In October 2015, I spent several weeks in Lesvos, Greece, working with the Starfish Foundation to help welcome and transport refugees arriving by boat to the other side of the island and onward, for many of them but the first part of a long journey towards hopeful asylum. Conditions have changed dramatically since then with many of the borders closed. These are my reflections from the front lines of the crisis of a million people crossing into Europe.
“This was my introduction to the dualism between the holiday trips and life-saving/life-threatening hail-mary journeys that characterize the visitors to and goings-on on this island right now. Coming in to Molyvos, a sleepy tourist town, the bus passed dusty olive farms and tidy villages- gossiping grandmothers, bored teenagers- transitioning into advertising for car and motorbike rentals, horseback riding and a scuba center. All of which juxtaposed with refugees- families, women in hijabs, scores of young men in backpacks- walking, almost marching, alongside the road towards the opposite direction of the bus.”
- “7,000 estimated refugees on the island
- 2,500 estimated capacity for refugees on the island
- 2000 euros estimated spent daily on food and water alone”
“So here’s how it works here: the boats arrive any number of ways at a few predictable points along this coast. Most either land on the beach or the rocks, due to winds and currents. On the beach they file through a resort type place, and take buses to our transit camp. On the harbor they hang out at our mini-camp there until we know a bus is coming, then we walk with them through town to catch the bus to, also, our transit camp. Our transit camp is the parking lot of a nightclub, Oxy.”
“Bear with me as I use a tired metaphor that doesn’t reflect my politics on policing: sometimes, here, we get to be the good cops, and sometimes, in trying to do good, we have to be the bad cops. The ‘good cops’ are the ones who have the chance to greet people after they’ve gotten off their boat. They are able to wait for the bus with the refugee families, talk with them, take pictures with them, play with their children. ‘Good cops’ get to say things like, “Would you like a cheese or nutella sandwich?” or “Would the children like a coloring book?” or “Why don’t you take an extra pair of socks?””
“The hardest decision every day was when to leave. Because it had to happen at some point- at some point, I had to eat, I had to sleep, I had to charge my phone and go to the bathroom (2 bathrooms for the hundreds if not thousands at the camp means that’s it for everyone- there’s not like some secret bathroom for the volunteers). But there was always another boat. Always another thousand sandwiches to make. Always a crisis of some kind. And it was virtually a guarantee that the moment I decided to leave, and insist on staying away, the whatsapp group would start recounting another horror story and urgent need for dry clothes, a doctor. What made it especially difficult to step away is that, sometimes, leaving meant that no one is left.”