Being on Lesbos without a car makes life interesting, but with so many volunteers running all over the place hitch hiking has been pretty easy. This morning though I was picked up by two locals who didn’t speak a word of English. That didn’t stop them however from conveying their anger about how life jackets have just been left everywhere. As we drive along the dirt road there are bulldozers collecting the brightly coloured vests, and the elderly Greek men look genuinely pained as they wave their arms about and gesture widely. I do understand their irritation, this is a gorgeous island and it has been turned into a dump, but at the same time I didn’t think about where I tossed vests as I peeled them off screaming wet children yesterday. And I don’t think one could be expected to.
A story that stirs up more empathy is one of a policeman losing it at a group of refugees who broke branches off olive trees to burn. Olives mean more to the Greeks than just economics, and I get the policeman’s fury. But his claims that they are savages miss the point, what would you do if you were walking through a foreign country and it was dark and cold and you had nothing to keep you warm? Certain businesses have capitalised on the situation and charge refugees as much as $30 for a thin blanket. UNHCR is handing out one blanket per three children. It’s not surprising that left out in the open they reach for the nearest branch. Do you question what is growing on the tree when your body is at risk of hypothermia? Do you freeze to death in a ditch or do you light a fire?
After the refugees arrive they are sent to one of two ‘bus stops’ depending on which part of the coast they land. Although these are supposed to be transit points, in reality there are not enough buses to the main camps and people end up spending the night. Emmanuel is 23 and through Euro Relief runs the stage 2 bus stop outside of Skala. At its maximum occupancy it had 2500 people at once, 1200 overnight. It’s tidy and controlled, and I’m told nothing like the two main processing camps near the capital. ‘Oxy’, the other bus stop, is the opposite. There are no functioning toilets or clean running water, so refugees relieve themselves in the hills and when it rains human waste runs down into the makeshift camp. There is no order and there doesn’t seem to be any control. One person tells me it’s a biological nightmare waiting to happen and it’s only a matter of time before disease is rampant.
The Greek government doesn’t want to do anything to give the situation an element of permanency, and as a result infrastructure is severely lacking. A representative of Samaritans Purse, a US organisation that deals with water management and hygiene, tells me he has a trailer with four sparkling toilets waiting to be brought in, and they can’t get government approval. The authorities are essentially unnecessarily keeping people in this squalor. Denying that this situation is not at the least going to be prolonged is absolute madness. An outbreak of cholera or dysentery is going to leave a much bigger stain on the community than a couple of portaloos.
In complete contrast to this chaos is the Lighthouse Refugee Relief camp that has popped up off the main road. A Swedish-run organisation, you would be forgiven for thinking you were in a camping ground. If you want to give money directly to people working on Lesbos, without question- give it to them. To avoid tension with the community, Lighthouse have had the sense to rent the land and buy all supplies from local businesses. It seems so obvious and logical, but as far as I’ve seen no one else is doing it as well. I’m very attracted to the anarchists who have set up shop next door on public land with their anti-capitalist slogans, but the reality is that they’re not as effective or organised. Sometimes you just want Scandinavians to come in and do a job well.
Anna from Lighthouse tells me some of the stories of people who have passed though. One man’s wife jumped off the boat as it was leaving Turkey, so terrified she became of the sea, and the boat wouldn’t go back to pick her up. He arrived with their two children, terrified about what the smugglers may have done to her, and waited until she thankfully arrived a few days later. Lighthouse asks the people who stay with them to help with maintaining the camp, and two young Syrian guys actually stuck around for several days to help with cleaning and translating. Literally, fresh off the boat volunteer refugees. I don’t think I’ll ever have a good excuse not to do anything ever again. I ask Anna if she’s ever felt uncomfortable, a pretty blonde girl often surrounded by young, single Afghan and Arab men. She tells me she feels more comfortable here than back home. There was one incident where a man hit his wife, and she very loudly scolded him, but other than that the thousands of people passing through has been incident free. Like the emergency centre on Athens, the camp is full of charging iphones and other electronics. Nothing has ever gone missing.
I ask her how she feels about recent anti-immigrant sentiment in Sweden and she says that she’d rather be here. It is so tough going home and hearing people who have so much complain about so little. Her respect for the people that she’s met is clear, some get off the boats and rather than wait for the buses will start walking the two day hike to the capital. She is resolute that they should all be helped, ‘if they make this journey, they have a reason’. Often they arrive and the first thing they ask is how they can get a taxi or where can they book a hotel room. Imagine going somewhere and upon arrival finding out that there’s no room in any inn because of your nationality? As Anna said, no matter how much she tries, she will never really understand, she has a Swedish passport and can go anywhere. I agree. Though I consistently bitch and moan about my lack of an EU passport, the first thing I did when I got here was check into my hotel. I didn’t have to prove anything. ‘That is really difficult’ she admits, ‘saying that they can’t get in that car or stay in that room…I don’t want to have to tell them that it’s because they are Syrian’.
A common story I’m hearing is of the lies told by the smugglers on the other side of the water. There are wild stories around ‘what they tell them’. People show up in Greece expecting that once they get to Germany or Sweden they’ll be given a house. Some people believe that after the boat journey everything else on out will be smooth sailing. Others are acutely aware they have weeks of travel in front of them, often on foot. None of them seemed to realise just how dangerous the boat trip could be. Smugglers tell the refugees to knife the inflated dingys once they are close to shore or else they may be turned around. But people who have never known the sea don’t know what a safe distance is, and many end up in the water.
On Oct 28 a boat sank and despite the best efforts of Frontex and the Proactiva Spanish lifeguards several people drowned. Lack of coordination meant that the rescue ship was swamped and for some time couldn’t move to assist. The captain and crew saw children drown from the deck and couldn’t do anything. It is not only the refugees here who are traumatised, and there is definitely some resentment towards parents for getting on these boats with such young children. I hear words like selfish and irresponsible. Pregnant women arrive daily and a two-day-old baby has been on a boat in the last week. Rescuers are here to patrol the waters and help boats in distress, they are not supposed to have a political opinion, but there doesn’t seem to be a great understanding that choosing not to leave could be as irresponsible a decision for their children as risking the short boat journey. Most do make it in without incident. If you’ve lived for years without being able to take your children to school or leave the house, maybe at some point waiting for your luck to change becomes more unbearable than taking fate into your own hands.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on November 10, 2015, on cheztopflight, a blog featuring commentary by author and “intrepid gypsy at heart,” Kate Brooks. It was reproduced here with the consent of Ms. Brooks.
Index Page Image Credit: www.theguardian.com
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