I snap out of hectic dreams filled with the images of last night. People running for doctors in broken accents of every language past the old grandmother being helped down the stairs near the shoeless man with feet like an elephant’s. The tear-smeared cheeks of the tall man wrapped in wool. Emergency blankets drifting down cobblestones into the sea. Wet piles of clothes. Huddled mothers. Crackers. Soup. Cigarettes. The first crack of that little girl’s smile. It’s 5:23 a.m. The moon casts the slanted shape of a window on my bed. Molly breathes dreaming on the other side of the room. In an hour and a half we’ll wake up and gather our noses.
After 9 time zones of upright and locked positions, coffee, rain delays, in-flight meals, coffee, moving sidewalks, trams, busses and coffee, four clowns meet in Athens International. Molly, our logistician, spots me first and after a grand squeezing reunion leads me to the others at the front of the baggage check in line. None of us really know how many hours we’ve been traveling except maybe Sabine who has traveled one time zone from Lebanon. My grin pinches my own cheeks when I see her. We met one year ago in Lebanon clowning kids away from land mines. Her vibrancy and presence make her seem a lot taller than she actually is. I meet Luz’s hug for the first time. Her warm and inviting nature instantly link us like family. Luz, Molly, and I are in the middle of our glassy eyed fifth winds but we fill the little plane with laughter on our way to the tiny Greek island of Lesvos, just off the coast of Turkey where thousands of refugees and migrants from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, are pouring through every day. After weeks to years of traveling they board crammed rubber rafts for 900 euros per person to traverse the windy, choppy seas for an hour or so to reach the rocky shores of Europe for the hope of a safer life.
It takes us two hours of GPSless driving to reach the tiny village where we are staying on the northern tip of the Island. On the way we see hundreds of orange life jackets strewn about the beach. We take a wrong turn down a road blocked by a collapsed castle. A man stops his car to feed dogs in the middle of the street in front of us. Refugees line the sidewalks along the sea downtown.
In the morning we run assessments, visiting camps and speaking with contacts. Our first stop, The Captain’s Table, a restaurant turned headquarters for a brand new NGO named Starfish. Born out of necessity due to this crisis, Starfish gets its name from an old story about a little girl who comes across thousands of Starfish washed up on the beach. She decides to begin throwing them back to the ocean to save them. A man walking past says, “Little girl, why do you throw these starfish back? You can’t possibly save every one.”
“True, but you see this one?” She throws it back. “I just saved that one.”
Starfish began as a few locals and tourists who couldn’t stand by and do nothing and has grown to a force of foreigners from all over the world working together to save lives as best they can.
There are three camps on the Island. First we visit Karetepe, the camp for Syrian families waiting to be processed for asylum in Europe. Even in normal clothes we can’t help but clown and wave and play music with our phony big teeth in. We have to find a man named Stavros, the camp manager. Sabine gets sucked into translating wherever we go but the rest of us eventually find Stavros, a very busy but gregarious Grecian who just says, “Yes, Do the show right now. Right here now. For these people. You see there are too many kids just there. I want to see the show. Yes right now.” We explain that we aren’t ready right now and that we have to come back tomorrow. He gives us free reign to do whatever, whenever, wherever. Please.
Stavros with Luz, Clay, Molly, and Sabine.
Next we visit Moria, the camp for everyone else. After getting lost a few times on dirt roads, we finally find it. We see our first police car pull up as we arrive. People of many ethnicities stand in various lines and sit on brown blankets in the dirt. Coughs and confusion fill the razor-wired air. We ask a few people from other NGOs about doing shows but no one seems to know who is in charge here. The police run the camp but they aren’t really there at the moment.
“If you really want to ask the police they will be here in the morning,” Says one man in a bright yellow vest. “But I think you can just do what you like. They won’t stop you.” We decide to come back later but not before clowning for some children who laugh like they haven’t in weeks.
Next stop is Pikpa, the camp for a few vulnerable people. Maybe it used to be some kind of apartment complex or school. Now it’s a home for orphans and the wounded. A woman in a hijab washes lettuce in an out door sink. I begin to play with a few children that are scattered about. One bright-eyed boy’s name is Ali. He laughs at my fake teeth and tries on my blue nose. He likes when I rub his buzz cut hair.
The next day we wake early and put together the show easily over breakfast combining acts we know well and learning new ones together. Somehow full of energy though slightly carsick from the winding hills of Lesvos we arrive at Karetepe, the Syrian family camp. We parade by the rocky tents singing, “Yala, Yala.” Which means something like “come on” in Arabic. Before we know it we’ve pied pipered two hundred or so children and some of their corresponding adults. After a successful show of applause and uproarious laughter we slowly make our way through selfies and a humongous thank you from the manger Stavrous back to the clown car.
Clay and Sabine performing during a show on Lesvos.
We wind our way downtown for a bathroom break that somehow morphs into three impromptu mini shows (or “Clown Pit Stops” as we’ve dubbed them) along the water where hundreds of refugees sit waiting for the ferries. One excited older man gives us a hula-hoop performance and three cute kids do an acrobatic cartwheel act to everyone’s delight.
After a crowded lunch in our favorite restaurant where we just couldn’t stop clowning even for the local Lesvians just trying to enjoy Greek Day (some national holiday similar to the 4th of July maybe) we march through the ferry terminal and again gather hundreds of people in minutes. People from maybe 14 countries all laugh in the same language and save some smiles in their pockets for their long journey onward. Exhausted we return home for some much needed rest.
Not 10 minutes in, Molly receives a distressing text from our friends in the associated press. A large boat of 400 people has capsized, at least two babies are dying or dead, and wet refugees are arriving at the Captain’s Table. We quickly dress in non-clown clothing and head to the harbor to see how we can help.
The wind blows cold and dark off the water. Already piles of wet clothing line the cobble stone streets. It’s oddly calm and quiet. Volunteers from the Netherlands or anywhere methodically organize clothing into the right boxes. Fifty more people are about to arrive. The coast guard only has one boat that can hold only a few at a time. They continually make trips back and forth from the harbor to the humans fighting waves with cheap life jackets in freezing cold water. Another boat is about to arrive so we sort clothing for a while. I climb the stairs to the second floor of a small square brick building and realize where everyone went. The floor is covered with humans. The air is fluorescent, hot, and humid with evaporating seawater. A sweet looking family sleeps up against the wall opposite the door. A blond aid worker gently stokes a girl’s hair in her lap. A woman near me asks, “Excuse me sir, I don’t know where my mother is. How can I find her?” in pretty good English. I don’t know what to say except, “I don’t know.” There’s nothing I can do in this room but take up much needed space so I walk slowly down the stairs behind a very old woman. People are squeezing and rushing past us looking for a doctor. A man stands on the stairs with huge swollen ankles and no shoes. Outside I see three medics walk calm but quickly in with stethoscopes around their shoulders.
When the new people come we give them wool blankets. I take a young man to find some dry shoes but there are none to be found. He has to make do with plastic bags around his feet. Sabine is incredibly busy translating for everyone. She finds a shaking woman who has completely lost her mind asking, “Where is my husband?” to everyone she sees. A very tall man wrapped in wool is crying and crying. He says he’s lost his own children but found a small baby in the sea and began swimming with it but moments later when he looked he was only carrying a small life jacket. The baby had slipped out in the waves. Sabine and I approach two men smoking by a lamppost. She asks what has happened. Here’s what I gather:
There were four boats that left 15 minutes apart from each other, three rubber rafts and one large boat. One rubber raft made it all the way, one capsized, and one ran out of fuel and drifted for a while before being over taken by waves. Refugees hired the larger boat for added safety, paying about 2,800 American dollars each person. This boat had a capacity of 100 people but when the refugees arrived they found they were 400 in number. When they refused to board, the smugglers pulled guns on them and said they would shoot if the refugees didn’t get on. The women and children crammed into the bottom of the boat while the men were instructed to climb atop the plastic roof. About half way across the sea the roof collapsed crushing people and causing the boat to start sinking. A jet ski came to rescue the smuggling captain. Shots were fired, people were left to die in the freezing treacherous sea, and some smugglers made over 1,000,000 dollars.
I sit down exhausted next to three little siblings and their mother. A Dutch woman tries to hand the oldest girl some emergency crackers but she shakes her head no. The woman insists so she grabs them but continues looking down disinterested. I put in my big tooth false grin I found for fifty cents in the U.S. When she looks up I show my goofy teeth not knowing what reaction I’d get. She looks into my eyes for a second then cracks a smile. Then taps her brother to show him. He laughs. Another small girl comes over to see what’s happening. Before you know it I’m playing with noses, teeth, magic, and letting the kids play my little charango instrument for an intimate audience. The mother somehow explains that they have been separated from their father as I put slightly-too-large pink sneakers on the small boy. Those smiles of hope are worth it to me.
Sunshine has replaced the moonlight on my tiny bed, birds begin whistling, and four clowns are making coffee. Sabine packs her bag with bubbles while Luz warms up her hat tricks in a polka dot dress. It’s time to dawn my tiny blue hat and ridiculously large blue pants and get back to work.