Reported.ly’s Asteris Masouras spent a week in Lesvos, the third largest Greek island, which is receiving the largest share of the refugee exodus from Turkey. Over 160,000 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, have crossed over to Greece so far in 2015, with 33,000 of them having crossed the narrow 10km strait to reach Lesvos just in August so far. The island is overwhelmed by the numbers, but local social initiatives, with the support of volunteers and contributors from around the world, make up for the crippling deficiencies of the formal aid system to respond to people in need.
A postcard-perfect Greek vacation paradise, the city of Mytilene on the island of Lesvos hugs a natural harbor, with a broad beachfront promenade, bookended by tavern and bar districts, facing a low skyline of neoclassical, neogothic and baroque architecture. The footprint of this year’s unprecedented Middle Eastern displacement is evident downtown, but mostly at the port, tucked around the bend of the bar district. Coast Guard cutters and a Norwegian Frontex vessel line the beachfront, and refugees are sprawled across concrete niches around the port’s Customs House and the adjoining parking lots. A woman from Syria nurses her 23-day-old daughter, born in Turkey, on a cradle of cardboard. Her husband already got the ‘paper’ to go to Athens, and she’s waiting to rejoin him.
Tickets for boats to Piraeus, near Athens, are scarce to come by, but refugees queue up at the booths anyway until evening, policed by irate special guards with surgical masks and big clubs. Some at least have managed to board a departing ship. They wave to the shore and are cheered on by those left behind. Kids and adults play football on the street in front of a huge Maltese ferry.
A little further inside, like a stationary ship itself, the elevated shoulder of the quay is jam-packed with tents. Here you’ll find a copy of the Statue of Liberty, cast in Germany in 1922 – ironically the country where countless refugees now aspire to find liberty and shelter. Below the gaze of the statue, dozens enjoy some respite from the stifling heat, taking a swim and queuing to rinse at the showerheads.
As daylight dissipates, the guards roll a police tape across an arbitrary demarcation on the road, to keep more refugees from queueing at the booths. They blow their whistles shrill, and shout at people trying to cross the border that suddenly materialized. On the other side of the parking lot, the road curving up from the statue is open.
At night, as the bar district next to the port comes alive, refugees discreetly fade away from the bustle of the nightlife to the alcoves and parks, hoping to find a place to sleep. Some wander around the meandering city streets, but not in numbers. Everyone knows they’re there; it’s just a matter of whether the tourists, the locals and everyone else choose to acknowledge them.
In the morning, the process begins all over again. They’ll queue up outside travel agencies and the registration booth at the port, hoping for the opportunity to leave Lesvos behind for more permanent shores. No doubt, many of these refugees recognize the symbolism – even irony – of the homage to the Statue of Liberty before them, as they contemplate how welcome they will find themselves as they seek to travel into the heart of Europe.
One has to wonder, though, how familiar they may be with The New Colossus, the Emma Lazarus poem embedded on a bronze plaque within the pedestal of its big sister statue in New York Harbor. Would it bring them any solace, any hope for the future?
Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame,
With conquering limbs astride from land to land;
Here at our sea-washed, sunset gates shall stand
A mighty woman with a torch, whose flame
Is the imprisoned lightning, and her name
Mother of Exiles. From her beacon-hand
Glows world-wide welcome; her mild eyes command
The air-bridged harbor that twin cities frame.
“Keep, ancient lands, your storied pomp!” cries she
With silent lips. “Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free,
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore.
Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me,
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”