RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Even though winter makes the journey more dangerous, asylum-seekers continue to try to reach Europe by boat. At least 45 asylum-seekers died Friday trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea. Those on the Greek islands are now accustomed to the horrors playing out on their shores. Joanna Kakissis sent us this report from Lesbos, which is now known as the Island of Refugees.
JOANNA KAKISSIS, BYLINE: January is supposed to be a slow month for sea crossings. That's because the water is rough, whipped up by high winds, rubber rafts capsize, wooden boats sink, and it's cold. You can even freeze to death in the water. But Vassilis Hantzopoulos has already seen 15 boats in one morning. He's a volunteer first responder with the Hellenic Red Cross.
VASSILIS HANTZOPOULOS: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "The boats launch from five or six points from the Turkish side," he says. "We can see really well where the boats are coming from, and we can figure out where they will land." Hantzopoulos reaches the shore in time to help a young Afghan mother and her infant daughter off a rubber raft that's full of people. The mother shivers. The baby girl wails. Later in the day, a 3-year-old Syrian boy freezes to death at sea. At least 173 asylum-seekers have died so far this month trying to cross by sea to Europe. Friday was the deadliest day on record so far. Scores of people drowned around two tiny Greek islands, Farmakonissi and Kalolimnos. At least 17 children were among the dead.
LINA MUSTAFA: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: Lina Mustafa gasps when she hears the news. They were running away from war, she says. I meet Lina and her husband at a transit camp on Lesbos. They fled their hometown of Aleppo, Syria, four years ago. They tried to live in Turkey. Her husband found work as a mechanic
MUSTAFA: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "He worked every day," she says, "but he rarely got paid." Unable to make a living, he joined more than 36,000 asylum-seekers who have crossed from Turkey to Greece this month. The number is more than 2,000 percent higher than last January. Mohamma Adoud, who's 25 and also from Aleppo, says that in winter, smugglers offer passage for half price to desperate refugees.
MOHAMMAD ADOUD: They don't have much money. In winter, the trip is cheaper.
KAKISSIS: So how much did you pay?
ADOUD: Nine hundred dollars.
KAKISSIS: You paid $900. But in the summer it's more than that.
ADOUD: Yeah, it's maybe $2,000.
KAKISSIS: Firas Hassan Mohammad-Ali decided to take the risk. Broke and fleeing what he calls never-ending chaos in Iraq, he's with his wife, Mithaq, and their 4-month-old daughter, Nargis. The couple are both 40. They call Nargis their little miracle. Nargis wears a pink fleece onesie and a Hello Kitty hoodie. Her father had strapped tiny life vests on her and then zipped her inside his waterproof parka for the boat trip.
FIRAS HASSAN MOHAMMAD-ALI: (Foreign language spoken).
KAKISSIS: "It was raining and it was cold," Mohammad-Ali says. "The waves were five feet high. Water was getting into the boat, and I prayed to God for help." His eyes fill with tears as he thinks about the fathers who've lost their children on Friday, and he considers himself lucky, even though the road to Western Europe is getting tougher and borders are closing. For NPR News, I'm Joanna Kakissis on Lesbos.
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