The Refugee Crisis in Greece – The Human Toll

My post from last September about my time volunteering on Lesvos has had so many hits, I thought I’d write an update.

Since 2011 and the beginning of the Syrian war, I’ve watched the news with horror as the Syrian people lost their homes and livelihoods, their cities and heritage destroyed: their lives torn apart. I felt that we, as Americans, were responsible for much of the conflict and terror which led to the crisis and I wanted to do what I could to help. I doubted if my presence would make much difference, but I felt I had to try.

Last August, I found myself driving towards a dusty intersection on the Greek island of Lesvos. I was the only American with three other volunteers – two Danes and a Norwegian – and we were nervous. We’d never seen the so-called “parking lot” at Sikaminia, but we’d heard that just the day before, the growing crowd of refugees there had rioted and surrounded a transport bus in protest.

Boats had been arriving more frequently from Turkey as the Summer came to an end and there weren’t enough buses to get everyone to the camps near the capital in Mytilene. Sometimes the mayor of Mytilene would say the camps were too full and stop all buses from making the trip, leaving people stranded for days.

We rounded a bend, and suddenly there were people in the skinny road, lying on bits of cardboard or their brightly-colored life jackets. Toddlers wandered dangerously close to traffic and men and women were stretched out, trying to rest in whatever shade they could find. Their belongings were scant.

Shoes and socks sat drying in the hot midday sun, other items of clothes hung from trees or fences. Adults and children alike gathered around the one source of water: a spring-fed tap where they washed and brushed their teeth. There was no toilet or privacy. There were no tents or tarps for shade. It was a shocking sight.

This was nothing like the comparatively organized transit point in nearby Molyvos, where refugees had access to a decent-sized town and its amenities. Sikaminea is a tiny village with just a few shops and restaurants. Its main industry is tourism, like the rest of the Greek islands, but its secluded location in the mountains and normally pristine landscape had been radically changed by the influx of refugees.

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The waystation at Sikimanea – empty of people for once

Two volunteers were already there, attempting to group refugees in order of need and arrival. Each bus could only hold about 50 people so the volunteers – from France and Belgium – canvassed the crowd and used markers to indicate which groups would be first to board the next bus. They’d been working at Sikaminea for several days with little rest and no one to relieve them, so they were glad to have another group of volunteers take over. They gave us the battered map they used to explain to new arrivals where they were and where they needed to be. They gave us the lists of which groups should be first to board the next bus, and they left us in charge.

It was obvious in looking at the crowd of around 500 people – at least a third of them children – that not everyone was Syrian. Some groups looked Afghan, dressed in tribal clothes. When we talked to people, they told us they were from Palestine, Pakistan, Somalia, Iran and Iraq. There were old people and babes in arms. We set to work trying to see who still didn’t have a number indicating the bus they would be on. Suddenly, a bus pulled around the curve of hill above the makeshift transit center and tried to turn around at the intersection. The bus was paid for by Medecins Sans Frontieres, but the driver didn’t work for them – he wasn’t a volunteer or a doctor, but a paid driver.

We weren’t prepared for the mayhem that ensued and try as we might, we couldn’t convince the clamoring throng to back away from the bus. People began to rush the bus, paying no attention to our attempts to keep order. When the driver saw that the crowd was out of control, he shouted that no one would get on his bus like that. He locked the bus and walked into the village.

People calmed down a bit after that and we were able to reinstate a semblance of order, but it was too late. When the driver returned, he drove off without letting anyone on the bus at all.

It was only my third day on Lesvos and my fellow volunteers were similarly new to this. People would ask us, “Can’t we just pay for a taxi to take us to the camp?”

“No,” we would answer, and explain that it was against the law for any Greek to give them a ride until they were registered at the capitol city of Mytilene. Many of the refugees had money at that point in their journey and couldn’t understand why they were stuck at this intersection instead of being allowed to pay their way.

“Isn’t there a hotel we can stay in?” Some women were pregnant or had very small children. While some of the refugees seemed accustomed to a nomadic life, many were clearly city people and not at all prepared for sleeping on rocks under the stars. Again, we had to tell them, “No, it’s against the law for the hotels to take you till you have your papers.”

When another bus came, we were better organized. This time, we made sure only those marked for that bus boarded it, convincing everyone that if they tried again to rush onto the bus, it would simply leave with no one on board again. It worked and we were elated to wave goodbye to those passengers, their faces happy and full of hope. We knew it wouldn’t be easy for them once they got to the camps in Mytilene, and harder still after that, but there was no point dwelling on that then.

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Vilde escorting refugees to the bus

After the day’s last bus came and went, we had to figure out how to distribute food and drinks to those remaining. It was a daunting task in the dark. We went around in pairs distributing cups and juice (or milk for the children). We had bags of turkey and cheese sandwiches and boxes of fresh fruit, which we also handed out to the children first. Once everyone had something to eat, we distributed diapers and emergency blankets. Some of the refugees decided they’d rather walk to Mytilene – a distance of about 35 miles – than sleep at this cold way station with no shelter and little to keep them warm. We showed them the way on our battered map and gave them food and water for the long journey on foot. Those who stayed over night built fires to stay warm and we tried to keep them small and controlled, as the villagers had expressed concerns.

Each day at Sikaminia was the same: we would arrive in time to get everyone organized for the first couple of buses, which usually got there around 7 in the morning. Then we would hand out nutella sandwiches and fruit and pour cups of juice and milk for those who were still stuck there.

“Thank you,” they would tell us, “Shukran.”

“Are you with the Red Crescent? What group are you working with?” they would ask. “There is no group here,” we would reply. “We are just regular people who wanted to help.”

We’d heard that Medecins Sans Frontieres and the UNHCR had a presence in the camps, but other than paying for the buses to make a few trips a day, we saw no sign of them where we were. The Red Cross was even less in evidence.

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I’d come to Molyvos because I’d learned of a local restaurant owner there who was helping the refugees and, like the other volunteers, I just showed up at her restaurant and asked what I could do. Her name is Melinda McRostie and she and her family have been helping feed and clothe the refugees since they first began to arrive in Lesvos.

In the two weeks I was volunteering in Sikimania, we helped 400-800 people a day and sometimes more. If we could spot the boats coming in, I would take a car to the bottom of the steep mountain and offer rides to the women and children and the elderly. A few times, we got so many people in the little car that it could barely make it back up to the intersection. Sometimes their relief at having survived the harrowing trip would overcome them as we drove and the women would weep in the car, thanking me and thanking god for their safe passage.

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A group of new arrivals to Lesvos, helped by volunteers

Sometimes we had time to sit and talk with the people who were stuck at our little way-station. We would share cigarettes and talk about what their lives had been before the war. One man told me he’d walked all the way from Iran to Turkey and gone directly to the United Nations in Ankara. There they told him that there was nothing they could do to help him, so he spent the next year working in Turkey to raise the money for the smugglers’ dangerous trip across the Aegean. One person’s passage might cost anywhere from 1,000 to 5,000 Euros. Another man had been a doctor and helped comfort and treat patients with what little medical supplies we had. I spoke with yet another man who had been an airline pilot and traveled the world, staying in luxury hotels in all the world’s major cities. Now he was sleeping on a roadside without so much as a proper blanket to keep him warm. Still, he helped us to translate and distribute food to others. These were not freeloaders or extremists: they were men and women with young children, grandparents, aunts and uncles, escaping from beloved countries which were destroyed by violence.

Now, six months later, the EU has closed its borders and left many thousands of refugees stranded in Greece – the last country in the EU with the money to handle such an influx of needy people. While other more wealthy countries, like my own, neglect to take in their fair share of these people, out of concern for our own security, the people of Greece have stepped up. The United States has offered to shelter only ten thousand refugees, while the mayor of Lesvos – a tiny island of around 90-thousand people – has committed to housing and caring for that same number.

While I questioned my ability to impact this massive, global crisis, the closing of the borders in recent months has meant that those I helped in August most likely made it to Europe, while those who arrive on Lesvos now will face a very different fate.

What I learned about the people seeking refuge in Europe is that many are educated professionals who just happen to be from countries where war made normal life an impossibility. These people are not our enemies, and yet the EU has now made a deal with Turkey – the same country that has been profiting off of UN money for the supposed housing of refugees, while sending newly registered refugees straight to the smugglers who then fleece them and wash them up on Greek shores. The smuggling of refugees is a billion dollar industry. Children have disappeared from detention camps and border stations, trafficked and traded like a commodity while the West shuts their eyes to the tragedy.

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A group of refugees who’d been saved from drowning, ready to go to Mytilene.

The group I worked with has since become The Starfish Foundation, which has scaled back its operations in Lesvos as the numbers of refugees arriving there has dwindled and focus has moved elsewhere. It seems to me that Turkey might be a place to volunteer, but those interested should do some research and perhaps contact the UNHCR to find out what areas might be next affected, as I did last May. Even people who’d come to Lesvos as tourists volunteered to help and made a difference.

I’m sure help is needed on the mainland, and it seems that most volunteer agencies have gone there instead of Lesvos. Eric Kempson of Lesvos is another passionate supporter and rescuer – he can be found on Facebook as well and might have some insight as far as volunteering.

I’m so glad I just showed up to help when no one was paying attention – I saw the best and worst in people, but mostly it showed me the human side of this very global problem. If you can spare even a couple of weeks, try to find the places in need now and offer your help. Two hands and an open heart are all that is required.

Love,

Kira

 

 

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Athens and Istanbul – The End of My Journey

Since returning to the United States after my time volunteering with the refugees in Lesvos, I’ve been mostly obligated to get to work on the business of paying rent in New York City. I’ve also been able to pick up work on my memoir again, and I’ve made great strides since September, when the world turned and brought me back to this city, this sprawling metropolis of concrete and steel and human desire striving ever upward.

From pouring cups of “haleeb” for wet, frightened children, I went to pouring champagne for VIPs in the Lexus Lounge, for Fashion Week. I was too busy to reflect on how much has shifted in my life since last year’s fall fashion week, when the landscape of my life seemed new and magical – full of potentials that have since withered on the vine, disappeared altogether, like a mirage. I have a habit of confusing endings for beginnings.

While last years deaths (mostly figurative) were difficult veils to pass through, I can look back now and see what I might not have done, had things gone better for me, personally. Had I won my romantic dreams of love, I might have stayed contented in New York, wrapped up in relationship with one man, instead of going into the world and embracing the multitudes of desperate brothers and sisters, mothers and daughters, fathers and sons – whose needs are far greater than mine in this life.

I am fortunate to have been able to afford the time and airfare to go to Greece, as I am fortunate to have been born to a financially and otherwise secure family in a country where, at least historically, human life mattered, and no one was getting killed as a mater of course.

I speak in the past tense, because I am not so sure these things are true of our country anymore, but I digress.

My last few days in the Aegean were spent sightseeing in Athens – it was my first visit there, and time was short, so I scampered like my skirt was on fire to see the National Museum and the Parthenon before catching a bus into the mountains to the northwest of the city, to visit the ancient sanctuary of Gaia at Delphi, where the Oracles made pronouncements and predictions since time immemorial.

Parthenon

Parthenon

The Erechtheion at the Acropolis

The Erechtheion at the Acropolis

View from the Acropolis

View from the Acropolis

The Acropolis from the Acropolis Museum

The Acropolis from the Acropolis Museum

The forested mountains and picturesque towns reminded me of the Alps as the bus wound around the skinny roads till we arrived at Delphi.

The village was very small and I quickly found my hotel, despite my lack of a map, Google or otherwise.

I dropped off my things and set out to explore the city, in search of dinner and water. Lots of water, as I was still dry as a desert from dehydration. Before I’d gone far, I met a local man named Dimitri, who took me down the street on his motorcycle, where we had beer and I devoured half a pizza and drank endless carafes of water.

The restaurant overlooked the steep, impressive mountains, the deep alluvial gorge dove precipitously below us. Dimitri took me to the sacred Castalian Spring, which was below the temple site, spouting into a rock basin before draining elsewhere. I filled up my bottle with the cold, delicious water and drank deeply.

In the morning, I woke early and went to the UNESCO World Heritage Site – the remains of the temples and dedications built at Delphi over hundreds of years. A friendly local pooch walked with me down the road to refill my bottle at the Castalian Spring.A large rock marked the place where the priestesses used to speak their predictions. A dome-shaped rock, representing the omphalos or world navel, sat nearby. I spent an hour or so exploring the site and the site of the nearby Athena temple before refilling my water bottle at the Castalian Spring and going to the museum. It was full of incredible pediments and votive objects I was lucky to see.

Omphalos at Delphi

Omphalos at Delphi

Delphi surroundings

Delphi surroundings

With a sweet kitty at Delphi

With a sweet kitty at Delphi

Delphi

Delphi – the stone of the priestesses

Moi at Delphi

Moi at Delphi – in front of the Apollo Temple

I checked out of my hotel and got my things before shopping for lip balm for my lips, which were dry and chapped to the point of cracking. I ran into Dimitri on the main street and he bought me a Greek coffee – thick with the grounds. Then my bus came and I headed back to Athens, driving the winding roads down from Mount Parnassus.

I had hoped to visit Eleusis, the ancient site of the mystery ritual that was popular throughout the region until paganism was outlawed and the temples destroyed. However, I learned that it was closed on Mondays, so I was thwarted. I got my things from my hotel and got a text from some of my fellow volunteers, who were also in Athens.

I told them where to find me and waited for them outside the hotel. Maya and Kristof – a father and daughter from Berlin – found me and decided to take a room at my hotel, which was only $25 euros. We caught up and smoked a few cigarettes before I got the subway to my new neighborhood.

I was staying my final night near the Acropolis in a hostel, where I thought I might meet some interesting people, and I was right. As I was at the front desk to check in, a couple came in and got a room.

I found my dorm and encountered a French girl called Lea, who spoke perfectly unaccented English – or close enough. We decided to go out later, and in the meantime I figured I’d do some sightseeing in the area. It was late afternoon when I wandered along the base of the Acropolis, in search of the Agora.

I followed my nose (though I had a map, in case of emergency) and found the Agora, bordered by a large museum on one side and a train track running in front. I wandered through the museum and the grounds in the burning sun. I located the Eleusinian temple, which was only foundation stones, and visited the Hephaestus temple, which was beautifully preserved – even down to the colors!

Hunger pangs clanged in my empty belly and I headed back toward the hostel, stopping along the way for souvenirs for my family.

Once back at the hostel, I feasted on cashews and a tin of dolmas and drank a beer in the courtyard. The couple I’d seen at the reception came in and we began conversing. The man was Dutch and his companion was Belgian. I told them about my experiences volunteering in Lesvos, and they listened with great interest.

The man told me that he was ashamed that he, a European, had not done anything to help the refugees, when an American had. It inspired him to do something.

Lea and I went out for drinks to a place recommended by the front desk attendant. I had a feel for the neighborhood now and we walked back toward the Agora and found the rooftop bar, with a view of the Acropolis, where we talked for several hours about our pasts and our upbringings. Lea and I had a lot in common, though of course I was older than she by a decade, since I’m long in the tooth, I suppose, compared to your average backpacker. Nevertheless, it was one of those meetings that makes you glad to travel alone, so as to facilitate encountering strangers.

We went back to the hostel to find the room had filled with my fellow Americans. I packed my things and got ready for the next day’s flight to Istanbul. Someone in the room had set an alarm that went off in the wee hours, interrupting everyone’s sleep – except the culprit, who just kept snoring. There are definitely downfalls to hostel life.

In the morning, I checked out and walked to a nearby square where I got the metro to the airport. While exiting the train, I ran into Kristof and Maya one last time. We said our goodbyes and I changed some money into Turkish Lira before going through security.

I arrived in Istanbul in the late morning and took the train to the tram to get to my hostel. My Greek phone could no longer help me, but I remembered the directions to find the hostel and managed to make it there. I was out of sorts after the crowded tram, in which a man had inappropriately brushed against me, but there were a couple of fellows at the cafe/reception who shared their lunch with me and improved my mood.

One was a Turkish guy, Baran, who the same age as me, and the other was an English chap called Charley, a bit older. They wanted to see my guitar, so I showed it to them and we took turns playing songs for each other.

The two of them were going to the Asian side of the city that afternoon and invited me to come along. Despite my lack of sleep, I said yes. When in Istanbul. . .

We took the ferry across to this other half of the city and walked to the house of some friends, a couple who received us with hospitality. They had two small dogs and a cat running around their sunny apartment. I was allergic, but happy to be with these friendly people and animals.

We took the dogs for a walk to nearby Small Moda Beach, and I brought along my guitar. As the sun set, we sat on the rocks by the water and performed songs for each other. They were a good audience, and some other friends joined us, so we had a bit of a crowd, all drinking beers and eating chips, talking and smoking and singing.

With Baran, Tuba, and Ali at Small Moda Beach in Istanbul

With Baran, Tuba, and Ali at Small Moda Beach in Istanbul

It was after 10 when we headed back to our part of the city. Baran and I went back to the hostel, where the fellow in reception invited us for a drink before we called it a night.

The next day, I was on a mission to see what I could of Istanbul: I took the tram across the Bosphorus and walked up to the Hagia Sophia – the famous former church and mosque that is now a museum open to all.

In front of the Hagia Sophia

In front of the Hagia Sophia

However, the line was huge, so I decided I’d come back around lunch time, when I hoped fewer people would be there. I visited the famous underground Basilica Cistern, leftover from the time of Emperor Justinian (and a pleasant respite from the hot sun).

The Blue Mosque - Istanbul

The Blue Mosque – Istanbul

From there, I went to the archaeological museum, which had a great section on Cypriot and Syrian ancient history.

After that, it was time for the Hagia Sophia, which was finally relatively easy to get into. I wandered around the cavernous, domed building, exploring its nooks and crannies. From there, I got lunch in Sultanahmet before going to see the famous old bazaar. It was a beautiful sprawling network of hallways will high, vaulted ceilings, full of stalls and people buying and selling, bartering and bargaining.

I made my way back to the tram and back to my side of the Bosphorus. Baran was waiting for me, as he hoped to record me playing music in a nearby cafe. However, it was not to be: I discovered I’d lost my credit card and went into panic mode.

Once I’d settled things, we got dinner and took it up to the top of the hill, overlooking the water and the lights of the city. There, we sat playing music and talking till it was almost 2, and time to turn in.

In the morning, I went to the beautiful old Cemberlitas hammam, to get scrubbed clean of the dirt that had been building up since the archaeological dig in Cyprus, and no doubt increased exponentially while I was volunteering in Molyvos. The building was beautiful: a tall marble dome covered the bathing room, a large heated slab of marble was dappled with circles of sunlight, filtering down.

I rinsed off with soap and warm water from marble basins and went to lay on the slab, enjoying the serenity and silence. I had the place to myself, until a woman came in to scrub me. I recalled my visit to my first hammam, in Morocco in 2012. A visit to the hammam is many things: it is about cleanliness, of course, but it is also a ritual performed before praying or religious holidays.

She used soap and warm water to cover me in lather before commencing to scrub me with an exfoliating mitt. My favorite part of going to the hammam is watching the dead skin appear as if by magic.

When the scrub was finished, I rinsed off and returned to sprawl on the warm marble slab for a bit before showering and getting dressed. I tipped my scrubber and headed off toward the hostel on the tram. It was a beautiful blue-skied morning and the Bosphorus was full of boats.

I packed up my things and had one last breakfast with Baran at the cafe. Charley joined up and we walked down to the tram together. I said goodbye to my new friends and headed to the airport.

That afternoon, I flew to Zurich for a long layover and took the train into the city. I had a bed at a New Zealand-owned hostel in a nightlife district only about 15 minutes walk from the central station. The glowering sky let fall its cargo of gentle rain as I made my way across the bridge and past the military grounds.

The hostel had a bar/cafe downstairs and after I checked in, I sipped my glass of complementary rose and wrote about my experiences in Lesvos. A band set up to play a concert and I stepped outside to smoke and ended up talking with a couple of locals about my trip and the refugees. They told me about conservative political views in Switzerland, making it sound not unlike Texas in its stance toward guns and immigration.

I had a few more beers (and a falafel from a nearby Lebanese spot) and chatted with people who came for the concert. Finally, it was time to retire to my upper bunk and get some sleep before heading home to New York the next day.

I flew back to the city on the fourth anniversary of my sister Erika’s death. September 4th is a date that will always have significance for me, though this year the end of my journey had to suffice to mark it, where in previous years, I drank pink bubbles, at the very least. But I think my volunteering also was something I did to honor her, in a way. I try to honor her by living.

My return to the city has been both easy and odd. It is the same old city, but I don’t feel like the same old me. Lighter somehow. Happier with what I have and more grateful.

As my birthday nears (it’s tomorrow!), I’m reflecting on this year and what I’ve gone through. I feel in some ways that I’ve skimmed over the waters of loss without getting pulled in, which is a considerable feat for a Scorpio. I don’t love lightly, and letting go isn’t easy. But I have evolved through change and pain and my perspective is different now. I understand myself better through the difficulties I wouldn’t have chosen to face. The earth must be plowed before it is planted. I hope this next phase will be about that fertility – that loss is behind me for the time. But time will tell.

To quote Casablanca, the problems of two people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy world.

All for now –

Love and miss

Kira