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Refugee Rescuers: portraits of local Greek volunteers who helped save thousands of lives

ATHENS, Greece – On January 4, 2016 a large wooden boat carrying 250 Yazidi men, women and children, appeared on the foggy horizon between Turkey and the island of Lesbos. As the boat drew nearer, it’s sporadic path – careening left and then right and then left again – sent the small team of volunteer Greek rescuers into overdrive. This would be no ordinary rescue.

“I really remember this [rescue], because the conditions were really difficult and we had the knowledge that all the big shipwrecks and incidences were taking place with wooden boats, because they were overloaded and collapsing when the weather was bad,” explained Isidoros Plytas, a 31-year-old volunteer Greek lifeguard.

“The captain of this boat was a 15- or 16-year-old [refugee] kid that didn’t know how to drive the boat. It was drifting left and right, left and right. It was a really big boat—a wooden boat with about 250-300 people inside—and the circumstances were really bad because it was a really foggy and rainy day with really bad weather.” That day, Plytas along with the small but powerful team of volunteer lifeguards saved all 250 Yazidis on the unseaworthy vessel in the span of one hour, without a single injury.

Throughout 2015 and early 2016, Greece experienced one of the largest movement of people in recent history, with nearly one million refugees from war-torn countries including Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan arriving on its doorstep after having crossed the Aegean sea in overcrowded, and unseaworthy boats and dinghies.

Most of those who landed on Greek shores landed on the quaint island of Lesbos, not even six miles at its closest point from Turkey. The majority of those who arrived during 2015 and early 2016 quickly moved onwards into central Europe within days or weeks of their arrival. Some 62,000, however, have now found themselves suddenly stranded in Greece after the EU and Turkey struck a deal in March 2016 that severely limited the movement of people into Europe.

In mid-December, 2016 the EU came to another decision—a decision that would allow all EU member states to return refugees back to Greece, the country of first entry for most refugees, starting in March adding more pressure to an already overloaded asylum system. With this new decision comes new worry and new questions from those still on the ground in Greece, as well as a renewed sense of purpose.

“If you look at the history of Greece, we have learned how to adapt and to react according to the situation at hand. We have dealt with the refugee crisis in our country for over ten years now – on top of an economic crisis – and we will continue to do our best to manage any new development that comes our way,” said Nikos Mavreas, a volunteer Greek lifeguard who spent seven months on the island of Lesbos. Mavreas was the team leader during the January 4, 2016 rescue, and coordinated the rescue from start to finish. “With the experience of the past year, we are stronger and more prepared – mentally and physically – for whatever will come.”


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