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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.