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Lesvos, Greece: Week 6

Madison Darbyshire

Finding Order in an Anarchist Kitchen

I have never been very good with change. Ask my parents what happened when they tried to replace my antique, lumpy mattress with a new one, or make edits to the splintering swing set behind our house, or reupholster the couch in front of our television. Instinct takes over and suddenly I am digging in my heels and screaming at top volume about the charactered perfection of the old model, the unnecessary renovations to something that was perfectly functional before, and pointing out every flaw I can find in the new model.

I still maintain that the original couch fabric was retro. Like I said, change is hard.

So why on earth did I come to Lesvos? Our resident Pilgrim, Thomas, describes the experience as a Buddhist exercise in attachment. In order to survive here you have to let go of every expectation, because tomorrow will be so different than today. The moment you try and grab hold of something, it will turn to sand in your fingers.

Team Canada gives up on organizing.

Team Canada gives up on organizing.

The rotation out of Moria was a dramatic change. Suddenly twenty more volunteers needed to be slotted in to the schedule in the Harbor, IRC Camp, and the warehouses each day. This happened during a spot of particularly bad weather, when no boats were arriving on the island. We told each other, “There will be work when the weather picks up,” but there wasn’t. Rumored changes by the Turkish police on the coast meant that almost overnight, every boat from Turkey was was landing on the southern coast of Lesvos, with 1 or two boats a week arriving in the north.

Organizations in the north have evolved to handle the large numbers of boats that arrive every day from Turkey, numbers as high as 40 and 50 in the fall.  They have developed systems, legions of volunteers, and a strong online fundraising presence. They have invested in crisis equipment and emergency shelters and were ready to respond at a moment’s notice. Instead, the last two weeks have seen northern volunteers sit idle while organizations in the south are forced to man beaches and hunt for supplies to meet new demand.

Lesvos is a big island. To drive from the harbor in Molyvos or Skala in the north, where the bulk of the refugees arrived for the past year, to the southern beaches around Mytilene takes about ninety minutes over treacherous, mountain roads. So while volunteers in the north are eager to help, and organizations have supplies they can distribute, this takes planning, carpooling, and coordination.

Some suggested we take advantage of our down time to meditate and reflect on the situation. But people who flock to crisis zones are not the kind of people who like to be bored. If organizations do not find volunteers something to do, they will leave. So, we drive. Sometimes just one or two volunteers in a car, or caravans of what feels like half the organization, load up vans with supplies and head south over those long mountain roads looking to be put to use.

The warehouses are grateful for the extra hands, as the world awakes to the material demands of the crisis and containers arrive filled with donated clothing and supplies. While it is great for your biceps and patience, warehouse work is dirty and tedious. It is also an amazing opportunity to submerge yourself in the last 7 years of global fashion. Recently while sorting winter clothing, I scored a new favorite hat, which has “Geriatric Gardener” knitted into it. I believe it was knit with love. There are also more baked beans than you can possible imagine.

Donation politics are a peculiar thing. While some volunteers laugh when they pull a third wetsuit out of a bag from half a world away, others find it degrading or see malice in their sending. Some donors seem to have simply purged their basements of junk and sent it our way. On Sunday I cut my hand on a shattered 1980’s salt and pepper shaker set that had found its way here from California. Old underwear with waffled elastic bands, pool floaties, Mardi Gras beads, swimsuits, and 6-inch high heels are other items that you just wish people wouldn’t donate, but they do.

We recently unloaded a 6-ton container in which a significant portion of the bags had been contaminated by cartons of ruptured pasteurized milk. Hefty— I see a lot of your products here. I beseech you to design a better garbage bag. Do it for us volunteers.

Every organization and warehouse on the island has its own distinct feeling and structure.

The No Border Kitchen is a makeshift camp set up on the pebble beach beneath the ferry port. Run by a group of lovely German Utopian Anarchists with punk taste in music and dogs, it has no internal hierarchy, and most of the volunteers live inside the camp alongside their ‘guests’ (they prefer not to use the term refugee, although a replacement word has not yet been decided on). The day’s schedule is determined every morning at their community meeting around the dying embers of the previous night’s bonfire, where their manifesto is recited and tasks are accepted.

I spent my first morning there inside the kitchen itself, preparing lunch. The volunteer I was working with took me inside the food pantry and indicated which produce was most in danger of spoiling, and that was the end of orientation. While we brainstormed what we could make with it, we were joined by three Syrian men who walked into the camp with their families to wait for the evening ferry. They owned a restaurant in Northern Syria, and asked if they could help. They quickly grabbed knives and began assisting us with the chopping, communicating through gestures and smiles, and soon blew past us with blistering speed and professional skill. Soon we were just walking behind them like awestruck puppies, taking their instructions and tasting everything they offered us.

While I spent the first minutes of my shift debating how to doctor cabbage into a sufficient soup, the Syrian chefs took the same cabbage and elevated it to the divine in a salad with beetroot, tomatoes, lemon, and wild fennel they had found walking into camp. We made a spiced vegetable soup, fragrant rice, golden fried cauliflower with a lemon and olive oil dipping sauce, and… hash browns (this was our volunteer project).

They took forkfuls of each thing as they work, always offering it to us first to taste, flooring us with their generosity. They looked to me like fish dropped suddenly back in the water.

The unique flat structure of the No Border Kitchen allows refugees to work side by side with volunteers in whatever way they want to contribute. Soon the Syrian Chefs’ whole families were in the kitchen, with daughters shaving thin slices of beet, and sons chopping onions. Small children who had been timid and shaken walking into the camp were sitting on stools by our feet, laughing with balloons made from latex gloves. The chefs proudly introduced us, gesturing, this is my son, this is my daughter, this is my father. I imagined how much they must have missed this; how after one, two, or more months traveling and hiding in hotel rooms on the Turkish Coast waiting to cross, how much they must have craved not just the environment of the kitchen, but the feeling of being useful. Of being in control, even.

They grew brighter through their work, and their laughs became louder and freer as the day passed. When we served lunch, they did not stop cooking. Potatoes were produced from the pantry that soon became thick French fries, which they prepared on a platter with salad and lemon slices. Their small children carried the dishes around the camp to the other refugees and volunteers. They kept cooking until we demanded that they go sit down and eat, and even then they wanted to help us clean.


It was a peculiar lesson, working inside this refugee (for lack of a better word) camp that was so opposite from the other paces I have been involved with on Lesvos. It was rather like I tried to explain to my parents about my curfew at age fifteen: with less restrictions and fewer rules, people inside the camp felt more generous with resources and less like they had to protect supplies and rations for their families. There was more sharing, and less hoarding. There was more kindness and less anxiety. Even among volunteers, although it should be noted it takes a particular person to be among the fulltime residents of the camp, things were mellow. Decisions are voted on by 100% consensus, so there is less discord, gossip, and frustrated volunteers who feel like they don’t have any say in the changes being lorded down from on-high.

Back in Molyvos that evening, the other volunteers laughed because I couldn’t stop talking about the astounding trick for removing the stem and seeds from a bell pepper that the chefs showed me.  It involves a samurai swipe from the side of the hand and a spectacular pop from the pepper as the top falls away, innards attached. It really is so cool. But while it makes the prep work for fajitas much faster, I will be reminded of these men every time I cut a pepper, and for me, that is the real gift.

A storage tent built out of old refugee boat bottoms and raft rubber.

A storage tent built out of old refugee boat bottoms and raft rubber.

This past week I have also spent time volunteering in Pikpa. A Greek-run camp by the airport, Pikpa takes care of the island’s most vulnerable cases, such as children traveling alone, people with severe physical and mental disabilities, women who have just or who are about to give birth, families with children suffering from extreme PTSD or the parents whose baby died on my first day.

These camps serve an essential function, one that has grown increasingly necessary as the borders in Europe tighten. There is a resident in Pikpa, a young Afghan man with severe developmental disabilities, who was separated from his family coming over from Turkey. His family, rightly terrified of not making it north, carried on without him to Germany. The man was sent to Pikpa to be cared for by the volunteers while his family was tracked down. However, now that family reunification has been suspended in Germany the man cannot be sent to join his family, and since he cannot make the journey alone, he stays in Pikpa.

Syrian families are as complex and diverse as ours. Families pay smugglers staggering sums and get in boats with autistic children and teenagers who can no longer be carried, babies with Down syndrome, grandmothers who can’t walk, and grandfathers who have suffered strokes. Inside Moria, there are no resources for them except those provided by outside NGOs. There are no private spaces, or quiet places. One night I held up a blanket as a makeshift barrier inside our office as a little girl, about nine years old, changed her older, mentally disabled sister out of wet clothing and into dry pants. The commitment of family members to one another in the face of such tremendous obstacles is a humbling and painful reminder of the things we do for those we love.

Spending time in the camps run by individuals or private NGOs, the most shocking thing is to always hear the word “Yes.” In camps run by the police or NGOs where the locus of control is somewhere abroad, or the decision making process is so bureaucratic and exhausting most choose to avoid it completely, the answer is usually, “no.” Or even worse, “I’ll ask.”

But in places like No Border Kitchen, or Better Days for Moria, if you want to do something, the answer is usually, “Sounds great, go for it.” If you want to make a sign to provide information, they point you to the wood and paints. If you want to start a project, volunteers rally around you to help. The answer isn’t no, because if you’re trying to make something even marginally better, why not?

Seeing the autonomy and flexibility of these independent camps wakes up a dormant beast inside Starfish volunteers who have been here since the fall. Those that remember the OXY camp remember what it was like to have that autonomy, when the dominant providers of aid were cowboy organizations that ran their own camps, their way.

This is the adrenaline fueled, flying by the seat of your pants, overwhelmed and understaffed rush that people come to Lesvos for. The media paints a dramatic picture, and it is undeniable that this is a tremendous humanitarian crisis. But the reality is that the situation has changed for volunteers. Big, international NGOs have stepped up their presence and funding on the island. There are more, qualified volunteers to help now. There are government camps and UNHCR transportation.

The situation on Lesvos is in constant flux, and will remain so, but it seems certain that the days of “cowboy aid” are ending.

Those who were here in the fall and who have come back to volunteer have the hardest time, because they remember a time when it was different. It’s like learning to ride in the rodeo and then coming back to find the horses fat and shaggy in the pastures.

There are not fewer refugees. There is just better management. To put the numbers in perspective, last January 600 refugees arrived and the island felt inundated. This January over 30,000 arrived, and volunteers felt that there was nothing to do.

This is a bigger question than “where is the best place to volunteer on the island to see refugee action?” This is beyond restructuring volunteer organizations to put people to work when the slow times can no longer be called passing phases.

This is a question of the epicenter.

Most people who arrive on Lesvos expect to find what they see in the media, a crush of people, screaming babies, and overwhelmed NGOs. Those on the island for a short time in particular want to be overworked and exhausted by their experience. They want to post dramatic photos on Facebook, have emotional statuses to validate the cost of their flights. They come to fight fires.  Volunteers could easily clock 15 hours a day in a warehouse and feel overworked and exhausted, but for most, that is not what they came here for.

Volunteers come here to be at the epicenter. But the migration path of refugees is changing, and Lesvos is no longer the center of crisis. Those who leave to be more useful, or to find more action, go to Lebanon, to Turkey, to Jordan, to the Macedonian border. This is epicenter volunteering. But isn’t the epicenter really Syria? Or Afghanistan? Or Somalia? There are so many places in this world where people are suffering, even closer to home, so what is it about Lesvos? Perhaps it is because it still Europe, or maybe it is because most people here speak English. We can lean against the ropes of our comfort zone and reach out with open arms and say, “Welcome to Europe, come here to us so we can help you!”

We can see the shores of Turkey but for some that is too big a bridge, geographical or cultural, to traverse.

I have for some time struggled with the question: to really make a difference, must you always run to where there are flames? Or is it just as important to stay where there are embers and tend to those, too?

Is it right to run to Turkey? Or rather, right to stay, and do the work that is needed here, the unglamorous bits to which some volunteers give their entire lives?

“We won’t ever see times like September or October again,” said a Scottish volunteer. “Lesvos won’t be an island of people arriving on boats. It will be a place of people leaving on boats, a place of deportation, or a holding pen for the rest of Europe.”

Volunteer groups maneuver and politic their way into areas of action, into camps and other aid groups, trying to make sure their volunteers feel useful and valuable. Territory gets marked.

Volunteers pace around when their minds sit idle and debate where they should go next.

Monday morning construction isn't so bad when it looks like this.

Monday morning construction isn't so bad when it looks like this.

There are worse places than Greece to spend quiet days. The winding streets of Molyvos village are now blanketed by a ceiling of blooming purple wisteria. Last Thursday my landlady, Nikki, dragged me out of my sweatpants and apartment to come dancing in the town square for the Greek festival that marks the beginning of their lent. I was handed waxed paper with bread and hot souvlaki and greasy, intoxicatingly seasoned sausages and an overflowing cup of red wine for dinner. Her son is back from Thailand (many young people in the village work here all summer and then spend the rest of the year traveling on their savings) and is an avid fisherman. The promise of fishing and a bonfire dinner hangs in the air for the first evening without “too much air,” (when there is no wind). Avram, the headwaiter at The Captain’s Table, who came as a Kurdish refugee 30 years ago, is teaching me to make his lentil soup. My DualLingo application informs me I am now 7% fluent in German. I may even learn how to drive a scooter.

I love watching the fisherman come in to harbor at dusk with plastic grocery bags full of fish, and calamari that haven’t changed color yet from living to dead. They throw the littlest ones to the stray cats that sit on the harbor wall waiting for their supper.

When I first arrived on the island, frozen to the bone, exhausted and overwhelmed, I thought I wouldn’t make it the whole two months I had planned. As I always do, I planned an escape route, just in case. Like I said, I’m bad with change. But now, as I sit in the hospital waiting for stool sample test results that will allow me to cook inside Pikpa on my days off, I wonder how I will ever leave.

There may not be flames, but even embers burn.

On posting: The EU has released a statement formally closing the Balkan route. Refugees not in need of international protection will be fast-track deported back to Turkey.