You can’t save all refugees, but you can certainly braid a little girl’s hair.
After a tremendous storm had buffeted the beach, a young girl wandered among the thousands of starfish now stranded on the sand. As she walked, she picked up one creature after another and threw each back into the water. An old man approached her. “What are you doing?” he demanded. “You can’t save them all!” The girl picked up a starfish, looked at him bravely, and tossed it into the water. “Well,” she said, “I saved that one.”
— Adapted from ‘The Star Thrower’ by Loren C. Eiseley
It was after dinner on a cold midNovember night and Spring Maxfield was enjoying a glass of wine inside her warm Santa Rosa home when she got a text from her friend Sheldon Rosenberg, a West County apple farmer.
Spring knew that Sheldon had been trying to raise funds to aid refugees who were arriving at the Greek island of Lesvos, a crowded landing point for those crossing the Aegean from Turkey. She was glad to donate to his efforts and spread the word. But she had her two schoolage daughters and a husband to consider, not to mention her work as an arts professional. The refugee crisis was a scandal and a shame, but it was work for other people.
Sheldon’s text simply said, “Will you please come to Greece with me?”
Surprised, she laughed, took a sip of wine, and jokingly asked her girls if she should go. Sure! they exclaimed.
She shouted to her husband in the other room, Hey, should I go to Greece with Sheldon? Absolutely, he replied. Go! OK, she thought. I’ll go.
Two weeks later, she was there.
“I had huge reservations after I committed,” Spring remembers. “It wasn’t like I was drunk, but it felt like ‘What did I do last night?’ I’ve spent my whole life kind of creating a protective wall around me and my family. I didn’t know if I had the emotional fortitude to do it. I decided that I would go and help work behind the scenes.”
Spring is a systems person. Her master’s degree in museum administration is all about organizing. Producing arts events as she does requires massive swathes of coordination. She could go, she could keep her protective wall, if she could organize.
Four out of five people on Facebook are connected to someone directly affected by the Syrian refugee crisis. Mark Zuckerberg
At last count there were 81 NGOs operating on [Lesvos], and local media say that just 30 have registered with the local authorities. The island has a population of about 90,000, yet saw almost 450,000 refugees pass through during 2015. —Guardian UK, Jan. 5, 2016
Spring and Sheldon arrived on the island of Lesvos on Thanksgiving Day. Ad hoc NGOs had sprung up at the harbor simply because residents had no choice. The two had chosen to work with Starfish, an NGO started by Melinda McRostie, an Australian-born Greek business owner whose restaurant is on the harbor.
“Melinda was the first responder when refugees started pouring in on the docks and dying in front of her,”
Spring explains. “She was among the first to step out, take off her white apron from the kitchen, and start saving lives.”
Can you imagine putting your family on a boat, knowing that there is a possibility of not surviving? Just imagine how desperate they are. I asked one refugee why they did it, and they said, ‘If we stayed in Syria, one hundred percent we would be dead; and now, at least there’s a chance that we will survive.—Melinda McRostie, Al Jazeera, Oct. 13, 2015
“This isn’t a new thing for Lesvos,” Spring says. “They’ve been dealing with refugees arriving on boats for the last seven years, but this summer it hit a crescendo. Their whole infrastructure was overwhelmed, but it really was the people of the village who were stepping up and saving lives. It was the fishermen who were pulling people who had already passed out from hypothermia out of the water, before any of the aid agencies stepped in.”
While one population worked to help refugees get safely to shore, another profited by putting them straight into the water. Humans are nothing if not complicated.
“The first boat I encountered, everybody was bloody,” Spring remembers of those who had launched from a Turkish beach. “Everybody was absolutely bloody, having been beaten by the traffickers on the other side.”
There is now a criminal syndicate that is exploiting these poor people and this is an organized smuggling operation. Targeting that is the way that the greatest effect can be had. —U.S. Secretary of Defense Ash Carter, Independent UK, Feb. 11, 2016
Upon Spring’s arrival, Starfish coordinators first put her to work in an ad hoc storage center organizing donations, pulling highheeled shoes and summery tank tops out of the piles and setting them aside to donate to local thrift stores. (“Yes, high heels,” she says. “I understand the outpouring of need to do something, but some things were just ridiculous in the middle of winter.”) Seated in a drafty old house commandeered for the work, she sorted wet clothes that previous refugees had shed on the beach, putting them aside to be laundered and dried for the next wave of arrivals. She organized stacks of diapers and a roomful of baby carriers.
“That was my first shift,” Spring says.
Arrivals have remained high, even in midwinter, with more than 30,000 migrants and refugees taking boats to Greece in the first two weeks of 2016. The treacherous winter crossing has resulted in 77 deaths since the beginning of the year. —Irin News, Jan. 19, 2016
“My second shift was at three in the morning that next day,” she continues. “That was my first interaction with the refugees and it was the hardest. I was choking back tears. Every bone in my body wanted me to turn around and run away and cry, but I couldn’t because they were relying on me to tell them what to do next.
“It was a boat full of Iraqis and Syrians,” she says. “They’d all been beaten, horribly, on the [Turkish] side. They were bloody. The medics on the beach had given them some superficial bandages but they weren’t enough.
Just during the time I was interacting with them, you could see the welts rising on their faces. They were all hypothermic, their children’s teeth were chattering.”
Spring and other volunteers handed refugees food, warm clothing, and the bus tickets that would help them arrive at the next correct processing station.
But in her recollection, the most important work Spring did was the most ordinary. She gave out oranges. She handed out candy. She found a baby carrier for a mother with a newborn. She helped to maintain an air of the everyday for people whose lives were anything but.
“I braided a lot of little girls’ hair,” Spring says. “I kept combs and rubber bands and barrettes in my pockets because it was a little thing that I could do that made the moms really happy and imparted that sense of normalcy.
“And once people had a moment to settle down, for the ones who weren’t in dire need of medical care, weren’t in hypothermic shock, weren’t suffering terribly from trauma—it almost became like a celebration,” Spring says.
“This was a resting point where they were safe, no one was going to beat them, they had food, they didn’t drown. Every boat was different, but it was wonderful sometimes. Women would invite me to sit down next to them around the heater and show me what they were working on, and that was wonderful.”
Lesvos is an extraordinary place, where the results of the worst of humanity bring out the best of humanity. The politics are complex, but what I saw was suffering families, families like mine. —Rachel Lovell, Telegraph UK, Feb. 20, 2016
Spring ate the food dished up for the refugees and often slept alongside them in tents. The days passed as days do, taking on a strange mendacity even in a scene often full of horror. And then it was time to go.
“The week I left, we had an influx of volunteers and a dramatic decrease in the amount of refugees,” Spring says. “A lot of the volunteers picked up and went to another place. I could have moved and gone down there, but given the amount of time I had left, it would have been harder for [the NGOs] to deal with me than for me to help them. I was in a no man’s land.”
Spring pauses and takes a sip of tea. You can only save so many starfish.
“It was time I went home,” she says. “My kids needed me and it was Christmas.”
A new fundraiser to bring volunteers to Lesvos just launched: