From April to November 2015, Robin and Robert Jones joined in with volunteers from around the world to serve thousands of refugees arriving on the beaches of Lesvos
For Santa Barbara residents Robert and Robin Jones, the village of Molyvos on the Greek island of Lesvos is home for nine months out of the year.
From April to November 2015, they witnessed firsthand the flood of refugees from Turkey landing on the beaches near their home each day. A one-road beach town located just three miles from the Turkish coast, Molyvos has been overwhelmed by refugees crossing the Mediterranean on their way to mainland Greece. These hundreds of thousands of individuals have been displaced in the last year by ongoing conflict in Syria and throughout the Middle East.
Molyvos had been a quiet retreat for the Joneses in past years, but their most recent stay was far from a vacation. The chaos the refugee crisis brought to their village impacted their daily lives, prompting them to work with the countless volunteers arriving in Lesvos to aid the refugees. From pulling rafts onto the beach to driving families across the island, the Joneses helped in any way they could to support the countless individuals whose lives have been uprooted by conflict.
Robin documented their interactions with the refugees through photography, while Robert took the time at the end of the each day to write accounts of their experiences.
Speaking in Professor Richard Appelbaum’s global studies class on Tuesday afternoon, Robert said nothing is going to stop the refugees from making the crossing to the small Greek islands before traveling on to the mainland. In August 2015, villages were taking in 3,000 refugees on average each day, easily outnumbering the native community populations, in many cases two-fold.
“If one could envision the great migrations of Africa — and I hate to put human beings in that realm — that is what’s happening,” Robert said.
Robert said the efforts of individual volunteers provided initial relief to the thousands of refugees landing on Lesvos’s beaches.
“As this is developing, a big organization didn’t come in and save it,” Robert said. “People with individual desires to help and to do something just started showing up. Now small groups, small NGOs, are showing up … but, mostly, people are coming out because they know that that’s what they should be doing. They can’t just hear about it.”
Robin said as the world struggles to decide how best to manage the ongoing influx of refugees, the importance of viewing them as individuals can not be overlooked.
“It’s not the 1,436,000 … we want you to see the faces of each of them as human beings … the people that are being caught in the horrific wave of this migration,” Robin said.
In the time spent driving families across Lesvos to the capitol of Mytilene, where the refugees board a ferry to the mainland, the language barrier prevented Robin and Robert from learning details about their passengers. But, according to Robin, there was still a sense of “exuberance” in being part of the refugees’ ongoing journey.
“It was that moment when they first made it to the UE, and there was still hope, really big hope, it was great,” Robin said. “There were so many that, when we were in a car, we would say to these people, ‘We have to stop and give them a ride,’ after we just passed 10. Why, I don’t know. So you just connect.”
“People are coming out because they know that that’s what they should be doing. They can’t just hear about it.” – Robert Jones
After some time working with the children, Robin, an art teacher, thought to provide paper and markers for the children to draw pictures as a means of expressing the effect of what they are experiencing.
“I really felt the heaviness, the sadness that was in the faces of people, the kids, the tiredness, so it was a spontaneous idea,” Robin said.
In addition to its impact on the political structure of Greece, the landing of hundreds of thousands of individuals has resulted in dramatic ecological consequences. According to Robert, it is fair to say that with approximately 700,000 people having arrived, at least 650,000 life vests and thousands of rafts have been abandoned along the coast.
“It’s not a round trip. The boats are one way,” Robert said. “The smugglers are sending people off from Turkey and saying ‘Get there, sink the boat,’ that way they can’t tow you back. So all of the boats are sunk all along the shoreline … There is no industry; there is no recycling facility.”
Robin said the mountains of abandoned life jackets depict the similarity between the Syrian refugee crisis and the Holocaust, during which mountains of shoes, clothing and other personal belongings were seized by Nazi officials before they transported Jewish prisoners to concentration camps.
“It’s a story aside from the refugees and people that have been through World War II see something very eerie, where you see one jacket for each person, and did they make it out alive. Where are they?” Robin said. “So, there is a story in each one of those.”
Robert said much of the equipment sold to refugees is poorly manufactured and inadequately prepares them for the journey across the Mediterranean Sea.
“They’re phony … they have Japanese names on them, they’re knockoffs, they’re made from sweatshops,” Robert said. “They’re sold for €100 each. Inner tubes will sell for €25 … The quality of the whistles, they are worse than a Crackerjack whistle. You can’t hear them from 10 feet away; they don’t even work.”
“I really felt the heaviness, the sadness that was in the faces of people, the kids, the tiredness, so it was a spontaneous idea,” – Robin Jones
Robin said there is fear spreading throughout Europe and the United States that the refugees could pose a security threat.
“They’re afraid of letting these people in, because there is enough people mixed in that could do major damage to the way of life that we have,” Robin said. “I think it’s sensationalism, politics, but I think a lot of people also are afraid.”
Robert echoed his wife’s opinion and said thousands of people’s needs cannot be overlooked because of a threat posed by a small number of individuals.
“Don’t let fear override your need to do what’s right and what needs to be done,” Robert said. “There is some validity in that there are bad people out there, but 98 percent of them are good people that are just trying to get through life.”