[Turkey from Lesvos and The Sea That Separates]
We intended to stay on Lesvos only 4 days. But we fell in love.
I woke with a start as the bus stopped. The tiny twisting roads of Lesvos had lulled me to sleep - regretfully because the views of cobalt water and deep green vegetation were some of the most breathtaking I had ever seen. Karim and I stumbled off in a sleepy, heat-induced stupor, and the bus crawled off through the narrow streets. It would take about 10 minutes before I was awake enough to realize that I had left Martinito, my guitar, along with my computer on the bus.
We had arrived in Skala Sykamnias, a quaint fishing village on the northern shore of the Greek island of Lesvos. The crystal-clear water and warm townspeople have drawn tourists in flocks for many years, and we had come during high season expecting to integrate with the crowds. But we found the few restaurants were all basically empty. This is because Lesvos has been a familiar name in the news for the last couple of years. It happens to be the shortest distance between Turkey and Greece, making it a strategic landing place for refugees seeking asylum in Europe for the last 25 years. In the last 5 years or so the arrivals have spiked in number as various conflicts have come to a head in parts of the Middle East and Northern Africa. Thousands of refugees now pour onto the shores of the tiny island of Lesvos, causing a great deal of strain on the people who live there.
Enter Lighthouse Relief: a Swedish non-profit organization devoted to providing aid to refugees who land on Lesvos and mainland Greece. We came to interview the coordinators and volunteers at Lighthouse about their experiences in the midst of the crisis, working with refugees, and current life on Lesvos.
The Lighthouse camp set up in Skala Sykamnias serves as a temporary welcoming refuge for those who arrive by boat. They greet the asylum seekers at the shoreline to offer a warm welcome, a change of clothes, food, water and tea, shelter for the night and medical attention, as needed. Many arrive in the cover of night, and the volunteers are always on-call, waiting for a radio signal to respond immediately to new arrivals.
The day that we arrived, we threw ourselves into deep water. Literally. Mónica Mon, the current coordinator, asked us if we would like to be "victims" in a training simulation that afternoon for Proactiva - a group of badass Spanish lifeguards who patrol the sea to respond to refugee boat wrecks. We played the role of refugees who had fallen off of the boat. They drove us far out into the middle of the sea into deep, open water and told us to jump out, far away from one another. I splashed into the frigid water as clouds covered the sun, and they sped away.
Drifting there for even 20 minutes at a time, getting swept around by currents and racked by waves, a sense of desperation sneaks in. The water is bone-chilling and the sea has a way of inspiring a lonely surrender. It was hard to imagine holding a baby above my head and kicking to stay afloat in the turbulent water (while waiting for somebody to see my crashed boat through binoculars on land and radio Proactiva) and praying that we will be saved among the 60 others who were smuggled with us, barely visible by the light of a thin moon. This is the reality that many face on their way to uncertain freedom, crossing from Turkey to Lesvos.
In that situation, most probably, my life jacket would be a fake. In Turkey, heartless vendors stuff life jackets with cheap packing material that causes its wearer to sink instead of float. In fact, the vast majority of life jackets that Lighthouse cleans off of the rocky beaches are these deadly fakes. And what causes the boat to sink in the first place? Smugglers who pack 75 people on a dingy fit for 20. Some refugees pay upwards of 4,000 Euro per person for the promise of a safe crossing in a boat made for their family. When they arrive on the day of departure, they find that the smuggler they were working with promised the same deal to countless others. In times of desperation, there is no room to argue.
The Turkish coastguard carries a long stick with a jagged point on the end and threatens to pop the cheap inflatable boats if the people don't turn around. Many boats are slit and little to no aid is provided to the passengers, some pregnant women and children, who must swim back to Turkey with faulty life-jackets.
And so, it is important to be there to receive these wayfarers with love, no questions asked. A smile, a snack and a "Salam" goes a long way. That is what Lighthouse provides, and that dedication to human beings is a thread that bonds the diverse volunteers here quickly and passionately.
We had decided to put down the camera and just volunteer for our first days there, living in the camp with everyone. Then, we were to interview people and be on our way. But we found that we couldn't just pack up and leave before July 1st - Turkey was threatening to open its borders as leverage to gain visa-free travel in the EU (a move that would give Turkey a political foot-in-the-door to join the EU, which could be a nail in the coffin for the currently unstable morale of a unified Europe). July 1st was the last day that the EU could grant the visa-free travel before Turkey opened it's borders. If this happened, the flood-gates would open and thousands of boats would pour in from Turkey to Lesvos, leaving the response teams in Skala Sykamnias completely in over their heads, and the island of Lesvos over-saturated with needs that the island hasn't the capacity to bear.
One morning in the wee hours, the camp was awakened by news of a refugee boat on its way in. The camp exploded with energy. From the sky we must have looked like an ant colony responding to a match thrown down the hole. Our enthusiasm betrayed our tired eyes. Lighthouse was the first NGO group on the island to respond. There was speculation that this was a warning from Turkey of the chaos to come if they didn't get their way.
As we settled in to the Lighthouse family and way of life, Karim and I became increasingly aware that we couldn't just leave before July 1st. We had to see this thing through. We did away with our tickets out of Lesvos, and took official positions on the team.
That first day in the cold water was the beginning of something beautiful. The feeling of being saved is real, even in a simulation. We volunteer "victims" huddled together wrapped in space-blankets, laughing through blue lips and chattering teeth as we sped back to land by the pink light of the sun sinking over Turkey. In only a few days, these people would feel like some of our oldest and dearest friends.
"Our Lady The Mermaid." The town chapel of Skala Sykamnias
The Team - Communal Life Creates a Family
Contemplating The Cliff Jump