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Lesvos, Greece: Week 3

Madison Darbyshire

Where after all do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home—so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any map of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person: the neighborhood we live in; the school or college we attend; the factory, farm or office where we work. Such are the places where every man, woman, and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerted citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.
— (Eleanor Roosevelt, 1884 – 1962)


The Mediterranean is dark grey and foaming with a ferocity I had not believed it capable.  A deafening wind carries pounding horizontal rain and unfortunate pieces of laundry plucked from lines on porches. When the weather is raging like this, you understand why the Greeks chose to build their homes and villages from stone and rock.

On these days, the work of a volunteer is quiet.  The water is too rough, with waves breaking twelve feet tall against the pier and the west wind gusting back towards Turkey, New boats packed with refugees do not attempt the journey.  For this we are all grateful.  In a small rubber raft, there is no surviving this water.

I had never considered how something as profound as the mass-migration of millions of people could be interrupted so totally by something as primitive, as simple, as the weather.

When the waters between Greece and Turkey foam and crash, the days pass slowly.  I knew there would be times where the volunteer work was unglamorous: mornings spent sorting clothing in cold warehouses, afternoons picking up trash along the beaches.  This organizational work is essential preparation for the busy days, when no one has time to waste tearing through boxes of mixed sized jumpers.

But what I didn’t realize is that on slow days, not everyone can go where they will be useful.  Some people have to go to their ten-hour-long shifts at camps that have become ghost towns. You still have your Harbor shift, but spend it waiting at the Captain’s Table in the unlikely event the Coastguard calls.  Or you pass the time playing cards with Greek IRC employees just in case there is an arrival on one of their beaches.  There won’t be, but protocol demands that we be prepared to respond.   Those on night shift from midnight to 7am still bundle up and drive to sleep on cots or floors.

For long-term volunteers, this is a part of the natural order of things.  There is always ebb when there is flow.  The refugees will come, they say.  They always do.  But for short-term volunteers—those who have flown here from all over the globe to help for just one or two week— these days are difficult.  They pace around the tents, frustrated that they are not being put to use.  I feel this too.  It is hard to get perspective on something this big when you are touching it with your nose. Some bring a book.  Some roll up their sleeves and use the time to reorganize or clean something they want to make better.  Some drink.  But some itch, and fester.  Others start looking for things to do that will carry them away from the island, to Athens, Macedonia, or Turkey.

When people are frustrated, things become dangerous for the organizations.  Not simply because people turn inward, annoyed that they are not being managed better by their chosen group, but also because volunteers leave in search of greener pastures.  And once a few leave, more follow. 

This is not bad— there are innumerable places that need people willing to sink their teeth in to projects.  But fear looms: what will we do when the refugees come back and there is nobody left to work? Because as any volunteer who has been here for a time will tell you, they always do. 

Paul celebrating the product of a day spent organizing.

Paul celebrating the product of a day spent organizing.

As volunteers, expecting so much of the organizations we join is complicated.  The groups recruit our help, they ask people to drop everything and come to the island.  Those of us fresh out of school have never been a part of an institution that was not designed with our best interests in mind; that isn't structured to take care of us while we work.

The only thing that has been constant about the development of the Lesvos relief effort is rapid change.  Relief groups that began as individuals just a few months ago are now hundreds of volunteers, and the groups on the island, Starfish included, are experiencing growing pains as they try to understand this new identity, as well as adapt to what the island needs in an ever-evolving ecosystem of government, police, locals, and international chess matches.

These charities were designed to support refugees, not volunteers, and that is easy to lose sight of then you are playing your 15th round of Gin Rummy in a tent that smells like a gas heater.

A rainy day dashboard lunch with Zoe and Arne.

A rainy day dashboard lunch with Zoe and Arne.

When we arrive, enthusiastic about helping and charged on articles we read about the good our organizations have done, it is easy to slide into the rhythm and structure the volunteer groups provide.  When we see camps with fully operational, if dysfunctional, structures and processes, we think that they have always been this way. 

New volunteers forget that just four months ago, none of this was here.  The IRC camp was a goat pasture between two mountains by the beach. Moria was an empty military detention center.  The Starfish base was a small tented processing site in the parking lot of a nightclub, OXY, that was still being constructed up until the minute it was dismantled.

Over the summer, when we were regaled by newspaper photographs of people sleeping in the streets as dislocated looking tourists handed out bottles of water, Starfish was five disjointed volunteers trying to manage the crisis that had quite literally just arrived on its doorstep.  Five months ago, there weren’t buses transporting people to and from the camps.  Refugees were still walking from Molyvos to Mytilene to catch the ferry to Athens (a one hour drive over the mountains if you are speeding).  Nobody was meeting their boats to check if they needed new shoes. 

Starfish, like every volunteer group on the island, is an airplane that is being built while flying.  It is learning to meet the demands of the crisis in real time, and trying to stay limber enough to deal with constantly fluctuating demands and restrictions.  The human face of Starfish is Melinda, a lifelong islander, who found herself unable to turn away from the crisis while her neighbors, and indeed most of Europe, threw up their arms and shielded their faces.  We look to Melinda like she should have all the answers, when really she is learning how to do this job at the same time we are.  Nobody knows what to expect on the days that we all wait in limbo.

I knew that some days would be slow, even boring, but I never expected that the quiet days would also be some of my favorite on the island.  To me, they have highlighted the importance of the other volunteers I work with, the personalities that articulate my life here. There is a relentless commitment to playfulness and humor among my fellow volunteers.  Hugs are given freely.  I could never have anticipated I would laugh as much as I do, laugh until tears cut streaks in the dust on my cheeks. I never thought days spent in warehouses would pass in an instant, or afternoons waiting for a single refugee to arrive in the IRC would be the times I would finally learn to play a Swiss card game, invented in my grandfather’s home village, that knows a vibrant, secret life among Greek islanders. 

We also talk about the unknowns.  The Greeks have been building, expanding the camps dramatically for the anticipated crush of refugees this summer.  We build like it will never slow down. No one is certain how the suspension of hostilities in Syria (notably not a ceasefire), or the sudden action of the international community and introduction of NATO warships into the Aegean will affect the currents of boats arriving on Greece’s shores.  Some of us worry there will be no work for volunteers now that the EU is actively pushing refugees back into Turkey.  Others fear that it will force refugees into more desperate straits; that more will travel in bad weather or at night; that we will see more dead bodies. 

The borders are also constantly changing, and as the Serbian route to Germany collapses, no one knows who will be able to get through in the future. The border to Macedonia is already closed to every nationality except Syrians, Iraqis and Afghans.  People from Iran, Somalia, Algeria, Palestine, Pakistan, the DRC, Cameroon, and even a few last week from Dominican Republic (not an exaggeration) among others, are cycled back into Athens, trapped in Greece pending asylum claims (which, in Greece, can take years), or deported. Moroccans are not allowed to register at all and are held in the registration camps until their names are erased from the blackboards that regulate extended stays, often in the middle of the night.

Countries that were previously considered oasis’s for those fleeing war are turning away.  Sweden has closed its borders and is reportedly allowing non-Syrian refugees only 6 months before they are deported. Denmark is also turning to mass deportation, pulling back the curtain on countries long heralded for their welfare states, uniquely high qualities of life, and diversity.  For the first time since the 1950’s the border between Denmark and Sweden features identification checks as more and more Europeans back away from the Schengen ideals toward restrictive pre-Europe border control policies.  It seems that the dream of a borderless Europe was only meant for times of peace.

When you share such a unique and isolated experience, working and living with the same people around the clock on a teeny island in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea, your fellow volunteers are your only constant, and quickly become your world.  You are aware of the goings on of your friends and family outside of this dislocated planet, but your days and nights are defined by these volunteers, the meals you share, and the shifts you work together.  New people arrive, you build relationships, some stay, and still more leave. 

In my world, there is Jenni, from Ireland, who has been here from early days, whose mother brought her entirely new clothes after Christmas because she had given all of hers away to refugees.  She is whom I look to when I feel out of sync with the work, when I’m tired and think I have nothing more to give.  She never stops; I don’t think she even knows how.  There is Arne, a puckish 18-year-old boy from Germany who arrived in Lesvos accidentally in October while on a year long bike trip across Europe because the ferry from Turkey was cheap, and simply stayed.  Tom, a Pilates instructor from London with a flaming red beard, who spends more time in a registration camp with shockingly poor humanitarian standards than outside it but still has eyes that never stop laughing. 

There is Tim, my roommate, who takes on everyone’s pain like it is his own but can still laugh, who gives great hugs, is a patient German teacher, and makes me banana pancakes, who has never once allowed his alarm clock dictate to what time he should wake up in the morning.  Jenna and Julia, lifelong friends from Colorado who arrived the same day I did, who will be more annoyed at me for combining them into a single sentence than for all my third-wheeling.  Paul, a bike shop employee from Sweden, who relentlessly questions the status quo, and who refuses, despite his thrift and unwillingness to let anything go to waste, to drink cheap wine.


There is Rasmus, an economics student from Denmark with the best intentions and the ditziest driving, who is the best DJ, who could make me laugh so hard and so often I thought my ribs had broken.  Elena, a future Amal Clooney from England, who has given up sleep indefinitely to take on the cat-herding job of scheduling all of the volunteers.  Dominic, another of my German boys, who invited me to a friend’s for beer the very minute put my bags down in my hotel room. 

There is ‘the one we call Thomas,’ a pilgrim, who turned 50 and left his life in Germany to walk to India.  He has been walking ever since.  There is Jessica, a smartly dressed Frenchwoman with a delicate tone, who is here on a ‘vacation’ from her human rights job with the UN in Afghanistan.  "ChuckandSuzanne", two retired food-truck operators from Canada, who are sure-footed and so without ego that I can’t wait to ask them how their day went, every day. David, a private security consultant and Singapore Army veteran, who despite his laced up military boots is soft and kind and turns into a puddle at the sight of his favorite pasta coming towards him. 

When Lina and I accidentally drove a rental car down a set of stairs that I didn’t notice until I tried to reverse back up them, burning out the clutch (it was an automatic vehicle—I have no answers), we were rescued by two British electricians who took about twice as long as they should have to fix the car because they couldn’t stop laughing. 

There are accountants, US Army veterans, Minnesotan shopkeepers, bohemian hippies, IT specialists, homeless and unemployed journalists, philosophy professors, singer-songwriters, in-between-job-ers, gap-year-travelers. Mennonites, Mormons, Buddhists, Atheists, Agnostics. There are Spanish nurses, Californian midwives, British truck drivers, Tennessean construction workers, Coloradan tree doctors, Portuguese documentarians, and Ai Wei Wei.

They are my stars, and my Lesvos is charted by their movement.  Time passes and their constellations shift, their patterns disappear and form anew. 

We are not all bleeding hearts, we are not all looking for something, we are not all here for the wrong reasons, or even all the right ones.  People you meet and think, there is no way I’m going to survive an indefinite amount of time with this person, become your dearest friends. 

I hate when people say, “Maybe you will stay in touch, but maybe you wont.”  I wonder, what is the point of that? But maybe we won’t all stay in touch.  Maybe once these people drift over the horizon, they will become memories as fast as they became friends.  But, just maybe, there will be people who continue to orbit back into my life with some regularity.  A visit here, an email or shared article on Facebook there.  Maybe one day we will both be travelling in the same city and make time for lunch.  Maybe we will be welcome familiar faces in the airport on our way to catch different connections, and we will remember this extraordinary, blistering moment in the history of the world that we bore witness to, and played some small part in together.

Yesterday, four of my best friends on the island left, back to school, jobs, and other volunteer work.  I have said goodbye to people I have come to love more than my fair share over the last few years, but yesterday when I curled up in the corner of the office in Moria camp feeling like I had been punched in the heart muscle, I realized that I am usually the one who gets to say the goodbyes.  Very rarely have I stayed somewhere long enough to get left behind. 

“Does it always hurt this much?” I asked Paul.

“Every time,” he replied. 

These days are hard on all of us, but the question hangs, where do we go from here?  Already some volunteers have left for Macedonia, and have reported the situation to be equally as stalled.  Those who have gone to Turkey have stories of millions of shadow refugees, but the groups trying to help them are only just forming.  Many Turkish refugees are illegal or too poor to afford to pay smugglers to take them to Europe, and the work of helping them can be dangerous or at odds with the government.  Most of us on Lesvos are just waiting to see what happens next.  Tomorrow, they say, the waves will be smaller.  The boats will come. 

I hope they do, but I wish they didn’t have to.


Our Sunday volunteer meeting, which begins with a two minute hug greeting.  I was skeptical, but it is great.

Our Sunday volunteer meeting, which begins with a two minute hug greeting.  I was skeptical, but it is great.