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Escalating Humanitarian Crisis on the Aegean Sea: A Yogi's View

05/21/2015 12:13 pm ET | Updated May 19, 2016

'"In my dreams I am walking again," the twenty-four-year-old Syrian tells me from his wheelchair that his friends have lifted him into after their overcrowded raft arrived on the shores of Lesvos, Greece yesterday. He was paralyzed by a sniper in Syria, now one of 11 million Syrians who have been displaced from their homes since 2011 (BBC World News).

Now, in Greece, he and the 120 others who arrived yesterday will continue on their arduous journey, first to Molyvos, a coastal town that is about an hour's uphill walk from the shore, then on a bus to a locked detention facility in Mytilini, then to Athens where they will receive authorization for a temporary stay in Greece.

I arrived in mid-April to work on a project with Angela Farmer, the most revered elder yogini in the world, only to be met by refugees mostly from Afghanistan and Syria, but also from Pakistan and Yemen, who have paid at least 1000 euros each to smugglers on the coast of Turkey for a 10 kilometer crossing of the Aegean Sea to Lesvos. Last week an Afghan grandmother and grandfather with their extended family showed me their badly torn up knees, injuries caused by crawling for seven hours in the dark to cross the border into Turkey to then find their way to smugglers to get to Greece.

Standing on the shore in the early mornings, I have learned to wave my hands up in the air as I watch rafts zig-zagging in the water. Typically, the smuggler jumps off the raft close to the Turkish shore, leaving an engine rudder in someone's hands who may have never operated a boat and or have any idea where, on Lesvos, to point.

When the rafts reach shore, there are cheers and, at least for a few minutes, elation. Even though they are soaking wet and cold and most having left loved ones behind, they are alive. But then they have questions: What island are we on? Will the police come to arrest us? Or no questions at all: just staring, as shock settles in.

Yesterday, the second raft of people watched as the third raft almost capsized. A father on the second raft, who had four children on the third, watched for 45 minutes until the Greek Coast Guard were able to rescue them.

The people coming--lawyers, computer specialists, artists, dairy exporters, university students, middle school children, stone masons, and engineers. Yesterday a young family from Syria laid their infant daughter and toddler son on concrete, under the shade of a docked fishing boat in the harbor in Molyvos. No baby bottle was available. The six-month-old tried to lap up milk from a cup, her beautiful eyes as big as saucers.

Last week, a prominent family from Damascus included two grandmothers in their eighties, both dressed from head to toe in traditional elegant black silk. Both sat in the beating sun in wheelchairs in Molyvos for hours until being loaded, without their wheelchairs, into the back of a pick up truck to be taken to a bus to Mytilini. The eighty-one year old's hands were shaking uncontrollably. This Syrian family sold their business, houses, and cars to come. To leave Damascus is to leave one of the most sophisticated and culturally rich cities in the world. As one Syrian told me recently, "Until this war, no Syrians considered leaving their country. Now, every Syrian must consider this. "

Yesterday, I walked with two unaccompanied Syrian teenagers who are trying to find their way to Germany. They were the two in the crowd that ran with me in search of a rescue boat when the third raft had capsized in the middle of the sea. By the time these two young men in designer tee-shirts were registered in Molyvos, one assured me he was allowed to smoke since he was already 18. They both want to go to a university, "no matter what." One speaks four languages, the other three.

The resounding message from the people who have so kindly shared with me here--we must stop the senseless war in Syria. The people from Afghanistan walk for weeks across what some call "skeleton desert" to escape violence in their country. The countries that are selling weapons in Syria, Afghanistan and Yemen need to be stopped. The biggest message--every child deserves respect, every family deserves to raise children in safety.

As a yogi and professor about to return to the US, I am moved by the tenacity of the Greek coast guards who, day after day, are making helicopter and boat sweeps when rafts are in trouble even though the officials are exhausted and working with truly meager resources. In April we heard that the UN had authorized money for rescue operations. The island of Lesvos has yet to receive any additional resources. According to International Organization for Migration worker Zoi Liveditov, an average of 200 migrants are arriving to Lesvos each day (totaling more than 27,000 so far this year), which is almost triple the number that arrived by this time last year.

Meanwhile, the people of Lesvos continue to organize clothing drives and provide ad-hoc meals each day for the refugees waiting to go to Athens. Joining the Greek locals is the international contingent of yogis here for a two-week workshop (with Angela Farmer and Victor Van Kooten) who have wholeheartedly brought financial and emotional support to this crisis.

Many people from Lesvos come from families that were refugees themselves. Lesvos offers a hopeful example of how to welcome people without guns. The people of Greece have welcomed refugees for thousands of years. This ethic reigns even as brutality perpetuated by the Golden Dawn, (a Greek right wing organization) included carving swastikas into the backs of immigrants in 2012 (CBN News World, July 31, 2012).

These weeks here, I have been awed by the dignity and resilience I have witnessed among the refugees. The young mothers carrying babies, the fathers giving their portion of juice to their children, and the youth taking "selfies" when they get out of the rafts. In yoga, "ahimsa" (a Sanskrit word for nonviolence) is the very first precept. In my weeks here, I have gained a more profound understanding of what ahimsa requires of all of us.

Becky Thompson Ph.D. poet, professor, yoga teacher and activist, is the author of several scholarly books on social justice including, Survivors on the Yoga Mat: Stories for Those Healing from Trauma. She is professor of Sociology at Simmons College in Boston. Her website is beckythompsonyoga.com.