. “It’s an amazing country. I’ve got great memories of the amazing people there,” she said, and as she followed the conflict it affected her in a deep way.
At the moment they are doing a big story about the huge number of Syrian men coming over to avoid conscription by the various armies.
“We’ve seen the human tragedy of war on vast scales and it’s overwhelmed both of us. It’s been a huge emotional experience,” Dedman said.
She explained that the first waves of refugees were comprised of men and they are still the most significant group, but now those are sending back for their families.
“We are seeing more women and children travelling alone,” Dedman noted, and Oswald said the percentage of men is also falling “because a lot more men are dying in the conflicts and so women are forced to make the journey on their own.”
Dedman added “we met a family a few days ago, all women. All the men of that family have either been killed or abducted by Assad or by Isis. They have no idea where their sons and husbands are.”
A large number of the men are highly educated; some want to continue their education, and others have already set up businesses with Greek partners.
Half the people are war refugees from Syria, the rest are fleeing countries that offer them no economic future Oswald said.
She has spent a lot of time in Turkey and wants to see the conditions there, but on the Hellenic side of the deep blue sea they are eyewitnesses to the compassion and generosity of the Greeks.
“The Greek response has been amazing, Oswald said.
“In June when the refugees started arriving it was actually illegal for the locals to invite them into their homes. Taxi drivers could not give them rides and hotels could not give them rooms and it was pretty bad for the refugees,” she said, but they have heard that locals did take some into their homes and let them shower, wash their clothes and rest a bit and have a meal.
She said of the Greek government’s response, “It’s been pretty good, given the economic crisis.”
One of the ironies of the situation is that the local economy has benefitted. Hotels and restaurants are packed with volunteers and Non-Governmental Organization (NGO) officials. They lost some summer tourism income, but they have also gained income from the refugee crisis.
United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees (UNHCR), International Rescue Committee (IRC), Doctors Without Borders have a big presence, but there are also smaller teams, including doctors and lifeguards from other countries, perhaps 50 or 60 groups.
“There are some informal groups that aren’t even registered – one is called ‘Four Brothers and a Friend,” said Oswald.
Asked about the official EU presence, Dedman said, “No, there is not much of an EU presence.”
On the other hand the Mayor of Lesbos Spyridon Galanos “has been fantastic in supporting the NGO’s.”
There are two kinds of organizations on the island, she said “the official ones who have registered and they are more sophisticated, and there are smaller groups and bands of people who have come over who are unregistered.”
The latter are the source of some frustration for the Greek authorities, who are trying to get them to follow rules reflecting the realities and needs of the island.
Volunteers are welcome, however. “There are lots of jobs here that are unglamorous but that need to be done, including dealing with the environmental impact,” she said.
The coastline of Lesbos is littered with life jackets and blankets and broken boats.
Asked what Greek-Americans can do, Oswald said that there is no dire material or personnel need at the moment, noting that “the warehouses are full of clothes, medical supplies, and food and there is quite a lot of manpower on the ground. There are times when there are more volunteers than refugees.”
However, Dedman said it would be very valuable to help sponsor the refugee families. “They need cash for food, to buy meals when they are here and to pay for travel and spend one night in a nice hotel where they can have a proper shower.”
There is also a great lack of Farsi and Arabic speakers to facilitate communication.
Dedman and Oswald suggest that it would be good to support Hellas Lifeguard and are looking into helping them raise funds for a second life boat when they return to the United States this week. For more information visit: www.harrietdedman.com
THE ESSENCE OF CHILDREN IS HOPE
“It’s very distressing to watch children arrive on the beach, soaking wet and completely overwhelmed by the situation,” Dedman said, but “in an instant you can see them smiling and happy. It’s a weird childhood, but it’s still a childhood.”
The children’s hope fuels the philanthropic fires of the others.
PHOTO CREDITS: Harriet Dedman and Fahrinisa Oswald