A young girl walks along the beach and finds thousands of starfish washed up on the shore in the low tide. She puts down her bag and starts to pick them up, one at a time, and throw the starfish back into the ocean. Later, an old man finds her throwing starfish after starfish, and says, “What are you doing? You cannot save them all, there is no point.”
The girl looks up at the man, confused, and throws another starfish back into the water. “But I just saved that one.” She throws another, “And that one.” Again, “And another one.”
My induction into the refugee effort on Lesvos was swift. Before our morning volunteer orientation had concluded, a coastguard boat pulled into the harbor filled with refugees. The weather the week before had been stormy and rough, and no smuggler boats attempted the crossing. That first day was not much better, but the number of refugees waiting to make the two and a half hour trip from Turkey had grown so backlogged that the moment the sea was passable, the rubber rafts set out.
I remember that first boat as a blur of faces and gold emergency blankets. The boat had capsized in the rough sea, and the passengers were soaked. The air was frozen, and just picking up the damp clothes off the cement that afternoon was enough to numb your fingers, and they had been wet for nearly an hour already.
A stretcher carrying an old man was rushed past by medics. My first task as a volunteer was to pack a complete change of clothes for his granddaughter, the only family with him, to change into on her way to the hospital. The fur trim on her jacket was clumped, and water spread out in a puddle beneath her boots. I handed her each piece of donation clothing while she shook, unable to tell if she understood.
Our coordinator came running down the pier. A body had been recovered: a two-month old baby fell overboard when the boat took on water, a consequence of how tightly the refugees are packed in by smugglers. The parents were shepherded to the porch of the Captain’s Table, where we received our orientation minutes before. Her grief manifested in sound: musicless, unending wails that passed right through you, turning your stomach. The father never made a sound. We bustled around them, gathering supplies from the restaurant, fixing bottles for babies, grabbing bags filled with cheese sandwiches to distribute. Eventually they collapsed into each other, sagging in their plastic chairs, until the police came to take their statements.
It is difficult to digest the human cost of this journey; that the more than 3,000 drowned in this impossibly short stretch of the Mediterranean belonged to mothers and fathers. It is more difficult still to imagine how caustic the smoke at their backs must be for anyone to carry their children onto those boats.
I worked the harbor again on Monday, registering each refugee, boat after boat. I asked again and again, name, parent’s names, age, date of birth country of origin. I scribbled names next to the dates: b.1991, Afghanistan. 1997, Syria. 1989, Iraq. And again and again, women holding bundled babies, shaking from cold and shock, give my birth year. Men and boys with no family left, travelling alone. Writing their names, I question how two people could be born in the same moment, but under such different stars.
I wonder if the few words of English words they use to ask me for shoes to replace their wet ones, diapers for their babies, or embarrassed, for maxi pads, were learned from American soldiers. As children, how different must their opinion of my home be than mine of theirs?
I am working with Starfish, a charity organization that grew up around the harbor. It is based in the Captain’s Table restaurant, one of the last beach restaurants in Molyvos before the pier. Captains Table and Starfish are run by Melinda McRostie, and her husband, Theo, who does the cooking (did I mention the food is amazing? There will be whole mailing dedicated to singing its praises).
The island of Lesvos has always known refugees. What has changed is the volume. When it was a boat a month, or a boat a week, locals would rally around them to provide them with food and clothing. But now refugees arrive daily by the thousands. A slow day is 15 boats, each packed with 50-75 refugees. It is more than the locals, especially those struggling in a lagging economy, can handle alone.
Starfish started to help meet the needs of refugees arriving in the harbor, or those brought in by the Greek Coastguard who are considered under arrest until they are registered and brought to the camps. As the volume of refugees has grown, so has Starfish. There are currently about 100 active volunteers, with more coming and leaving all the time.
Working for an NGO run by locals provides privileged insight into the working of the island at large, the majority of which has very little contact with the refugees except to note the marked reduction in tourists last summer. While the Greeks have for the most part gone above and beyond to match the challenge the refugee situation has presented, the efforts are not without their detractors. In a turbulent and struggling economy more and more Greeks are starting to resent the refugees for burdening their shores and complicating their future within the EU.
The other volunteers are from everywhere from Germany to Iceland to Hong Kong to Colorado. There are two Canadian hippies who retired from their food truck last year, went vegetarian, and go by their Hindi names while on the island. They always have snacks so we have become fast friends. The first question everyone asks is, “When did you get here and how long are you staying?” Many volunteers are on gap years after finishing college, on school holidays, or are just using vacation days from work to come help out. All things considered I am a ‘young’ volunteer, but I feel old compared with the 19 year-olds who think nothing of pulling an all-nighter and working the whole next day, drinking coffee and chain-smoking to survive. There are volunteers who forget to eat… I am trying to understand. Starfish also counts a strong number of retirees, unsatisfied with watching the crisis unfold from afar when they had time to lend a hand.
It has been a whirlwind last week and a half on Lesvos. I feel so fortunate to have the opportunity to tell you a little bit about it, and share what I am learning. This is just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. I presumed to know a little bit about the crisis when I arrived, after all, I read the news. But I have been humbled. Not just by the ocean of information, stories, and politics involved, but by the people who live and breathe it every day. Those who make it their life to know the ugliest parts of the world, and to love it just the same.
My stories of tragedy are not new, nor particularly original. Sometimes when I sort my thousandth pair of wet children’s shoes, or think about the magnitude of the crisis, of the people waiting both to cross to Europe or within its borders, I feel hopeless. I ask myself what the point is of doing this, of spending hours in the cold waiting for boats. Why do we help them if European governments are threatening to send them back, or they will be sent to camps that receive nightly arson attacks?
But then a woman puts their hand on your shoulder for balance as you roll wool socks over her frozen bare feet, a man hands you a sleeping baby while he finds dry clothing for his wife, you slip a hand under the elbow of a teetering old man on the long uphill march to the bus, and you remember. Another one. Another one.
All my love,
p.s. If they tell you your thermal base-layers will never smell no matter how much you wear them, they are lying to you.
p.p.s. Greece is really, really cold in the winter.