Christmas in Lesvos – beauty, tragedy & hope (an occupier’s perspective)
Skala Sykamineas hugs a tiny harbour. Aquamarine water laps the rocky shore and fishermen tend their nets watched by curious cats. Inland, it’s harvest time in the olive groves and orange orchards. Free range sheep lazily graze, waiting to be milked. The village shop sells fresh yogurt in unglazed terracotta pots.
Dolphins frolic around a small boat as it heads towards the narrow beach. The dinghy rides low in the water beneath the weight of 40 people seeking new, safe lives. A full moon illuminates the whitewashed Mermaid-Madonna church and Christmas tree lights twinkle in the village square.
Three nights ago a boy child lay blue-white and unconscious a hundred metres from the Christmas tree. He was brought ashore, half-drowned and hypothermic, stretchered to a cabin nearby and revived by volunteer medics. He lived.
Lesvos has seen tens of thousands of people arrive on boats barely seaworthy in recent years. This month, over a thousand people have been arriving almost every day – cold and wet, frightened and relieved, exuberant or distraught. Many of the people in these boats have travelled from Syria and Afghanistan. Others started their journeys in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan or Africa.
For many the dangerous journey has been a feat of physical and mental endurance, has cost their life savings, has cost the lives of travelling companions. For many, the journey was made because staying at home meant being terrorised on a daily basis – facing bombs and guns, being repressed by dictators and attacked by militias, fearing imprisonment and torture. People don’t leave their homes to risk their lives, and the lives of their children, unless staying at home is no choice at all.
A few months ago people making this journey were referred to as migrants. Media and politicians competed to give migrants a bad name. Compassion came late; so many had died, of all ages and nationalities, before a three year old Syrian boy was drowned off the Turkish coast and the western world woke up. People began to speak of refugees rather than migrants. Even newspapers made the switch. This was good… but ‘refugee’ conjures sympathy rather than empathy.
I’d rather call the new arrivals heroes. If I’d done what they did to get here, I’d consider myself a hero. Wouldn’t you? Escaping a war zone, sneaking across borders, walking through mountains and crossing a perilous sea to land on a strange continent – the people who do this are victims of war, politics and injustice but they’re not helpless. Admiration, solidarity and friendship seem more appropriate than pity.
From the north shore of Lesvos Turkey looks so close; I could jump on a passenger ferry and be there in an hour. It’s ludicrous that people fleeing persecution should have to risk their lives at great expense, making millionaires of people-traffickers in the process, to travel these few miles because of politics. Politics means safe passage is a dream, means fear instead of friendship. Politics reinforces borders with razor wire and tear gas. Politics means some people are free and others are not and bombs fall on people just like us and their children drown because they were born there not here.
I want to break down the borders.
An elderly Syrian man stumbles on the steep rocky footpath leading up from the beach. His shoes have fallen off and he can’t bend to put them back on. I steady him and kneel at his feet, lifting his cold swollen feet back into his shoes. He is pale and frightened and fragile, whispering “Tsank you, tsank you”.
On Lesvos, the local people are heroes too. Fishermen save lives when they should be casting their nets. Amalia, proprietor at Cafe Traverso on the waterfront, dispenses blankets, shoes and handwarmers. Restaurants, travel agents and minimarts in Mytilene have added Arabic to signs and menus. A journalist asks local hotelier Aphrodite Vati “aren’t you worried you might be helping terrorists?” She points out that if a person with a terrorist mission gets off a boat here, the only thing that could change his mind is kindness.
A young Afghan man shivers uncontrollably, his thin clothes soaked, hypothermia and shock setting in propranolol pills online. His name is Marwas. One of his travelling companions has collapsed and he’s desperately worried about the child who fell into the water. While medics breathe life into the child, I wrap Marwas in emergency blankets with woollen blankets on top. Another volunteer hands him a cup of hot, sweet tea. I sit beside him, put my arm around him, reassure him, hold him until the shaking subsides as he tells me about his home town of Kunduz, his house that has been destroyed, his parents who’ve been killed and his two brothers who are missing. The Taliban took control of Kunduz in September this year. A friend said to Marwas “let’s go” and over 23 days they journeyed to Izmir in Turkey, then the friend decided to go back to Afghanistan and Marwas got on the boat alone. He has no passport. He wants to go to England but knows that’s probably a pipe dream. I apologise for my country.
I want to break down the borders.
What I actually do is pick up sea-soaked clothing, sort it and bag it and send it to the laundrette, then once it’s clean and dry, redistribute it. I’m working with The Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, to stop tons of perfectly good clothing ending up littering beaches or in landfill. We spend up to 800 crowdfunded euros a day getting appropriate clean warm clothes to those in need, in the fastest and most ecologically-sound way possible.
The Dirty Girls spend Christmas Day sorting through 6000 discarded socks, pinning pairs and bagging by size. Socks with reindeer on, Santa Claus socks, socks sporting the stars and stripes of the American flag, socks embroidered with the French tricolor, Union Jack socks, small socks with frilly lace tops, tiny baby bootees and hand-knitted socks of thick, coarse wool. Every sock has a story to tell.
Skala Sykamineas has a co-operatively run olive press. The scent of freshly pressed olives is subtle and divine and helps neutralise the smell of socks worn on the march across the Middle East. Oil oozes from the olive press onto the cobbled street, where fake life jackets are stacked awaiting collection by the next garbage truck. We save some of these ‘life jackets’ to insulate the floor of the Dirty Girls HQ tent, stuffing pallets with them before laying a plank floor.
History is happening. There’s a huge human migration occurring.
I wonder where Marwas is now, on Christmas night; whether he managed to negotiate Moria, the inland camp where thousands of refugees wait, often for days outside in the cold and mud, to be registered. Registration papers are needed to travel, book a room or buy a ferry ticket. Without registration papers no more borders can be crossed.
Moria is sprawling and confused, dirty and in constant flux. People lie beside the road, wrapped in blankets if they’re lucky. Volunteers collect cardboard and offer it to refugees in place of mattresses. There are a few ‘dormitories’ in unheated, unfurnished concrete rooms behind barbed wire fences in what was once a detention centre. In the dormitories more than a hundred people may have to share a filthy bathroom. Only the most vulnerable can access the dormitories; everyone else is outside, with even less provision. Oxfam is belatedly building toilets but most of the assistance here is pure grassroots. There are tents, but not enough tents. Food is provided by humanitarian organisations, but there’s never enough for everyone. When it rains, it’s hell. Self-organised collectives such as Better Days for Moria offer information and compassion but can barely scrape the surface of the need.
A million refugees have arrived in Europe and politicians have no plan other than to keep bombing the countries people are fleeing from. NGOs and aid agencies seem hamstrung by bureaucracy. On the Croatian border, razor wire has been decorated with Christmas baubles by local activists. On the Macedonian border a pregnant woman is beaten because she hasn’t got the right papers.
Thanks to the crews at Lighthouse and Platanos, the No Borders Kitchen in Mytilene, Caring Lesvos, the Wild Lemon Tea Tent, Bristol Skipchen and like-minded collectives we have small oases of warmth and dignity on Lesvos. Without these groups, without the volunteer lifeguards and medics, without the generosity of the local people, the humanitarian crisis here would be unimaginably worse. I wish the world would replicate what’s happening in these oases on Lesvos.
There are beautiful moments of hope and relief here, when the weary travellers first set foot on European soil and are greeted as welcome guests. I hope that hope doesn’t get extinguished on the cold journey north.
I hope Marwas makes it to England.
More stories from Lesvos:
Kim’s story, from the Lighthouse beach camp:
Brendan’s story, from Korakas: https://www.facebook.com/brendan.woodhouse.18/posts/10153329236677916