Like many other people around the world, Simon Lewis says he was shocked and horrified by the image of the three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned while attempting to reach Greece from Turkey in September.
So when he saw the call-out for volunteer lifesavers to travel to Greece in January, the Melbourne lifeguard jumped at the chance to help prevent such tragedies from occurring again.
“This is the biggest lifesaving crisis in the world,” Mr Lewis says.
“They are making the journey because it’s that trip to freedom and it will change their lives and they’re in a desperate situation. I know the people I’m helping are desperate and fearful.”
Mr Lewis, 32, is volunteering with the International Surf Lifesaving Association to assist Greek lifeguards rescue Syrian refugees making the dangerous journey to the island of Lesbos (also translated to English as Lesvos).
For eight days he will be plucking people from the water when their dinghies have capsized and toeing boats in to shore, providing CPR and conducting initial medical assessments.
It won’t be an easy job.
The UN High Commission for Refugees reports that almost half a million refugees have arrived on Lesvos’ shores this year, with an average of 1945 arriving per day. This is to an island that has a residential population of just over 86,000.
According to a September report in the New Yorker, Lesvos mayor Spyros Galinos has asked the Greek government to declare a state of emergency on the island.
He said the situation was “critical”, with residents struggling to accommodate the refugees, many of whom have pressing medical needs and arrive starving and parched.
Adding to the island’s woes is the average minimum nightly water temperature of nine degrees during the Greek winter, increasing the chances of hypothermia for those exposed to it.
Mr Lewis says he has prepared himself for the fact he might have to pull bodies from the water.
“If a boat crashes overnight and there are people in the water, the next day’s pretty grim,” he says. “The likelihood of survival is pretty slim.”
If he does have to recover bodies from the water, he hopes his team will help provide people with dignity in death.
“It’s about providing people with the breath of life or laying them to rest with care.”
Preparing for the worst, hoping for the best
When asked whether he is nervous about what lies ahead, Mr Lewis is stoic.
“You have to understand what you’re doing, why you’re doing it and who you’re doing it for,” he says. “If you’re going in there blind it would be overwhelming, but when you have experience and knowledge you can check yourself.”
Experience and knowledge are two things Mr Lewis has in abundance.
He has been a professional lifeguard for three years, working at numerous pools across Victoria. As well as his day job at swim centres, he also volunteers as the director of lifesaving at the St Kilda Lifesaving Club, monitoring St Kilda Beach, one of Melbourne’s busiest tourist destinations.
He has conducted 13 surf rescue missions at St Kilda Beach and through his role as a pool lifeguard he has provided first aid to more than 100 people.
Mr Lewis says his Life Saving Victoria training, which includes tight protocols for dealing with critical situations, will hold him in good stead for Greece.
“I have had exceptional training and that’s how I think I can make my contribution – by applying those Australian skills that are world class.”