“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 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.
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.
A young girl walks along the beach and finds thousands of starfish washed up on the shore in the high tide. She throws 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.”
“I’m going to go and try to buy tickets again,” Owen said, speaking softly so as not to disturb the family sleeping next to us but loudly enough that I could hear him over the crackling radio playing in the corner. I peered back at him through the darkness, looping my hand through the handles of his suitcase, pulling it into my body. I was attached to all the rest of our things, the only way to be assured of their locations in the pitch black of the station as we waited with the crowds of people to board the TAZARA Rail, due in at three that morning.