“What surprised you the most when you arrived on Lesvos?” I asked Arne, as he drove us down the deeply pockmarked mountain pass that leads to the International Rescue Committee camp. The radio in the car was broken and nobody was in the mood to listen to the tired Kings of Leon album incarcerated in the dashboard.
“That there is no plan,” he answered immediately.
“You think, of course, in a crisis of this scale, someone has a plan. They have to. But no one does. That was shocking to me.”
The window of my hilltop apartment in Molyvos looks out over the harbor. In the early light of morning, I can usually see a faint glittering of the gold I know to be emergency blankets wrapped around clusters of newly arrived refugees. The rhythm of their arrival is constant, boat after boat bearing down on the island. About 30,000 refugees arrived in January alone, and that is a low-ball estimate. Sources on the island report that upwards of 2,000 refugees arrive in Greece every day, the majority of them travelling through Lesvos.
But the experience of being a volunteer is not crushing; you are never drowning under a tide of people. Your interactions are with individuals, or boats that have become families through their experience on the sea the way young men become brothers through fraternity pledging. You can walk through crowds in the camps handing out 1,000 pairs of dry socks, but the questions you get are personal; the stories you hear are intimate.