We had our final meal in Athens of 2 euro gyros and boarded a massive ferry at 9 pm on Sunday night, headed into the dark waves of the Mediterranean.
We bought one sleeper ticket, banking on there being empty beds to be had once we had key access. Each dorm room on the ship has 4 beds, and luckily only 2 were being used in the room we had. This was my friend Lizzy’s idea, and I was impressed. The savings was substantial. We have been pals since middle school, and its fun to be with a friend in totally different context and find yourself being surprised by someone you know so well.
We had been volunteering with the NGO, Women Refugee Route (see previous blog post for more info), and just concluded their first inaugural Volunteer Training Workshop.
Since I had been documenting, and working on the organization’s website and social media and Lizzy had been making connections with other organizations, we decided to visit some of the camps on the islands that are filled with refugees who fled Syria and other countries in large numbers last year.
After the all night ferry, we arrived on a damp, cool morning on a perfect half moon bay, on the Greek Island of Lesvos.
The town of Mytilene, where we landed on Lesvos, is gorgeous. The city is full of narrow streets and surrounded by rolling hills. Its main industry has been tourism, but the refugee crisis has made it a less attractive spot for vacationers. There are still all the gift shops, restaurants, rental car places and gorgeous beaches, but now instead of tourists, rafts full of refugees have been literally washing up on Lesvos shores seeking asylum since the crisis began. More than 6,200 people arrived in 24-hour period last October.
Even though Greece has a very high unemployment rate and there was no economic capacity on the island to suddenly accommodate thousands of new residents who came with nothing, there has been support from the locals (not everyone, but we heard many stories of refugees who have been helped by local people).
Lesvos is only a few kilometers from Turkey. It is one of the narrowest waterways to get to the EU. Refugees took water crafts, mostly rafts, led by traffickers across the narrow water way, seeking entry to the EU. Last year over 500,000 people came to the shores of these small tourist villages. Some were accepted as asylum seekers and were relocated to other EU countries, some died on the journey, and many are still here, in camps.
I met some awesome people who have come to volunteer in the camps from all over the world. We also visited a camp for special needs and vulnerable individuals. Some camps are nicer than others, it varies depending on the NGOs who are in charge. Over all, the conditions are pretty poor, and there are not adequate resources to run the camps, including lack of decent shelter, fresh food, activities, any school, etc. However, as I mentioned we also heard lots of inspiring stories. Mina, from Women’s Refugee Route connected Lizzy and I with Erik and Sarah, who are also doing amazing things.
Erik is from a small town in Southern Sweden. He has volunteered on Lesvos for over a year, watching for boats coming in and saving people. Sarah was born in Damascus. In 2015 her family’s house was bombed to pieces. They escaped, leaving their home country, and eventually took a boat from Turkey to Greece. Sarah’s sister is an olympic swimmer, who represented Germany in the last olympics. Sarah recently went on a speaking tour to universities in the Northeast, including Dartmouth and Boston University. Her story is best shared in her own words:
“At 6 AM the smuggler came and told us, ‘In two hours you’ll have a boat that will take you directly to Greece.’ But those two hours turned into days. For four days, we had no bathroom, shower, bed, or pillow and very little food. Eventually they took 25 of us to the shore and told us to get into a boat made for seven. There were twenty adults and five children, the youngest being five years old, and before we crossed I said to Ysra, ‘Whatever happens, don’t save anyone and swim for yourself,’ but the moment I got in I thought to myself, ‘I can do it. If something happens, I’ll be able to save them.’
The motor on the boat broke once they were out at sea.
“As swimmers, we’ve always known the water to be our friend. But on that day, I was scared and didn’t know where I was going. I recited a prayer that Muslims say before we think we might die, I took a breath and jumped in the water. I grabbed the boat with one hand and used my other hand and legs to push us towards the island. Then my sister jumped in and I was like, ‘What are you doing in the water?!’ And she was like, ‘I’m doing what you’re doing!’ ‘No, just go back!’ ‘I’ve been helping you for 17 years, I want to do the same,’ and I’m just like, ‘No no no, not right now!’ My sister wears glasses and when she takes them off she gets dizzy so I was scared that any second, she would drift away from the boat and I wouldn’t be able to reach her. So we were in the water fighting and someone yelled at us, ‘Can you stop your women’s fight?!’ In that moment she said to me, ‘We were raised together, we fight together, we get jealous of each other, even though we’re three years apart we have always been together and if you die, I die too.’ And with those words, we became quiet for the next three and a half hours and just swam.”
Sarah and her sister, Yrsa, pushed the boat to the island of Lesvos, saving all of the people on board.
But…the story doesn’t end there… After Sarah and her family arrived in Berlin (via swimming, ferry, train, walking), Sarah received a thank you letter from a volunteer organization in Lesvos. It was a letter from the volunteer coordinator and bunch of refugee children thanking Sarah and her sister for being an inspiration to them. A photo of all the kids and the coordinator was also in the letter. She decided right then to leave Berlin and go back to Lesvos, the place where she first landed. She contacted the volunteer coordinator, Erik, and joined his organization, which monitors the sea at night and rescues people coming in. Soon they were dating.
Erik and Sarah are an awesome couple. Not only are they bad ass and helping save lives, they are super fun! Lizzy and I hung out with them and got pizza and ice cream. Good times.
To learn more or help support Sarah with her work check out her page.
Visiting the camps was a surreal experience. To think that there are thousands of people waiting to be processed for asylum that right now have been sitting in camps for over a year is very upsetting. They are stuck there. They have nothing to do. They have no idea where they will go, or when they will hear any news. The EU has tied up the refugee process in political debates, and the US has also shamefully closed it borders. The people in the camps are the ones who made it. They had the economic resources, wherewithal, drive, and luck, to cross multiple borders, often with children, sometimes on foot, to escape severe discrimination, violence and genocide. Many speak English, many are highly educated, most are families. It is such a shame, such a waste, such a tragedy. I hope our society values humanity enough to treat refugees as humans.
We also visited a camp back when we were in Athens. An old airport had been converted to a refugee camp. Many families have been there over a year now. There are over 4,000 people in the camp. There is nothing to do at the camps, no school, people can’t work, they are given packaged food to eat, and sleep in tents. It looks like a fort city a kid would dream about, except its not kids creating forts in their living rooms, its thousands of families, who have nothing. Tents with sheets hung all over to create some semblance of privacy. It was very discouraging to see.
Here is a video from Fatima. Her family came from Iraq to Afghanistan as refugees, and then left Afghanistan due to discrimination and danger. English is the common language in all the camps, and she has learned quite a bit. I think her message needs to be heard. There is a whole generation of people right now living in camps, and they want school, they want a home. What will happen to them?
It seems so far away now that I am back in the US, but the whole time I was there all I could think was therefore but the grace of God go I.