Lesvos, February 4th, 2016. On Frontex and General Strike

I can’t seem to be able to sleep proper nights on this island. I can’t complain, I chose not to go sea-watching and serving tea and biscuits is certainly not the most exhausting task at Moria. I still feel I could do much more, but it seems  like my body and soul are consuming energy by taking it all in. In a week, I knew I wouldn’t have much time to settle in, be of tremendous help, and achieve loads. It’s my observation trip and I will be back more organized next time. In Lesvos, or elsewhere. As I mentioned to someone who was complaining about the lack of coordination for volunteers on the island, the vast majority of us are non-professionnals. The only thing that drives us is empathy and compassion, which are good feelings to have but can prove insufficient in terms of organization. Yet, we are here and determined to make a difference, however small, and all good wills combined together form a huge wave that the powers in place seem to be uncomfortable with, given the measures taken to gain more and more control over volunteers coming over.

Today I’m awoken by the sound of a helicopter. As I open my curtain, I see two huge ships on the bay, and the helicopter stationed between both of them. Frontex. They’re on the lookout for refugee boats. The sky is cloudy, the wind is so strong that i couldn’t sleep last night, and the sea is still so rough. I hope no one is trying to cross it right now, and that if they do they will reach Greek waters since for all I know it’s no good to sink in Turkish ones. I can’t take my eyes off of those vessels. Again, how it reminds me of another time. All that fuss deployed in order to try and prevent people to move from one point to another. That is what is emotionnally hard to deal with. Interacting with people who reached us isn’t hard, even though their stories are sometimes incredibly sad, but being confronted to nonsensical policies when lives are at stake is terribly upsetting, this can’t be stressed out enough. Volunteers are exhausted of that, because it’s blatant that we could clearly offer better infrastructures and have the means to deal with what became a crisis because some did their best to ignore it for as long as possible.

The island has been quiet enough this week, due to Frontex’s new policy to pick up migrants directly at sea. Some volunteers complained that they were “trying to take the work away” from them. Personally I’m glad they’re taken out of the water and brought to Mytilene in the first place. I didn’t do much sea watching, because there are a thousand other things to do here. Collecting garbage, on the beach or in the camp, is one of them, even though it’s not glamourous. A team called “Dirty Girls of Lesvos” also provides containers for clothes that washed off the shores. They wash them and redistribute them where needed on the island. SURF, another initiative launched by a group of American volunteers I met on my second day here, provides refugees with food and drinks in the port, upon their arrival at the beach when it happens, and with money for those who need it most.

At the camp, lots of people with manual skills work the whole day and most of the night to provide better infrastructures. I still haven’t used up the donations I got before leaving for the island, so I decide that the money will go to them. They’re constantly asked to fix this and that, barely take a break and don’t get twice as much recognition as most of the other volunteers. And when they come to sit down in the Wild Lemon Tea Tent, which also provides meals for volunteers, they use up their break to serve tea and biscuits to refugees and to interact with them. Witnessing this restores faith in humanity.

Today in Greece, there is a national strike. Everything, absolutely everything is closed. There are no shops, no restaurants, no taxis, no petrol stations open. Volunteers are now as powerless as refugees. But what for us is chaos is living hell for migrants: all those who succeeded in registering in the camp and are thus allowed to continue their journey are stranded here for a couple of extra days since none of the ferries departing for Athens will take the sea before Saturday. It would be alright if no new people were arriving, but the flow is constant. From Friday on, the camps will be overcrowded and the resources scarce. So another huge collective effort is put into place: from last night, all the volunteers with a car organize a commute system between the camp and Mytilene’s harbour to help registered refugees board on the last ferry leaving the island before Monday. Obviously, some volunteers whose time on Lesbos was over also suffer from this strike and need to find another ferry, or other connecting flights to be able to return to their homes. Ironically, we’re all in this together, again.

Esther, my new Spanish friend, and I have decided to try and find a place open for lunch before our afternoon shift in Moria. Along with Mary and Fran, two other volunteers based in Thermi (like us), we wander around a nearby village � usually quite lively � only to find closed doors everywhere. A local tells us “all closed, all closed! strike!”. Esther wants to know why Greece in on strike. “Merkel!” he answers. She’ll be glad to know, for all she cares. But it’s our lucky day: two kilometers later, we stop by the only place that seems to ignore the fact that everyone is on strike. Only two other people are sitting in there, two locals, who greet us with friendly “kalimera” and a smile. We’re served by a 12-year-old boy who is the only English-speaker in his family, and takes his job very seriously. There is no menu, just meat or fish, but we’re obviously just happy to have found something open so it doesn’t matter. As we share our impressions on the island and eat away our food, a white car from which stick out half a dozen black flags slows down in front of the restaurant. We remember that some days ago, neo-nazis burnt a medical tent on a beach up north, and we’re not reassured by the sight of those flags, given the context. The car is now parked and two men come out of it. I wonder whether we should keep speaking so loud about refugees. I look at the two men who were here upon our arrival, one of them sees the worry in my eyes and he blinks at me peacefully, and makes an appeasing gesture with his hand. It’s ok, he seems to say. Either the men coming to us have just put those flags up as a sign of protest for the strike, or we landed in their repair! Either way we’re fine, indeed the two men who came with the car enter and are just preoccupied about having food. Meanwhile, it’s time for us to head to Moria.

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