Life Jacket Grave Yard: The Day I Discovered Faith

Faith: believing without seeing. It’s a concept I’ve become all too familiar with, especially growing up in a religious household.

If you were to ask me before I arrived in Greece, “outside the scope of religion, do you place a heavy emphasis on the role that faith plays in your life?” I would have said, “Not really.”

Until today— when I visited the “life jacket graveyard” where thousands of life jackets lie in an excavated field facing the Turkish coast on the northern shore of Lesvos, one of the Greek Islands. The field overflows with mountains of the discarded vests, bright and orange.

These life jackets belonged to Syrian refugees who washed up on the coast, having escaped the chaotic destruction and suffering in Syria on unreliable rafts and makeshift boats.

Weaving through the mountains of vests lie torn rubber rafts, heat blankets, and arbitrary articles of tattered clothing with seams still visibly unraveling at the ends.

At one point I spotted a frayed baby shoe, eerily reminding me of Hemmingway’s poem:
“For sale: baby shoes, never worn.”

Though these shoes were worn, they felt just as empty.

As if I couldn’t already wrap my head around the gravity of what I was seeing, Eric Kempson, a local of Eftalou/ Molovos who has spent the last three years making extraordinary efforts to rescue refugees, picks up an aqua blue children’s floatie.

“The back reads: WARNING NOT A LIFESAVING DEVICE,” says Kempson, pointing to the aquatic cartoon animals surrounding the label.

When I ask about the floaties and life jackets, Kempson elaborates that many refugees did in fact die in them.

It was in that moment, in context with the culmination of images I previously witnessed, that I realized faith’s limitations extend beyond religions’ fingertips. It was then that I learned faith isn’t only a religious concept, but influences many aspects of life.

Before I embarked on this trip I had read about the Syrian war and Syrian refugee crisis. I was aware of the facts and statistical data–especially pertaining to the death toll. The crazy thing is, even though I was aware of the facts, without seeing it with my own eyes I still didn’t believe.

I didn’t have faith.

Believing in the realness of the situation never really hit me beforehand. Numbers were just numbers on a page. I didn’t fully grasp the immensity of the situation’s magnitude.

But, boy, let me tell you this: it’s one thing to read about something. It’s another to see it in person.

When you see a physical representation of those numbers with piles and piles of life jackets, faith smacks you hard, and it felt like it was jamming its hand down my throat, whisking oxygen out of my lungs like progressively beating egg yolk in a bowl faster and faster.

I felt a fist in my stomach.

I felt a hollowness sloshing against the walls of my heart.

I felt an ache splitting through the cores of my bones, through the same skeletal frame encased in the same skin which encompassed those very life jackets.

I felt a confusion plague my consciousness: are humans inherently good or evil? And if not evil, how could I be seeing this? How could I be feeling these things? How could such a thing happen? How can human beings treat other human beings like this? How can a human being inflict such suffering? Endure such suffering? And most importantly, why?

When I looked at those life jackets I imagined a grandparent. I imagined a father. I imagined a daughter. I imagined a son. I imagined people who had lives before this. I imagined people who had aspirations and goals. I imagined people with slivers of hope when successfully escaping Syria, unaware of the tribulations awaiting them on their way to Greece.

When I looked at that baby shoe I imagined someone’s child, an innocent soft foot, and how the toes must’ve curled at one point: so much life, yet their artifacts felt like a graveyard. And even though no one was in view, I still felt the presence of thousands.

I hurt for these people. I hurt for the suffering of the world.
And all of this made me further realize how for so long I’ve been encased in a bubble of small my town in the United States.

For my whole life I thought had an idea of what things were like outside of my town, outside of myself, but did I REALLY have an idea?

It’s so easy to get so wrapped up in what’s happening in my own life that I often forget what’s happening outside of myself.

It’s odd how human beings get so preoccupied with themselves they literally begin to think that that’s all that exists – as if what we see on a daily basis is the whole world or what we do is the only thing that’s important.

But guess what—it’s not. Because our individual lives become so insignificant when compared to the stories and happenings occurring across the globe. I’m but one miniscule part in the vastness of this world—in the vastness of this universe.

So yes, today I saw a “life jacket graveyard.” But I also saw much more than that.

I guess you can say I saw faith.

Montclair State | New Jersey

Danielle Oliveira

Danielle is an English and Journalism double major with a love for photography, writing, and adventure.