Yesterday after the night shift I was such a wreck that I wasn’t up to anything productive. I was so anxious to do something that I ended up doing nothing in the end. That also has something to do with the fact that I haven’t rented a car and that without one it’s very difficult to get around on the island.
Today I feel very annoyed at myself for not having been more organized. I thought it would be easier to tag along with any other ongoing project but apparently there is no shortage of volunteers on Lesvos at the moment. I feel totally useless so I decide to go into town and rent a bloody car. Yannis, my new Scottish friend (with Greek parents, if you have followed my fascinating adventures!) is going to Mytilene so he offers a ride. When in town, I prospect in variuos rental car offices. The cheapest deal is above my planned budget. I’m really reluctant to put so much money into that while I could buy stuff for refugees instead. Also, I really didn’t want to drive around, I already have other things on my mind and I don’t trust myself with that just now, but I’ll probably have to if I want to do anything at all. For the time being, the plan is to go sea watching again tonight with Yannis.
We drive to Mytilene and Yannis drops me off near the harbour. I decide to go get a local SIM card first. When I enter the operator’s shop, a woman my age is selling another card to two men who, I reckon, are refugees. Again, I feel like a racist for judging them based on their look (they “look” Syrian”) and on their clothes (dirty shoes and dirty trousers, backpack), but six months on the field have often proven me right about that. Sure enough, they start speaking Arabic between themselves so given the place we’re in I assume I’m right this time round as well. The woman is finished with them and asks me to come over. As I do so, she’s very nice and immediately give me the required card. The two Syrian men come back to ask her something, the man doesn’t trust himself with his English and starts sweating as he tries and explain that his card isn’t activated. The woman sighs and rolls her eyes and tells him she doesn’t understant if he can’t speak proper English. Then she turns back to me all smiles. I look at the second man while this happens and we exchange a smile. The man who did the talking is gutted and gives up trying to ask his question. I tell myself I’ll go and help him activate the card once I’m done. As I turn towards the door to see which direction they took, the two men are nowhere to be seen anymore. The saleswoman activated my card now, it takes a while to get updated so she asks me if I’m a volunteer. She’s very nice to me, I guess she was just frustrated having to answer the same questions to people she doesn’t understand. I ask her if she gets a lot of “visitors” here, and indeed, each day brings its lot of volunteers and of refugees. Not so much when it rains. Maybe people don’t feel the urge to get a SIM card when the weather is bad.
I sit at a cafe on the harbour in order to send my new number to the few volunteers I’m now in touch with. I still feel down, discouraged, and useless. I feel I’m letting down refugees, fellow volunteers and my loved ones, by not being with refugees right now. I think about “my” volunteers team, back in Berlin, the “Train of Hope” ones. Melanie would be completely unphased, she would already be on the field, even giving directives to new volunteers on her first day, working hard and not sleeping at all. Stefan would have gone straight to the authorities to get a grip on what’s allowed and what’s not, and to register himself as a volunteer. Dirk would spot the nearest kid’s point and would be blowing balloons for the kids, not caring about whether he filled out a form to volunteer beforehand or not. Martina would pack and unpack goods for refugees, ranting at the officials and being the most efficient of us all. Super Suse would calm everyone down with her good mood. So right now I don’t know why I can’t be like I am in Berlin and be effectively helpful. Just as I’m in the middle of those thoughts, I get a Facebook message from a fellow volunteer from the Berlin train arrivals, wishing me good luck and sending me comforting words. It does the trick. Just a couple of words and I feel motivated again. I owe it to the people who think I’m up to the task, I tell myself. And I’m also a journalist, so I can at the very least still report on things whilst I’m not in the middle of the volunteering scene.
Off I go, a finger on the camera shutter and the microphone on, around Mytilene. I still ask at rental car offices. It’s still expensive. In the meantime I send a bunch of messages on Facebook and What’s App to find people going the same places. I need to go to Moria. Better Days for Moria hasn’t called me back. In the last rental car office, the woman in charge tells me there are no more cars because of all that mess. She asks me what’s my job, pointing at the camera at my shoulder. I say I’m a journalist, and this just gets her started: “Thank God Frontex has finally done something, maybe the volunteers will finally go home! We’re not Uganda here, what do they think they’re doing? We’re tired of them doing everything they want on our island! I’m tired of good people! Because of them the prices of flats are increasing in Mytilene!”. The two colleagues next to her are trying to sink in their seats. “In fact, I also came here to volunteer”, I venture. “Oh…” is her answer. I tell her I’ll go try and find a car where one won’t mind “good people” and leave the office. I’m so frustrated by that nonsense, since the volunteer effort has been essential in the handling of refugees, not only in Greece, but also in the rest of Europe. I meet up with Yannis again and the two of us head back to the hotel. In the meantime I find out that a volunteer staying at the same hotel as us will head to Moria and she offers me a lift.
We head off for the 5pm shift. Moria is a former military base. Now, there are two camps. The official one, ran by officials and NGOs, and the non-official. Only people from certain countries have access to the official one: Iraq, Syria, Palestine, Yemen, Sudan, Somalia and Eritrea. All the others are politely asked to go to “Afghan hill”, the volunteer’s run camp just next to the official one. No volunteers are allowed in the official one, so they started their own camp, and it looks much nicer, even if it’s a huge mess.
The official camp looks like a concentration camp. It is surrounded by three wired fences, and high walls. The tents are aligned and apparently fenced as well, according to some volunteers who sneaked in. General announcements are made through loudspeakers, by a neutral, lifeless female voice. Somehow it makes me think of Orwell’s 1984, though I’m not quite sure why. Maybe for the being watched part, or at the thought that no one is really master of their own destinies anymore. A greater power, Europe, can decide for everyone’s fate.
At the entrance, four or five trucks selling food and drinks are making loads of money out of the refugees. Those can come and go as they please, provided they can afford a bus or taxi ride to Mytilene. There is a taxi line in between the two camps. Taxi drivers on Lesvos are also making loads of money out of the refugee business, and not only thanks to volunteers. While I’m at it, I might as well mention that the police of Mytilene is also benefiting from the presence of volunteers since they started issuing 80 € parking tickets to volunteers’ cars parked along the road near the camp – the only place where volunteers can park.The unofficial camp, called “Afghan Hill” precisely because that’s where Afghans install their tent, is a multicoloured mess of tents, the white ones being various organizations of volunteers, the coloured ones belonging to refugees themselves. The tents are all gathered on a hill, there is no proper entrance, it’s muddy and dirty, it looks like the Third World. But the atmosphere is way more relaxed than down the official camp.
I start up a shift with Better Days for Moria, and the organization team briefly tells us newbies how it works as we’re gathered at the information point. As I’m about to go on an orientation tour with one of them, an Iraqi comes up and asks me something. He doesn’t speak English, so I try to find an Arabic interpreter. The man lost his papers, he just has his passport left. He looks worried, understandably. He’s describing them to Jackson, another volunteer. Jackson can’t help him. But just as the refugee is about to leave, he spots a plastic envelope on a table. The man’s face brightens up so much: it’s his papers! He lets a little “ah!” sound out and seize the papers. He gives a brief hug to Jackson, and just as he was about to let go, he breaks into tears and holds Jackson. We’re all silent and Jackson is beyond moved, as we all are. After two minutes, the man seems to feel a bit better and we wish him not to lose his papers again. He leaves the tent much relieved and I see him go with a heavy heart.
Another refugee comes forward. He’s Algerian. He flew into Turkey, crossed the Aegean Sea, and now wants to go back to Algiers upon seeing how welcoming Europa is. He hasn’t registered to the camp official’s yet, and we don’t know the procedure for North-African migrants. Marwane, a Morrocan volunteer met two days ago at the night’s sea watch, is here again. He also came by the sea, he knows what the situation is like for refugees from that part of the world. He tells me that once you set foot in Greece, you’re pretty doomed as you can’t legally go back to Turkey, and that the only way to go back would be to take another inflatable boat…the other way round. The Algerian man, with whom I can communicate well in French, has a broken arm. His swollen fingers are emerging from a dirty splint, held together by huge silvery screws. It looks bad and painful. I ask him where does he want to go. “Home”, he says with tired eyes. Now he just arrived, so we need to make sure it’s not just the shock of his passage through the sea. I ask him whether he’s certain. Yes, he’s determined that here is not a place for him. I tell him we’ll need some time to figure out what’s the best option for him and ask him to wait at the info point until we get an answer from an official. An hour later, as we’re stil waiting for more information, we find out that he preferred heading to the police registration point. We don’t know what will happen to him.
Somehow I don’t get the “orientation tour” and I just stand at the gate of the official camp waiting for Frontex buses with fellow volunteers, but time passes and no bus arrives. The three of us feel pretty useless but we’re told its normal on a quiet night. I should have volunteered for garbage duty to clean up Afghan Hill, will do that next time round. A woman comes in, she’s also from Morroco; women and children from other countries as those stated at the entrance of the camp sometimes find their way in if they’re travelling on their own. She’s here with her toddler. As a volunteer plays with the kid for a moment, the woman shakes my hand and keeps on saying “Thank you, thank you”. I tell her I’m really happy she’s here. When she decides to go, she takes my hand and presses it hard in her, and kisses me on the cheek, several times. We hug. And I think these human interactions won’t ever be stopped by whoever tries to make them impossible by edicting unfair laws.
I head back to Afghan Hill, walking on the main road and encountering many refugees on the way. The men often tease me: “Good morning beautiful!” “I love you!” “Welcome!”, they all say. I smile politely and don’t encourage that, but I don’t feel unsafe either, and think it’s more of a playful thing to do, out of relief to have arrived here – than aggressive chatting up. Either way, I don’t mind and don’t feel threatened. Still, I could do with a headlamp so as to not stumble in each pot-hole on the road. As I tip-toe uphill, I reach the back of a tent, from which emerges a woman with the most peaceful face I’ve seen in a long time. “Well hello there!” she says. She carries a lot of pots which she puts on an improvised think. “Hey, care for some help?” I try. “That would be lovely!” she answers. I just met Cheryl, the coordinator of “The Wild Lemon Kitchen”, the tent providing tea, fruits and biscuits to refugees, and meals to volunteers. She asks if I wouldn’t mind doing the washing-up, and here I am, gloves on, on dishwasher duty. Zac, another Morrocan, helps me out. I immediately feel at ease with the whole team. It’s just about finding the right group dynamic, and I know I found “my” team. When I’m done, I get in the tent and meet Ian and Steve, to Welshmen who came here to help as well. They make me feel so welcome, we joke around and soon I’m on tea distribution duty.
Finally, I can see and talk to refugees! No Syrians this time round, since we’re on Afghan hill. Many people from Afghanistan and Pakistan come forward. It’s relatively quiet, we give away tea and biscuits, and “porthakar”, “orange” in both Arabic and Farsi, my new word of the week, though they all laugh at my pronunciation. But each time someone speaking a different dialect corrects me, so I can never win. I have time to speak to the people, they’re happy to share a few words. To feel human again, and to be considered. It’s only a cup of tea, but it’s a social interaction and that’s what they need the most as they lost everything else. We joke with some of them, others are too exhausted and traumatized to talk. Sometimes they don’t really want an orange, or biscuits, but I always insist because most of the time they’re just unsure, and I know it’s going to be hard for them on the way to Germany or anywhere else, so I’d rather stuff their pockets with food now.
There are so many beautiful words I exchange this evening with so many people, I wish I could share them all but they also belong to the bearers of those words and they are beautiful secrets that form my Lesvos experience. I will recall them little by little, as time goes by, and I hope it will soothe my soul when it will ache because of the unfairness it witnesses daily. One man stands out tonight, a Pakistani. He asks whether he can have proper English tea with milk please? Of course he can, while Ian is preparing him a cup, I ask him where he wants to go. “England”, he says with a smile “I lived there many years ago, I would love to go back”. I think of Calais. The shame of my country. I tell him it will be a very difficult journey and that it’s nearly impossible to reach England. He smiles and carries on quietly, determined: “I know. But I have to go there. I loved it so much there.”. I smile back, and Ian and I wish him good luck.
That night I also chat with a stunning looking woman from Mazar-i-Sharif. Because no one is queuing, we have time to exchange some words. She’s so nice and looks so peaceful now, I’m so happy they have safely reached our shores. She leaves with her tea and orange and biscuits, but comes back half an hour later. “What is your name?”, she asks. “Emma”, I answer. “Emma, your face is beautiful, it’s the shape, it looks very beautiful for Afghans!”. It’s so funny, because we “European” volunteers keep on marvelling at how beautiful all the people that reach us are! We’re both discovering each other, from our features to our culture. It’s such an intense and beautiful process, and again I can’t help but think that the only bareers between me and this woman are those erected by politics made in higher places. We laugh together and talk some more, then shake hands, then she’s gone. Another one I probably won’t see again, but I’m happy I met her at all.
Ian tells me the shift will be over at around 11pm, he and Steve are more concerned than I am about how I will get back to my hotel. Worst case scenario they’ll give me a lift, but it’s the opposite direction from them. I really don’t mind taking a taxi which I’d share with Mary, but they’re asking around as I’m too tired to even bother. Another man from England joins us in the tent. The two Welshen start to sing, and I really feel we’re soldiers at war waiting in our tents. People from all over the world are here, determined not to let go of refugees. We’re all talking about our previous “battles”, how long we’ve been “on the field”, how does it look like on other locations. The names of the beaches we watch over sound to me like Omaha, Utah, Junomust have sound for soldiers in Normandy seventy years ago. They became landmarks. Ours are Pipka, Katia, Kara Tepe, Moria.
Around 10pm, a new face arrives. Shaz, another Englishman. He came here with a team of 8 people, but cancelled his flight back to stay an extra week. He never sleeps. Most of the people I meet only sleep 3 or 4 hours a night during their stay in Lesvos, if at all. I learned the hard way in Berlin that the body can only sustain that crazy rhythm for so long, until it begins to act like crazy, so I try to be as careful as possible. But it’s very hard to sleep when there is so much to do. Shaz offers me a lift home, and after having served the last cups of tea, and exchanged contact details with my new companions in peaceful arms, I head back to the hotel. Tomorrow, I will start another shift with The Wild Lemon, and I just can’t wait.