The seaside blows the cobwebs beautifully from the heads of people like me who live in green, landlocked places. And the salutary effects are even better – for me at least, as someone who doesn’t have much time for lying in the sun turning brown – if you get your dose of sea in winter, with ozone-laden wind penetrating your many layers of thermals and making short work of attempts to blow-dry your hair into any semblance of normalcy.
Not that I need neat hair to do what I’m doing. In fact, yesterday evening I dried my hair and even put on my thick and functional woolly dress and non-hiking-boots – something few people around here ever wear – to drop by a party for two of the volunteers who have been working in this tiny port on the northern coast of Lesvos. But the moment I got ‘dressed up’ (it’s all relative…) what happened? The first boat-load of refugees to head in our direction in many many days washed up right here on the beach and I ended up chasing wind-tossed rubbish and hauling abandoned life jackets away to ready them for disposal.
Spotting and emergency response is a strange life of long long stretches of time-filling, punctuated with unexpected bursts of urgent activity. You have to be there, but you have to be resigned to not doing much, even though what you do eventually do is vital.
Besides getting your fill of sea air (which, I’ve been reading, really doesn’t have all those health-giving qualities that we’re taught to think it has), being here is good for your faith in humanity… though bad too, at the same time.
Did I enthuse last year (see here and here) about the wonderful young people who pitch up here to do their bit? Of course I did. But I’ll do so again. The ambience is different this year – perhaps because there are more northern Europeans (last year there were more, more voluble Portuguese and Spanish volunteers) but perhaps also because the main bar – Goji’s – no longer allows vols to run up tabs (too many people neglected to pay before leaving) which means that it is no longer the unofficial HQ, brimming and noisy. But the commitment and efficiency remains. And it’s wonderfully heartening.
It’s not only here, naturally. There’s been so much talk recently about the horrors – and they are horrors – of the camp at Moria, but beyond the nightmare and the injustice and the suffering there are instances of humanity which so deserve flagging up, which is why this article in the Guardian, which came after days of reports of demonstrations and clashes on the island, was timely. However bad things get, you mustn’t lose sight of the good.
The other day I managed to get away to take a look around One Happy Family. OHF is closer to the ‘nicer’ Kara Tepe camp for the most vulnerable cases; it’s a 40 minute walk from Moria. But people do walk (they serve 1200 lunches a day on average, which gives an idea), because at their destination they find not only a little haven of civilisation, but also something to do. And inactivity is arguably one of the worst scourges of a refugee camp. Boredom breeds despair (mental health problems are rife in the camp), and it breeds violence (frustrated, idle young men in their thousands will get into fights, or take it out on others in some way).
There are a number of NGOs operating in OHF’s umbrella space, with staff and volunteers, but refugees too work hard here… or don’t, as they wish. There’s a primary school and a bike repair shop, a women’s space and a barber’s. There are people welding and doing carpentry and there’s a professionally run early learning centre. Then there’s the kitchen and the café.
But loveliest of all, for me, is the vegetable and herb garden. When I turned up an Afghan botanist was outside washing down the table which had been used for a sauerkraut-making workshop earlier that day. A toddler with a piece of stick was trying to poke Bella the dog who, however, was keeping just beyond his reach. It was clearly not the first time she had had to deal with that situation.
Some men lounged at tables alongside the perimeter fence, deep in conversation. Inside the potting/herb drying shed, Afghan women were tending seedlings and in-putting data on the garden’s new computer.
A 16-year-old with a heart-melting smile told me he’d arrived four months ago. It took six hours to cross from Turkey he said, because the outboard kept stopping and the ignition rope broke so they had to get it going again with shoelaces. There were 45 people on his eight-metre dinghy he claimed, the men sitting along the edges and the women and children down on the floor in the middle. His school in Kabul had been bombed three times. His mother – an economist he described her as – had lost her job. So the two of them and his sister had left. I didn’t dare ask about his father. They’d been on the move for a year, travelling through Pakistan and Iran and Turkey. He told it all with such grace, in good English and not calling for pity. Was he giving his story some extra gloss? There’s every chance that, far from exaggerating, he was concealing the really ghastly bits behind that gorgeous smile.
With chronic overcrowding in Moria camp, and asylum interviews being carried out either too quickly for refugees to seek that tiny bit of legal advice that is available on the ground or only after many many months or even years of waiting (there is little middle ground), the situation looks intractable. Locals are fed up – with the refugees and with the authorities’ seeming inability to come up with solutions. It’s quite comprehensible. The righter bits of the right-wing government milk this for all it’s worth, stirring up discontent, against refugees and the NGOs that bring some little comfort and solace.
Amid purely silly threats to build walls in the middle of the Aegean, and scarier ones to construct closed internment camps on the islands, nothing much seems to be happening. In the interests of fairness – which I have to say, really is more than the authorities merit – it should be said that transfers off Lesvos up to mid-February this year have been more (2241) than arrivals from Turkey (2053), though hardly a dent in the 21,700 refugees currently blocked on the island, according to Aegean Boat Report. What I am unable to work out is whether these are all being transferred to the mainland for further consideration of asylum claims, or whether they’re being deported back to Turkey. The government says over 24,000 were pushed back from Greece last year. Police reports say only 48 were deported from Lesvos. It’s difficult in this chaos to get at the truth.
And it’s easy to lose sight of the fact that we’re talking about people fleeing from the kind of situation where even the risks they run on dangerous journeys and the cold shoulder offered once here are preferable to what they have fled from back home. But for how long? If authorities are aiming to dissuade desperate people from pitching up here, it’s working for some. The coordinator here at Lighthouse Relief told me that a Syrian friend had shocked her the other day by announcing that he was giving up, and making his way back to Syria, because he felt he stood no chance in Europe. Could there be any greater condemnation?
PLEASE CONSIDER DONATING TO LIGHTHOUSE RELIEF WHICH IS DOING SUCH VITAL WORK, IN INCREASINGLY DIFFICULT CIRCUMSTANCES, ON THE NORTH SHORE OF LESVOS
En route to Lesvos I stopped in Athens to stay with C who is living there for the moment. Athens is a funny place, that I had spent a total of four hours in before this trip.
I like its energy. It is admirably green, even if much of the green is atrociously maintained. Its antiquities brought on culture-awe palpitations, quite literally. But it’s an ugly kind of place, and I don’t think I was quite prepared for that.
Somehow I was expecting it to fall into the Rome/Istanbul category, where everything around tells you that this is a city that was at the hub of unfolding history for centuries or millennia. But it doesn’t. Its ruins are splendid but its venerable age doesn’t seem to trickle down into the lived city. Its period in the limelight was too long ago. Its phases of insignificance were too lengthy. Its unplanned, merciless growth came at a time when protection and conservation were non-existent. And of course the country’s recent travails have done nothing to improve the situation.
Its multi-culturalism is of a downbeat sort, or at least that’s the impression I had in the immigrant-packed streets around C’s flat. Many of the people loitering around the piazza at Victoria metro station are in a Moria-like state of limbo – one step forward, in that they’ve managed to leave the islands, but still suspended, untended and unresolved. On one level there’s a feeling of hopelessness. On the other, the area is buzzing with little Middle Eastern eateries and what have you. I think I need to go back to get the measure of the place better.