During the summer they patrolled the beaches of Catalonia, rushing into the waves to save hapless swimmers but when the hordes of tourists headed home a group of lifeguards decided to dedicate their lifesaving skills to refugees.
So in September they formed Pro-Activa Open Arms and headed to Lesbos, the Greek island that has been the epicentre of the refugee crisis as tens of thousands crammed into rubber dinghies to cross into Europe from Turkey.
Photo: Pro-Activa Open Arms
It was after seeing images of drowned refugees washing up on beaches, including that of three-year-old Syrian boy Aylan Kurdi, that the project came into being.
“Those images made us think, 'we are professionals in lifesaving and we could do something to help the refugees in Lesbos'. We have the skills and we have the equipment to do it so we took a desicion and just went,” Oriol Canals from Badalona told The Local.
The group of lifeguards raised €15,000 ($17,000) between them, enough to stay for the month of September, and are now raising money to remain on Lesbos as weather conditions worsen and winter approaches.
“Our project is to try to help all the people arriving by boats reach the shore. When they get within 300 to 500 meters of land we can help them stay safe in the water and avoid drownings,” Canals explained.
When the weather is fine and sea is calm, this could simply be helping people climb out of boats when they reach shallow water to avoid capsizing and then carrying those who can’t swim safely to shore.
“But with bad conditions we need to get into the water ourselves, to manoeuver the boat to the coast in the best way possible, sometimes the engines are not working and we have to drag them as we swim,” said Canals, who explained the boats are often dangerously overloaded.
Each rescue has its own challenges but the emotional toll on the lifeguards can be hard to deal with, especially when they come up against the enormity of the help needed.
“Once we went out to the lighthouse near Skala just to get to know the coastline and while we there a boat arrived full of babies and young children,” Canals said.
“It is an area very difficult to access and we were there just in one car with fifty people needing help. The mothers were pushing babies into our arms pleading 'Please take my baby and carry him to a safe place please',” he recounted.
“In the end we managed to get hold of other volunteers and they came out with more cars and we were able to transport them all to the refugee camps.”
Map showing usual crossing route from Turkey to Lesbos: Pro-Activa Open Arms
Although the lifeguards have never come face to face with the traffickers they have heard talk of them and how they swindle desperate refugees out of their every penny with the promise of getting them safely into Europe.
“We talk with refugees to try to find out if there are more boats preparing to come over. And through that we have gleaned something about the process. The refugees are led to believe they will be in a safe boat with just ten people and for that they pay more than $1,000 per person.
“It isn’t just Syrians. We’ve met people from Syria, from Iraq, from Somalia, from Afghanistan.There are many people running away from different wars,” he said.
“Most are like you and me… and having left everything they know behind them they are scared. They don’t know what comes next, who we are, where they have to go when they get to land. And that is just those who have the money to make the journey. Imagine what it happening to those left behind.”
Photo: Pro-Activa Open Arms
Canals explains that there is little in the way of state help for the refugees and that the camps and services for refugees are all run by volunteers.
“We have to be prepared to see many hard things. This is about people, it is about the human race. It is trafficking in human lives and we see nothing being done to stop that by the EU or from Turkey.
“Everyday we see many people having to sleep on the ground, and it’s cold. Each one of the refugees risks their life. It’s crazy,” he said.
The Pro-Activa Open Arms have launched a public appeal to raise money so they can continue their lifesaving work in Lesbos.
“We are batting bad weather conditions so we need to be there as long as possible, and for that, we need your help,” urged Canals.
If you want to make a donation, please visit the Pro-Activa Open Arms website.