LESVOS, GREECE – It’s a symbol of Europe’s refugee crisis: mountains of life vests piled high at dumps on the Greek island of Lesvos.
“We’ve been using these [life jackets] so refugees can sleep on them at night as pillows, or some padding on the rocks so when the boats arrive they don’t crash into the rock and flip over,” says Dr.Alison Thompson, long-time refugee aid volunteer.
Volunteers on the island and groups from around the world have found uses for the life vests.
“As part of a Rotary International project, we will take as many of these life jackets and life buoyancy aids from Lesvos to Africa to save the lives of fishermen,” says Rotarian Adrian Brewer, who lives in England and was in Lesvos to start collecting the life vests in January.
Brewer says with permission from local government, Rotary plans to take thousands of the life vests to African countries bordering Lake Victoria, where Brewer says thousands of fishermen die every year because they can’t afford life jackets.
Before transporting them, the life jackets must be tested for safety because some are fake or have been tampered with.
“You open them up and often they’re just full of stuffing and material and paper and all sorts of things so actually when refugees get in the water, it helps them drown,” says Thompson.
In a remote part of the island, is a real graveyard, one refugee aid volunteer Muhammad Abdullah says is quickly running out of space because of the number of refugees who did not survive the perilous trip.
“A few months ago, there was a situation where there was about 50 or 60 bodies that were waiting to be buried,” says Abdullah, who works for a charity in England called Eden Care that provides support for people reaching the end of their live and need help with burial costs.
“There were no spaces for any more refugee burials.”
Abdullah volunteered in Lesvos to help with proper Islamic burials for the deceased refugees on the island.
“When I approached a young child of only 15 years of age about who was the man I had just buried, he said it was his father,” he says.
He says it’s important to respect the beliefs of those who did not survive the journey and their families.
“This is the situation of the burials, I mean they didn’t have their family to help burry, they had to rely on volunteers like myself to go and perform a right that they could have done back home in Syria.”
Meanwhile, the so-called life jacket graveyard continues to grow, serving as a symbol of those survived the journey and those who did not.