The day’s first ferry sailed in before dawn, the last arrived after midnight.
Big ocean liners filled with refugees, nearly 10,000 each day, every third person a child.
And Sara Gilliam watched as they walked off.
“It was like the expression, a sea of humanity,” the Lincoln mom said last week. “It was a sea of humanity in crisis coming ashore.”
Last month, Sara spent 10 days in Greece, long days at the Port of Athens, watching as those refugee-filled ferries arrived, families fleeing Syria and Iraq and Iran and Afghanistan.
Sara was there to help with boxes of baby carriers, her pockets stuffed with socks and mittens and tiny toys.
“I saw babies with no socks, men with frostbitten hands, children without gloves or hats. We were covering those children with all the winter gear we could carry.”
Sara served as a volunteer for Carry the Future, a nonprofit started by a California woman who, like many, had been stricken by images of a Syrian boy who’d drowned when an overcrowded raft capsized on its way to safety in September.
The idea was simple: To provide refugee parents with baby carriers to ease their long journeys from the port through the Balkans to asylum in Western Europe.
Hundreds of people offered to gather donated carriers, others offered to travel to Greece to give them to parents and help them learn to use them.
“It was probably the most powerful experience of my life,” Sara said. “And I’ve had a very rich life.”
She was back in Lincoln when she shared her story, waiting at the doctor’s office with her youngest son, Otis, sick with a winter virus.
Her body was here, she said, but part of her was still in Greece.
“I wasn’t ready to come home. It was just the most amazing feeling to know we were having an impact on these individuals whose lives were in chaos.”
Sara and her team of eight fellow volunteers fit a carrier for an 8-day-old infant who was born on the journey. They fit a carrier for a 3-week-old. In all, they fit 568 carriers on moms and dads so they could carry their little ones.
Each day was exhausting and exhilarating.
One day, handing out snacks to children on a bus, she discovered no one on board had eaten in three days. She sprinted five blocks for boxes of food.
One day, she sobbed after a family departed, thinking they’d left behind a small white dog, only to discover it belonged to a nearby bus driver.
Every day, she saw Greek grandmothers with shopping carts handing out secondhand clothes and toys, out-of-work Greek citizens meeting the ferries with food and diapers and toiletries.
“The Greek people blew me away with their compassion.”
When the 38-year-old from Nebraska got overwhelmed, her roommate would tell her: One baby at a time.
Sara was passionate about helping before she left, having spent time in refugee camps during her college years. But her experience in Greece was different, she said.
Those camps were established. Here, people had just fled their homelands, survived peril on overcrowded rafts in choppy seas, the fear and uncertainty of what lay ahead etched on their faces.
“Everyone looked exhausted. You could look in their eyes and see that they were traumatized, that they had really suffered greatly.”
The pain was more apparent in some.
Late one night, with one baby carrier left to give for the day, Sara spotted a small family coming off the ferry. A young mother and father and their baby.
Tears poured down the woman’s face. She looked broken, Sara said.
Her husband was agitated and angry. He wanted to keep moving. But, they had no money to get on the buses that took refugees to the Macedonian border and he needed to find work.
Sara brought them food -- hot soup and rice. She found help -- one volunteer who found another volunteer, who found another volunteer who could translate.
The women gathered around the family. They unwrapped the 10-month-old, changed her diaper, swaddled her in clean clothes and blankets, found her a hat and mittens.
"Like a pit crew," Sara said.
Then she held the baby and kissed her and sat with her arm around the crying mother.
She told her it would be OK, that she wasn’t going to leave her.
It was after midnight when they found the family a place to sleep for the night, warm and dry.
Sara slipped a sparkly necklace, one of the gifts her Carry the Future roommate had brought to give to the children, into the woman’s pocket.
The refugee woman was young and beautiful, dressed in jeans and a leather jacket, Gilliam said. She can’t imagine what she suffered, or what might lie ahead.
“But that moment, I was in the right place, I just feel like she made an indelible mark on my heart.”
She hopes the mother has the necklace, and that when she looks at it she remembers the stranger from Nebraska who cared about her.
Who still cares about her.
“I felt a real strong connection, that these people are going to be with me forever. And I am going to be this random American they met at a very low point in their lives.”
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