Tragic letter on nightmarish plight of refugees

Over 60

No doubt about it; an email posting is the most convenient way to communicate, and also the fastest. But there’s a price to pay: even if a sent posting joins the plethora of others and has been preserved in your computer, it idles there, inert, cold, lacking the pleasure that often arrives with personally sent snail-mail.

A letter recently arrived from a friend I’ve known since days happily spent as a youth at a northern Wisconsin boys camp decades ago. It arrived via slow mail with a tiny bit of quartz included. There was also a shocking photo of huge mounds of lifejackets piled high — thousands of them — in a broad, barren field.

I frequently ask friends about to embark on a foreign trip to pick up a small pebble for me, to send it to me and let me know how and where it was found. The following typed letter from a friend from decades ago responded. What he wrote will be etched in my memory forever:


Hello, Joe,

I did not forget your suggestion/request; I send you a small stone from my recent trip to Greece. I was on a ‘mission’ that brought 12 of us there: three Muslim community leaders and 9 of us rabbis from California, along with several other people, all are involved in refugee assistance, resettlement, first response, etc.

As a result, we spent four very full days going from one refugee ‘camp’ to another — from Thessaloniki to Lesvos. This was no vacation; we were on a mission to learn about what is being done, what needs to be done, and who is doing what to address the needs of those who land on Greek shores from so many places where living has become intolerable, unsafe, or worse.

Many arrive by boat — small, rickety things that were never intended to make even the short trip from Turkey. Most ‘passengers’ had paid small fortunes to smugglers to get them onto these death traps. For many, this was their last, best hope to escape certain death in their home countries and to try to find life and survival in a new place.

It was infuriating to learn that the smugglers would give each person a life jacket ‘in case.’ What none of the passengers knew was that the smugglers knew that the life jackets were fake; that is, they could not hold anyone up in the water. If/when they went overboard, they were doomed. That was not only to save money, but also — most deviously — to insure the failure of the mission.

What you see in the photo I took is the ‘graveyard’ of hundreds of thousands of the fake lifejackets from the lucky ones who made it to shore because they didn’t need them to buoy themselves up — a visual testimonial of the cruelty of the smugglers and the simple luck of the surviving arrivals on the Greek shores.

It was there that I noticed a little piece of quartz while I was standing on the dusty ground near the piles of lifejackets, near where goats were grazing peacefully, near where battered wooden boat hulls and deflated rubber rafts were strewn around the perimeter.

The sun had glinted off the quartz while I was standing there, trying to take everything in. I bent down and, remembering my promise to you, picked it up to send it as a reminder of one set of the horrors that we have wrought on our fellow human beings.

I keep asking myself how it can be that there are 60 million refugees worldwide today, the highest number in human history. And I keep asking myself how we can let this go on or why we are letting it go on. If nothing else, at least I know that I will never lack for something to do each and every day to try to relieve the suffering of people who wanted nothing more than to make a living and raise their children in a safe and healthy environment.

I hope you like the quartz. I don’t know any more about its history than you do. But now you know its place of origin and its history from the time I found it until it made its way into your hands.



This, from a normally easy-going clergyman whose regular experiences involved parishioners in a San Francisco synagogue and who never dreamed he’d ever be changed so unexpectedly and violently by a few days in Greece.

The letter, the bit of quartz, and the nightmarish photograph are now mine. A price has been paid for my request. I will never forget so tragic an incident because of it. I’ve been aware of the horrors of refugees endlessly crammed into unsafe boats (as many as hundreds into space normally fit for 20 or 30), desperate and hopeful, not realizing that the smuggler plan was to create a situation to guarantee failure.

Truth is, I don’t need the quartz nor the photo to remind me of the incident; the letter might have sufficed. But without the graphic addition, it would not have been nearly the same.

No electronic device could ever communicate so painfully and so clearly as a letter sent first class with its two additions.