Giving Compass' Take:

• Jeanne Carstensen shares the story of how Proactiva Open Arms began helping Syrian refugees reach Greece safely and how their methods changed over time.

• How can funders help to support on the ground efforts to help refugees? 

• Learn about ways to support refugees

When Gerard Canals and Oscar Camps saw the photo of the little refugee boy from Syria laying facedown in the sand, they knew they had to do something. The lifeguards from Barcelona had been following the refugee crisis for several months and were horrified by the mounting number of what they saw as preventable deaths in the Aegean Sea. But the photo of that little boy, Aylan Kurdi, that went viral in August 2015 stunned them—the toddler looked to be the same age as Camps’ son.

A month later, after the lifeguard company they worked for closed for the season, Canals and Camps traveled to Lesbos, Greece, to assess the refugee situation. Sitting about six miles across from Turkey on a narrow but often treacherous strip of the northern Aegean, Lesbos had become the epicenter of the Syrian refugee crisis, with thousands of people arriving every day. Their plan was to evaluate the needs on Lesbos before returning to Spain to assemble a team.

Just minutes after their arrival, they spotted two refugees in distress about 300 meters offshore. They realized there were no lifeguards around—indeed, no one at all who could help. More than 250,000 refugees had arrived to Lesbos already—three times the population of the entire island—but in September the locals were still struggling to cope with the ongoing humanitarian emergency with minimal outside assistance. Canals and Camps didn’t have any of their usual rescue equipment, but they swam out to the two men and brought them safely back to shore.

After that initial experience, Canals and Camps dropped their original plan and started working immediately. Peter Bouckaert, emergencies director for Human Rights Watch(HRW), saw them in action as the pair guided the overcrowded boats of frightened refugees to shore and performed first aid. “I immediately realized that they could make a huge difference,” Bouckaert says.

Bouckaert suggested they create a nonprofit and offered to help raise money. From the beach, Camps called a lawyer in Barcelona to do the paperwork—and Proactiva Open Arms was born. In just a few weeks, with the help of HRW board member Amy Rao, they raised $600,000. “I thought, ‘This is what you do in a crisis. You don’t freak out,’” Rao recalls about the lifeguards after she arrived at Lesbos.

Canals’ brother and another lifeguard soon joined them from Barcelona; eventually the team on Lesbos would grow to more than 20. In the first weeks, the team had to make due with minimal resources. “We grabbed an abandoned rubber refugee dinghy, put two engines on it, and used it for rescues,” Canals recounts. Refugee boats were arriving day and night, so the team worked 24-hour shifts using two specially equipped personal watercrafts they purchased in Barcelona and transported to Lesbos, thanks to the fundraising campaign.

Read the full article about helping Syrian refugees by Jeanne Carstensen at Stanford Social Innovation Review.