Illustrations by Alex “Grills” Grilanc.
Donate here to the fund volunteers on the ground are using to buy food, medicine, blankets, and transport for refugees on Lesbos.
Grills, Jason, and I came to Lesbos with the primary purpose of relaxing, couchsurfing with some Greek students, bumming around the beach, and recovering from the collective stomach bug we picked up somewhere between Montenegro and Macedonia.
The first time I met a Syrian asylum seeker I was in Chios, another Greek island. It caught me unawares. I was wandering around the bus station trying to find a cushy patch of lino for my little crew of 3 to sleep.
Two guys walked past me with a huge sack of rubbish. One smiled at me.
“Do you need some help?” He asked. I shook my head.
A minute later I realised how cute he was.
Damn, I thought to myself. I think I might need some help after all.
I followed him downstairs and had a short confusing exchange. He did not work at the bus station—he was just helping out—and he didn’t know when it closed. His name is Ahmed and he’s “half a doctor”. Casually following the script established by many travellers before us, we exchanged names and asked each other where we were from. I said Australia, and we agreed it had good beaches and bad immigration policy, then Ahmed told me he was from Syria. He had an hour before his boat to Athens left. I wanted him to come travelling with me instead—he needed to keep going, cross borders illegally, and smuggle himself to Belgium. Still, I asked him to have a drink with me. He didn’t have time but he did anyway.
The fact that he was a refugee changed things for me. My friends and I were keen to meet and help refugees if we could. All of a sudden, I felt selfish keeping Ahmed to myself. I felt confused between two narratives, one of boy meets girl, the other—Australian meets refugee. Grills and Jason sat down, and ten or so of us, Syrians and Australians, chatted, pushed language barriers, added each other on Facebook and WhatsApp, and took group selfies. Jason and Grills were keen to demonstrate a nuanced knowledge of Middle Eastern geopolitics, and I felt minutes of my precious time with this special person slipping away like water I might hold in cupped hands. I was so confused. I was hitting on him. Our eyes were locked. He’s beautiful. The engine broke when they were halfway across the water where 3100 people have drowned this year alone. He likes to swim and hike and we promise to visit each other. His family is still in danger. He put his arm around me and only me when we took a group photograph. I hoped it was because he liked me not just because I was next to him. He’s crossing every border to Austria illegally. A Greek girl gave him a Chios fridge magnet souvenir––maybe he meets lots of girls and I’m not special? He’s not replying to my Facebook message, maybe he doesn’t like me? Or maybe he’s smuggling himself across the world from a country gone mad. Was my hair messy? Does he think I’m pretty? Did he say “hi” because he thought I was cute or does he say hi to everyone?
After he left, I was so bewildered and emotionally overwhelmed I considered taking the Valium I keep for panic attacks on flights. I felt like someone absolutely incredible had slipped through my fingers, I felt like the reality of seeking asylum had just smashed into my face.
Australians are kept as far as possible from refugees. Our primary contact is through media, either mainstream discussions of possibly greedy potentially terrorist boat people, or advocacy organisations which use pity porn and select narratives to mobilise donations, petition signatures, rally attendees. The Australian government, wherever possible, shifts people from community processing facilities, to onshore detention, to offshore detention. Every layer of removal and detachment costs more but the political leverage there is to gain by transforming those seeking asylum from people into numbers, boats, words, bodies, and votes means that it’s worth every cent for the political elite.
Ahmed wears scruffy leather boots like us, baggy tattered shorts like us, a backpack like us. He’s a student, and he’s successfully hitched, bussed and walked through 11 European countries to his destination, Belgium, in a way not totally unlike the way we travel.
Even though I’ve worked, eaten, drunk and danced with refugees in Australia, the narrative in my mind when I think of asylum seekers on the move is of victims, fleeing, scared, and tragically heroic. Ahmed had one day to wait between arriving safely on the plastic boat from Turkey and catching the ferry to Athens, so he, exactly as I would, hitchhiked around Chios swimming and visiting the sites.
The escalation of the conflict in Syria has seen millions fleeing from Assad, ISIS, and the rebels. Many stop in Lebanon or in Turkey near the border, but a huge exodus of people are also travelling up through Turkey, and crossing into Greece by plastic boat to the Aegean Islands Chios, Lesbos, and Crete. The migration pathway this has opened up has seen many other refugees from Iran, Iraq, Afghanistan, Nigeria, Libya, Pakistan, Palestine and even Sri Lanka seek asylum via the same route. The plastic boats are run by the Turkish mafia, and a single ‘fare’ varies in cost based on the conditions. If conditions are calm, you can pay €2000 per person. But when the seas are rough and dangerous, the mafia offers bargain fares for poorer refugees, around €400. When they reach Greece, the refugees register for papers, then go on to Athens, through Macedonia and the Balkans, and usually on to Northern Europe. The journey often takes two to three weeks. When I first heard this, I was stumped. Surely one could just book a couple of bus trips like we had on our adventure through the Balkans. Over the time I spent on Lesbos I came to realise that everything they need, I have and take for granted. All four of my grandparents were Eurozone citizens. Even one quarter of the privilege that I have by accident of birth could have changed the lives of a family.
Later that night, we were taking a walk through a park in Chios and we stumbled across our first refugee camp. The UNHCR tents I’d only seen in documentaries about Sudan loomed out of nowhere, sandwiched between a marble fountain, a tourist restaurant, and street lamps. The rows of crappy one skin tents made the park look a little like a festival landscape—distinguished mainly by the prayer mats outside each tent. When we got there the camp was empty. The paths through it were lined with abandoned clothes. We found a wall of the disturbing children’s art—childish depictions of birds, razor wire, large bloody red splotches of paint and stick figures lying down and not getting up. Near the pictures, a set of house keys were discarded, jammed into the wall. We stood staring at them for a while, then Grills and I both moved to Instagram it instantaneously. The picture is sandwiched between a shot of Jason windsurfing in Cesme, Turkey, and Grills dressed as Alexander the Great on the beach.
The day before we planned to leave Lesbos and continue our holiday, we went to Skala Sikamineas to spend a day volunteering at the spot where the bulk of the refugee boats come in from Turkey. On the hilly, hour long drive north, we saw hundreds of people walking on the roadside with kids, huge bags, and sometimes no shoes. As we passed the beaches, we saw huge heaps of fluorescent life jackets, and the slashed black plastic mounds of expired boats. The boats don’t stop at night, but the UN and Medicine Sans Frontiers buses which transport families do. There aren’t enough buses to save single men the 12 hour walk, and now, since boat traffic exceeds 80 per day, they have stopped running them at all. The new arrivals are given whatever dry clothes and blankets are available, and women and children are prioritised in the distribution of blankets and tents. As we leave that night we see families sleeping by the road, burning plastic to keep warm, some without blankets out in the cold. After seeing this, we decided to stay on and help how we could.
Refugee camps on Lesbos are racially segregated. Kara Teppe is for Syrians, and is relatively well resourced; Save the Children provide indoor areas for breastfeeding and kids play, and multiple meals a day. Everyone else goes to Camp Moria, which gets food sometimes, and receives little help from large aid organisations. Community groups and unaffiliated volunteers fill the void with patchy, ad hoc assistance.
On Lesbos, untrained volunteers such as myself are pulling babies out of the ocean, attempting to respond to refugees begging for advice on European immigration law, and assisting people with serious medical conditions (triple bypass heart surgery recoverees, type two diabetics whose insulin had been thrown overboard, car crash victims).
We arrived at Camp Moria with just our backpacker’s hiking boots and daypacks. Immediately, refugees were coming to us with inquiries, and the heavily armed riot police treated us like officials. Nobody tells refugees how to get processed, or how to navigate the camp which has led to a number of scams involving the sale of fake papers. Distributing information is left to random blow-in volunteers like us. The police laugh about how they invent a new system with every new shift, leaving the people in the queue lost, infuriated, and downtrodden.
To get papers, you must present yourself to the UN officials inside a compound surrounded by barbed wire. People with disabilities, pregnant people, and small babies are not exempt from the often hazardous, always dusty queue. People in the line are subject to tear gas and arbitrary, savage violence from riot police on a fairly regular basis. While the lines and process were strict for refugees, as wide eyed twenty something white kids we were given free reign. We joked ruefully about showing something like a police badge to get through checkpoints, except in lieu of a badge it was just the white skin on the palms of our hands. A ‘white pass’.
Sometimes, the riot police would pull out for days at a time, replacing themselves with Afghani men armed with tent poles which they’d use to whip other refugees who push or stray from the queue. One day, a volunteer, a black man from London with a broken leg and crutches, was walking up the hill to the processing centre. The Afghani proxy cop started lashing him with the tent pole, screaming “NO! NO! SAF!” We learnt a few words of different languages at the camp, but the one which will stick with me is saf, Arabic for ‘queue!’.
The next day at the beach we worked for hours clearing a field for a new camp for overnight boat arrivals. Although I was hot, I found it hard to imagine washing off my sweat and swimming out into the water. I realised later that in my head, the water refugee boats plough through and sink in is not the same water I swim in for leisure. There’s an odd disconnect at Lesbos—business is booming but they’ve almost never seen fewer tourists. The tourist shops in Lesbos, which for us are a means of island hopping, and for richer travellers a place to book cruises, have asylum seekers queueing out the door. Life jackets, which for me remind me of school camps spent kayaking, and holidays of watersports, for refugees are a means of survival. Our bodies inhabit the same spaces, the same shops, the same garments, but in my mind we’re almost in parallel universes.
A week after we arrived, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras visited Camp Moria with Austrian Chancellor Werner Faymann. Before his arrival, new fences were installed around a tiny section of the camp, gardeners came in to tidy the area, and a bus full of clean looking Syrians were brought in from Kara Teppe. We realised they were creating a fake camp for the politicians. They had money to weld fences and trim hedges, but we were calling on our families and friends to pay for food. This visit coincided with a massive decrease in boat traffic, from between 20-30 per day to about 5 arriving at Skala Sikamineas. The EU and Greece had struck some kind of deal with Turkish law enforcement to stop the boats. It was then I realised that they effectively allow the boat traffic, yet refuse to offer safe passage to deter more Muslim and Arabic people from entering the EU. A few days after Tsipras left, Jason met a mother whose 8 month old baby had accidentally been thrown into the ocean as refugees desperately threw bags overboard to save a sinking boat. The cost of that deterrence would be too high even if it was just this one child, but thousands have drowned in the Aegean this year alone.
The intensity, chaos, and horror of the work we were doing often left us confused, overwhelmed and despondent. To take a few hours out from the hectic, dirty mess of Camp Moria, Grills and I visited Camp Pipka, a summer camp turned anarchist-collective-run refugee camp for people who are disabled or vulnerable. It is quiet, full of pretty trees, and the only sounds are children cackling away and the gentle wash of waves in the distance. It’s a utopic vision of what a refugee camp should be. Some people from Syria and Palestine invited us to share tea with them outside their neat cabins. I was eating plain brown rice out of a bowl after 9 hours working without food, and smiled at them in a way I imagine, in retrospect, looked a little deranged.
“Thanks, we’d love to.” Good save Grills.
After we had been chatting for a while, a Palestinian man (“Moktar, the Mayor of Pipka” the other men joke) cautiously asked “Madam, why are you so dirty?”
I looked down at myself. I was disgusting. My pants are smeared with dirt and (probably literally) crap, my arms and legs were cut up with small scratches, and my boots, formerly multiple different colours, are now only one—dust. Our hosts sat in a semi circle around us, poised for the response to the enquiry, clean, relaxed, and happy.
“I’ve been at Moria,” I explained.
“Ah,” they all nodded in understanding. “Say no more. That place is a hellhole!”
Later, after leaving Pipka, I realise that one of the most significant differences between Moria and Pipka is dignity. At Moria, people are transformed from paediatric nurses who run yoga classes on Sundays into someone who has to beg and scream for food, has to sleep in the dirt, and is lost in a processing system like a game with high stakes and no playbook. At Pipka, they can offer tea to their guests, develop in-jokes, go for swims, paint murals, choose what they eat.
Amir, a volunteer from Oldham4Refugees, an ad hoc community group, puts it well in an anecdote he shared as we packed boxes.
“Most of these people are coming in on boats looking real fly you know, they look good, they got good style,” he says. “Then they land, they go into the clothing donation tents at Skala Sikamineas, and they change out of their wet clothes. They come out in mismatched, stained, clothes that don’t fit them well and there it is. They’re refugees now”.
On my last night at Camp Moria, I met Omir from Damascus. We’re roughly the same age, and he’s definitely cooler than me. It’s been a massive day of having desperate people scream at us in Arabic, Urdu, and Farsi, calling for baby formula, shoes, blankets, medicine, and I’m sitting in the dirt sharing a cigarette with him.
“Can I ask you, why are you doing this?” he said. The question makes me uncomfortable because I don’t want to act like a shitty white saviour voluntourist.
“Well, I think that the only reason I can afford to is because Western powers have been meddling in the Middle East for their own economic gain,” I say. “I think I’m only as lucky as I am because other people have been disadvantaged. It’s my responsibility to try to give back.”
He nods. “That’s definitely true.”
When other people ask, I say I know they’d do the same for me if I was in trouble. They smile and agree and I know it’s true. But I never will be in that kind of trouble. No one would let it happen to me. I have a terrible fear of flying, and after a particularly rough descent, Grills and I discuss the hypothetical crash in the water. We might end up in lifeboats. We might end up holding onto floating shrapnel. But our plight would be international headlines and there would be huge rescue forces mounted immediately. I might have been on the same island as the refugees, but ultimately, I’m on a beach holiday, and they’re in a humanitarian crisis.