In April, my friends and I arrived on the island of Lesvos to soon realize we had landed smack in the middle of the biggest refugee crisis since World War II.
Rafts arrived daily from Syria and Afghanistan as well as Pakistan, Palestine, Iraq, and Iran.
We quickly learned how to stockpile supplies in our guest rooms at night (water, bandages, bread, diapers, dry clothes) so we would be ready for early morning raft arrivals.
In those weeks we witnessed the deep meaning of courage, the refugees giving up everything they loved (often leaving half of their families behind, barely escaping being killed before coming, witnessing murders and mayhem on streets they used to call home) to try to save their own lives. I returned to the US at the end of May for work commitments, only to realize that I had left my heart in Lesvos, somewhere between raft 30 and 40.
Sometime after a fabulous conversation about linguistics with a Syrian professor and an Afghan grandmother reaching over to feel my heartbeat, her hand cradling my ribs.
Five months into the escalation of the refugee crisis the response on Lesvos is both better and worse than when I first came in April. It’s better in that there is remarkable organization among the local people who are providing food each morning for the refugees soon after they arrive. And better in that there is now a system in place where there is water available out of the back of a supporter’s car for refugees as soon as they land.
It’s better in that the press is now coming from many countries to chronicle the mass exodus of people. And better in that it is now summer which means that even though people are soaked when they get off the rafts, they are at least not cold.
The sun is merciful, the skies are blue.
Unfortunately, the worsened conditions outnumber the improvements. Most refugees arrive in Greece believing the worst is over. Some have walked days, maybe weeks amidst tremendous danger to reach the location in Turkey where they are shoved into cattle trucks for 5-6 hours with almost no breathing space, to then pay 1000 Euros to be loaded onto an overcrowded raft the smugglers abandon once it leaves shore, putting the engine in the hands of refugees, most of whose skills and talents do not include steering a raft.
The Turkish police intermittently shoot at the rafts. Then, if the raft does not capsize the people arrive in Lesvos soaked and scared. Parents quickly undo their children’s restrictive vests as local scavengers cut the engine out of the raft, causing an explosion that leads the refugees to think they are under attack again.
Soon after arriving the refugees learn that once they eat breakfast, they will be thrust into another crisis—this time because the bus service that used to take them to Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos, has been terminated, which means they will need to walk for two very long days, carrying their children and all of their baggage, in the heat and over mountain passes to reach Mytilini on the other side of the island. The half way point, which requires at least a ten hour walk, is an overcrowded, filthy, airless room next to a police station in Kalloni. The “camps” in Mytilini are far worse—with barbed wire, just a few toilets for thousands of people, and meager food.
For the locals, the stress of over 25,000 refugees arriving since January is causing much internal strife. In Molyvos, the town where most refugees first arrive, the recent emergency community meeting was fractious, allowing no headway in how the town might effectively proceed. No bus service was reinstated. People from all sides left disturbed as tensions frayed, listening less possible than before.
The economic crisis in Greece is certainly not helping the situation as people fear that the long period of austerity may be followed by the collapse of the banking system entirely.
The layers of difficulty I have witnessed since returning to Lesvos leave me muttering the word “ridiculous” a lot, a catch-all word for the outrageous, untenable, and insane conditions I continue to see. As I meet the rafts in the early mornings and then walk toward Mytilini with the refugees, my learning curve continues to be steep. Basic lessons the refugees are teaching me: There may be several languages spoken on a single raft. Syrians speak Arabic and often two other languages, including English.
Afghans speak Persian, Pashto, Dari, and other languages. If you wrap your cell phone in cellophane and bury it in the middle of your only backpack, it may still work when you get to shore so that you can call home and let people know you have survived. But once you walk away from the shore, you will need a new card for your phone, which you can only get with a passport (which may have been taken from you) and euros (which you may not have had any way to get before coming).
The one food that is essential to carry is dates no matter what country you are from. Dates get taken out and shared whenever the next impossible situation needs to be solved. You must accept a date when it is offered to you. You are lucky.
Children have uncanny ways of figuring out how to play in seemingly impossible situations. Yes, a child will run to the swing set in an exclusive beach hotel and slide down the slide before his parent can catch him. Yes, while parents are asleep on the ground by the side of a road, beyond exhausted from being up for three nights before crossing the sea, children will play in the water fountain, filling up and emptying water bottles, using their parents’ hats as boats. Yes, the children may try to put the wet hats back on their parents’ heads while they are sleeping. The parents may or may not wake up then.
Yes, many Afghans and Syrians will sit together at the side of the road, sharing dates and water, making sure that the elders have a backpack to sit on, even though before making the journey, they were slated to avoid and distrust each other. Yes, my waving above my head when I can first see a raft and their waving back and all of us shouting in many languages as they disembark is a moment of jubilation among us. Yes, the first minutes after they land are electric with energy, a moment of birth and death shared—death of their old life, the coast of Turkey symbolic for what they left it behind, and birth of at least a moment of safety, no guns to greet them, the children on the land now safe.
The most I can often do is try to listen—not only for words but also hand gestures and eye contact, the only clues I may have to know how to proceed. I do not have a verbal language in common with most of the people I walk with. Since most people are gracious and generous, they may try hard to not let me know if I am “blowing it,” making one or more cultural mistakes in how I am trying to communicate. (In fact to many I am, by definition, blowing it, with my flying hair and shorts, my missing wedding ring and direct eye contact).
Yes, I am at a distinct disadvantage that I was not exposed to Arabic in school—it is actually embarrassing to have a Ph.D. and no language skills beyond the Western hemisphere. I wish my children could meet the young people I am meeting in Lesvos. Yes, photographers need to stop taking pictures of children separate from their parents, as if the children are orphans and have no families. Yes, refugees should have the right to serve their own food, not have to wait in line single file while westerners shout at them as if they are deaf.
Yes, my bicycle can double as a baggage carrier, a rocking chair for a sleeping child, a walking stick for a mother with a brace on her knee, and a holder for a bag of apricots. Yes, since the people of Lesvos run the risk of arrest if they give refugees rides—even babies and elders—using my bicycle may be as close as we get to rapid transit. But I have also learned that if I am riding one child on the front and one child on the back and the child on the back falls asleep, his foot may get caught in the spokes.
Then, I am there, holding children who are crying for their parents, as I desperately hope I still have antiseptic wipes in my bag, as I entice quiet with cherries, hoping that my “I am so sorry” to the parents will somehow translate into Arabic. And yes, after that, I cried on my way back to town on my bike, tears for this impossible situation.
No rafts came this morning because the sea is especially rough, which means there will be more families waiting in Turkey, many in hiding, pulling dates from their bags to give to their children.