This story was produced through a partnership between Slate and the Global Migration Program at Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism.
Squeals and laughter pierced the air in the Kara Tepe refugee camp on the small island of Lesbos in the Northern Aegean Sea. “Swimming today! Swimming today!” the kids screamed, running this way and that. Kara Tepe refugee camp occupies a former go-cart facility—a barren dirt field at the top of a small hill, surrounded by a grove of olive trees. To the back of the camp and down a slight hill lies a small private beach, which would soon be filled with young refugees from Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
It was pure mayhem, though neither the lifeguard, Nikolaos Mavreas, nor the swimming instructors seemed fazed. Slowly gathering up the 25 excited children, Mavreas and his team of four instructors led the kids down the dirt path at the back of the camp, through trees and brambles, carefully stepping over a flattened and rusted barbed-wire fence. After five minutes of walking, the path opened up to a stony beach with crystal-clear water. In the shade it was nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit.
For the kids bouncing down the hill in the direction of the sea, that day’s swimming lesson would be about more than just learning how to swim. “It’s important for the children who have been traumatized by the sea to learn to love the sea again,” Mavreas says. “And for the adults, as well as the kids, it’s important to learn how to swim.”
Lifeguard Hellas is a volunteer lifeguard organization founded by the married couple Spiros Mitritsakis and Mania-Maria Bikof. They arrived on the island in early November, after the deadly Oct. 28 shipwreck off the coast of Northern Lesbos. One of many shipwrecks over the course of several months, this one claimed the lives of 70 refugees, the majority of whom were fleeing war and starvation in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan. In 2015 alone, nearly 1 million asylum-seekers made the nearly 4-mile journey from the coast of Turkey to the shores of Lesbos, often in overcrowded dinghies, with insufficient fuel and in bad weather, which contributed greatly to the high number of fatalities—the total nearing 600. From November to June, Lifeguard Hellas maintained a 24-7 presence on the beaches of Northern Lesbos, rescuing hundreds of refugees.
On March 20, however, the EU–Turkey deal came into effect, changing the face of the crisis entirely. The deal aimed to stem the flow of smuggled asylum-seekers and migrants crossing the Aegean Sea from Turkey into Europe. In late March, arrivals to the island reduced to a trickle, and Lifeguard Hellas began to reassess its role in the crisis. In May, the decision was made to move the base to the capital, Mytilene, in the south of the island, where the remaining 3,000 refugees were being held in camps and detention centers.
When the volunteers are not with the kids, they are distributing food in the camps or cleaning up trash and life jackets left behind by refugees during the busier months of the crisis. Entirely funded by outside donations, Lifeguard Hellas has been able to maintain a presence on the island since early November, with a robust rotation of both local and domestic volunteers.
If it weren’t for volunteer programs such as Lifeguard Hellas, the children would still be spending their days idling around the tents and few open spaces in the camp. Every afternoon, weather permitting, the volunteers take the children down to the beach for swimming lessons. On windy or rainy days, when it is too cold or too dangerous to take the kids into the water, the volunteers find other things to do with the them: soccer, hide and seek, practicing self-defense moves. (The boys in particular enjoy using Mavreas as a punching bag.)
“When I saw on the news the big shipwreck on Oct. 28, and I saw the Spanish lifeguards making rescues and saying that there weren’t enough people to rescue everyone, and that they saw refugees drown in front of their eyes, I knew I had to go,” says Mavreas, who is 30 and a former professional rugby player. Having worked as a lifeguard from his late teens into his early 20s, Mavreas had the exact skills that were so desperately needed. “I thought: This is happening in my country, and if I were in their position, I would want them to help me, to do the same for me,” he says. Mavreas originally thought he would volunteer for only two weeks; he stayed for seven months.
Mavreas says he never had trouble settling the kids into a routine. Motioning to his Farsi translator, a teenage Afghan refugee who spoke English and a bit of Greek, Mavreas told the children to turn over onto their stomachs and start paddling their feet as quickly and strongly as possible. One meter from the shoreline, where the water was just deep enough to lie down in without submerging one’s head, the water immediately churned white with the mad thrashing of the children’s legs. The air filled with laughter and shouts of joy as each child competed to make the biggest splash. After a few moments of this, again he told the children to turn over, this time paddling their feet while on their backs. A few children drifted off into deeper waters, and Mavreas had to swim after them, playfully dragging them back to the shoreline where the other children remained in line. After half an hour of structured swimming lessons the children are allowed free play under the watchful eye of Daphne Vakalopoulou and a few other volunteers.
“The swimming program is important for two main reasons,” Vakalopoulou says. “Firstly, it’s the familiarization of the children with the water after all that they have been through by their painful journey to Europe. Secondly it’s structure, and it gives the children skills that school could have given them. It might not be the ideal class that we are used to, with discipline and easy communication between the students and the teachers. But every day, not only do they show great improvement in communication, sharing, and patience, but also they are happy with themselves, because they recognize their improvement in swimming and they want to learn more.”
The girls—those whose parents allowed them to participate in the swimming classes—held towels up around one another and quickly changed into a second set of clothing, carefully folding their dry clothes into a plastic trash bag and placing it in the shade of the abandoned building that sat 15 meters from the shore. Girls as young as 7 swam in full clothing, while many of the boys stripped to their underwear. One little boy jumped into the water stark naked to the laughter of his friends. Girls were much slower than boys to start participating in the swimming program. At the beginning, Mavreas says, “There was only one girl who came, and she didn’t enter the water. She watched from the beach.” But, he says, “As time went on, and more female volunteers joined, more girls started showing up at the beach when it was time to begin the lessons.” Soon, about a third of the children splashing around in the water were girls.
For refugee mothers, these swimming lessons could provide a well-needed two-hour child care break. But some of them come down to the shore from camp to watch their children play in the water. A father also came down to the shore with his teenage son, and unable to resist the cool water, they jumped in together, swimming 50 meters from shore in the blink of an eye. “They are swimming back to Turkey,” shouted one girl, giggling at her own joke while she waded chest-deep into the water.
Another girl shouted after them, “No! Stop swimming! You are going the wrong way! Come back to Greece.” The girls, pleased with their jokes, swam off a little bit deeper, their wet clothing weighing them down ever so slightly.