The power of Social Media in a rescue

I didn’t expect to play any role whatsoever in a rescue last night. But thanks to the incredible reach of social media, despite being more than 8,000 km away, I did.

Shortly after midnight I was sitting in my living room in Arlington, Virginia (USA), enjoying a Duolingo lesson after everyone else in the house had gone to bed. Ping.. My phone chimed telling me someone was trying to reach me on messenger. I glanced down and saw a name that was only vaguely familiar.

"Dear Sir … There are 6 men and 6 women and 5 children and one handheld child… They run out of everything since yesterday and they are in critical condition. Please rescue them ASAP otherwise we will start losing them."

More than a day stranded on a non-populated island, supplies running out

More than a day stranded on a non-populated island, supplies running out

The message included a map with a dropped pin, and photos of children looking very cold and miserable. They appeared to be in an unpopulated area. I glanced at the map and did not recognize the shape of the island. I did know that unplanned landings on small islands between Turkey and Greece happen regularly.

I would later learn that Ahmed, the man contacting me, is an Iraqi refugee living in Belgium for the past five months while waiting for his asylum application to be processed. He himself was on a dinghy that landed on the Greek island of Farmakonisi. Their engine stalled several times and he had to jump out and swim for 2 hours to drag their boat to land. He has remained in close contact with many refugees in Turkey as they prepare to make the crossing to Greece. If there are boats that don’t arrive in Greece, or that land on uninhabited rocks like this one, many people know to call Ahmed. There are several groups who handle such calls and coordinate rescues from afar, but these refugees only knew how to reach Ahmed.

"Hi Ahmed - What can I do? I am sitting in my home in America. I don’t have contact info for any rescue personnel.."

"Call everybody on island… I think you have good contact with Greece."

Because of the time I spend on Facebook and my work with Sea of Solidarity, it’s true that I do get a lot of requests for assistance because people assume I may be able to help with all sorts of issues. Sometimes I can, but often I can’t. Someone recently asked me if I knew how refugees can get from France to the U.K. (for the record, no, I have no idea).

Ahmed was pleading with me to assist. It was early on a Sunday morning in both time zones, and I questioned whether someone else would be available to solve this problem if I didn’t try. I realized that maybe I could help. Ahmed and I went back and forth in strained English at times, until I could identify the island as a small uninhabited piece of land off the coast of Chios. Chios is a larger island that hosts several established NGOs including A Drop in the Ocean (Dråpen i Havet or Drop) and the Spanish Lifeguards. I immediately sent off several messages to people I knew would be able to contact the Greek Coast Guard and/or Spanish Lifeguards on Chios.

My friend Chris Kourt replied from Germany and provided the phone number for the Greek Coast Guard on Chios. Ahmed called the number and was simply told “we are aware of this case,” and to have the group ask the military barracks on the island for assistance. I was soon informed through Ahmed that the Greek military barracks had already refused to offer any assistance to the group, even though it was the middle of the night in winter time, and the group included young children. It would be necessary to use other angles to pressure the coast guard to initiate the rescue.

The next person to reply was Trude Jacobsen, the Drop founder and Chairwoman. Trude relayed the information to her coordinator on Chios. Drop Chios was already aware that a group of refugees was stuck on a nearby island, but there could be more than one. Everything seemed to happen very smoothly on the Drop side, which immediately put me at ease. I wasn’t alone in this problem any longer. Now with the refugees’ phone number from Ahmed, the Drop coordinator could contact the group directly to figure out exactly where they were and facilitate rescue. The weather had been poor the night before but they would press the Coast Guard again to go and find them. Over the next hour it was back and forth with Ahmed and Trude. Finally it was clear I had done all I could. Trude assured me the group of refuges would be safe soon, and encouraged me to go to bed. It was 4:00 am my local time. I had never finished my online language lesson. Basic Bokmål will have to wait a little bit longer.

Less than three hours after I said goodbye to Trude, Ahmed wrote to me again:

"rescue now"

I simply replied "Good"

Trude later confirmed that everyone in the group was okay.

As everyone who has been to Lesvos this past year knows, there is no way to anticipate what will happen there at any given time. The situation is extremely fluid. I now know that this rule can extend to those who have left the island, but remain closely connected by social media. Although I was tired the next morning, I was glad I could be there for Ahmed, and perhaps even play some small role in getting this group of refugees safely in the hands of caring volunteers on Chios.

I later reflected on the fact that this rescue mission involved persons in Belgium, the United States, Norway, Germany and of course Greece, all working closely together in real time using tools readily available to nearly anyone in the world. All of this was done very naturally, without any technical problems or delays, and at no expense to any of us except for routine data charges. It’s just another example of how powerful a tool social media can be.

Thank you everyone -- including the Drop Chios Coordinator and Greek Coast Guard of course -- for your help to see that this story had a positive ending. Below are the images from Ahmed, showing the location of the refugees and the children stuck there in wet clothes overnight without any assistance. Fortunately they were all warm, dry and well fed when they went to sleep tonight.

Adam Rosser