The boats keep coming, no more than a hundred a day. Rubber dinghies weighed down with refugees, many from the ancient lands of Syria, others from the older, forgotten wars of Afghanistan and Iraq. On to the beaches of the Greek island Lesbos come men, women and children in search of a better life. The crossing may have taken just half an hour from the shores of Turkey, but it is extremely dangerous. This year, up to 2,000 people have drowned on this short journey across the Aegean sea.
The world has seen the tragic images of the lifeless children, the weeping mothers, the old wrapped in emergency blankets. The situation is dire and European governments are dragging their feet in response to the crisis.
The people who are there to meet the refugees when they arrive do not come from international AID organisations; they are volunteers from around the world giving their time and energy to help in any way they can. Cathy Sharma, a West Cork local, has been in Lesbos for the past couple of months. Here she works up to 12 hours a day, on a beach the size of Inchydoney, where the boats never stop arriving.
For Cathy, the relentless wave of boats feels like a war without bombs. Injured, scared and cold people are everywhere. She has had toddlers die in front of her eyes and watched as screaming mothers search the waves for lost children. But in the depravity and darkness, volunteers like Cathy are spreading some light.
Cathy works everyday in the ‘Volunteer Cook Kitchen’, a makeshift kitchen on the beach, offering out soup and sandwiches to the newly arrived refugees. The kitchen is run by half a dozen volunteers who feed a thousand people a day. They spend what meagre funds they have in local markets buying bread, cheese and vegetables. The people who step from the water are hungry, having not eaten properly in days as they waited for their turn to board the dinghies.
On November 23, a fundraiser dinner was held in Dunowen House to raise funds for the volunteer kitchen in Lesbos. Chefs Caitlin Ruth, Karen Austin and Mark Dougherty prepared a Middle Eastern feast with lots of Syrian mezze like fetayer, muhamarra, baba ganoush. This was followed by lamb kibbeh and ended with sweets like harriseh and tamarind sorbet. In all, over €2,500 was raised. Cathy travels back to Lesbos with the money in a couple of weeks to continue her work there.
The people who have arrived in Lesbos have survived a perilous journey, many escaping the barrel bombs of war, the corrupt hands of people smugglers and the deadly waves of the Aegean. It is heartening to know that the first people they meet as they step from the water onto European soil are fellow human beings, volunteers like Cathy, armed not with guns but with blankets and cups of tea.