Many of the boats come ashore on the Greek island of Lesbos at approximately 2 a.m., after a rough crossing of up to eight hours amid high waves and darkness.
“I’d been mentally prepared. I’d been in other tough situations,” San Francisco-based photographer Susan Weiss told J. But then a boat came ashore, the first since she had arrived. “And there weren’t enough aid workers. There were around 70 or 80 people coming off the boat screaming that they need help! They need help!”
Working on behalf of the Israeli humanitarian group IsraAID, Weiss was in Lesbos for two weeks in February to document the arrival of refugees from Syria and elsewhere. But with her camera at the ready, she couldn’t help but think, “I have to at least help get them off the boat.”
So Weiss quickly took up a spot in a line of volunteers and others. The aid workers, she said, were “literally grabbing the babies and the small children [from the boat] and handing them to people in line, and I just got in line and grabbed this baby.” Once the mother got off the boat safely, Weiss handed her the child and picked up her camera again.
Her resulting photographs — portraits of refugees from Syria and other war-ravaged Middle East nations, and the volunteers aiding them — were on display at San Francisco’s Grace Cathedral on April 3,
when she and two high-ranking IsraAID officials gave a presentation attended by about 50 people. Titled “Leaving Home/Seeking Home: The Refugee Crisis on Lesbos,” the talk was part of a series at the cathedral called “The Forum.”
Weiss, who has worked in the visual arts in various capacities, is in the midst of a project she has titled “Humanity in the Modern World.” She previously shot photos of a dentists’ mission to treat orphans and children in Moldova, and a Bay Area doctor doing work at a charity hospital in Cambodia. (She spoke to J. about the experience last year, see www.tinyurl.com/jweekly-aptekar.)
Weiss told the audience that part of her goal in Greece was to see the people arriving not as faceless refugees, but “as individuals.”
Another speaker was Yotam Polizer, global partnership director of IsraAID’s aid and development projects in Asia and West Africa. He told the audience that since the start of Syria’s civil war in 2011, 12 million Syrians have been forced from their homes. Seven million of them are internally displaced, he said, while 5 million left for Lebanon, Jordan, Turkey or the West. In 2015, 1.1 million migrants and refugees fled to Europe, he added.
“The situation is not getting better,” Polizer said of crises that include infighting in Taliban-dominated Afghanistan and ISIS assaults, killings and enslavement of people throughout the region.
Polizer said the number of refugees arriving by boat in Lesbos peaked from October to December 2015, with as many as 10,000 arriving per day.
Dr. Iris Adler was in Lesbos during that period. There is a photo of her on Facebook in which she is holding a newborn in a local hospital — a baby that was born on the beach just moments after the Syrian mother arrived from Turkey in a flimsy rubber dinghy.
Adler is a physician and a leading member of IsraAID’s emergency medical team, working with Israelis who are Jewish, Muslim and Christian. During her two missions in Lesbos, the U.S.-born, Israel-raised doctor helped IsraAID treat thousands of refugees. She told the San Francisco audience that many on her team speak Arabic, which “builds trust and allows us to better treat the refugees.”
Many of the refugees, she said, arrive on Lesbos with severe hypothermia and orthopedic problems from the voyage, where 80 people can be crammed into a boat built for 20.
“They may have had no access to medicines for years, or they lost their medications on the way,” she said. “Most arrive soaked to the skin.”
Since 2001, IsraAID, a non-governmental nonprofit based in Tel Aviv, has leveraged Israel’s disaster-response skillset to deliver medical and humanitarian relief in 34 countries.
“The vision,” Polizer said, “is to bring everything that we feel is good about Israel to the world.” IsraAID can activate an emergency response team “literally within a couple of hours.”
Polizer told the audience that the image of refugees in the media “is completely different from life on the ground.” Many, he said, are lawyers, engineers, doctors and other highly skilled professionals, and many speak English well. He said that many come ashore on Lesbos, peel off wet clothes and take out plastic pouches filled with cellphones and electronic devices.
Weiss, who chucked a career in international banking seven years ago to become a photographer, said she went to Lesbos with a goal of creating “formal portraits.” One of her subjects was a 19-year-old man who fled Lebanon to escape recruitment by a terrorist group. He keeps busy in Greece, she said, by doing contract computer work.
“He didn’t end up where he wanted to,” Weiss told the audience, “but he’s making a life for himself.”
Adler spoke about a 56-year-old man whose wife and two children were killed in Iraq. On the crossing to Greece, he held two children, not his own, on his lap, and when the voyage got rough, he jumped overboard to lighten the load and give others a better chance, she said.
When the boat reached the beach, Adler said, “People were screaming in Arabic that someone was left behind … The Spanish lifeguards went back to the sea and … it was a complete miracle they could find this one person in darkness at 2 a.m. It took 30 minutes to bring him back from severe hypothermia. His [hospital] bed was a table in a restaurant in a [resort area] … People from the boat wanted to see him. They wouldn’t leave. They kissed his legs.”
Adler told another story of a man in his 60s, who said to her, “Can I ask you a personal question? Are you Jewish?”
Adler continued: “I said, ‘Yes.’ And he started to cry, and said, ‘I grew up knowing you are my enemy. I come to Greece and the first person that helps me is a Jewish doctor.”
Susan Weiss has posted some of her photos from Lesbos at www.susanweissart.com. A video about IsraAID recommended by the Forum at Grace Cathedral can be seen at www.vimeo.com/151279276.