It’s my third morning on Lesvos. It’s the third time I wake up wondering where I would be the most useful, if at all. It’s also the third time that I open my curtains and see a beautiful blue sky and the sea, and Turkey, not so far away. When the weather is good, like today, you can see the buildings of Küçükköy (according to GoogleMaps). It makes the whole point of risking your life to cross that sea even more pointless. This morning, I start by boiling myself a cup of tea, and take it with me on the seaside. It’s about 30 meters away from my room, I can’t complain. If it weren’t for the clothes on the pebbles beach, or for the Frontex boat and helicopters occasionnally flying, I would think I’m on a holiday. third time, also, that I walk past those clothes, and wonder whether it’s appropriate for me to collect them. The first day, I didn’t dare to approach them, for fear Greek coast guards or the police would jump on me and let me rot in hell forever more. I quickly understood that there is a fine line between what we aren’t allowed to do, and what the police really cares about. Apparently, they turn a blind eye on a lot of things. The second day, I contemplated those clothes a bit longer. They only belonged to children, from the various sizes I reckon between 2 and 5 years old. As I volunteered in Moria, I asked around and there is a laundry where clothes from the beach can be brought to.
So today, after having drank my tea, and read a bit of “Why Nations Fail?”, ironically overlooking the invisible border between Europe and Turkey, I go back to my room and fetch some bin bags and a pair of latex gloves. I hate the smell of those, which I also wear at the kitchen in Moria. And in Berlin while making and distributing the sandwiches. You never wear them for anything else than chores. Unless we should start and wear them every time we hand an apple or give a cup of tea to a friend. But for the time being, I’ll be picking up clothes worn by strangers and stained by all sorts of things, so I’m quite happy to have those. As I approach the pile and the algae around, I realize that, as easy as it may look, it’s quite difficult to pick something. I begin with a little jumper, a toddler’s size. As I seize it I can’t help but imagine the tiny kid inside, shivering and all wet, getting changed on the shore by his parents (hopefully) and crying out of fear after having cross in these horrible, horrible conditions. I often read the expression “terrible beauty” in novels and when I look at this beautiful sea and this beautiful island it makes perfect sense. The settings are so very beautiful, yet something terrible is happening there, making it unbearable to look at when you’re aware of it.
I keep on picking the clothes, disentangling them from the algae and trying to get rid of the sand they’re littered with. They are fine and warm clothes, just in need of a good wash. Thick jumpers, thick leggings, woollen hats, put on by worried parents who put their last resources into a ticket to what they expect will be a better life for their kids. One of the hats I pack is the Dora the Explorer one I was talking about in my first Lesvos post. Dora the bloody explorer. I don’t think any kid deserves to go on such an exploration. No human deserves it, full stop. Yet it happens, again, and again, despite the huge international outcry. I also find dirty underwears, which I throw in the bin for good. Women who had their periods and no towels at their disposal on the way here. There aren’t the only blood stains I see. A blue sports jumper is also blood-stained at one arm, I don’t want to know how this injury happened. At least the children who came on that boat must have remained uninjured since the clothes are wet and sandy but clean otherwise. It’s the first time I cry since I arrived, here among my bin bags.
As I pick up a scarf, another one is coming from under the algae. My heart sinks as I fear there might be more than clothes as I have to pull tight to get hold of it, but that’s just me being paranoid. It’s just a scarf. I also notice a small notebook in which a couple of lines are written in Arabic. I hesitate to take it, after it belongs to someone else. But I take it anyway, it’s a proof of what I’m experiencing right now and I will keep it forever as a testimonial of these dark times. Its plastic cover shows an arch towards a beach and a path with roses. Maybe a setting for a wedding. It makes me cry again. A quote reads: “Some people make the world special just by being in it”. I wonder who carried this notebook and to whom he or she thought while chosing it. I will show it to my friends who speak Arabic back home and maybe the person who wrote the only five lines in it left her name there. holding it feels as intense as when I’m in the archives back in my normal life. I hold someone’s secrets in my hands, it reveals things about the bearer that one doesn’t normally have access to. It’s a treasure.
When I’m done, I bring the bin bags back to the room, leaving them at the door. I will first ask at Moria again, just to be sure I can bring them there. I wish I could find the owners of it all so I could restitute them all, dry and clean. In the afternoon, I head to the bus station where Esther, a fellow volunteer, from Spain, will give Mary and I a lift to Moria. As you do on this island, I meet another volunteer, Sandra, who comes from Macedonia. After a chat with her, I know where I’m going to volunteer next. Lonely planet should open a new branch as volunteering tourism seem to be ever increasing these days. Each person I meet has plans to head for another hot spot after Lesvos. I can’t think of ever going for another trip which wouldn’t involve helping out anymore. Yet I know I will, because even for volunteers, time off is essential. But it’s easier said than done.
We reach Moria, and I’m happy to meet familiar and friendly faces again at the Wild Lemon kitchen. I brought my camera and since I arrived an hour ahead of my shift, Mary and I walk around the camp a little bit. I want to document it all, because it’s paramount that everybody knows how it is like here.
We’re shocked, continually, by the appalling conditions in which people are made to live in here. But Mary is particularly outraged and so are all of us here by the behaviour of some locals, in particular some of the taxi drivers, who wait in line next to the camp to rip off refugees as they charge them crazy amounts to go into town where they take the ferry to Athens. There are also a lot of gypsies in the camps, they try and get free food and clothes and pack them up to resell them at a crazy price to refugees who just arrived and don’t know any better.
The sun is warm today, and many volunteers have a sunburn on their noses and foreheads. As I take my shift, it’s a quiet day to begin with. People come one after the other to get tea and an apple or an orange and biscuits, but there is time to talk a bit with each of them. Just a few moments, but they seem relieved, each time, to find people who don’t rush them around and treat them like cattle. I ask most of them where they are from, sometimes guessing from their outfits or facial features. Most of them are strikingly beautiful for my na�ve European eyes. Sadly I also see a lot of wounds, old and new, scars, blind eyes and amputated legs. It’s another world. Often, people carry their whole lives on their backs and arms as they reach out for a tea and an orange, so I gesture towards the pocket before putting the fruit and the biscuits there when they agree. The amount of smiles I get back is the best reward one can ask for. Today I add “tafah” to my meagre Arabic lexicon. It means apple, and again I’m the laughing-stock of both the Arabic-speaking volunteers and the refugees. But in a nice way. And anything that can bring that smile on their face is good. Mary only begins her shift later so she stays with me at the tea point for the first two hours. She’s the most easy-going person to work with, it’s very agreable. Other volunteers can be quite a piece of work, such as the one who enters and complains about the fact that we didn’t leave her food during the lunch service. Not only does she complain about it with a fellow mourner, but she does it four times, to everyone entering the tent, as if it were the most appalling thing on earth. The priority in our tent is to provide some relief for refugees, and of course breakfast, lunch and dinner to fellow volunteers, but there are meal times and entire pots of everything for those who come at the given meal times, but it’s not a given. We’re only so many volunteers able to work here and it’s not a restaurant kitchen. Yet, on she goes, over and over, about the fact that no one saved her lunch. I’m fuming. Mary is much more diplomatic, although she’s equally annoyed. After the fourth complaint, she reaches out and says to the woman: “You might want to check one of the street sellers trucks at the front of the camp, most of them have nice food and at a decent price”. At this stage, the woman is helping herself in our kitchen, digging in the food reserve for the next meals, followed by her comparse who’s equally happy to feel at home. She answers: “Oh really? I wasn’t sure about them, I was afraid they would be taking advantage”. We say nothing and I’m very happy to turn my head the other way round to keep on seeing refugees instead of that one (hopefully she won’t read that before I leave. oh well). In the big scheme of things it’s not really important, but that’s also the reality of volunteering. We’re a regular bunch of people with a common ideal, probably, but coming from different horizons and with different expectations and standards, so it occasionnally create those stupid situations.
Later on that night, a refugee comes forward as the chef is preparing dinner. He is humming and his expression just changes. “Oh my God, I have the feeling I’m in my mother’s kitchen!” he says. He looks genuinely moved. There is another kitchen, bigger than ours, where food is prepared for refugees. Here the food is only for volunteers, not that it’s fancier, it’s just the spot where volunteers gathered, and the open side is the “tea tent” for refugees, where we give away tea, fruits, biscuits, orange juices for kids and energy bars to young mothers. He seems very disappointed not to be able to share our meal, I feel sorry for him and hope it will smell as good in “his” kitchen as it does here right now.
The afternoon is quiet, Cheryl is on duty and the atmosphere is very agreable. We take some pictures together, and get to know each other a bit better. I miss the two Welshmen, Ian and Steve, whom I only met for a couple of hours but were so nice. I meet other volunteers. I get a chance to talk longer with Zac, a Morrocan refugee who is now working in the kitchen since he’s stuck on Lesvos anyway. He shares his story with me, which is not my place to share here because this moment belongs to us only, and we take a couple of nice pictures together and with Cheryl. Today, Zac is over the moon because Glen Hansard, an Irish singer-songwriter and his idol, left him a personal video message as he met a friend of Cheryl’s on a plane somewhere in Europe (Turkey I think). Zac has been playing the video over and over today, and he asks me what meant “light a candle for me”, since Glen Hansard told him to do so. So we light a candle for Glen together, and take pictures of that moment. Zac says he’s happy here now, I hope he really is. We talk about Ireland, he would love to go but knows he can’t, because he was born in the wrong country for that. I tell him I hope one day he will be able to travel anywhere he wants.
Later, as the Tea Tent closes for about 20 minutes, time for volunteers to sit down and have dinner, a lot of kids come and bang on the tent’s transparent curtain. They want biscuits! They shout and laugh so much, we tell them to go, we loaded them on sugar the whole afternoon, they’re probably still high from it, but they make us laugh as well, obviously. I gave them lollies earlier on, which at first they didn’t dare to take. The shiny eyes! I wish I could hug them all and promise them better tomorrows, only I can’t promise what I’m not sure of.
Meanwhile, the weather has rapidly changed. It is now very cold and windy. We have to keep the tea tent half closed, and hand out teas through a small opening while people are bracing themseves to sleep in tents outside. I feel for them so very much. We just can’t let the curtain fully opened, else everything would be flying around in the tent. Still, people are happy to get their Chai. The best one is the one Zac prepares, he gave me the recipe, along with a surprised “you don’t know how to prepare tea?”, and indeed it’s the best Chai I have ever drank.
At around 10pm, only Esther and I, and Zac who will sleep in the tent, are still here. Five Afghan men sit where volunteers take their break during the day. They ask me if it’s alright. I’m ashamed they feel the need to ask if they can sit on a rock. Of course it is. I get back in the kitchen and fetch some chocolate bars I had brought with me, in case I met people who’d need some. They’re delighted, haven’t seen a chocolate for weeks, and thank me ten times for this ridiculous little thing. They want to go to Germany so they ask me how things are there. I explain to them that the road will be difficult, that policies towards Afghan refugees are ever changing, and that they have to follow the news regularly in order to keep up to date with all those changes. After a while, one of them asks me if I can give them my number, and whether I could update them each day about the situation. I give them my number, asking them not to give it away to anyone else, although I know it will probably happen, just like it does in Berlin, but tell them I won’t be able to check the news for them everyday. I can’t take that responsibility, for lack of time and fear that I might convey false information. I can’t play with their future. But they can reach out if need be, and I will try and do my best to help out.
11pm. Kitchen duties come to an end, Zac is closing the Tea Curtain. Esther and I head to the car and Esther says she’s like to head to the beach, as she hasn’t been there yet. Beaches are the main attraction now for us volunteer, although mostly at night and no one brought bikinis. I’m tired, so I don’t feel like doing a whole night shift, but since she doesn’t know where it is I’m happy to show her where it all happens for a couple of hours. Off we go, in the night, through Mytilene, after the airport. No bonfire tonight. We head to Katia, where there are already three other cars parked. As we arrive, the wind is even stronger than anywhere else on the island, since we’re at one of the island’s south points. Esther and I marvel at the sky. The stars are so bright and it’s so beautiful to look at. Just like me on my first sea-watch, Esther now sees boats everywhere. But the weather is too bad, nothing is coming our way.
We get to chat with the man next to us. He’s a bit rough to begin with, but we get to know him and he’s a friendly man. He’s Syrian and has been living in Greece for twenty years. Maybe that explains why he tries to convince us that Syria is still a very nice country to live in and that he doesn’t understand why so many people try to come to Europe. According to him, the UN also stages starving people in places like Madaya because “there is still plenty of food in the country”. He seems genuine and he must know his country better than I do, still I’m not sure his political analysis of it all is accurate just now. It’s still good to talk to him, and we part good friends. It’s now 1am, and as Esther drops me off at the hotel I’m unable to sleep. Too many things to process, too many first impressions to share with my loved ones, too many important informations to read before going to sleep. These are certainly interesting times.