Mustafa Dawa – The Muslim Grave Digger Putting the Souls of Refugees to Rest

Lesbos, the tiny Greek island in the northern Aegean sea opposite Turkey, once a tourist destination now in Limbo since the refugee crises mounted throughout the past few years.

Humanitarian efforts from the island inhabitants and elsewhere were described as heroic, trying to overcome this catastrophe and provide help to those who arrive at its shores. In 2015 when the crises began people were feeding refugees on the beaches, while a local fisherman rescued refugees from water preventing even more death and despair.  By August of the same year, the UN and funded NGOs arrived and started to stabilize the state of things. However, the numbers kept rising, even after the EU’s deal with Turkey and threats of forced removal, people kept attempting to cross the sea to the island’s shores.

As time passes, camps got more crowded, and resources diminish, people fall into despair. Death is the new normal with no lack of causes. Some of those who survived the sea did not survive carbon monoxide poisoning from makeshift heating devices that refugees have been using to warm their freezing tents, blasts caused by gas cookers, freezing, and suicide.

Mustafa Dawa a graduate of Islamic studies moved to Greece from Egypt a few years ago to study Greek literature. Like many other volunteers, Dawa attempted to take part in easing the suffering of survivors through providing translation services. One day while he was helping a Syrian man find a family member, they were directed to the hospital where they found 45 dead bodies. From that day on Dawa felt he had to do something about it. As the Christian cemetery was full, he waited for a month to get a piece of land where he could bury these corpses according to the teachings of Islam.

Though Dawa was a graduate of Islamic studies from Al-Zhar university in Egypt he had never touched a body before. As he described it “according to Islam, ritual burial of the dead is required of all Muslims, and if it is not fulfilled, all Muslims carry the blame”. This feeling of belonging  and holding a position of responsibility guided Dawa through the process as he washed the corpse, or remaining body part on a white table, shrouded it with a white cloth, and then performed the prayer in the direction of Mecca, amongst the surrounding olive trees.

“These are people who are displaced, who should have died in their lands, in Syria, in Iraq, in Afghanistan, but who instead died with no honor in the freezing seas, I am here to return to them at least the minimum honor that they deserve.” Said Dawa.

Tens of the graves on Dawa’s burial ground are marked unknown, providing the estimated age, the area where the body was retrieved from, and the number of DNA sample to facilitate future claims or identification by family members later on. Amongst the identified headstones are children 3, 7, and 12 years old, one of them was found headless.

While he expresses frustration with the political and military conditions causing the crises, Dawa tries to direct his focus to the matter at hand: “You need endurance in these times, but I believe that eventually light will rise from the injustice,” meanwhile, a bulldozer expanded the cemetery, uprooting olive trees to make room for more graves in the event of another deadly shipwreck.

With stories like this, I try to stick to the information I get from news articles and interviews, my attempt is to let you know about this initiative by an individual who never thought of himself as a gravedigger, a person who is last human to interact with these victims before they go underground. But he realized he had to do it, and he took on such responsibility without being asked.