I arrived on the Greek Island of Lesvos on the day the number of refugees arriving in Greece from Turkey reached 1 million. Almost half of them came to this island of 90,000 residents on the way to Germany, Scandinavia, any place that will take them.
The refugees come by crossing a short but treacherous stretch of the Mediterranean on overloaded rubber rafts with tiny engines. They come with nothing except maybe a few dollars and a phone. Among them are pregnant women, children, professionals. They arrive with hypothermia from the boat trip and injuries from their journey through Turkey. All have escaped unimaginable horrors of war in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq.
These refugees are part of the greatest international migration since the second world war, and yet most of the people helping them in Greece have not been workers from the UN or the EU or the US or the world’s largest charities. The people who have done the most are the Greeks who live here. And although I came to Lesvos to help, I was also motivated by a desire to experience this great humanitarian effort.
My short journey from Cairo to Lesvos was emotionally unlike any other. Everything seemed significant. The passengers on the 50 minute flight from Athens could have fit around a Christmas dinner table. Because I can’t remember the last time I was on a plane with more than a couple of empty seats, I wondered whether no one cared — or maybe everyone was already here. My flight was on Astra Airlines. “Astra” is Latin for “through hardships to the stars,” which seemed like an obvious reference to the refugees. And while everything seemed significant, I thought about how insignificant I am. Whatever I could do would be infinitesimally small compared to the need.
I was greeted at the Lesvos airport by two men from Billy’s, the heroes of Lesvos’ rental car world. After brushing up on my stick shift skills, I took off this morning from Mytilene for the hour’s drive to the town of Molyvos where most of the refugee boats have landed (on the map you can see “Mitilini” on the southeast part of the island and “Eftalou”on the north point, which is adjacent to Molyvos.)
Lesvos is everything you might imagine a Greek Island to be — hillsides of olive trees and grazing sheep, small villages of cobblestone streets and whitewashed houses with tiled roofs, harbors with fishing boats. I stopped along the way when I saw a sign for the island’s largest camp, Moria. All refugees must register at Moria before they can get on the ferry to Athens.
The people at Moria seemed surprisingly calm in spite of the cold and their trials. Most were standing in lines for tea or dry clothes or a few minutes with a nurse. A group of boys were playing soccer with a beach ball. The volunteers told me I didn’t need to bother locking my car and the only disruptive behavior occurs when local police show up. One of the volunteers referred to the police as “openly antagonistic.”
The doctor onsite asked me to drive a pregnant woman and her family up the hill to processing. That sounded like a simple task However, the group of refugees who walked to my car expressed agitation about something we couldn’t understand and their three year old was crying. None of the volunteers spoke Farsi so they left to find someone who did. The volunteers returned with the only Farsi speaker they could find — a young man who was still wet and shivering from arrival. He explained that the man in my car was the brother of the husband. The volunteers left to find the husband. When the husband arrived ten minutes later, the three year old stopped crying. It took almost thirty minutes to resolve this small problem, which made me realize how language barriers can complicate even simple tasks and contribute to the stress levels of people who are already in trauma.
On my way back to the highway, I picked up a couple of young men who were going to walk 5 miles to Mytilene in the freezing wind. A relative had sent them funds to a Western Union office. They didn’t speak English but we managed to share a few words in French. As we neared the center of town, one of them said “nous allons trouver.” “We will find it.” I stopped the car and put my hand on his shoulder. He grabbed my hands and kissed them.
Maybe everything really is significant.
“We die in Syria. We die here. We die everywhere. We have to risk it if we want to live.”