January is supposed to be a slow month for sea crossings. With rough waters whipped up by high winds, rubber rafts capsize, wooden boats sink — and it’s cold. You could freeze in the water.
But on Wednesday morning last week, Vassilis Hantzopoulos has already seen 15 boats filled with asylum seekers on a tiny strip of sea separating Turkey from Greece and the rest of the European Union.
Hantzopoulos, a gravelly-voiced volunteer first-responder with the underfunded Hellenic Red Cross, stands on a cliff and scans the sea with binoculars.
“The boats launch from five or six points from the Turkish side,” he says. “We can see really well where the boats are coming from. And we can figure out where they will land.”
Hantzopoulos reached the shore in time to help a young Afghan mother and her infant daughter off a rubber raft that’s full of asylum-seekers, also from Afghanistan. The mother, who’s lost both of her shoes in the sea journey, shivers. She’s soaking wet. Her baby girl, also wet, wails.
On the horizon, a rubber dinghy is stalled and taking in water. By the time a rescue team reaches it, a 3-year-old Syrian boy has frozen to death.
On Friday, there are more deaths. At least 45 people, including 17 children, drowned around two tiny Greek islands, Farmakonissi and Kalolimnos, in the southern Aegean Sea.
Lina Mustafa from Aleppo, Syria gasps when she hears the news. Her eyes, brown and intense, flash with anger and grief.
“They were running away from war,” she says. “All of us are.”
Mustafa is at a transit camp on Lesbos where asylum seekers are fingerprinted and registered. She explains that she and her husband fled Aleppo four years ago, a year after the Syrian war began.
“We tried to live in Turkey,” she says. “We told ourselves that we would find work until we could go back home again. But the Turks treated us like animals. They didn’t want us there.”
Her husband found work as a mechanic. “He worked every day,” she says, “but he rarely got paid.”
Unable to make a living, they joined more than 36,000 asylum seekers who crossed from Turkey to Greece this month. But last January, just 752 people crossed.
Mohammad Adoud, a 25-year-old who’s also from Aleppo, says during the winter, smugglers offer passage for half price to desperate refugees.
“They don’t have much money, and in winter the trip is cheaper,” he says.
He says he paid $900, while in the winter “it’s maybe $2,000.”
Firas Hassan Mohammad-Ali decided to take the risk. A stocky, curly haired barber from Baghdad, he explains that militants burned his shop down. Iraq is “never-ending chaos,” he says.
He’s and his wife, Mithaq, both 40, call their 4-month-old daughter, Nargis, their little miracle.
“We had to get out for her,” Mithaq says. “We must give her a chance.”
Nargis, in a pink fleece onesie and a Hello Kitty hoodie, giggles. Her father tickles her chubby cheeks. He had slipped a tiny, but still too-big, life vest on her and then zipped her inside his waterproof parka for the boat trip.
“It was raining, and it was cold,” Mohammad-Ali says. “The waves were 5 feet high. Water was getting in the boat. And I prayed to God for help.”
His eyes fill with tears as he thinks about the fathers who lost their children on Friday.
He and his family are trying to reach Germany. So is Lina Mustafa, who just found out she’s pregnant. (“If she’s a girl, I’m going to name the baby Angela, after Angela Merkel,” she says.)
But the road to Western Europe is getting tougher and borders — and hearts — are closing. Yet thousands of asylum-seekers continue to arrive on Greek shores. Many may be soon be trapped in Greece, which is still in the throes of an economic depression, as the European Union continues to fumble its response to the crisis.
Back on the shore, Vassilis Hantzopoulos and his team from the Hellenic Red Cross suit up and jump into their Jeep. They’ve gotten word that more boats are coming. Dark-gray clouds roll in as they speed off on a muddy dirt road and try to reach the shore.