LESBOS, Greece — Spending the autumn on the beaches of this Greek island may not sound that different from partying in Ibiza or lounging on the sand in Barcelona, where Oscar Camps normally runs the Proactiva lifeguarding company. But here his job is a far cry from running after tipsy holidaymakers.
“It was because of the children dying in the water. It’s our profession. I couldn’t understand why the children were dying so close to the beach and no one was saving them,” says Camps, 51.
For months now the Proactiva team has maintained a constant presence here to help rescue refugees as they cross the Aegean from Turkey to Europe in flimsy, overcrowded boats. A new group comes from Spain every two weeks, and many have come back for more than one rotation.
Camps says he volunteered to help soon after the image of a Syrian toddler’s tiny body washed up on the Lesbos beach resonated around the world. “I talked to my daughter — she’s 11 — she said why don’t you and the team go to Greece?”
So Camps and a colleague headed to Lesbos to see what they could do.
“On the first day they had to jump into the water to save two refugees,” says Marcos Chercoles Ruiz, 29, one of the lifeguards who has since joined the effort. “They realized the problem was far bigger than all of the pictures that you see on the news.”
“Every day you have to jump into the water and save people, you feel you are doing a necessary job,” says Ruiz. “Two days ago it was 2 a.m. and we were out on our jet skis and there were babies and pregnant mothers stuck on the rocks, [and] it made sense why we’re here and we cannot leave … I was in Ibiza and I couldn’t stay there with my arms folded when people are dying here.”
The lifeguards started out with enough money for a month: 5,000 euros from Camps' pocket. Almost immediately they realized they needed more to keep operating. So they founded an NGO, Proactiva Open Arms, and started crowd-funding. Now they have enough money to stay through the winter.
“We started out as four people with wetsuits and flippers and a rental car. Now we have two jet skis, there is a boat coming, many more people, and two cars,” Ruiz explains. They run operations out of a restaurant and hotel owned by a sympathetic Greek man.
Spaniard Miguel Angel Morales Acosta, 32, had been hearing about his colleagues’ work since September. When the tourists had gone home, his boss agreed to let him go to Greece.
Acosta read up on Syria beforehand so he could better understand what some of the refugees were running from.
“When you’re there [in Spain] everything that everyone else wants you want too because you are in that society. Now I have a different dimension on what life is. I couldn’t imagine what it’s like for the refugees who arrive who have lost all they had in life; they’re in a boat because if they stay in their country they will lose their lives,” he says.
“Here you see that life can change in a second… they’re people like you who were in their country, and suddenly their lives are worth nothing.”
Ruiz says that the way his family and friends back home think about refugees is starting to change.
“They are so interested to know what we do here. They don’t know anything about what happens here, that the smugglers ask for 1,500 euros when the ferry ticket from Turkey costs 15 euros. They don’t know how when they arrive they have to walk many kilometers to a refugee camp. They don’t know how overcrowded the boats are. The other day a baby drowned in the middle of a boat because the smuggler put so many people on the boat — they put the mothers and the babies and the grandmothers in the middle — and the mother didn’t realize the baby’s head was down and there was water in the boat.”
These days they’re more equipped to meet the need, but that wasn’t always the case.
“One day it was just three of us on the beach. We saw a boat about 2 km offshore. The engine had stopped and we saw people jump into the water and start to swim… After a while they started to move more slowly.”
In those early days they had neither boats nor jet skis.
“We thought if we swim out it will take us 20 minutes. And then when we arrive, what? How many can we save?” Ruiz recalls.
At the same time another boat carrying refugees arrived safely. When the last person had disembarked the lifeguards took the boat and set out toward the people in the water. The boat had been carrying about 60 people of whom six were in the water and had started to swim.
“When we arrived we thought they were dead. We were so scared,” but when they saw they were alive and they managed to bring them to safety, “there was an explosion of happiness in our hearts.”
“They were angry at us because we had taken so long to come. We told them no one called us, we’re not Greek, we’re from Barcelona. Then everybody started cheering, because of the football team I suppose.”
For newcomer Acosta, it has already been an emotional experience.
“This is my first week. The first arrival when you see people jump to shore and cry, when men 40 or 50 years old start to cry, that has a big impact. The first time we did a rescue at night it was so much scarier than during the day because you can’t see. You arrive at the people and you hear people screaming and you don’t know if people are fine or if there are injuries or deaths.”
What began as a small Spanish initiative has sparked much wider awareness. “Today what we’re doing is international. There are other teams here, some from Greece,” says Camps.
“In Spain lifeguarding is what kids do in the summer when they’re at university, it’s not respected like firemen. But here they’re heroes,” says Ruiz.