Guess what? I am back on Lesvos, back alongside thousands of refugees, back to capture stories, back to shed light… and I’m happy, I’m smiling, I even used a selfie stick! Yes, in packing for the harrowing journey, twenty-one-year-old Soufiane decided the laughable gadget was as integral as socks, shoes, smartphone, and scarf. But what genuine joy it brought to us in the camp!
There was a different feeling in the air today. Perhaps it’s that there were fewer boats or more volunteers, new camps under construction or calm seas under sunny skies, but the situation on the ground here does not seem as dire as one short month ago. That sentiment can – and I am certain will – change in a single moment, but for the day, it lifted my spirits and restored my hope.
We arrived in Mytilini late last night and made our way to the north of the island, where we are staying once again – greeted with fresh olives, dried figs, and gluten-free ginger biscuits (I have zero complaints). This morning, we rose to a placid Mediterranean and fluffy clouds dotting the light blue sky, Turkey clearly visible on the horizon. After eating at The Captain’s Table in the heart of the harbor (the Starfish Foundation homebase), I showed Jessica the lay of the land. Jess is my partner-in-crime this time around (I miss you, Jodi!), a talented videographer and producer who reached out to me after my last trip and is now here to capture stories through powerful imagery – and has quite the impressive video/audio setup, as well as a stellar eye. Watch this space (and my Instagram @erinschrode) for footage!
Driving by Oxy, it was eerily empty. No refugees were walking the roads. Not a single person awaited the bus at Eftalou. Where were all of the people? No boats had left Turkish waters last week, we were told. Volunteers had a variety of hypotheses as to why: the G-20 Summit, a meeting between the Greek Prime Minister and Turkish President Erdogan, shutdown of the boat manufacturer… but then boats had suddenly resumed yesterday, with estimates of over eighty arriving to Greek shores in one day, approximately fifteen more today. Moria and Kara Tepe, the main camps in Mytilini, were vacated as well. Volunteers cleaned beaches (we spoke to two Americans who had spent days working with locals to load beach debris into boats for removal), worked on contraction projects, organized goods during the lull. The shorelines I had come to know as orange, covered entirely by discarded life vests, were now largely clean, dotted with neat piles awaiting pickup by large dump trucks. There is massive construction underway at Oxy to weatherproof the facilities, the IRC is building a new camp on the shoreline itself with 38 (!) large tents for immediate assistance, and Light House has set up a welcoming station with medical clinic just across the road from a beach where many boats come ashore.
Volunteers from all around the world are hard at work with Proactiva (Spain), Team Humanity (Denmark), Boat Refugee Foundation (Dutch), IsraAID (Israel), Red Cross (Greece), Salaam Cultural Museum Medical Missions (Jordan), Operation Mobilsation (South Africa), Islamic Relief (UK), Samaritan’s Purse (USA), Lighthouse (Sweden) and many many more.
We met one boat as it came ashore – and I approached a young man who was sitting and eating sunflower seeds on the rocks. His name was Fahim Jamal, a 16-year-old Afghan who had made the journey with four friends. We spoke at length about why he left his country (no peace, inability to study or acquire knowledge, and everpresent threats and violence by the Taliban and Da’esh/ISIS), various illegal overland border crossings on his journey to European soil, dreams of sending for his mother, father, and brother once he received refugee status in Germany – his strong English skills wowing me all the while. Fahim could not find words to express how profoundly happy he was to be here in Greece; gratitude abounds.
After helping a few more boats ashore – all of which had quite a few hypothermic passengers, quickly attended to by doctors – we loaded two young men from Mali into our car. They spoke fluent French and broken English, bound for Germany, because entering France’s borders is “impossible.” We drove them up the steep switchbacks from Skala to the transit camp, which has also received massive upgrades. The most crowded corner was certainly the charging station, where the UN held the briefing session, as to allow refugees to power up phones and battery packs, critical in their journey onwards. The presence of the UNHCR – and their skilled, knowledgeable workers in light blue vests – has spiked, guiding people through each step of the process, sharing where they are and what to expect on Lesvos. Buses leave that camp for Mytilini every half hour at minimum, until 11pm, so the quantity of people remains low and conditions good. We spoke with a number of relief workers, all of whom attested to the good will of the people, the resilience, the kind spirits, the determined attitudes. The requests for selfies were numerous, culminating in one man getting out his selfie stick and snapping countless photos as we cracked up!
It felt so good to laugh.
We went back down to shore and welcomed a few more boats, packed with more families than we had seen throughout the day. After a conversation with one man – Muhammad Almuhammad, an engineer from Syria who proudly showed us his identification card and said he is headed for Norway because of petroleum, his specialty – we loaded a family of six with two babies into our car and drove them to Eftalou, where a bus was awaiting the influx of new arrivals.
I sang to myself (as I often do without noticing) and the entire car giggled. It was a beautiful moment.
Returning to the coastline, no boats had been spotted leaving Turkey (some people sit and watch for that, with binoculars in the light or night goggles after dark), but a few key campfires were set and powerful lights switched on at easy-to-reach points, as to attract any boats that may arrive later. We picked up another family, a Syrian mother and father, two daughters, and the most adorable 4-year-old Ibrahim. This child was quite possibly the most enthusiastic little one I have seen on Lesvos, the wind in his hair as he shouted “Helloooooooooo” out the car window. Dropping them at Oxy, we walked the camp a bit, though it was largely empty and very orderly, a result of the recent break in arrivals.
After a bite and fascinating conversation about the Quran and tenets of Islam, we’ve retired to our sweet little hideaway on the cliffs of the Mediterranean, as the rains pour down and winds whip at speeds I haven’t heard. Five thousand people are waiting on the Turkish coast, we have heard, and I pray for any souls who may be forced into boats – and I say ‘forced’ on purpose, because no one would dare choose to embark on the sea journey under such treacherous conditions.
I am not naïve; I clearly understand the gravity of the situation and recognize the pressing need for concrete action to address the root causes of this crisis to halt violence, curb extremism, create stability, save lives, and reduce the overwhelming flow of refugees… but somehow, today, I have but an inkling of hope. And I believe that is critical in working toward lasting, meaningful progress.