Lesbos, Greece – December 2015
This is part four of a journal I’m keeping during my month working at a refugee camp in Greece. Part three, covering working at Camp Pikpa and branching out to find my role on the island, is here.
A couple more volunteers left over the weekend, leaving nobody to conduct the coordination meetings in the morning. My impatience got the best of me as I clanged a rock against a metal pole until everyone gathered, then quickly briefed everyone on the ongoing projects.
I spent the rest of the day building shelves for the Medicins san Frontieres (MSF) tent at Camp Pikpa where I stay. A team of Germans came in, all of whom had previous experience in construction, which dramatically lessened my workload and made life easier for C, the woman who designs the shelves. C stays in the same tent as me in Pikpa and is a Bay Area native. Roughly half of San Francisco is currently volunteering on Lesbos Island in some capacity.
We spent the early evening preparing and packaging meals for Moria, the main refugee camp on the island. Moria seems to be perpetually cold, understaffed, and undersupplied, so the Pikpa volunteers spend a lot of time there and bring clothes and food up when we can. Packing meals for them is a nightly ritual that signals the end of the work day at Pikpa.
Myself, two tentmates, and Dutch volunteer R went into town and spent the rest of the evening at a Syrian restaurant. It was R’s last night and we wanted something better than refugee camp soup for our final meal together. Being waited on in a warm restaurant after two weeks in a tent seemed to be a delicious dose of civilization for all of us, though we were sad to see R go.
I’m apparently running the daily meetings now. I really don’t know what I’m doing, but no one else does either so it generally works out. I only took control of the meetings after the previous organizer left and I didn’t have enough patience to wait for the meeting to start at the”Greek time” version of our schedule. Be careful what you wish for.
We finished the shelves for the MSF tent today, then I spent the rest of the afternoon playing with the kids of Pikpa. Pikpa is a camp for vulnerable families or people with health conditions, meaning there are lots of children running around with parents who can’t possibly keep up. Playing with the kids can be anything from playing learning games with them to keeping them from eating construction materials.
The night brought a joint Christmas/the prophet Muhammad’s birthday party. The community kitchen was full of balloons and Greek pastries, and parents played with children as a travelling musical duo played kitschy Christmas songs and 50’s doowop classics.
When Palestine’s Humanity Crew (website here) arrived, the party took on a completely new direction. Arabic pop music began blaring from the speakers in the back, tables were moved from the center of the room, and the calm night of eating cookies with family turned into a raucous dance party. Parents, children, and volunteers danced together, flagrantly and shamelessly, using moves that no sober people dared use before.
Humanity Crew are are a traveling party. The volunteers who are seen pulling refugees from the boats get the lion’s share of the attention*, but Humanity Crew is by far my favorite group on the island. They come to the island primarily as doctors and psychologists, but double as teachers, interpreters, babysitters, and cooks most nights. Pikpa always comes to life as soon as they arrive.
*Most refugees walk calmly and mostly dry off of their boat and onto a beach. A couple of overenthusiastic volunteers jump or wade into the water to heroically pull refugees off of steady rafts sometimes cause panic and cause people to jump into the sea and swim for shore, putting refugees at heightened risk of hypothermia and requiring dry clothes to be given from our finite supply.
Nearly all of the rescue crews are great, but one person has turned himself into a punchline by continually posting photos on social media of himself holding various babies and bragging about “saving thousands of lives.” He is the worst, but not the only, example of this mindset. There is also a widespread dislike of photographers that sit in the middle of a rescue site and snap pictures while everyone else scrambles around them to help.
Immediately after the morning meeting at Pikpa, I hitched a ride to Moria. I worked there for most of the day at the clothing distribution tent, screening refugees to see what clothes they needed while acting as an interpreter whenever there were difficulties.
It was rough.
Telling people who sleep in tents that we don’t have enough coats for them on a winter night is harder than any job I’ve had before. It gets harder after they see another man who came in wet and shivering walk away with a new coat. The same process happens with shoes. We are always low on shoes and coats, but save a handful for people coming from an overturned boat or who are sick. When we have five coats to last the rest of the day and 25 people who want coats, someone has to deliver the tough message: Yes, it’s freezing and you have only a thin sweater, and yes, the man in front of you just left with a thick coat, but no, we can’t give you a coat. Since I speak Farsi, I’m often that messenger. Never has charity work felt so terrible.
Things got better at night. The Pikpa staff got together to help load supplies bound for another island onto a ferry. While loading the boxes, we saw hundreds of refugees board, knowing that their next stop would be mainland Europe. Their smiles and excitement made everything seem alright again. Their faces barely hid a sense of relief, some of them having been on the road and at the mercy of smugglers for years.
These moments are why we volunteer.
I spent the morning at Pikpa sorting boxes and playing with children. The kids are fun and lighten the mood, though their stories are as dark as anyone else out there. There is the girl who watcher her parents drown in the Aegean Sea. There is the boy hiding from human traffickers who he had escaped. Many children are too young to really know what’s going on, but many who do have horror stories you’ll wish you could unhear.
Susan Sarandon hung around Pikpa for a while today. She’s been very active on the island, both with raising awareness and *gulp* actually helping. It was beautiful to see her helping out around the island. Maybe some of the vulture photographers can take a cue from her, instead of standing in the way during an entire rescue in order to catch the perfect picture of a prop, err, child climbing out of a boat into a volunteer’s warm embrace.
Susan stays at a very affordable hotel about five minutes down the road from Pikpa and is very friendly with everyone, even the volunteers staying at her hotel who stop her in the hallway. If Robot & Frank didn’t already turn you into an admirer of hers, now is the time.
I spent the morning on shorewatch with two Floridians. The Turkish Coast Guard was patrolling heavily that morning as they do on most holidays, making our shift disappointingly calm. Luckily, the sun rising over the Turkish coast and Aegean Sea alone was worth the trip. We spent the morning stargazing and watching the sunrise as we kept our eyes out for boats coming in.
The day was a mixture of Christmas parties and light work, while Santa came during the night and delivered favorite foods to everyone in our tent.
I was almost ready to sleep after Santa came, but then I heard music. It wasn’t music from a radio. It wasn’t live instruments. It was 50 volunteers and children playing drums on the table while singing traditional songs, and it was amazing.
Today at Pikpa was easily the best Christmas I’ve ever had.
I wrote separate a post specifically about that Christmas, found here.
Before the morning meeting, one of the volunteers told me that she saw a boat in the distance. We grabbed everyone that we could fit into the rental car and went to help boat. We drove around the coastline, trying to chart its path and figure out where the boat would land. Then the boat was intercepted by the Greek Coast Guard. We drove to the bay in nearby Mytilene to hand socks and fresh water to the refugees as they got out of the boat, but they were brought into a fenced off area that led directly to the customs building.
We watched the refugees in fake life jackets climb out of the Coast Guard boat like clowns from a car at the circus. The inflatable raft was towed behind the Coast Guard boat and was impossibly small to be holding that many people. It is heartwrenching to think that there were so many people piled into a dinghy boat and left to the sea’s mercy. If hell exists, it’s full of Turkish smugglers.
I spent the afternoon again in Moria, assessing clothing needs and acting as an interpreter. J, a Swiss volunteer who is in charge of the day shift at the clothing center, asked me if I could take over her job when she left the next week. I was tempted, but it was 30 minutes by car from Pikpa and I can’t afford a rental car. I then met two Spanish dames who would stay near Moria and be there every day. They offered me a discounted hotel and a daily ride into Moria, which I couldn’t pass up.
I decided to leave Pikpa behind and concentrate solely on Camp Moria. I told J that I would be at the clothing shop every day now and would think about heading the shift, then returned to Pikpa to pack my stuff.
This was my last morning at Pikpa, so I woke up early to take a final walk along the beach before leaving. I grabbed a fake life jacket on the way. Refugees leave their life jackets on the shore when they come off the boat, leading to a shoreline blanketed by inflatable rafts and life jackets. Nearly all of the life jackets are fake and are used for projects all over the camp, such as decoration or making couches. Due to their utility and visibility, I decided that a fake life jacket would be the perfect souvenir for my time at Pikpa.
I ran one last morning meeting, had everyone sign my life jacket, then hitched a ride to town to enjoy my day off.