Framed by the black of a cell phone, Muhammad Hasan, Mohammad Sabagh, another Mohammad Sabagh and Wael al-Sekkary stand in the early morning hours on Turkish soil, about to embark on the part of the trip they feared most. Prior to them, the Aegean had already claimed the lives of nearly four-thousand other refugees.
Arriving into Lesvos by air reveals a coastline ringed with orange life vests, discarded by the many tens of thousands who have already landed on these shores.
Sunrise reveals a small rubber dinghy, dwarfed by a passing ferry, making its dash to Lesvos, Greece with 28 people aboard.
In a moment of panic, a man miscalculated the distance to shore and leapt from the raft despite protests from the others. To the right of the dinghy, he struggles to stay afloat in the offshore current.
With weather on their side, a decent motor and less people than other boats, these refugees, mostly Syrian, complete their sea crossing in just under four hours.
Clutching a cane, an elderly woman is helped off the boat by one of the dozens of volunteers waiting on the shores of Lesvos for incoming rafts.
On this early winter morning in January, a volunteer wraps a young boy in an effort to fight off hypothermia. Spray kicked up by the strong gusts on the Aegean soaked people in every boat that made landfall that morning.
Two sisters stare absently ahead, in shock after what others on the boat described as a horrific passage. One passenger estimated it took them about four hours to cross from Turkey–entirely in the dark with only cell phone lights. They aimed for the strobing light of the Mytilene airport control tower in the far distance while soaking wet and huddling for warmth. Somewhere along the way, someone shrieked as their light reveal a lifeless body floating by.
A young mother cradles her child on the shores of Lesvos at sunrise.
Hollow eyes of many refugees coming off rafts from Turkey serve as proof of the harrowing nature of the journey.
For those that cannot afford the sometimes exorbitant prices of proper life preservers (set by price-gouging opportunists), they use car tire inner tubes as a dangerous substitute.
A landfill outside Mytilene provides a haunting visual symbol of the 856,723 people who opted to tempt fate on the Aegean in 2015.
Ammar holds his numbered ticket that he received upon entrance into Moria, Mytilene’s refugee camp and registration center. Once his number is called, he must wait in line, sometimes for a full day, to receive his EU registration papers.
Fadi Jolak and Mohammad Sabagh search the perimeter of the fortified Moria camp for any wood that can be pried off trees to burn for warmth.
Naked trunks stand sentinel to refugees resorting to discarded clothing and blankets as fuel for their fires to stave off freezing temperatures on this wet January night inside Moria.
A group of friends, all young Syrian men from Damascus, conserve what little wood they found earlier in the day as they take turns warming themselves in the radiant heat of the small campfire.
Late at night, a man stokes a few embers outside his the shelter his family was given at Moria.
Moaz Khadem Al Jame uses his cell phone, kept alive by an external battery, sparingly a few times a day to communicate with family and friends back home–updating them on his progress north towards Germany.
Clothes that were presumably hung to dry on the formidable fences that cordian off the registration and administration area inside Moria soak in the night’s rain.
Father and son, caught in the rain inside Moria at nightfall.
Mohammad A. Sabagh stands for a portrait, backed by the rising smoke of clothing fires and families desperate to stay warm in the freezing mist.
A human rights observer from Belgium, keeps an eye on registration proceedings at Moria.
In a tender moment, a mother moves in and touches her head to her eldest daughter’s for reassurance as the girl begins to cry.
Adam, with tears streaming down his face recalling this dark chapter in his life, pulls up a photo on his phone of his back after he was captured and tortured by Bashar al-Assad’s men for a year. His crime–using his connections as a mobile phone retailer to orchestrate a covert food smuggling operation into his besieged city of Hama in 2011.
Afghan men cook bite-sized fish they caught in the nearby harbor of the small island of Leros, Greece.
For many refugees caught in limbo, like these Algerians barred from traveling beyond Greece, it’s the mundane tasks that keep them sane. Like this man who offered to cut everyone’s hair on this sunny afternoon.
Iman Miri stands in an abandoned fascist building dating back to the time Mussolini chose Leros as one of his Aegean headquarters. Despite its crumbling walls and ceilings, the building is being used by refugees as an interim home as they wait for their papers.
A young Syrian girl stands in front of a pile of discarded UNHCR blankets.
Two girls pause amidst their play on this unusually warm January day on the island of Leros.
Eighteen-year-old Saboor from Kunduz Province, Afghanistan, traveled alone with his entire family’s savings. He hopes to forge a path towards asylum for them in the near future.
Faradj Aissa enjoys the last of the day’s light in an empty building in Leros. He will spend the night here with a blanket, a sandwich given to him by local volunteers, a bottle of water and his few belongings.
Iman Miri, papers in hand, is all smiles as he boards the ferry to Athens–one important step closer to Germany.
A family gathers themselves as they step foot off the ferry and onto mainland Europe.
In a moment of pause, a young man looks back across a sea of people boarding an Athens bound ferry. Like so many thousands before him, he leaves Leros behind and continues his determined and uncertain march towards Northern Europe in the shadow of tightening EU legislation.