After saving 517 desperate migrants in a nine-day rescue mission on the Aegean Sea, Australian lifeguard Simon Lewis learned something important: he’s lucky to live in Australia.
“Here am I, happy-go-lucky Aussie, it was like a tidal wave of emotionally-distraught people. It just gets to you, you can’t help it,” Lewis told the Sydney Morning Herald. “They really put you in your place. Thank God, I was born in Australia and I am lucky, I haven’t had to flee my own country.”
Simon was part of a team of Aussie lifeguards from the International Surf Lifesaving Association, who volunteered to help the overworked and exhausted Greek rescue workers trying to save the lives of refugees fleeing the war-torn Middle East for Europe by boat, CNN.
In January alone, 12,000 migrants — most escaping war in Syria and poverty in North Africa — have made the journey from Turkey to the Greek island of Lesbos, and the free and safe soil of the European Union. Lewis has just returned from Lesbos, where he helped to rescue migrants ranging in age from six months old to 80.
In the time Lewis was in Greece, the lifeguard told ABC News Australia that 2,000 refugees traveled through the area. Simon’s experience brought him both moments of “sheer happiness,” but also a haunting sadness as he had to turn some away and watch others die.
The refugees make the dangerous journey across the Aegean, Simon said, because “they think it’s better than being on land, and that says everything to you [about] their situation, to try to get to freedom, because it’s a better option than anywhere else.”
“It’s that ingrained fear of life, stress and exhaustion that they have on their face. It wasn’t just one boat, it was daily.”
Simon has told many heart-breaking stories about his mission on the Aegan since returning home. There’s the desperate mother who, when Lewis’ rescue boat neared her dinghy, thrust her baby out across the sea and tried to hand her to the lifeguard.
In fact, she was so desperate, the mother was willing to toss him her child in a final attempt to make sure he didn’t drown and could have a better life in Europe. But no matter how much Simon wanted to take the child, he couldn’t. To do so would mean facing smuggling charges, so he told her no.
“And she looked at me like that. Those eyes. She stared me down, and I will never forget that moment. We broke this poor lady’s heart — I broke this poor lady’s heart … not receiving her baby in the middle of the Aegean Sea.”
On another day, Lewis and his team watched one of the migrant boats in trouble in Turkish waters. And if a boat is outside EU territory, rescuers are not allowed to go near it — forget save the people on board. The team was ready to rescue them if it floated in their waters, but it never did, and Simon had to watch as 31 people drowned over the horizon.
“As a lifeguard, you want to help everybody,” the lifeguard said. “It’s your job — your job is to kind of look at everybody the same, irrespective of their language, their race, their religion or creed.”
“And they’re just like, ‘I’m here! I’ve landed! I’m free! We’ve actually made that journey! And they start crying,” he said. “And they start realizing that, ‘I’m not going to get bombed.’ It’s hard to put it into a context of words that would have any meaning unless you’ve seen it with your own eyes.”
Simon said volunteering for the mission has “dramatically” changed his life. Lifeguard Lewis added that he’ll never be able to go back to the man he was before.
“Because, I think the images that I experienced, the moments that I shared with people from around the globe, you can’t put into words how it affects you in so many ways. The look on their faces, they don’t know how to say it in English, but they know how to say thank you with their eyes.”
[Photo by Milos Bicanski/Getty Images]