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Letters From Lesbos

September 24, 2015

I’m off to Lesbos after weeks of emails, calls, reading and preparation.  My first thoughts are about what I am leaving behind — Portugal and the Portuguese.  I have spent the past month glued to my email to check incoming mail from Greece, and have been reading the BBC online and watching Euronews and Portuguese news on television. Coverage of the refugee crisis by the Portuguese news channels has been extensive and balanced. This is generally the case with international news covered by the Portuguese media.  I have not listened to the talk shows abounding on Portuguese television but I did notice, exhausted and flipping through the channels at night in search of a movie to relax, that the refugee crisis was an ongoing theme of discussion.

I was a bit taken aback by the muted and unenthusiastic reaction of my Portuguese friends when I posted on Facebook that I would be leaving for Lesbos on the 24th of September for a month to work as a volunteer with The Village of All Together, a group of loosely-banded civic organizations and NGOs, all Greek, who were holding the fort at Lesbos, the island hardest hit by the influx of refugees, due to its proximity to the Turkish coast (I was later accepted as a volunteer by Doctors of the World so travelled to Lesbos to work with them).

Other Greek islands, notably Kos, were taking in large numbers of refugees on a daily basis, but in the whole of Europe, Lesbos, an island with a population of 86,000, was dealing with the largest numbers, approximately two thousand a day (as I reread this letter, a month later, the numbers have reached 9,000 a day, despite the deteriorating weather). Since the beginning of 2015, more than 300,000 refugees had arrived on Lesbos. I had read that UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee were present on the island, but the Greek NGOs seemed miffed in their Facebook posts by the belated appearance of the major international humanitarian organizations.

I arrived in Lesbos worn out by the seventeen-hour trip and got into a small Japanese rental.  I was barely able to lift my heavy, bulky suitcase packed with a month’s worth of clothes for summer and fall, and plant it on the back seat.  I set out in the direction of Mytilene, the capital of Lesbos, and was then going to head north till I found the small village of Scala Mistegnon where I had booked a room.  After a couple of kilometers, I saw them.  Refugees, walking in groups of four or five, turning to look at the car.  I stopped as soon as I saw a man carrying a sleeping infant, a baby girl, in his arms.  He didn’t speak English but gesturing, showed me that he was accompanied by his wife and son who might have been around ten years old.  I told them to get in, even though there was almost no space in the back.  I started the car but he waved me to stop at once.  Up ahead was his other son, older and bigger.  How he managed to find space to squeeze in is still not clear to me.   No one spoke English.  The father of the family could only say that they were from “Suria.”

They told me where they wanted to go: “UN”! I sincerely doubted there was any kind of a UN office but thought, perhaps, that he meant UNHCR, so we set off, asking Greeks along the way for directions to UNHCR. No one seemed to have heard of them, but the acronym may be pronounced differently in Greek.  Eventually the man saw a group of Syrians along the road (they were everywhere), and I stopped so he could talk to them.  He was then able to guide me to the port of Mytilene.  There were people sleeping on the ground, one person next to the other. Groups of men were talking or walking around.  Tents had been pitched at random. When they got out and said goodbye, I noticed that all they had, this family of five, were two backpacks and a garbage bag. And that’s what you can fit your whole life into.

September 26, 2015

On Saturday, I went to meet my Doctors of the World contact, Giorgios, at the Moria camp and spent an hour there. We were supposed to meet on Monday — four doctors, two nurses, and one general volunteer — me (later, I saw that there were more doctors and more nurses, among them a good number of volunteers from countries such as Belgium and The Netherlands). Then I drove back to the hotel and thought I would catch up on my sleep and have a swim and rest on the beach.

As I was sitting on the beach, a teenage girl in jeans and flats, wearing the traditional Muslim headscarf, walked by with a friendly smile on her face. We exchanged a few words. The curious thing about the place where I am staying, Scala Mistegnon (eighteen kilometers from Mytilene), is that you hear Arabic all the time. Within a few minutes, we were joined by two of her sisters and a male cousin. They were all from Baghdad. I took a picture of her — she was so pretty.

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They were all wearing western clothes. They might have arrived from London, Lisbon, New York, or any other major European capital. I showed them a picture of my daughter Lena, and then a picture of Lena at home with me in Portugal one Christmas, fooling around with my dog Lia. Since it rains a lot in Portugal in wintertime, I had asked her to buy a raincoat for Lia in the US, and the photograph showed Lena trying on the big new yellow raincoat on my patient but unhappy dog. The picture was funny and it set them laughing. Then they got their phones out and started showing me their pictures. The older daughter, who had been studying art and English at the university in Baghdad, was strikingly beautiful. I think any modeling agency would have recruited her on the spot. But I was astounded by the many photos they showed me. What I saw was normal life — the normal life of teenagers and young people, dressing up, hanging out with friends, lounging in the school yard. They were all exceptionally good-looking. And I thought a bit about the world of assumptions we move in, generated by the media and film. I was truly surprised by what I saw.

They told me they were a party of six — four sisters with their mother, and a male cousin — and had made it here from Baghdad in one week. They were going to Finland where they had family. They spoke about Finland the way I spoke about the US when I lived in Yugoslavia in my early twenties, smiles on their faces as if they were on their way to Disneyland. The mother appeared, wearing a jilbab. They were so open and friendly that pretty soon I was teaching them English and they were taking selfies with me.

This morning I came down looking for them to take a picture of all four sisters together. Nellie, the owner of the hotel, told me that they had already left. “They only stay here a day,” she said, “These are the ones who have money to pay for a hotel to rest and wash up and recover. And then they go on.”

September 27, 2015

Last night, two taxis crammed with men arrived late at night next door, at the small hotel behind us. This morning I saw some of them on the balcony. They were hanging their clothes to dry. Nellie tells me this is the first thing they do when they come, no matter how late — they wash all their clothes and put them out to dry.

This morning I met one of last night’s arrivals, a Syrian. He told me the boat journey took four hours instead of just one, because the passage across the strait had been very turbulent. He paid $2,000 to cross over from Turkey. I asked whether there was any kind of international humanitarian organization on the Turkish side organizing transport to avoid this sort of thing. He waved his head with a look of despair. He told me that he had worked for Tiger Investments in Syria, Egypt and Qatar. His whole family had stayed in Syria. He hoped to make it to Germany or Sweden. Where next, I asked? Germany — an answer that I would soon be hearing from many refugees.

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September 28, 2015

I worked in the storeroom of Doctors of the World today, together with redheaded Georgia, a twenty-one-year-old Greek nurse, pulling clothes donated from all over the world out of a huge pile of boxes and arranging them on shelves. After a couple of hours we were joined by Poppy, 24, from London, who quit her job in customer complaint management to take a year off and travel around the world, pausing in Lesbos for two weeks to volunteer.

We are in the Moria camp for first reception. The camp, which used to be a military facility, has high fences and barbed wire. It looks like a prison. It receives every nationality except the Syrians, so those lining up under the blistering sun are for the most part Afghans and Iraqis. The “line” is a huge dense crowd of people waiting endlessly in the hot and muggy weather. There is a substantial number of women and children, but the number of young men (in their twenties) is overwhelming.

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They are all tired and in desperate need of sleep and rest. They have probably not had a chance to wash since they left their homes. Many sleep on the concrete pavement surrounding the facility, while others have pitched tents or laid blankets in the field outside the camp. Behind the building we are in is another huge line. A Greek policeman shouts at them in Greek to maintain the line in order. It is a bleak scene. Our building a small oasis surrounded by a sea of human misery. But I am not one of them. I belong to a world of privilege that has no connection to their world. I pass easily through the barred door which is the entry point, against which the lucky ones in front lean, crushed by the weight of those behind them, without showing a single document. I am European. And I am white.

And how, exactly, are we worlds apart?  I am legal.  I have an American passport.  I am white, relatively fit, in good health.  Outwardly, my clothes are clean and of good quality.  I have peace of mind in that I know that in my backpack I have enough money and a debit and credit card to see me through my stay here, and get me back to my fairly comfortable life in Portugal. I have medical insurance; I have a rented car; I sleep in a comfortable hotel bedroom with a view of the sea. The thought has never ever entered my mind that I would have to pick up a bag, throw in my most important belongings, and run for my life.

That is what privilege is. It is not innate and it is not earned. It is a mere accident by virtue of my having been born into a white, middle-class European family.

And the applicants at the center? An indiscriminate mass.  Not too often, a refugee will approach us timidly, documents extended, asking something in an unintelligible language, only to be repelled by the Greek police: “No entry, no entry!”  They are anonymous.  They have lost their identity.  Their outward appearance cannot reassure anyone about who they are or about what their past was.  There are no possessions. There is only what has been grabbed in haste, on the run, a layer of clothing designed to forestall all possible contingencies.

October 5, 2015

I drive to Eftalou, a major landing point for refugees in the north of the island, forty-five kilometers away from Scala Mistegnon.  And I see them after the first six kilometers.  Groups of young men, six or seven, with backpacks on their backs.  And then more and more.  The numbers grow bigger.  It is 26° Celsius outside.  I have one-liter bottles of water and packages of crackers in my car.  I stop when I see women walking with children or babies and hand them out. Within an hour I am all out.  There are just too many people, and they all want to know how many kilometers they need to walk, and why there aren’t any buses.  The local buses are not allowed to pick them up when they come off the boats.  They can use local transport only when they have received their papers.  I don’t have any information about the buses.

Yesterday I heard from my Dutch friends via Facebook that there was some kind of problem up north, since sixty boats had reached the shore. The police had to move in to restore order and, for some reason, they stopped all bus transport.  Sixty boats is up to three thousand people.    Before reaching Mantamados, where I stop to buy more food and water, I run into a small, improvised camp and ask for directions. A Norwegian doctor from Doctors without Borders tells me which way to go. He also tells me that the day before, the refugees had rioted at the Moria camp where I volunteer. The police had stopped all bus traffic on the island to stop any further refugees from entering the camp until some semblance of order could be restored.  The buses were running again, he said. It costs $300 to rent a bus for just sixty persons for a one-way trip from the north, from Eftalou to the camps (about fifty kilometers). In the past few months, about two thousand people have been arriving daily on Lesbos.  A rough calculation for the transport of this number: thirty-three buses, each carrying sixty refugees, at a cost of $300 per ride comes to almost $10,000 per day, just for transportation.

But many refugees would still get left out.  The roads are narrow and the buses can only go along certain roads, so a few collection points have been set up.  The refugees don’t know this, so they keep walking south in the direction of Mytilene, 62 kilometers away from Eftalou, with only an occasional village along the way.

When you become a refugee, you lose your identity. You no longer have your house, your car, or any of your belongings.  Everything is left behind except the bare essentials that you can carry on your bag.  And when you cross the water from Turkey, your belongings are in black garbage bags to protect them from the water, so the families one sees along the road often lug garbage bags.  They are easy to drag on the ground.  You have nothing except the clothes on your back which, after ten or twenty days on the road, are filthy. You are filthy.  So the signs of your “identity,” of what distinguishes you as a person, are obliterated.  I don’t think people are aware how much of what we have and what we look like define who we are.  And you can lose that in a day, depending on whatever turns international politics take, matters that are completely outside your control.

And then comes the human instinct to label in order to recognize and identify more easily.  The Syrians are better dressed, speak better English, and have more money.  This translates into generally better treatment by the local population and the international community at large, which has decided to give them top priority in the crisis.  The Afghans and Iraqis, curiously, are regarded as less threatened, even though UNHCR ranks them in the high priority refugee groups.  Their countries have been razed to the ground by foreign intervention, but there is an unspoken feeling that they should not have joined this exodus.  And one can feel the palpable presence of racism.  The refugees from these two countries are predominantly poor and uneducated.  And they are Muslim. The West has destroyed their countries, plundering whatever there was to be had, but for some reason we are terrified not only of poverty, dirt and despair, but also of these cultural and religious differences that we know nothing about.  Islamic State is a threat.  This is the refrain one hears all the time.  But the US destruction of Iraq, the annihilation of a fairly stable and prosperous country, with over 1.2 million dead and counting, means nothing. These lives do not deserve mentioning.

What do we know about Islam and the Middle East?  Nothing.  And we don’t want to know. We know what the media tells us: they are dangerous. “There are terrorists among them!” a friend of mine exclaims.  “They are entering Europe in large numbers!”   I send her edifying links from Swedish organizations, which I know she will not open.  Her mind’s been made up.    

October 7, 2015

Today I spend the day at my post in Moria, doing nothing.  For the past three days, the doctors on our team have stopped us from handing out clothing from the storeroom.  During the preceding week, when we had been open for business, a huge crowd had gathered at our door, pushing and shoving, trying to get in.  Every thirty minutes or so, one of the male nurses would shut the whole thing down to drive everyone away.  Then we would begin all over again.  The doctors decided that we would only give clothes to those patients they had seen and okayed for clothing, and they would send them over to us.  That decision reduced the number to a trickle.

In the meantime, Alex, the nurse, and I had adopted a stray, scruffy and uncared for, who had somehow made his way through the fence and into the camp premises.  Someone had been feeding him.  Alex told me the dog was deaf and he brought food and water into our storeroom to feed him.  I was to feed him on the days when he was off.  The dog’s name was Canela (“Cinnamon”) because of his color.  Canelos (he was a male) showed his contentment inside by wagging his tail and sniffing around.

There wasn’t much to do and I was feeling exhausted and useless in our little safe haven of three offices among the row of offices sheltered within the gates. Outside, the crowds continued growing.

Every day, when I arrived at the back entrance, the police outside were deployed in a different arrangement and today, they had brought in two large buses which they parked in such a way so as to completely block off the entrance.  It was obvious, in only the few days that I had been here, that the Greek police were having increasing difficulty in controlling the number of arrivals.

The scenes outside were becoming unbearable for me.  The camp was becoming more and more squalid, with garbage, empty plastic bottles and random pieces of clothing strewn everywhere.  For days now, I had listened to comments from the police and locals about the inability of the Afghans to respect order and their incapacity to understand and respect the concept of a line.  The whole thing sickened me.

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The police were not to blame — they were just too few in number.  If more had been deployed, some kind of reasonable order could have been instituted and numbers could have been passed out to avoid the crushing lines (in the meantime, a numbers system has been instituted).

I walked back into the storeroom and Alex greeted me happily: “Anita, look at Canelos!” In the corner of our clothing storage room (there was also separate room for items of hygiene, toiletries, diapers, baby formula and food), I saw a young woman in jeans and sneakers, legs crossed on the floor, cuddling Canelos on her lap.  He was in a state of utter bliss, sprawled on his back in her lap. She was hunched over him as if over a baby.  I just stood there, looking at her, at the tenderness with which she was cuddling our scruffy dog.  Alex was telling me what things I needed to put together.  “She’s had a miscarriage,” he said.  ”You need to get her clean underwear and pads and some soap and wet wipes.”

I knelt beside her, scratching Canelos’s ears, smiling at her.  She smiled back at me.  God, was she beautiful! The sadness in those hazel eyes washed over me like a wave.  We just sat there quietly, petting the dog. And I felt an immense, gut-wrenching sadness. Our visitor was quite calm, completely absorbed in her world of Canelos.  If we had gotten up and left her there, I think that she would have gone on sitting there, cuddling Canelos, forever. I could not hold back my tears.  She looked up and she, too, had tears in her eyes, but there was still that smile on her face.  It was just more than I could bear.  Alex was hurrying me to give her the things and get her on her way.  So I hugged her and she hugged me and we would not let go.  I think that in that instant, two strangers from two different continents and cultures said more to each other in that dusty storeroom than friends do in the course of all their conversations in a lifetime. My heart crumbled right then and there, and crept off to hide in a deep dark hole.

There is no epilogue to this story. The very fact that our visitor was sent to us by the doctors means that she was processed immediately and got her papers that very day.  If nothing else, the most perilous part of her journey was over and her stay at our pitiful facility was over.  In my childish vision of a happy future, there is no Hungary, there is no xenophobia and misery and dirt and hardship anywhere; there is only warm shelter and food and jobs ahead, and all will end well.

October 10, 2015

I have met two Dutch women who dropped by our offices in Moria.  Their names are Janet Heins and Elly Bens, and both are retirees. They were vacationing on Lesbos over a period of eight months and by May had become very concerned with what they were seeing. Janet had been a project leader in civil engineering and Elly had worked with the homeless.  They immediately identified the key problems and wrote to friends back home.  The friends wrote to their own friends.  In a matter of days, they had raised $50,000 from donors.  The plan they presented to the donors identified three key elements: transportation, medicine and food.

Every week, they drop by the offices of the Doctors of the World to pick up a list of drugs in short supply, and buy them at their local pharmacy. “We can buy everything in Greece and we believe that we should be buying it here,” Janet says. “I believe in the short way,” she says in typical Dutch fashion. What she means is that she believes in rapid and efficient action.

“When you are hungry, there is bread,” she says. “When you need transport, there is a bus.” They have paid for fifty buses out of their donations from The Netherlands. Several weeks ago, the refugees had to walk all the way – some fifty kilometers — from their landing points to the camps. “We work with all the expats and volunteers here who are helping the refugees,” Janet says. I ask her if she is coordinating her work with the humanitarian organizations. “I think they’re a little afraid of us,” Janet says. “They have a lot of money, and they probably don’t want us looking at what they have.”

“The big organizations are starting too late,” Janet adds.   “There was a problem here as early as April and that’s when they should have started. They’re just starting to set up their operations now.  We’re at the end of September!”

“The Karatepe camp is a lot better now.  A month ago, it was a hill with four or five thousand people and two toilets and no water. Just imagine. In the meantime, UNHCR and Doctors without Borders have set up tents. It’s possible to set up a good camp, but steps are not being taken, because they’re afraid that, eventually, it will turn into a permanent camp and then the refugees will stay there.”

Once a week, Janet and Elly and a British friend, Pam Crosbie, go to the port of Mytiline together with Greek humanitarian groups to cook hot meals for the refugees.  They also buy fresh sandwiches from the baker and distribute them along the road to the refugees they see walking on the roads. “When you have the money,” Janet says, “then you can achieve things quickly.”

When I asked if these two remarkable Dutch women had formed an NGO to do everything they had accomplished, she replied: “No!  We call ourselves ‘GO!’   We dropped the ‘N’.” She flashes me a broad Dutch smile.

October 19, 2015

I’ve been sleeping badly which is unusual.  I keep waking every couple of hours during the night.  Every day I come back to Nelly’s place exhausted, just thinking of catching up on my sleep, and then the whole thing starts all over again.  And the refugees start stumbling into my dreams.

Last night, finally, I was deep asleep when I heard the sounds of someone partying next door.  A while back we had several young Dutch people with the Boat Refugee Foundation staying at the hotel.  Like all the Dutch here, they were prepared to work hard, getting up at the crack of dawn every day to make their journey forty-five kilometers up north, to the main landing sites, and returning in the late hours of the night.  A week ago, on their last night at Scala Mistegnon, the group organized a farewell dinner to celebrate, singing and laughing late into the night.  By the time they got to “Kumbaya,” at two in the morning, I was groaning and digging my face deeper into my pillow, desperate for sleep.

So, last night, when I heard the sounds calling, calling, calling me out of the depths of my sleep, I just turned over and thought that the celebrating would have to come to an end eventually.  The sounds just grew stronger.  And as I began to drift to a state of consciousness, the thought hit me: “A boat!”  I ran out to the balcony of my room on the second story of a now deserted hotel.  I could hear the shouts in the dense darkness. No lights could be seen except a couple of pinpoints out where the sea was supposed to be. I heard voices on the shore shouting.  I flipped my balcony lights on and off, on and off, and then grabbed a coat and ran.  They landed. It was two in the morning.  This time it wasn’t an inflatable boat; it was some other kind of vessel and when I came to look at it the next morning, it was already gone.

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There they stood, in the darkness, facing three locals Greeks. They had seen this many times before. I eventually counted fourteen adults and five children. I was patting them down like a cop to check if they were dry. “Jesus,” they shouted at me, clutching their crucifix necklaces. I was taken aback but then understood instantly. The Turks were surely making a killing with the crucifixes across the strait. “Christian, you mean?” I asked. “Christian!” the young men exclaimed, bursting out in laughter (it is surprising, but most refugees are happy when they land. They have gone through the worst part, and they have reached Europe). I think this is one of the two things every refugee has been told to say before crossing over: that he is Syrian (because everyone has heard of the better treatment and expedited procedure given to the Syrians) and Christian (they are, after all, setting foot in Christian Europe).  If I were in a position to advise anyone, I would say: “Stateless! Agnostic!” but that would probably wouldn’t do anyone much good.  And then, in a typical gesture that I’ve seen repeated again and again, they headed up to where they assumed they would find a road, all this in the thick of night. “Wait!” I cried out (even though only one of the group spoke a few words of English), “Where are you going? And the children?”

Flashing my palm with fingers spread out wide three times, I showed that they would have to walk fifteen kilometers to Moria.  I tried to explain that I had a car and that I would take the women and children. It was useless.  They set off at a brisk pace in the darkness.

I rushed to my room and grabbed all the water bottles I had.  I was all out of food except for five bananas, which I took with me.  Then I got in my car and within two minutes I caught up with them.  They had remembered my name from the beach. “Anita!”  They were laughing.  The car was minuscule, but I persuaded them to let me take the women and children and promised that I would be back.  I drove them the thirteen kilometers to Moria, with four-year-old Mustafa sitting on his father Yussuf’s lap in front, counting to twenty with me in English. We arrived at Moria at three in the morning.

For their sake I was glad it appeared less grim than usual since most people were asleep.  I saw a volunteer from the Haroon Jahan Foundation, and he took over. One of the young mothers told me in halting English: “My baby, come back!” I nodded and went off.

When I found the remainder of the group walking along the road, they greeted me like an old pal. No wonder — that night, on that stretch of the road, we were the only people out and about.  Five more persons from the group got in with the last of the children.  Four young men stayed behind.  After my second run to Moria, as I headed back, I knew approximately where I would run into them. Somehow I missed them.  The roads were empty and I can only assume someone must have stopped and picked them up (despite the fact that the Greeks, including taxi drivers, face stiff fines if they pick anyone who has not been registered by the authorities yet).

Several days later, fact-checking what I had written, I googled The Haroon Jahan Foundation” and recognized its founder, Tariq Jahan, as the volunteer who had emerged from the Moria night to take in the Syrian group. News items with Mr. Jahan’s name dating back to 2011 flooded my screen. That year, during the Birmingham riots in the United Kingdom, Tariq Jahan suffered a terrible personal loss: his nineteen-year-old son, Haroon who, with two older friends, was guarding local businesses in the area from looters, was hit by a speeding car, flinging him three meters in the air. The father rushed to the scene and held his dying son. In a community on the verge of complete explosion, Tariq Jahan appealed for calm. He was lauded as a peacemaker by the UK’s top political figures, including the Prime Minister, and met with Prince William. Poet Laureate Carol Ann Duffy devoted a poem to him and his son.  However, the investigation into his son’s death was botched and four years later the guilty parties have still not been brought to justice (The Guardian, 28 July 2015). 

From October 6 to 17, this man led “The Convoy of Hope for Humanity” to Lesbos to assess the situation. “We brought monetary donations amounting to approximately £20,000 (around $31,000),” he says, “and distributed the same on the ground. The money was used to purchase blankets, sleeping bags and food on a daily basis throughout our stay in Moria. We also bought three cookers for Pikpa,” a camp run by an association of Greek volunteers for the disabled and sick in Mytilene.

Jahan describes the camp at Moria: “It simply cannot be summed up in words how ghastly the situation is there. It is unbelievable how the world leaders are turning a blind eye to the ruined lives of these refugees.”

The media has failed miserably in conveying the reality of the situation, he adds. “Europe needs to stop looking at these refugees as just numbers; they are human beings whose lives have been devastated as a result of a conflict initiated by the U.S. and Europe,” he adds.

And what is the solution, I ask my chance acquaintance from the Moria night: “I believe all the European countries need to increase the intake of refugees,” Jahan says. “They need to look at their own history, of World War II, and how many people from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa were drawn in to fight that war for the Europeans.” Will he be back? I ask. “Of course,” is the answer.

October 21, 2015

Every Monday, Wednesday and Friday, the group Kinoniki Kouzina “O Alos Anthropos” (“The Other Human Being” soup kitchen) meets in a street parallel to the Mytilene harbor, where they cook, on the spot, hot meals serving anywhere from eight hundred to two thousand people.

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The group consists of fifteen volunteers, all from Mytilene. They come from all walks of life, and include university students, people holding down full-time jobs and, at this very difficult time in the Greek economy, those who have lost their jobs.  The group pitches in to buy food but also receives donations from friends and a wider social network, including the Angalia NGO.

The site, in the immediate vicinity of Mytilene harbor, is ideal. One of the group goes by motorbike around the port to notify refugees of the free meals, and news spreads fast by word of mouth.

Dimitris Teloniatis is the “official cook” but everyone pitches in on site, cutting up fresh vegetables and bread and then working, as if on an assembly line, all together, to serve the hot meals in aluminum foil dishes to those waiting in line.

The idea was launched by Konstantinos Polixronopoulos who originally founded the group in Athens to feed the homeless.  With the explosion of the refugee crisis, the Lesbos subgroup was formed this August to help feed the huge numbers of refugees arriving on the island. They have served up over 12,000 hot meals in just five weeks. From November, the group is hoping to expand its hot meal program to five days a week.

According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, the rate of arrivals at Lesbos has risen to 8,000 a day, while the total number of refugees arriving in Greece this year, at date of writing, has reached half a million people.

October 22, 2015

When I set off yesterday (I’m about thirteen kilometers from the Moria camp and eighteen from Karatepe), within three minutes I saw a group of five men, and even though I say to myself every time that I will not stop because I always have something to do and it slows me down, I stopped again and four adults got in the back with their backpacks and one in front (the rental is a Toyota Aygo).

They were Syrian and had just gotten off a boat. Some six kilometers further I remembered that I had to buy food for the soup kitchen in Mytilene (that’s where I was going) so I told them I was stopping for a minute, went in and bought bags of fruit and a bag of fruit for them, and we set off. I took them to Moria because everything has been centralized there. When I got there, what I saw was chaos. Really, just chaos. There was just a gate where all the refugees were massed together desperately in the rain. No volunteers around, not a single person, and the five men were following me around like sheep.

I stopped and asked a young Syrian man who spoke very good English what was going on. He told me he had been in Moria with his wife, kids, and parents for over four days and the authorities were no longer handing out numbers. There were no aid organizations distributing hot food. There was nothing — just the crowd trying to get in to where the registration was taking place — so whoever was the strongest got ahead.

So to get some information for him, I started making my way through the crowd and, luckily, I had my badge on, calling out “Doctor, Doctor!!!” and the refugees, as always, were all very polite, making way for me through the thick crowd all the way to the gate when, suddenly, the police opened the gate and the crowd moved and I was pushed in by the flood of people right into the registration area. That’s when the cops got their clubs out. What I didn’t realize was that my five Syrians, the ones I had picked up an hour before, had followed me blindly and had entered the registration area with me. Meanwhile, I was yelling: “Syrian, Syrian!” to get the guy who had been waiting for four days with his family inside, into the registration area, and a whole bunch of people yelled back: “We all Syrian!” So the epilogue was that my new arrivals registered, by sheer good luck, that same day.

Today I was in the port, close to where the refugees catch the twelve-hour ferry to Athens, utterly depressed by what I had seen in the camps with the rain and mud when there, out of the blue, I find one of my Syrians of yesterday sitting on a bench, and he gives me a big smile of hello.

And that’s how it goes.

October 29, 2015

Dear Pam, two days before I left, I went to Karatepe (with the rain falling hard and steady five days in a row), and I saw them by the fences, entire families with children, sitting by the fences, beneath whatever they had managed to find, a sheet, a blanket, any kind of a cover, to extend over their heads.  But there was no hope against the unrelenting rain.

When I got out of my car and began to walk and look at the improvised shelters, a woman sitting on the wet pavement with her four children, utterly resigned, asked me if I had any dry clothes, and her son, the eldest of the children –- he might have been twelve –- and now he was the man of the family in this miserable, wretched situation, spoke on behalf of the family and showed me their sneakers which were torn wide open. The rain was coming down in droves, but I was empty-handed and wet, soaked through and through down to my sneakers which sloshed as I walked along.

So I drove to Moria to go to our storeroom where the clothes were and there, and I was raised an atheist, but there I finally had a vision of hell.  There was no other word for it.  In shock I sloshed my way to the storeroom, found two huge garbage bags to protect the clothes that I was going to carry with me, tied the garbage bags securely and dragged them down with rivers of mud running down the road, thinking that there had to be human waste in there, too, and then I drove back to Karatepe.

The family was gone and I drove slowly up and down looking for another family with children. You are familiar with this dilemma — whom do you choose, and then you decide and you choose one family, but now the sizes aren’t right, and within two minutes of handing the clothes to them from the bags, the clothes were wet, and ten more people had appeared, begging for shoes, and I thought: “This CANNOT be! This cannot be happening!” But sure enough, today in Brussels, Donald Tusk, European Council President, in his perfectly pressed suit, is warning about the dangers of European cohesion and wondering whether this will change Europe forever.

When there’s too much money, too many perks, too much distance from the squalor and despair, misery remains an abstract concept. Geneva and Brussels are far away, a world unto themselves.  They had ample warning and their response has been slow, halting and utterly inadequate. And Europe is beginning to put up new fences.

The outgoing UN High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, has stressed again and again that the refugee crisis requires an immediate, concerted humanitarian approach: “This is a primarily refugee crisis, not only a migration phenomenon. The vast majority of those arriving in Greece come from conflict zones like Syria, Iraq or Afghanistan and are simply running for their lives. . . . Europe is facing a moment of truth. This is the time to reaffirm the values upon which it was built.”

I have tried to describe some of the horror and despair I have seen this past month. I feel I have failed miserably.  But the thousands upon thousands who are on the way, on their grueling journeys, will reach their destinations. Ill from disease, crippled by the strain of the effort, sleepwalking as they go on and on, they will make it, a solitary story appearing here and there in the media, and when they arrive, these epic journeys will remain only in the memories of the families.

We should bow our heads in shame.

anita7

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Anita Lekic served as a volunteer with Doctors of the World at the Moria first-reception camp. She lives in Portugal.

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