“Our goal is to place a human face on this world event and meaning to the term refugee. This ongoing crisis is changing the world. We believe there is an urgent need to educate and offer an opportunity for people to connect to the human side of this tragedy.” – Robin and Robert Jones
It was a typical warm April evening on the Greek Island of Lesbos when the first raft arrived that would change this island community and the world forever. Santa Barbara-based couple Robin and Robert Jones had been living part-time in the small, beautiful village of Molyvos on Lesbos for the past 42 years and had witnessed the town develop from a fishing and agricultural community to one dependent on tourism.
They were dining with friends at their beautiful home when they looked out the window and off in the distance approaching perilously in the sea was an inflatable raft filled over capacity with people wearing bright orange life vests. There were mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, babies and grandparents. It would be the first of many rafts to come ashore to their tiny town of 1,000 people.
For these refugees, Lesbos was a beacon of hope from the dark, cruel world of war and death that they were escaping in Syria and other parts of the world. Despite the dangerous, treacherous passing across the sea, reaching Lesbos represented a promise of safety and hope for a better life.
In 2015 Lesbos became an epicenter for the refugee crisis sweeping across Europe and Asia. At the beginning, fewer than 150 refugees a week were landing on the island. By the time the Jones returned to the US in November, 3,000 desperate people were pouring onto their beaches every day after having made the dangerous crossing from Turkey. They arrived wet, cold, scared and hungry yet filled with hope.
For the first several months as the rafts began trickling in, there was no organized help set up. The town and the world were completely taken by surprise and unprepared at how to provide aid and services to all the refugees. Thankfully, a large group of volunteers took over and helped the refugees by providing food, water, and whatever help they could. Tragically this was only the beginning of their long mass exodus to safety.
The Jones’s joined other volunteers to help the refugees, over half of whom were women and children. Until buses started in the fall they had to walk 60 kilometers over mountain roads in sweltering heat to cross the island to the official Registration centers. Picking up refugees in personal cars was illegal but many people like the Jones helped transport refugee families.
At a rest stop set up for the refugees, Robin, an art teacher, provided paper, colored pens and a blue and white checkered Greek tablecloth she spread on the ground to give the children a place to draw. They sketched tanks and guns but also flowers and homes. Streaks of blue represented the water they had just crossed. The kids were at first a little shy but then they began to draw. And as more and more children got involved, an amazing scene developed. The activity offered a moment of relief to the many children arriving on the beach or entering the temporary chaos of the transit camps.