The English artist helping migrants on a Greek island

Kostas Koukoumakas

There is an unearthly silence on the isolated beach in the north of Lesvos, a Greek island in the eastern Aegean. The sun has just risen and the sea is dyed in the colours of dawn. Apart from me, there is just one other person on the beach, a man with a peculiar haircut - pudding-bowl style on top, long at the back.

 A young boy in a group of at least 25 people smiles after arriving by boat on the Greek island of Lesvos early in the morning of June 1, 2015

He is Eric Kempson, 60 years old, born in the English county of Hampshire but a resident of Lesvos since 1999.

Kempson is looking through binoculars at the sea. “They’re coming,” he says, pointing.

Kempson is a painter and sculptor but the main focus of his life now is helping migrants from the Middle East and Africa who arrive frequently on these shores. They are part of the much larger wave of people desperately trying to reach Europe that has captured international attention this year.

A tiny dot appears in the calm water between the island and the nearby Turkish coast. The dot grows bigger by the minute. In a short while, we can clearly see an inflatable boat carrying at least 25 people. As they approach the shore, they wave their hands and turn their heads to the sky, shouting “Allahu Akbar!” ("God is greatest" in Arabic).

The small inflatable boat approaches Eftalou beach on the Greek island of Lesvos early on June 1, 2015

As a journalist, I feel elated at seeing this dramatic event unfold before my eyes. At the same time, I feel shame for staying behind my camera rather than stepping forward to help these people.

The boat reaches the coast and the passengers set foot on European land for the first time. Kempson rushes to assist them. He grabs crying babies and helps women get from the boat to the beach. He runs to his car to fetch bottles of water and sandwiches.

“Do you see these families with their babies?” Kempson asks me a while later. “If you drove them to the port of Mytilene, the capital city of Lesvos, it would be a serious criminal act according to the Greek law and you would go to jail. This is completely insane and it should change one day.” Kempson continues: “There are many people in the village that want to help, but they are afraid they’ll get in trouble with the authorities. They secretly provide food and clean clothes.”

English artist Eric Kempson offers bottles of water to migrants who have just arrived on Lesvos from Turkey early in the morning of June 1, 2015

Kempson first came to the island on holiday with his wife Philippa. They fell in love with the place and moved to Lesvos with their baby daughter 16 years ago. The family home is right by the sea. Kempson is well known as an artist for sculptures he makes from olive wood and sells to tourists and locals.

The immigrants on Eftalou beach are getting some rest and trying to dry their clothes. They travelled less than 10 kilometres on the inflatable boat from the Turkish coast to Lesvos. They were on board for around two hours and many are dehydrated. Most of the group are Syrians, but there are also Afghans and Africans. Each person paid 1,000 euros to a trafficker to get on the boat.

To comply with Greek law, they now face a walk of 50 kilometres to a detention centre close to the village of Moria, where migrants are registered. After one or two days, they will have to walk again for 6.5 kilometres to the central port of Mytilene. They will take a ship to Athens and many, aiming to reach Western Europe, will look for a trafficker who can drive them to a northern border.

Local media report that 400 people – a “small village”, they say - reach Lesvos every day from the Turkish coast. Judging from the groups I encounter later in the day on my way to Mytilene, the real number may be much larger.

According to the Coast Guard, 18,500 people entered Greece from the eastern Aegean in March and April this year. This number is likely to increase in the months ahead, as summer brings better sailing conditions. Eric Kempson can expect to spend many more early mornings by the beach, looking through his binoculars, waiting for new arrivals.

Kostas Koukoumakas is a freelance journalist based in Thessaloniki, northern Greece. He is a contributor to VICE.COM and magazines published by Kathimerini newspaper. As part of the Balkan Fellowship for Journalistic Excellence, he is reporting on migrants who travel to Europe from the Middle East and Africa and on the people who offer them humanitarian assistance.

Fellow Bio

/en/file/show/Kostas Koukoumakas.jpg

Kostas Koukoumakas

Kostas Koukoumakas is a freelance journalist based in Thessaloniki, northern Greece.