A bit of background before I begin. For years, I’ve been watching the news with horror as the Syrian people lost their homes and livelihoods, their cities and heritage destroyed: their lives torn apart. I’ve wished there was something I could do, and this summer, I decided to see how I could help. I asked the UNHCR for suggestions, as I couldn’t find much information on where I could help, and they mentioned Lesvos. I did some research and came across articles about Molyvos, a quaint tourist town with cobbled streets and a picturesque harbor, where refugees would arrive in inflatable rafts very near where European holidaymakers were enjoying their summer vacation. I decided to go, and though I made some contacts on Facebook before going, I had nothing set in stone.
My first day in Molyvos, I went down to the Captain’s Table – a restaurant along the harbor, where an Australian-born woman called Melinda runs a grass-roots aid campaign for the refugees who arrive on Lesvos everyday. I’d read some articles that mentioned her, as I was trying to plan how to help the refugees during my trip. Melinda and her husband, Theo, run the restaurant together, and between cooking and greeting customers, she seems always to be on the phone regarding supplies, buses, and whether another group of refugees has been rescued by the coast guard. On top of that, people like me show up and ask to help in some way. It’s a lot to coordinate.
Anyway, some other volunteers came to the restaurant while I was there and I joined them, as they already had some grasp on the situation, though they were almost as new as I was. Vilde, a Norwegian girl, and I made sandwiches, as they are the easiest way to make and distribute sustenance to the many people who pass through. We filled the fridge – about 750 sandwiches, in record time (I thought).
Later that day, I went to the harbor area for the first time, where people who have been rescued by the coast guard are taken care of when they arrive, as they are usually soaked and traumatized by what they’ve been through. An Egyptian fisherman named Akhmed showed me the ropes, pouring out just enough cups of juice and separating bananas from the bunches. We passed out a sandwich – turkey and cheese – to each person, plus a banana and a cup of juice. Many of the refugees haven’t eaten in several days before arriving, as they wait for the Turkish smugglers to get them on a boat.
I went around with covert sanitary napkins and diapers for the women and babies, and we also brought down dry clothes from the donations people have sent to help the cause.
My second day in Molyvos, Vilde and I loaded up sandwiches and fruit and milk and juice and cups and diapers and everything we could think of and find fast enough – some biscuits, bandaids, babyfood. We followed our fellow-volunteers, Sami and Anders, to Sikimanea for the first time. It is a picturesque village a couple of kilometers from the port of Skala, where many refugees arrive. The place where the refugees stay is far from picturesque, however. Vilde and I looked at each other, horrified by what we saw.
We’d imagined a parking lot, at least, but this was just a dusty intersection where people had to wait for the bus. The area was way too small for the number of people, and some were camped out in the road, though it is barely wide enough for two small cars to pass each other. Families with small children used cardboard and their life vests to cushion the pavement and the lucky few had a nice shaded place under a tree. Others milled in the street or spread out along the ess-shaped road to another flat-ish patch, up the hill to the south. Everyone had laundry hanging out to dry. A village fountain flowing with spring water had people clustered around it to bathe or brush their teeth.
Vilde and I kept whispering, “I can’t believe this is real. This is insane.” Small children and babes in arms; families and groups somewhat divided by language, country, tribe, family.
A couple of volunteers were there already since the early morning, and they’d been having a hard time wrangling the over 300 people who were staying there, with no shower or toilet. There was a system of symbols to determine which group would be the next to leave, but it was all very confusing to us newbies. Eventually we figured out that there were 50 seats on each bus, and that the volunteers were counting and marking each group with a symbol, to know who was on the next bus.
The buses to the capital, Mytilene, had been suspended and many families with small children and babies had been stranded there for two nights already. The volunteers who were already there – a couple we all called the Belgian Girls – were exhausted from several days of little sleep and they passed the task of organizing people to get them on the buses to us. Sami went around with the marker, tallying symbols and numbers and we tried to get everyone ready for the next bus, but we missed the message that one was coming, and when it arrived, we were overwhelmed and couldn’t get people to stay out of the road.
Many of the desperate refugees just charged the bus and we couldn’t keep order, so after loading one bus with people in a very disorganized fashion, the second bus came and the moustached driver left, refusing to be boarded by a mob of people, for which I couldn’t blame him, but it made us all realize how we needed to take control of the situation, or risk more empty buses leaving people behind, when they needed to get to the capital.
The next buses came, and we made sure to warn the crowd in advance that the driver would leave if they approached the bus, or were disorganized when they boarded. We were able to get everyone to calm down and enter the bus in family groups. A Greek man drove the bus for Medecins Sans Frontieres. He wore a surgical mask and carried a metal stick. His English wasn’t great, but he would sometimes go on tirades to me about “what these people are doing to his island.” Despite this, I could tell that he was kind.
We got as many families as we could on the buses and then settled everyone in for the night with sandwiches and juice – or milk for the children. Fruit if we had it. Sometimes I had paracetamol – sometimes in syrup form, for children, and I would administer it to those who asked for something for a fever or sorethroat.
One night, a Syrian doctor was among the people who were stuck in Sikimanea during the bus suspension. He spoke English, Arabic and Farsi, so he helped me both as a translator and a doctor, answering people’s medical questions, explaining how the system of getting people on the buses worked.
The next morning we put provisions in the cars and came back early to get people ready for the buses which would usually come by 7:30 or 8. Two buses arrived in succession, and we loaded them up and sent them on their way, waving goodbye to the happy passengers, though none of us could help but think of how hard a time they would have in Mytilene and beyond. We had heard about conditions in the camps – non-working toilets and limited space, plus long wait times to get processed, especially for non-Syrians.
Perhaps at this point I should mention the makeup of the refugee groups we encountered in Molyvos and Sikimanea. I would say that half or just over half were Syrian, with the main part of the rest being Afghani. There were also Iranians, Iraqis, Somalis, and Palestinians. These were all people with serious conflict going on in their home countries – not simply people looking for a better life or more money, but people fleeing hardships and often the threat of death.
The nights were beginning to get colder and the refugees, understandably, began to build fires. We tried to convince them to keep them small and away from dangerous spots, where the foliage would hang over the flames, but aside from that, it was hard to be harsh about the fire-building, since the elevation and proximity to the sea meant that it was definitely colder up there at night than in other places.
During quiet moments, we would have time to sit with the people and talk to them about their lives, about what it took for them to get here, about the death and loss that they left behind them.
One man was from Iran, and he told me how he’d left for Turkey and gone to the UN, but had found no help and lived there for a year, working, before taking the smugglers’ boat to Greece with his son.
My second day at Sikimanea, I drove the road to Skala many times, filling the small car with as many people and their dripping bags as I could, and driving them to the top of the steep road before making another trip down. One car load of soaked women, a small infant cradled in the lap of the woman in the front seat, began to cry as I drove them up the steep hill. They were thanking God for their lives.
Some days we spotted boats coming in, as we had a clear view of the harbor at Skala and the entire skinny channel of sea they crossed, with Turkey on the other side of it. I would drive the car up and down the steep 3 kilometer hill to pick up women and small children and drive them to the transit area. Some of the people would arrive quite late at night and soaking wet. I could get around eight passengers into the little car, though once we were pulled backward by gravity – nearly into a ditch! They had to get out and help push the car till I could pull into a better starting position.
Other cars would also pick people up – some scooters, too. We gave them water and told them about the fountain to refill their bottles. We gave them emergency blankets and fresh diapers and whatever we had. Then we would drive the 25 kilometers back to Molyvos.
That first night, Sami needed to pull over not far outside the village. We were all overcome with emotion at what we’d just seen. It was as if we’d entered another world, in which these third world conditions existed. Now we were able to leave, to drive back to the bright, happy holiday world of Molyvos. There, people filled the skinny streets of the town in their new vacation clothes, all floaty white dresses and short shorts, sunburned shoulders and linen button-downs.
We unloaded the car and went down to the Captain’s Table, which was usually pretty full of people in the late evening. We would sit and talk and smoke – yes, nearly everyone was smoking. It just seemed like the thing to do. We met some of the other volunteers and drank, ate, talked about the stories we’d heard that day.
We’d met people who were pilots, professors, doctors in their home countries. Now they were reduced to sleeping in the dirt and defecating in the woods. We heard of women with urinary tract infections, because they couldn’t bring themselves to take down their pants outside.
It felt strange to move between that world and Molyvos, where I had a bed in a guesthouse, even if I didn’t get much time in it, most nights. Sometimes newly rescued people would arrive at the harbor late at night, and we would get the keys for the storerooms and scramble to get food and dry things for them.
Each day, we split shifts of working in Sikimanea with the two Belgian volunteers, Letty and Emilie. After our late night, we took the morning shift, so that no one had to work early every morning. Sami, Anders, Vilde and I made a good team, working together to organize and fill the buses with as many people as possible.
Once we got 100-plus people onto the first round of buses, we had time to pass out food and drinks to everyone who was left. Often, men from the crowd would offer to help us distribute – passing out cups to be filled and carrying boxes of bananas. We learned the Arabic words for juice and milk – asir and halib. The Farsi words were different, as were the Afghan ones. “Shukran,” “merci,” “thank you,” people would say.
Some decided to walk and we would show them their route on the map. 15 kilometers to the next village, 35 more to the capital. We gave them caps and bread, sandwiches if we had enough, and sent them on their way, wishing them good luck.
In the afternoon, we would get replaced by the Belgian girls and return to Molyvos. Frequently, we’d stop by the parking lot, where refugees were kept to wait for the buses that would come to Molyvos. They had toilets to use, and a water fountain, but problems arose with both, especially after some nights when over 1,000 people were there. The toilets were shut down and the water turned off, at least for a time.
Everyone wanted to take a taxi, and we had to explain that it was illegal for the taxis to pick them up, as it was illegal for hotels to give them a room, until they had been registered in the capital, and had their paper. The only modes of transportation legally available to them were the buses, or their own two feet.
A few evenings, when we were back at the Captain’s Table, we would hear about casualties or missing people. One night, a boat arrived and at first no one noticed that one man was missing. Once they did, they all grieved, assuming he had died, but a fishing boat found him and brought him in, to the joy of his companions.
Sometimes, the refrigerators were empty at the end of the day, and Vilde and I would finish the day making sandwiches for the morning.
I quickly came down with a cold, which I powered through, but it caused me to lose my voice, making it hard to communicate.
When the first week was over, several of the people I’d been working with had to go back – Vilde needed to return to Norway, and Anders to Denmark. The Belgian girls would stay for a few more days. Sami and I brought some other volunteers to Sikimanea – a German man called Kristof and his daughter, Maya, plus another Dane named Michelle.
One afternoon, Kristof and I went down to Skala, having seen boats heading for shore. He wanted to see a landing, so we drove to the harbor and there was a boat, deflated already, the motor being harvested by some enterprising Greek, who makes it his business to greet the refugees with this initial act of greed.
People arrived on the small beach just next to a tourist restaurant, and the local business owners urged them to move on, start walking up to Sikimanea. With the Greek economy strained as its been for years now, it’s hard to blame Greeks for not welcoming the waves of refugees more warmly.
Sometimes, the villagers would get very upset and come by the intersection to shout at us. Many of them didn’t speak English, but we could get the gist of what they were saying. One woman and her sons would come down with little cups of milk and rice porridge to give to the children, and to anyone else, if there was enough. They were full of kindness and sympathy for the plight of the refugees in their back yard. One local man told me how the problem had just been going on for too long, and locals were exhausted by the never ending waves of needy people, leaving life vests and laundry littering their lovely hillside.
One woman frequently yelled down to us about the filth in front of her house. I was used to her tirades, but when the bus came and a family was missing one person who’d gone to the mini-mart, that woman shouted where he’d gone – tried to help. I ran up the narrow path into the village, steep and twisted, looking for him, but it was no use. I turned back, and encountered an older couple who handed me a bag of clothes for the refugees.
When I got back to the intersection, it was empty of people for the first time since I’d started coming there. We cleaned up the area as best we could and went up the road for a coffee and to wash up in the W.C. there.
The café was situated on the hillside, facing the water, away from the transit area. But still, there was a padlock on the gate guarding the entrance to the W.C. We were always treated courteously, and I was happy to support the local businesses.
Most of the boats would come in in the afternoon and evening, and the intersection was rarely empty for long. A couple from Holland joined our team and started sharing shifts with Sami and me. Christian was a nurse and Martina a journalist. They had a car, which was the prerequisite for anyone coming to Sikimanea.
One afternoon, we had seven or eight boats arriving in quick succession, plus the five that had come earlier in the day. With each boat containing around 40 people, the numbers could add up quickly. We would get most of the young guys, the strong ones with no children, to walk to Mytilene. The alternatives were: spending a cold night on the roadside, shivering, versus walking towards one’s goal, and making it there by morning. We estimated it would take them 10-12 hours to walk there. They took pictures of our map with their smart phones and we gave them what we could. One wet group who came in at night – a Syrian family with three young girls – decided to walk rather than stay at Sikimanea. The girls were in damp clothes and we didn’t have dry ones to offer them that night. We gave them sandwiches and peanut bars and they set off towards Mantamados.
Mantamados, I’ve since learned, is a place people walk to outside of the refugee crisis. A church there, called Taxiarchis Monastery, is the site of an annual pilgrimage in honor of the Archangel Michael.
Two trucks full of donations from Slovenia arrived, and we spent the late part of the morning unloading them into the store house. A chain of us, German, Greek, American, Dutch, Egyptian, all worked together, first to unload the trucks, then reload one with provisions for the camps in the capital – mostly diapers and tents.
The last afternoon I worked at Sikimanea, we had more people than I could get onto the two buses we had coming. I convinced some to share seats, in order to get as many people as possible onto each bus.
It required difficult decisions – who has the most urgent needs? Who is the most at risk? Some people were traveling in a family group of 30 people. But it is hard to put such a large group before the many small families, the pregnant women, the elderly and infirm. With the compassion of the drivers, we overloaded those last two buses, just ever so slightly.
But even as they pulled away, more new arrivals were walking up the mountain.
“What group are you with?” some would ask. “We’re just volunteers. We don’t know where the groups are.”
One Syrian man and I talked as we waited for the next round of buses. He apologized for his English and said his mother’s was much better. She was in Turkey, so he called her and we spoke for several minutes. She told me how she also wanted to join her son, but she was afraid for her other children to make the dangerous crossing from Turkey. She referred to the “boats of death.”
We had a meeting one day. There were between 20 and 30 of us, from all over Europe. One man from the IRC was there and a woman from the Red Cross. We talked about the situation – more boats were coming in preparation for winter. The parking lot would be closed soon, as it belonged to the school, and school would soon be in session again.
No alternative place to wait for the buses was presented.
You don’t have to go home, but you can’t stay here.
I got back to the Captain’s Table on my last night in Molyvos and the whole crowd was there. I stayed late, talking with Melinda and the others. As I walked to my guest house, over the arching cobbled road from the harbor, I saw a group of refugees, completely wet and wrapped in blankets, standing opposite a popular bar. Other volunteers were leading them to the parking lot. I carried one of the three children of a woman who seemed to be traveling alone. Melinda’s son picked me up on a scooter and we got the car and filled it with clothes and sleeping bags from the storehouse. Then we drove back to the parking lot, through the pedestrians and scooters. There we helped distribute blankets and clothes to the new arrivals.
The moon was full and low when we drove back to the harbor. It was after 5 when I walked to the guest house.
The next day, I went to Mytilene by bus, and I was struck by how easy it was, to board this air conditioned machine. It only cost 8 euros, or so, to go to Mytilene, yet, all these people were waiting.
I was suffering from dehydration for the second time – or perhaps I’d never quite righted myself before. I slept fitfully on the bus and remained asleep even when everyone else exited, thinking mine was the next stop.
I found a friendly hotel concierge who let me leave my bags there, then I went in search of a café. I sat there for hours, drinking water like it was my job. I ordered food, but couldn’t handle it. All I wanted was water. Mytilene was calm, though there were clearly refugees in the town, eating at the cafes, buying simcards and new shoes.
I kept getting messages from the volunteers on whatsapp – there were 17 boats heading for Sikimanea, and hundreds of people already there, with no more buses coming. Sami and the others were being told to pull out of Sikimanea, that a few volunteers couldn’t interact with such a big crowd.
My head throbbed for hours, until I’d finally had enough water and I could begin to function. I bought my shuttle ticket for the airport and got my bags from the hotel lobby. The man there spoke to me about the refugee crisis and told me that he was descended from Turkish refugees, so he helped whenever he could. Just before I was about to leave, a man walked into the hotel, and I recognized him as someone who had had to walk to Mytilene, because I couldn’t get him and his adult daughter on the last bus. We hugged, and he said they’d had to sleep outside one night already.
He had his papers and he was looking for a room, but everything was full on a Saturday night, the last weekend in August. The man at the hotel said he would have rooms tomorrow. He was very kind. We said goodbye and I wished him good luck
Then it was time for me to leave for the airport.
The plane to Athens was mostly full of Greeks returning home from vacation, but there were also families flying to the next destination on their long and complicated road to freedom and safety.
Love and miss,
Some additional information: Follow Help for Refugees in Molyvos on Facebook and look at their page for information on what you can do to help. Melinda McRostie and Eric Kempson can also be found on Facebook. Both of them have been working hard to help the refugees for months. The IRC and a German group called Borderline Europe were also taking an active role in what is happening in the Molyvos area. The situation seems to be changing there everyday, but so far the boats haven’t stopped arriving on Lesvos.