Arriving into Lesvos by air reveals a coastline ringed with orange life vests, discarded by the many tens of thousands who have already landed on these shores.
In Moria, a Syrian man shows a photo of he and his friends smiling nervously as they are about to embark across the Aegean from Turkish side in the early hours of the morning.
A landfill outside Mytilene provides a haunting visual symbol of the 856,723 people who opted to tempt fate on the Aegean in 2015.
A small rubber dinghy is dwarfed by a passing ferry, making its dash to Lesvos, Greece with 28 people aboard.
In a moment of panic, a man miscalculated the distance to shore and leapt from the raft despite protests from the others. To the right of the dinghy, he struggles to stay afloat in the offshore current.
Sana and Mohammad Mardini, 15 years married, carried themselves differently than the rest. Victorian postures and proper greetings made me take notice. Mohammad revealed through his limited English that he had been an owner of a series of lingerie factories in Damascus, while his wife Sana, acted as general manager. Hearing stories from home and accounts of their journey in relative comfort, it seems safe to assume that these two come from Syrian high society.
Fifteen year old Mohammed, flanked by his uncle on the right and father on the left, experienced an unnerving journey across the Aegean. In the first attempt, their boat was repelled by the Turkish coast guard. On the second attempt (and another $1,000USD to the smugglers), the boat sank. Fortunately, Mohammed and his family were spotted by the Greek coast guard and all aboard were saved. In 2015, 3,722 refugees making the crossing were not as lucky.
Car tire inner tubes dot the waters off the coast of Lesvos with Turkey looming in the distance. The tubes serve as makeshift floatation devices for those who cannot afford proper life preservers, which are often subject to extreme price gouging. These tubes serve as a quiet reminder to the enormity of lives risked crossing this narrow stretch of water in hopes of making a better life on a new continent, a world away from home.
Clothes that were presumably hung to dry on the formidable fences that cordon off the registration and administration area inside Moria soak in the night’s rain.
Naked trunks stripped bare stand sentinel to refugees resorting to discarded clothing and blankets as fuel for their fires to stave off freezing temperatures on this wet January night inside Moria.
As the mayor of Mytilene (Lesvos), Spyros Galinos found himself thrust into the middle of an international crisis shortly after he took office in July of 2014 when his sleepy island became the main door to Europe. Largely outside of media attention, Spyros has quietly led his community, hundreds of thousands of refugees and Europe as a whole through this critical and trying time. As we were leaving, talking through a translator, the last thing he said to me was "I don't see myself acting as a leader. I see myself acting as a human." Behind the drama of news coverage, these are the men and women who are silently leading the charge, and because of it, saving and improving lives.
When ISIS came to Sanaa Karom's community in Syria and demanded to take all the women and girls (most certainly to be used as sex slaves), Sanaa stood her ground. She and a handful of other women took on what she guesses to be 250 ISIS jihadists in total and by the grace of God, survived and saved the other women. Now having just received her EU papers moments before this portrait was taken, Sanaa hopes to use that same strength to carry on alone and one day soon be reunited with her husband in Northern Europe.
Ammar holds his numbered ticket that he received upon entrance into Moria, Mytilene’s refugee camp and registration center. Once his number is called, he must wait in line, sometimes for a full day, to receive his EU registration papers.
Through the freezing rain, refugees wait through the night where they can, harboring fires for warmth.
Fadi Jolak and Mohammad Sabagh search the perimeter of the fortified Moria camp for any wood that can be pried off trees to burn for warmth.
A human rights observer from Belgium, keeps an eye on registration proceedings at Moria.
Mohammed, a Syrian refugee, awaits registration in a stairwell in an abandoned building on Leros.
Ahmed “John Misto” quickly distinguished himself from the others with his sharp, American accented English that he says he picked up watching countless WWE fights and his obsession with American culture. Originally from Hama, Syria, Ahmed was living and working in Saudi Arabia for the last number of years. Quick to rant, he was outspoken about his political and ideological beliefs, which ironically, were staunchly anti-American.
A group of friends, all young Syrian men from Damascus, conserve what little wood they found earlier in the day as they take turns warming themselves in the radiant heat of the small campfire.
Afghan men cook bite-sized fish they caught in the nearby harbor of the small island of Leros, Greece.
In a tender moment, a mother moves in and touches her head to her eldest daughter’s for reassurance as the girl begins to cry.
Faradj Aissa enjoys the last of the day’s light in an empty building in Leros. He will spend the night here with a blanket, a sandwich given to him by local volunteers, a bottle of water and his few belongings.
For many refugees caught in limbo, like these Algerians barred from traveling beyond Greece, it’s the mundane tasks that keep them sane. Like this man who offered to cut everyone’s hair on this sunny afternoon.
Adam, with tears streaming down his face recalling this dark chapter in his life, pulls up a photo on his phone of his back after he was captured and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s men for a year. His crime–using his connections as a mobile phone retailer to orchestrate a covert food smuggling operation into his besieged city of Hama in 2011.
An Afghan man sits alone at the entrance of the camp’s community tent, enjoying the last minutes of the late afternoon sun.
Blankets provided by the United Nations High Commissioner on Refugees pile up in an abandoned building on the island of Leros as refugees shed bulk in preparation for advancing farther into Europe.
Eighteen year old Mirwais Dawlatzai was sent as the sole ambassador for his family from Kabul to Europe. He says he feels incredible pressure to find asylum and earn money so that he can bring his family over after his parents invested their life savings into his journey. One day he hopes to become a psychiatrist living in Germany.
Shy and softspoken, this Congolese man who chose not to give his name is waiting indefinitely at Camp Eleonas in Athens. Most likely, he will be deported back to Congo.
Reem of Al-Raqqah, Syria lost her husband to imprisonment during their dash to Europe. Traveling ahead to secure maternity doctors in Europe, Reem’s husband was arrested on the border with Denmark on false suspicion of human smuggling. He is now being held in Korydallos- Athens’s most infamous prison. With her due date past, each day brings mounting fear and anxiety as Reem is beginning to face the reality of childbirth alone in a foreign land.
Georgios Kamini, Mayor of Athens in what was meant to be a five minute visit that turned into a much longer conversation of Kamini’s frustration with the central Greek government and the EU for inadequate and slow response to the migrant crisis. His city, also in the center of the Eurozone debt crisis, is struggling to cope with the thousands of new arrivals- especially those who cannot continue onwards into Northern Europe. Essentially, Kamini is tired but resolved to see Athens through these difficult times.
In Athens, Eleonas sits in silence as most of its residents have continued on, trying their luck at the Macedonian border and onwards towards, hopefully, a new life in Europe.
at the gate
The thought of crossing the Aegean and the litany of nightmares displayed on newsprint worldwide weighs on the minds of most refugees as they move towards Europe fleeing violence, starvation or persecution in the Middle East. With the final leg substantial both in risk and cost, most choose to chance the short stretch of water that separates Turkey and Greece. In 2015 alone 856,723 people made that journey. Partially precipitated by the violence and persecution in Syria, the UNHCR states that “Globally, one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum.”
In the greatest displacement of people since the Second World War, I listened to grandmothers, fathers, factory workers, art students, Muslims, Christians and many other walks of life as they stepped through Europe’s gate. The Greek islands serve as a geopolitical boundary as well as a line in the sand between lives past and present. I stood at this intersection to create a document of individual lives in limbo, caught in forces of foreign interest, ideological schisms and other powers beyond their control.
The story begins with the now iconic crossing of the Aegean from Turkey aboard flimsy inflatable rafts to one of the many nearby Greek Islands. Next comes the registration process that often times becomes a lengthy ordeal in less than ideal conditions. At places like Moria on Lesvos, refugees are often asked to wait days in line, while exposed to freezing conditions, incessant rain and inadequate basic supplies. With trees stripped bare, discarded clothing is the burned for warmth. Only when registration is complete, can they continue on towards Athens at the other side of this circuitous gate. For those that don’t hold a Syrian passport, their fate is much murkier.
As of March 18th, 2016, in a joint solution reached between Turkey and the EU, all asylum seekers attempting “clandestine routes” such as the Aegean crossing, will be forced back to Turkey. The Greek Islands, which have served as the gate to Europe to more than a million refugees is now officially closed. In mounting public frustration, fear and anger towards the influx of refugees throughout the continent, this legislation is what the EU hopes will be the answer to stem the flow of migrants who have unequivocally and irreversibly transformed the fabric of European society. The individuals on the following pages represent the last of those fortunate enough to make it through the gate to Europe, and one hopes, to a better life.