The Detritus of Life

We are in plain sight of Turkey and, through the high-spec telescope at The Watchtower of the hotel balcony, we can see the Turkish coastguard are patrolling the stretch of coastline. But we can also see activity on their shore, pallets of dinghies being moved around possibly, so we know there are so many more refugees still to come. They just can’t cross the water.

It’s a waiting game, and part of the strange rhythm of this extraordinary situation. We are always on duty, round the clock on the beaches, looking out for refugees trying to make the crossing. When they do, volunteers are here with open arms ready to help.

Even if they don’t come there is always so much work to do.

When the boats arrive we help the refugees to the shore safely, the first thing they want to do is take their lifejackets off. I watch them almost tearing them off, frantic to get out of them, sometimes forgetting the strap around their leg and fumbling for the release at the last minute.

There’s such an urgency and relief in the struggle, It’s like they are getting rid of something that represents the danger they faced, and in shedding it they feel symbolically they are shedding their fear.

In the intense situation, with the threat of hypothermia ever present, people needing medical help, families trying to find each other, their possessions, their bearings, there is nowhere for a lifejacket to go but on the ground where it is dropped.

Lifejackets litter the beaches randomly like patches of scarlet corn poppies, transforming the bare beaches into blood red memorials for the sacrifices the refugees have had to make.

It’s hard to envisage just how many of them there are, they are all along miles of beaches, and the work involved in clearing the beaches of them, and other detritus of desperation and flight is always with us.

The King Lost in the Rush to Live, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowOne of the first things I found on the beach, was a playing card, the King of Clubs. It made me think of the man who dropped that being like that king. Like the doctor I met who felt he was nothing, all that he believed himself to be was left behind, dropped in the rush like the card; a life crushed into the pebbles on a beach and lost…

Steroid Inhaler on the beach, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowThen I saw something that punched me in the stomach. I saw a steroid inhaler. I felt the pain, the unbearable pain, in my lungs, like they were being crushed, and not being able to breathe. I remember how hard it was when I had asthma and how it felt to be without my inhaler.

All I could think was that there was someone out there who had come all this way and, in the relief of arriving in Europe, had accidentally left behind life-saving medicine. It all seems so tragic.

Glasses, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowI found a pair of glasses, a crushed pair of glasses under something else I picked up. I depend on my glasses, all the time, to see anything, I can’t imagine how I would survive without them.

Diabetes medication, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowI have found rolls of packets of diabetes syringes in perfect condition, just lying on the ground.

That’s when I really began to see the people behind the detritus.

I began to see the lives like ours, made up of the small things that we use to get through every day, to the hopes and dreams they carry along with them.

When refugees finally arrive for the first time where they feel safe they can, in the relief, euphoria, and fear, lose track of their bags. A lot of the time they arrive in the dark and things are getting passed between people, or they are soaking wet and when getting changed things get left behind. Or, they need emergency medical help and things just get mislaid,

Or they have had to throw all their belongings out of the boats because the weight is making it sink, and it ends up washing up on the shore.

Men and women go to work with pride in their appearance, woman have beautiful jewellery and clothes and men have stylish jackets and expensive trainers. They read books for inspiration, for entertainment and education.

Old Spice, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowThey use the same Old Spice deodorant as us and probably saw the same advert.

Jewelry bag, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowThey have little zip-up cases for jewellery which chink with earrings, and rings and necklaces, maybe passed down by mothers and grandmothers, maybe birthday presents and reminders of anniversaries.

Poetry books, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowI have found books of poetry, that were clearly so sentimental and inspiring they were carried across the Turkish sea.
Boys Shoes, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowI found children’s designer sneakers with the same pop-culture characters on the sides of them.

Girls Shoes, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin Gow

Their girls like the same things our girls do…

Baby Shoes, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin Gow

Their babies shoes are our babies shoes.

Baby Food, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowTheir babies are fed the same mushy looking food, in the same little glass jars.

Knickers in the detritus, Lesvos, Greece, Benamin GowTheir teenagers worry about boyfriends or girlfriends, and what outfit to wear to look cool.Coffee Sachet, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin Gow

They hang out at shopping malls, watch TV, they laugh and joke around together, they even drink the same coffee.

Teddy Bear, Lesvos, Greece, Benjamin GowTheir children cuddle a toy to sleep at night.

One of the first things I found running through my head in my first days here was “They’re people, just like us”, all the things people were afraid of when I said I was coming just aren’t true. In the short time I have been here, I have been struck again and again by that thought.

I watch the refugees, as they land – wet, confused, elated, tired, scared – as they walk, and walk, and walk, and I think “They’re just people.”

It would be insulting to try and relate to the journey the refugees have had to choose to take. There is nothing that compares. They leave everything they have, fight their way through war-torn countries and over unforgiving waters in howling winds. The least we can do is be on the beaches when they arrive. From the detritus of their desperate flight, I can see that we can’t replace everything they lost or left behind. All we can do is give them clean clothes to change into, dry socks, something small to eat, and a drink of water.

But most of all, above everything else, we give out kindness: a friendly hand, eye contact, sometimes a hug, and a smile. Everyone can do this one small thing for someone else.

A smile means everything. It reminds us we’re just people.

But what about after? We hand them over to the rest of the world.

I just hope the next person they meet will greet them with the respect and kindness we all deserve.

That’s what I learned from cleaning up the beaches…

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