Mytilene, Lesvos Day 3

Today was long and I am sleepy, so this will be a short post.  I spent the day at Pikpa, but instead of sorting clothes at the warehouse, I volunteered to help build tents on the beach for the No Borders kitchen.  I was told to wait at Pikpa while they figured out what they needed, so I and two other volunteers, Sim (South Africa) and Zoe (London), hung around the main outdoor area after the morning meeting.  We soon realized that it might take longer than expected to make it to the beach, so we hauled out approximately a billion life jackets and began tearing them apart.

When refugees get on the boats in Turkey, they often pay smugglers for an entire package.  This can include booking hotels and transportation, food, and the actual boat ride.  Sometimes the smugglers provide life vests, but mostly the refugees buy their own.  Many refugees have never seen the ocean and either don’t know how to swim at all, or have only tried a few times.  Syria is, after all, not known for its abundance of lakes and rivers.  Life jackets are a sensible precaution for people getting on a flimsy rubber boat, packed to the brim with four or five times the number they can safely hold.

At some point the number of refugees exceeded the number of easily accessible cheap life jackets.  In the first week of January, Turkish police raided a workshop In Izmir where they found and confiscated 1,263 fake life vests, according to the BBC.  Today and yesterday I tore open perhaps three hundred of them, and in that sampling I did not find a single flotation device.  Every vest was filled with the kind of flexible plastic foam you might use to insulate a pipe, or pack a computer for shipping.

Normal Type I life vests, the kind made for rough, offshore waters, have 22lbs of buoyancy.  That’s more than enough to keep even a heavy adult’s head above water.  They’re also designed to turn an unconscious person face up.  The only thing they have in common with the vests I tore open is the color.  They’re a violent, eye-searing orange, made of flimsy plastic fabric, and packed with layers of foam that wouldn’t even keep a child afloat.  Some of them have fake “specification” labels detailing the amount of buoyancy they provide, but none of them are true.  Some look legitimate and have a well known brand name on the back.  They’re fake.  One volunteer told me that the vests labeled “YAMAHA” are always fake, because the manufacturers just put it on to convince people they’re better quality and jack the prices up.  I don’t know if that’s true, but I certainly tore open plenty of “YAMAHA” jackets that were no better than the others.

Vest after vest cut open, the dangerous innards pulled out and stuck in plastic garbage bags, the zippers and piping cut off, and the straps removed and set aside.  Every piece of the jackets get recycled in Pikpa.  The stuffing goes to Moria to insulate tents and fill mattresses, the zippers, some of the straps, and the orange fabric goes to a volunteer who turns them into handbags to sell; proceeds benefit the refugees and the camp.  The rest of the straps get turned into tent support, belts, and much more.

I like the project, but as I discovered fake after fake I started getting more and more upset.  Drowning is a real and present danger for the refugees.  The water is cold, and hypothermia is common.  At night, in the middle of the dark Mediterranean Sea if a boat sinks or someone falls out it must be almost impossible to find them.  If their life vest doesn’t help them float the temperature of the water means they won’t survive more than a few hours at most, even if they’re a strong swimmer and know how to minimize their potential for hypothermia.

Eventually I stopped working with the life vests and went to pull rusty nails out of some salvaged planks.  The physical work helped me calm down, and reminded me that I’m here to help any way I can.  I can’t do anything about refugees buying non-buoyant life vests, but I can make their lives better once they’re here and safe.  I can make the camps safe for rambunctious children by removing possible sources of tetanus.  I can take the death-trap vests and turn them into warmth for cold families at night in Moria.

Tomorrow I’m going to talk to the people who go out on the beaches to receive boats.  I’m feeling more and more that I want to do that, even though it may be scary and hard.  Tomorrow I will also take more pictures – today I was so busy that I only took one!


Pikpa Reception


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