Here are the images and story from a recent assignment on the Greek Island of Lesbos. The piece appears in this months Readers Digest (UK). The situation on the Island of Lesbos for refugees has, according to my contacts their, deteriorated since my visit in September. Additionally the sea crossing from Turkey to Lesbos has increased in danger as the season has turned to winter.
7 Days in Lesbos
PIKPA – The Village of Altogether
Fade, a 40 years old Telecommunication officer from the outskirts of Damascus, Syria, is tending his vegetable patch as he does every morning, a commitment he has taken on when his family moved into this little cabin – their temporary home in a refugee camp, known as PIKPA, on the Greek Island of Lesbos. “I plant this garden with vegetables for those who come after me. My family and I will have travelled on by the time these are ready to eat, but the next refugees who come here can benefit from it”, he says while gently tilling the soil in the early morning sunshine on this bright September day. “I had a villa in Syria with land and horses, you know, but the war changed all of that. When I sit here, my mind is still in Syria with our neighbours and friends who haven’t been able to leave. We know Europe is not a paradise. If the war ends, we will return to our own country. My life is in Syria, but for now we need safety.”
PIKPA is the name of an old social welfare holiday camp for children established in 1938, situated just a few hundred metres from the Aegean Sea, close to Mytilini Airport in Lesbos, Greece. The site had long since been closed, but in September 2012, a loose group of individuals established a self-help network, initially perceived as an anti-dote to the social and economic devastation Greece suffered from the international banking collapse of 2009. They called their group “The Village of Altogether”. It has expanded since, driven by its ethos of solidarity and mutual support for all people, to fill the vacuum left by official authorities after more and more refugees were drawn to Greek shores from war torn countries like Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and others. The group approached the Mayor of Mytilini, the Islands biggest town, and requested the abandoned holiday camp of PIKPA be used as a facility to accommodate refugees. “The Village of Altogether” now runs this camp as a safe haven and hospitality centre under the basic concept that all people should be treated with respect and dignity. The autonomous group is devoid of any national or European funding. It has over a hundred affiliated individual members on Lesbos, but an active core of around 10 to 15 people. They provide accommodation for the most vulnerable refugees: the disabled, injured, elderly, pregnant women, single women with children and family groups with very young infants are, if possible, referred to PIKPA. Volunteers offer food, clothes, hygienic facilities, medical help, and legal counselling. Most importantly, they offer a warm, safe and open welcome.
Mytilini resident Efi Latsoudi is a long time volunteer at PIKPA and active in “The Village of Altogether” since the beginning. Whilst fielding various calls on her mobile phone and simultaneously coordinating the distribution of dry clothing for newly arrived refugees she recalls: “Last week, it was like a war zone here! We had 20,000 very hungry and very tired refugees on the island with no information from the government on where they should exactly go and what the correct procedure for their registration was”. (Each refugee who arrives in Greece must be registered and classified as a legal refugee before they can continue their journey into greater Europe) “The situation here keeps changing, sometimes even on the very same day, so it’s very hard to give concrete information and very difficult for us to co-ordinate everything. The lack of information just creates panic amongst these very vulnerable people. It’s actually quite simple: you just need to have a set plan of action for administering and processing everyone and then stick to it. You make it logical and you make all the different support groups aware of it and they’ll explain it to the refugees. It is that simple…”
With the backlog of 20,000 refugees cleared by a “fast track” system temporarily introduced to alleviate the strain on Lesbos’ infrastructure, the island with a population of 80,000 is still receiving an average of over a thousand new asylum seekers each day. There is no end in sight as warfare still haunts the Middle East. Europe is now experiencing its biggest movement of people since the end of the Second World War. A very sobering thought when trying to come to grips with the magnitude of the refugee situation being faced.
Ramyar Hassani, a refugee from Kurdistan himself and now a Norwegian citizen, working for another aid group on the island and visiting PIKPA, sums up the situation quite precisely: “PIKPA is a good example of how you can run a refugee centre without barbed wire!” Additional praise is also coming forth from Erik and Philippa Kempson, an elderly British couple who have lived on the island for over 16 years. They’re using their family home in Molivos in the North of Lesbos as an unofficial base for refugee support: “PIKPA in Mytilini is the most organised. They do good work over there and are good people. We have so many disabled, injured, and vulnerable people that come over in the boats and need to go to PIKPA. We could actually do with a hundred PIKPA’s on this island.”
Dimitria Ippioty is the 25-year-old voluntary nurse at PIKPA. She’s unpaid and on call practically 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. “The Greeks on this island know about refugees”, she says when asked what motivated her to volunteer for PIKPA. “My grandparents and great grandparents were refugees” she explains referring to 1922, when many Greeks fled the Turkish siege of Smyrna (Izmir) and crossed the same waters to safety in Lesbos, on the very route that today’s refugees are coming. “I don’t believe that these people wanted to leave their home, but they have no choice. It’s war. The only solution is, to somehow stop these wars, so people can go home. Until then we must do the best we can to help.” And while she’s examining an elderly man who has just arrived she adds: “We have a lot of people injured during the crossing. Legs cut open as they scramble over the rocks to shore. Also a high amount of mental trauma caused by what they’ve seen and been through, including the inhuman treatment they’ve suffered on their journey.”
There is, for example, 6-year-old Abdul Masavee with his sister, parents, and grandmother. The family came from Bamiyan in the central highlands of Afghanistan. They crossed the Aegean Sea from Turkey in a flimsy dinghy-type boat, described by Erik Kempson as “bits of rubber with the glue coming apart as they cross the water”. Like all people smuggler boats, their dinghy was so overloaded with people, that Abdul’s leg got broken when he was trampled underfoot in the crowded conditions. Today, Abdul is riding in his own wheelchair provided by PIKPA down to the beach for the Masavee family’s first ever experience of swimming in an ocean. This scene looks so joyous that one may forget the hardships they as a family have endured.
Around 7 in the morning is the usual time for the first boats of the day coming from Turkey to appear on the horizon. That is why Joel Johansson, the 42-year-old schoolteacher from Sweden and Aeglios Bilious, Air Traffic Controller from Athens, have left Mytilini at 5 am heading for a high point of land on the coast near Molivos, which has become the usual look out point used by volunteers to spot the incoming boats of the day. Both men are using their holiday time to volunteer for PIKPA. Joel has already travelled up to here the previous day and has learnt that more children’s trousers are needed, so he brought extra supplies with him today. Now, he and Aeglios are standing together with a small group of fellow volunteers overlooking the narrow ocean gap between Greece and Turkey. Eric and Philippa Kempson are also there, as they have been every morning for the last eight months. With his field glass, Joel can make out three boats coming across bound for the Lighthouse near Molivos, another two boats are heading further down the coast towards Eftalou. Joel and Aeglios travel down to meet the Lighthouse bound refugees with the others heading toward the boats arriving nearer to Eftalou. Hege Bjornebye and Katrine Vatne, both from Norway, are already at the scene on “Limantziki” beach waving some previously discarded orange lifejackets to give the approaching boats a point of reference for landing. “This is apparently illegal” says Hege, with a hint of irony in her voice, referring to the Greek law forbidding any assistance to crossing refugees, even if it’s just in the form of navigational aid. The three boats come in swiftly one after the other. Aeglios wades out to one of the rubber dinghies as it comes to a halt on rocks just short of the beach itself. As usual, children are passed over to be taken ashore first, then it becomes rather unscripted and everyone scrambles out rapidly. Joel has already started to distribute water and tries to establish whether any of this mixed party of Syrians and Afghans speaks English. Once an English speaker is found essential information can be passed on and shared with the whole refugee group. For the moment the scene on the beach is one of jubilation and relief. Hassat Abdul Haman, a 22-year-old Syrian, has dropped to his knees and is thanking God for his safe passage. He and his group have travelled from Syria through Kurdistan and Turkey to here. Both his father and brother have been killed in the war in Syria. Others too are overcome with emotion, and tears of relief and joy are shed. Hege Bjornebye sums up what many of the aid volunteers are feeling at this time: “You have this moment now of joy and thanks from the people arriving here, and all we’ve done is stretch out a hand of friendship, and they are so grateful for that.”
The refugees will now have to walk a further 4 kilometres to the first rallying point, where water, food, and dry clothes are distributed. Hopefully, but not always, buses will take them from there to Oxi, a further rallying point. This bus service is actually quite a new phenomenon and is a result of some of the bigger players in the aid world, such as Action Aid and Doctors without Borders, coming to the island. Previously everyone, men, women and children, the disabled and the injured, would have had to walk as best as they could the 40 kilometres to Moria to be registered and then to Mytilini port for the passage to mainland Greece. At Oxi they’ll be split into those who are Syrian refugees and “everyone else”. The Syrians will be transferred to Karatepe Registration Camp and “everyone else” to Moria. This segregation has already caused some tensions amongst the refugees. While Syria and its brutal war is present in the daily news headlines of Europe, other asylum seekers from equally dangerous places on the world map feel that they have been forgotten and are being sidelined in the asylum process. The obvious difference between the two registration camps – Moria being hopelessly overcrowded, lacking personnel and the most basic facilities, with poor hygienic conditions – may underpin this perception. After having made it through the registration procedure, a further journey onto Mytilini Port is required to secure their ferry tickets to mainland Greece from where most people’s journeys continue.
Tragically not all of the boats make it to shore. The International Organisation for Migration, a partner monitoring group of the United Nations, estimates that of the 430,000 men, women and children who have so far crossed the Mediterranean waters to mainland Europe in 2015, 2,748 have drowned or gone missing. Bearing witness to this loss of life is Saint Panteleimos Cemetery, set high on the hillside above the port of Mytilini. Here, the bodies washed ashore on the island are buried. “One of the worst projects is the graves” explains Efi Latsoudi: “We want to at least bury people with some form of dignity. Because of the financial situation here in Greece the refugees have to dig the graves themselves for those who have drowned. We’ve persuaded a sympathetic local undertaker to transport the bodies to the cemetery for free, and the refugees hold a ceremony for the deceased that they find appropriate. Most of the graves are marked as “unknown”, since usually no documents are found with the bodies washed ashore. We try to get the hospital to take DNA samples, so maybe at a later date they can be identified. We really worry that with the winter approaching and the crossing over the sea becoming more perilous, the number of deaths will only increase.”
Back at PIKPA there’s a happier atmosphere in the air. Children are playing freely on swings and merry-go-rounds in the campgrounds, while the adults take on the care and duty of keeping PIKPA spotless before cooking the evening meal. 3-year-old Norsarine Masavee rummaging amongst the donated children’s toys has discovered a music box. As she opens it, of all melodies the tones of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” can be heard. As the sound of this optimistic hymn that is now the official Anthem of The European Union drifts across the camp, Joel Johannson quietly articulates some sentiments which are probably universal to those involved as witnesses to this biblical exodus of refugees taking place on Europe’s borders: “We are all actually just in this altogether.”
Craig Stennett © 2015