Islands in a Stream: the Refugees on Lesbos

Thousands of refugees are still flowing like water through the besieged olive trees, volcanic rock, pines and chestnut trees of the Greek island of Lesbos. A few weeks ago, I saw this first-hand. I was walking around its capital Mitilini and a Scandinavian woman working for the UNHCR was smoking heavily by the crowded street corner closest to the harbour. Crouched on the pavement beside her were hundreds of displaced people splitting open brand new sim-card packs to speak on battered phones to families back home. The local shopkeepers – plus the many fishermen-cum-farmers-cum-restauranteurs that seem to inhabit the island – were taking it all in their stride. I remember thinking that centuries of civility are perhaps not so easily erased.

But now Europe has other plans. More precisely, Greece’s more immediate European neighbours have other plans. Some Algerians and Moroccans are being sent back from Lesbos. Macedonia is erecting a cold metal fence to its own selected groups among recent arrivals. Austria is going all heavy metal along its Slovenian border. There is also now the real threat of de-Schengening Greece entirely and creating a massive tailback of border-locked escapees trapped more out of a deep misunderstanding on our part of whom exactly these people are than out of any ill-informed prejudice. It is worth remembering that it is not only Donald Trump and his presidential election campaign in the United States throwing up what can only be perceived as xenophobic bile these days.

Much for example has been made in recent reports of the predominant clusters of able-bodied young men travelling this long and winding road from medieval Inferno to modern day Elysium. One tweet I saw today equates them to the largest single trojan horse witnessed in human history. What few grasp is that these people’s families are often so poor and the heartless smugglers so expensive that they sacrifice everything to send the fittest over. Most oppose the murderous divisions of Syria or the febrile laws of certain areas of Afghanistan and some would likely be rounded up and killed if they stayed. I met one Afghan journalist who had to leave in the middle of the night and couldn’t even tell his friends he was leaving. One prominent conflict adviser I know suggests the risk of us not being welcoming to these young men is far greater than the risk that some of these young men may be terrorists. ‘It is a battle of ideas,’ he said.

Stepping over the outstretched legs and makeshift backpacks between the shops and traffic, I aimed for a small wall. Moored yachts rocked emptily on the water and the occasional refugee’s head slept on laps. Though my language skills were wanting, I could tell that many of the phone conversations were in Farsi or Arabic, though I could also hear smatterings of Urdu. Turkey and Iran were probably mentioned most – like unloved pins on an unloved map – sometimes accompanied by cold-blooded flicks of spent cigarettes. But there was no aggression to the words. Each was weighted with a kind of suspended eagerness. It was as if the journey was building up to a longed-for climax and no-one wanted to spoil it, not this potential for a happy ending. Of course, musing on this now in the relative safety of my own culture, it is precisely this indefatigable spirit that upsets me most, as I can now see some of these dreams being shattered.

I had arrived on Lesbos ten days earlier in what already that day at the harbour felt like a lifetime ago. Germany’s arms still lay wide open and Sweden was a shining light of tolerance, rebirth and freedom. Later on that first day on the island, at the small picturesque harbour of Molyvos to the north, I had been wandering past a small group of mostly Swedish and Norwegian volunteers, their blond hair and idealistic faces lit by a lucent Greek sun, when there appeared on the horizon a sulky grey Greek coastal vessel inching across the sea, revealing a pitiful cargo of 34 drenched and shivering refugees.

The huddled masses on board – is this not an Ellis Island moment? – included a trembling elderly Levantine-faced couple, a solemn younger woman – a widow perhaps – carrying a small baby, plus clutches of young Afghan men, dazed yet vigilant and disembarking en masse onto the safety of dry land under orders of a strained Greek official. ‘I just came here to get a new licence for my boat,’ said one local man watching. ‘It’s a real drama.’

This sudden myriad of shiny, rustling thermal blankets sent splinters of broken light across the pier. It was as if the plight of these innocent capsizees was an act of cosmic vandalism and those greeting them a kind of apology. I had to cap my eyes at this weird bedazzlement of Christmas-like tinsel as the horror sank in. ‘For three hours we were in the water,’ said one Afghan. ‘The motor was kaput,’ said another, from a woollen blanket. It was obvious from the incredulity on their faces that they had all believed earlier they were going to die. ‘I love you! I love you! And you!’ said another, to the three westerners now standing speechlessly in front of him: ’You are the bestest people on the earth!’ As the fat sun finally began to sink in front of them, dropping its vast belly into the calming sea, I began to well up inside. Innocence is no longer exciting. It is deadly instead.

On Sykamia beach, a few days later, the cheap Chinese rubber dinghies were coming fast, successfully this time. Fleeing the hell of one place for the sanctuary of another, often thousands of people each day, makes for a mixture of emotions. But the vibrancy of the hope in these people’s hearts feels now only matched by their otherwise useless high-vis lifejackets. Courage was the principal author of that day and in moments wet clothes hung on trees and cigarettes from sealed plastic bags were swiftly lighted. But Europe seems to be thinking differently again. Which is why the refugees that day just wanted to get through the island fast. ‘I am from Afghanistan,’ said one teenager. ‘I come for my freedom. I want to go where there is no more war. I want to go to the north of Europe!’ He placed his hand on his chest and bowed to what he perceived was European justice. A young Syrian woman with the sun on her face described how she was an architecture student: ‘I am ready,’ she said when pointed out by a friend that Europe needed architects. An old woman meanwhile was given water and wept into her sleeve, her grandchildren gathered round her like a protective shield. ‘They are worried Europe might close,’ said a young Syrian man later that day.

In the background, more volunteers helped away – the older ones pouring soup or making sandwiches, the younger ones ushering the weak towards medical advice. Out at sea, more and more dinghies bounced across the slight swell and two local elderly Greek women watched from a wall, the calmness of their faces neutralising any fear. Interestingly, the families of many of these watching Greeks were refugees themselves, arriving from Turkey in 1922. They would understand the likes of the tracksuit-hooded Syrian I met one day, lingering with his wife and young daughters by a makeshift hut at the Oxy transit camp. They had just landed but had lost money and a passport in the sea. My friend offered to drive him back there to search among the wreckage strewn like a nightmare across the pebbles and rocks. ‘It was horrible,’ he said, talking about the first attempt that morning to cross when the smugglers had forced him at knifepoint to try again.

He never did find his money and passport but did take his family to Germany. It transpires he was diabetic and recently underwent a heart bypass operation. Much worse, his wife had been raped in front of him back home, a hell added to which he was tortured because he had refused to fight. A mighty reason in my book for finally deciding to grab your wife and children and escape immediately to Europe. ‘I just want my children to have a good education,’ he said as we returned empty-handed from the shoreline.

One of the most gracious refugees I met was Aden Mohammed. He was from Somalia. A warm-hearted former NGO cameraman, his life had been threatened by Al-Shabab and Al-Qaeda and some of his friends had been killed by them. He himself was injured yet beamed expectantly at the prospect of a new life. His only slight frown was when I asked if he thought any of the refugees making the journey could be terrorists and to this he simply looked up and shrugged: ‘I don’t know,’ he said, ‘I am a new one here.’ Interestingly, he had flown to Turkey directly from Somalia. In other words, not everyone arrives out of poverty.

I just wonder now with all our suddenly closing doors if we are not missing a trick here – the opportunity, as a friend suggested, to win a war.

Back on the street corner in Mitilini, the woman from the UNHCR disappeared inside her hotel. A small pick-up was cruising the nearby car park, updating awaiting refugees through loud fuzzing speakers. Before the crisis, these same speakers sold local fish or provided a platform for local politicians. Now it is trying to save the world.


Peter Bach lives in London.