At an hour when most families in Israel were sitting down for their holiday dinners, three volunteers were welcoming the new year by saving a group of refugees after their boat sank near the Greek coast.
On Sunday night, 200 meters away from the coast of the island of Lesbos, an engine exploded on an rubber boat carrying 50 refugees from Syria, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. The boat began to sink. Women, children and babies fell into the water, many of them did not know how to swim.
Luckily, there were three volunteers from the “IsraAID” humanitarian organization waiting on the beach – Naama Gorodischer, a project manager in the organization, Dr. Tali Shaltiel, and the group’s social worker Orli Unger. The women were originally there to help refugees who reached the coast, but when they saw the ship sinking, they immediately found themselves in the middle of a rescue mission with another group of volunteers.
“We heard screaming. The refugees became hysterical,” Naama said. “We immediately jumped into the water and swam towards them with flotation devices. We grabbed the children and swam back. Others grabbed whatever they could from the boat and swam to shore. There was a lot of panic, people were terrified,” she concluded.
Thanks to the volunteers’ quick reaction, all the refugees were saved. Gorodischer says they were lucky, but refers to what is taking place off the coast of Greece as a “Humanitarian disaster. Turkish smugglers take $1,500 per head, place them on rubber dinghies, and tell them to ‘work it out,’” she said.
“The Turkish police stop the refugees on their way, often beating them, and sometimes even shooting at the boats. Some of the refugees make the trip 5 times,” she says. “There are 30-40 boats a day and they are packed with pregnant women, children, and infants. Last week we met a women with a baby who was born by c-section just two weeks ago,” she concluded.
Greece has become the main gateway to Europe for the refugees, primarily due to the relatively harsh treatment afforded to the refugees by the Turks. “The Greek coast guard is doing good work by helping the migrant ships, while getting tips from volunteers on the coast with binoculars,” Gorodischer says.
“When the refugees arrive they start clapping, before they even understand what a long and difficult journey awaits them before they reach their destinations - Germany, Sweden, and Holland,” Gorodischer said. “They come here from Syria, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, and even Somalia. These are poor families who fled the horrors of war, and are trekking for hundreds of kilometers just to find shelter. They are tired, scared, and hungry," she concluded.
Naama added: “I have no doubt that watching the rubber boats come ashore, and the visible excitement among the refugees upon arriving in a safe haven, echoes the experience of the first aliyah to Israel, with ships embarking on a dangerous journey against all odds with the hope of a better future. “
The “IsraAID” teams help the refugees with food, water, blankets, and even maps with information about the path they are expected to take. In addition to Greece, there is another “IsraAID” team on the Hungary-Serbian border crossing, which was closed Tuesday due to the refugee flows. They are calling on more Israelis to join them. “We urgently need volunteers, mainly Arabic speakers, because there is a serious language barrier here,” Gorodischer said. The organization has even handed out baby carriers that were donated by Israeli families seeking to help the refugees.