Alan Kurdi is a name that crops up often in conversations with volunteers who have come from far and wide to do what they can to assist the thousands of people arriving by boat on the northern shores of Lesbos (also known as Lesvos). This summer, the Greek island became the biggest gateway for refugees and migrants into Europe.
The three-year-old Syrian boy drowned in September along with his brother and mother when the small rubber boat they were using to cross to Kos, another Greek island, capsized off the Turkish coast.
A photograph of the dead boy lying on a beach went viral, pushing many people into volunteering.
From Malaysia, Rayyan Haries (26) has come further than most volunteers. Since the beginning of this month, the "Volunteer Cook" has nourished thousands of people who arrive every day from his makeshift soup kitchen just yards from the beach.
“We serve hot soup and tea all day long. We also make sandwiches and offer biscuits, croissants, milk and juices. On a really good day, we cater for about 4,000, but on average it’s about 1,500 to 2,000 people,” he says.
The culinary efforts of Haries and the gamut of NGOs and volunteers that have set up operations along the coastline are essential services, as local groups were overwhelmed by the numbers of migrants arriving.
Neither the Greek state nor major international aid organisations have a presence near the beaches where refugees land, generally wet and exhausted from the often perilous journey.
A language- and food-lover, Haries had been planning to travel to Rome to experience the Italian language and cuisine, but Alan Kurdi’s death changed everything.
"When those photos emerged, I thought that I just cannot go to Rome and leave these people like this," says Haries, who used his status as a travel blogger to persuade Malaysian Airlines to cover the cost of his flight to Paris, from where he continued to Greece.
When he arrived, there was only one gas stove used by different volunteers every day to cook meals. Now there are three and more volunteers have jumped in to help, including Kostas Polychronopoulos, a former advertising executive who started Greece's best-known social kitchen a number of years ago after he lost his job as a result of the Greek crisis.
A digital strategist, Haries continues to work his Malaysian job remotely from Lesbos as “it helps me pay my accommodation here. I do that work from 5–6 in the morning until 10.30am and then open the kitchen, where I stay until midnight”.
"People's smiles" keep his high-powered batteries charged, says Haries, who has been overwhelmed with offers of support through his Facebook page from individuals and smaller charities.
“We’re talking about helping other human beings that have the same heart and same blood as you and me. I cannot see another human being hungry or dying. I know I can do something with food. Food carries messages, and I want to give people hope as they continue their journey to wherever they’re going,” he says.
For another group of volunteers, ensuring the people crossing over from Turkey reach the shore safely is their priority. As she keeps watch with a colleague on the 9km-wide strait, Argentinian Fiorella Crotti remarks on the contrast between her summer job as a professional lifeguard in Barcelona and her new role on Lesbos.
“It’s another atmosphere. We normally work on beaches with relaxed people who are trying to have fun. But these people here are trying to have a better life, which makes the work all the more rewarding.”
In September, the owner of the lifeguard company she works for decided to set up an NGO, Proactiva Open Arms, specifically to help refugees on Lesbos. The group has already managed to raise more than €350,000, which has enabled it to send rotating groups of volunteer lifeguards – as well as jet skies and jeeps – to Lesbos and Chios. Boats are also on the way.
“We’re trying to perform our best every day, just to make sure to be ready for the winter, when cold will be the biggest problem. People are already arriving with hypothermia and we can expect much worse conditions ahead, which will make the crossing even harder,” Crotti says.
Apart from the weather, overcrowding, fake lifejackets, the inability to swim and the fact that those crossing in the rubber boats generally don’t know how to navigate them – the people smugglers usually select a passenger to operate the motor – make the crossings even more dangerous.
Crotti says her team of six has often had to deal with boats in distress with hundreds of people on board, such as on the night of October 28th, when at least 43 people are known to have died when their crowded boat collapsed on itself while crossing from Turkey to Lesbos.
“It was night-time. There were a lot of people in the water and you are never ready for that,” she says, pausing. “It’s more than you can do. We tried to save everyone, but it wasn’t enough.
“You must be desperate to risk your and your family’s life. Many of the people we have helped told me that they had been walking in mountains for 1½ weeks in the cold and rain. And then they wait in Turkey to cross, which is just one more step in their journey.
“But at least for them, it’s important that they are in Europe, where they can start to dream again.”