Skip to main content
Together with his wife Regina, Chris Catrambone founded the Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) in 2013. The station employs a 40-meter-long drone-equipped ship called the Phoenix to assist migrants who are trying to cross the Mediterranean.
Beacons of Safety

Eric and Philippa Kempson, a married couple from England, have lived on the seashore in Efthalou, a town on the Greek island of Lesvos some six miles off the coast of Turkey, for 15 years. In the early 2000s Eric, a sculptor, fell in love with the beach and the island’s breathtaking scenery, eventually relocating to what seemed like heaven on earth. Over the past year, however, the civil war in Syria has turned the Kempsons’ paradise into hell.

“Our lives will never be the same,” says Philippa, who has witnessed many a traumatic event: bodies washed up on the beach, people drowning in the sea before her very eyes or trapped on burning boats, parents losing their children. The civil war in Syria has shaken the foundation of Eric and Philippa’s lives to the core – suddenly, they have to manage with but a few hours of sleep per night, and every morning brings the same routine: providing refugees with water and bread from the supermarket, giving them clothes and offering them shelter.

“This tragedy is happening right on our doorstep, how could we look away?” Eric asks. “One day, 700 people appeared all at once. We tried to give them something to eat and dry clothes to wear. These people had just spent three or four days hiding in the forests of Turkey without food or water. Many of them were hurt, and we didn’t have a doctor with us. Philippa did her best to fix up those with minor wounds, while we took the more serious cases to the hospital.”

October 28, 2015

“The worst day for us was October 28. The traffickers forced people overboard before the boat had reached the shore. All of a sudden, fuel began leaking and the boat exploded. Everybody jumped into the water: men, women, children. Our daughter Elleni swam to where the boat was sinking to dive for babies. She was on her way back to the beach with a baby under her arm when she was grabbed by a man who couldn’t swim. He dragged them all underwater. I immediately went to her rescue, but she was able to shake him off and save herself and the baby,” Eric remembers. “The very same day we received a phone call informing us that another boat had disappeared after being spotted in Efthalou. I took my binoculars and drove there. When I arrived, I saw that the deck had collapsed, trapping women and children, many of whom were stuck underwater. At the end of the day, we saved 242 people out of 300. Some NGOs, like Sea Watch and Greenpeace, joined in our efforts, and so did a few fishermen and the Coast Guard. Hours later, the tide rolled in and washed up the first bodies. One man lost his wife and two children out there. On his way to the hospital, he also died.”

At first they were three: Eric Kempson, his wife Philippa and their 16-year-old daughter Elleni. Together they helped the refugees stranded in Efthalou. Eric filmed them and posted the videos on YouTube and Facebook. “I wanted people out there to notice what was going on,” he said. Journalists and television crews soon began arriving in Greece, followed by NGOs and volunteers from all over the world, including many doctors. “We met incredible people with big hearts and made many friends,” Philippa says. “Many of them were Syrians and Afghans. Meeting them all made us realize how little we knew about these people.”

Unfortunately, the Kempson family made enemies, too. Right-wing extremists stalked them on social media and they received a number of threatening phone calls. The family also fell out with with its Greek neighbors: they had no choice but to withdraw Elleni from school. Even the owner of a restaurant where Elleni had performed a few times refused to hire her again. Today, she works as a musician in England and is currently on tour in Europe. “She organizes charity concerts for refugees, she speaks openly of their plight on television and in the interviews she gives to various newspapers. Soon, she will be touring through France,” her father says.

Eric and Philippa are currently trying to find a suitable place for the refugees to stay. They are battling Greek authorities to obtain a license that would allow them to convert a hotel into a refugee shelter. Both NGOs and private citizens have offered to help with procuring furniture.

Refugees – illegal migrants?

“Europe’s refugee policy is the reason behind the situation of the people crossing the sea day after day being so desperate,” the couple says. “European politicians’ declaring that refugees were illegal migrants enabled organized trafficking networks to appear and prosper in the first place. These people are disheartened and broken, and they are given no other choice than to turn to criminals in their quest to find safety.”

“They spend thousands of euros without having the faintest idea of what might await them on their journey to Europe’s wealthy countries,” Philippa continues.

“Women are being raped, their children – abducted by criminals to become organ donors or sold to pedophiles as sex slaves. If the parents are ‘lucky,’ the kidnappers return the children for a ransom. There are 10,000 refugee children missing today, and no one gives a damn because they have been declared illegal, with no rights whatsoever.”

Her voice trembling with anger, Philippa pauses before adding: “A plane ticket from Turkey to Europe costs a little over €100, a sum these people could pay. It couldn’t be easier to spare them so much pain: just tell them in advance, while they are still in Turkey, if there’s a chance for them to be accepted as asylum seekers in the country of their choice.”

Eric speaks of other horrors: “The other day, rubber bullets were fired at children near the border between the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia and Northern Greece. Frontex [the European Agency for the Management of Operational Cooperation at the External Borders of the Member States of the European Union] has become what the SS once used to be. Government representatives should really come down here to see things with their own eyes. We are Europeans, we consider ourselves civilized, but we are all heading 60 years back into the past.”

An appeal to Europe

Being all too familiar with the plight of the refugees in and around Greece, Eric and Philippa cannot understand why Europe has chosen to rely on Turkey in resolving the refugee crisis. “Turkey tramples on the rights of its own citizens and is waging war against the Kurds. The money to be given to Turkey by the EU is highly unlikely to benefit the refugees. Instead, it should be given to trustworthy NGOs,” says Eric. “I was deeply shocked by something I saw the Turkish coastguard do. A short while ago, three boats were approaching the coast. They threw cables over, told the people to grab them, and then sent an electric charge through the cables, electrocuting those who held on. I saw it with my own eyes. That’s torture! There have been reports of other incidents like that, but nothing has changed.”

Eric and Philippa hope for more balanced news coverage and an improvement in the Europeans’ attitude. “These people are fleeing war zones, they are suffering terribly. The attitudes of the governments and the media in both Britain and Europe are disgusting. These are good people who need our help. Why are they called ‘migrants’ by the press? They are people on the run who need our help until they can return to their home countries. They don’t want to stay in Europe,” says Eric.