Standing at the edge of a tiny marina on the Greek island of Lesbos, two strangers are clinging to one another. They do not know each other’s names. They don’t speak the same language. But they are locked in an embrace as if they are mother and daughter.
“She wouldn’t let go of me. She just felt safe, so we were just trying to give her love,” Alison Thompson says as the girl squeezes in closer to avoid gusts of cold wind coming off the Aegean coast.
The girl is a refugee from Syria who has just arrived from a not-so-seaworthy vessel. The woman she is clinging to is Alison Thompson, an Australian-born volunteer.
The scene repeats itself. Another child arrives, another long embrace, and then they part.
“Its hard to learn names when there are just so many people coming,” Thompson said.
Here there is only time for the kind of language that can be translated fast enough to convey a feeling perfectly without a single word. The message Thompson is sending is, “You are loved.”
She moves fast from one family to the next. As she yanks a hat over the head of a little boy, his father explains he is from Deir ez-Zor, Syria.
“We are running from bombing from (Syrian leader Bashar) al-Assad, There was just war. War everywhere.” Mohammed al-Ahmed said.
He, along with three small children and his wife, paid thousands to get out. Their journey was dangerous and they are just thankful it wasn’t deadly, though their youngest child is extremely ill. The adults are worried sick but safe.
“We paid too much money but we’re relieved,” Ahmed said.
They walk away from Thompson after being bundled up by her and another volunteer from America. Thompson has spent weeks on Lesbos. The island is one of several places in the world on the front line of the refugee crises.
She is no stranger to seeing the hollow eyes and pale faces of people in shock from terror attacks, war or natural disaster. She has dedicated her life to helping the world’s most desperate people. She arrived in Lesbos, leaving her ongoing work in Haiti behind for a bit.
In Haiti she helped create and run a camp for internally displaced people and a field hospital along with Hollywood actor and activist Sean Penn. Their work has been a lifeline for some 65,000 Haitians who suddenly found themselves homeless in the wake of a disastrous earthquake in 2010 that leveled large portions of Port Au Prince and other parts of Haiti, taking tens of thousands of lives.
While watching the refugee crises unfold, Thompson simply found herself compelled to shift her focus for a bit.
“When I first arrived, 10,000 people per day were arriving here. I have been to disasters all over the world over the past 20 years and I have never seen anything like this. Never,” Thompson said, wearing a woolen hat with simple bold letters that said “love.”
Her journey to a life of volunteerism started in the United States. As a filmmaker in New York her world came crashing down around her one day in September 2001. It was a day the world will never forget. Many people felt what she felt. Hopeless sorrow. That day was September 11, 2001. When the World Trade Center towers came down, Thompson stood up and decided to do something to make a difference, no matter how small.
“It became so clear. I wasn’t a firefighter or policeman but I needed to do something to help and it turns out everyone can,” Thompson said.
She spent eight months volunteering at ground zero. The disasters both man-made and natural have come fast and furious since then and Thompson always seems to find her way there. In 2004, Christmas cheer was dashed when a 9.3 magnitude earthquake struck near Indonesia and created a tsunami. More than 100,000 people died in the disaster. Thompson leapt into action. She went to Sri Lanka, which had been hit hard. She planned to be there a couple of weeks but that turned into more than a year.
She has seen too many horrors. But instead of paralyzing her and giving up hope it compels her to act, especially now that she sees a wave of fear coming over Europe and the United States as the Paris attackers are linked to the Syrian disaster.
An investigator told CNN the Paris ringleader and two others went to Syria and ended up in Leros along the same route desperate refugees have been using to reach Europe.
While Thompson said she understands what compels the fear, she said the thought by some that the Syrian refugees are all potential terrorists is ridiculous.
“It would be like us in the States running for our lives to Canada and they won’t let us in because everybody is a potential mass shooter. But we are not. And they are not terrorists,” Thompson said, raising her arms in frustration and then adding softly, “Please understand they are families and children and elderly and the disabled. We cannot turn our backs now.”
It is not lost on her that those identified as the Paris attackers seeking Islamic Jihad and doing their worst were European citizens. In the United States one of the attackers in San Bernardino was born and raised in the United States, though his Pakistani wife was a new immigrant from Saudi Arabia.
European nations are looking at ways to discourage the large flows of refugees. But as long as the bombs keep falling and the bullets keep flying in places like Syria and Afghanistan, the masses will keep coming with hopes of resettling. Nowhere is that more apparent than Lesbos.
So far hundreds of thousands of refugees have gotten their first real hope of making it to Europe when they step foot in Lesbos. Most are from Syria, but some are from Afghanistan; in far lesser numbers they come from economically depressed countries as far away as Myanmar. No one who takes the treacherous trip across the sea from Turkey has any plans of returning to their home country any time soon.
They know they are risking their lives on boats that are often no better than rubber rafts to take them across from Turkey.
Daily, the boats capsize. Some days people die; often it’s the children who pay the ultimate price. But the choice for many is this: Die in the war at home or risk death for the hope of a home abroad. Thompson said it is clear which option they are taking:
“If we send them back, ISIS wins. And they are all dead. We must be better than that.”