Reported.ly’s Asteris Masouras recently spent a week in Lesvos, the third largest Greek island receiving the largest share of the refugee exodus from Turkey. Over 400,000 people, mostly from Syria and Afghanistan, have crossed over to Greece so far in 2015, with close to 100,000 having crossed the narrow 10km strait to reach Lesvos. The island is overwhelmed by the numbers, but local social initiatives, with the support of volunteers and contributors from around the world, are trying to make up for the crippling deficiencies of the formal aid system to respond to people in need.
The village of Molyvos is perched on a hill overlooking the sea, a bell curve of a road connecting the port to the market. Exceedingly beautiful, it’s the focal point of an ongoing effort by locals, expats and activists from abroad to provide aid to dozens of arriving refugee boats every day.
I came here primarily to meet refugee activist Eric Kempson, but I find that several friends have also converged on the village to follow and report on the work of activists and help the refugees landing on the nearby beaches.
Kempson, a British artist and expat, lives in a farm along Eftalou Beach, part of the 14km coastal strip nearest to Turkey, where most of the refugee boats are landing. He and his wife have taken it upon themselves to patrol the beach every day, and help the refugees in any way they can, sometimes assisted by visiting volunteers. I first became aware of Eric’s work when he published a devastating video account of refugee boat arrivals on his YouTube channel in early May.
In the village, a contingent of primarily European activists are taking stock of donated aid stored in two rented houses, preparing for today’s outings. Refugees landing close to Molyvos are directed to a car park to board buses to Mytilene, the capital of Lesvos. Those who land on the farthest part of the beach have an arduous climb to the village of Sykaminia, where they might or might not be collected by buses.
Volunteers have to split their time and resources between the car park and Sykaminia. It became rowdy in the car park on the previous day, I’m told – a food riot. Sami, one of the volunteers, is supposed to give me a lift while driving supplies to Sykaminia, so I head over to the car park to meet him.
Hundreds of refugees are camped around the perimeter of a dirt plot on the entrance to the village. Much like the ad-hoc camp at Kara Tepe, the car park in Molyvos is another unsuitable hosting location for refugees. They were consigned there after local associations refused to consider alternative locations to host them.
Three chemical toilets lay disused in a corner, again because of the reticence of locals, I’m told. Buses are backing down the incline to board refugees and take them to Mytilene, but there’s tension as many try to bump the queue, fearing the number of buses will not be sufficient to accommodate everyone. Volunteers, including Sami, are engaged in a losing effort to stem the tide of people.
Melinda McRostie, an Australian restaurant owner who has emerged as a key figure in the collective effort to help the refugees, turns up at the car park to direct the queue in a polite but firm tone. After hours in the stifling heat, over 10 buses have showed up, and the majority of waiting refugees have found a place in one of them. Three of the buses were rented by German tourists.
Tourists play an important part in the collective effort, whether by financing direct aid, helping on the spot, or coming to Lesvos to combine their vacations with volunteering.
At 6 o’clock the following morning, boat spotters including journalists and volunteers meet up on a bluff overlooking Eftalou Beach. The first boat of the day has already landed. After taking in the piles of discarded life jackets and deflated boats, we head to Eric’s workshop, where the Syrian refugees are afforded some respite from their journey. Piles of donated clothes and shoes are rummaged, clothes wet from the sea are hung to dry, and the children frolic with the family’s dogs and cats under the shade.
Not long after, another two boats are spotted making for a nearby shore. Eric tries to wave them on to a safe spot, but they’re already heading to a rocky strip. Dozens are crammed on the rubber dinghy, wearing orange life jackets. Before the boat even lands, a scavenger intercepts it to remove the outboard engine, then is quickly challenged by others hoping to claim their own spoils from the dinghy. He’ll get to keep it, despite protests, hoisting it aloft as a trophy as he climbs back to the road.
Many of the refugees are shaken from the trip. Mothers clutch their children tight in uncontrollable tears. Young people break into song, take selfies and dive back into the water. These scenes are repeated in almost every landing. A man from the Palestinian refugee camp in Yarmouk, Syria delivers a dramatic appeal to the Arab League and the UN on my camera: “Save our people!”
The shores of Turkey are clearly visible across the 10km of water. The journey is relatively short for most boats, but never an entirely safe one. Eric and the other volunteers prioritize driving the women, children and infirm to Molyvos with their precious few cars.
The same ritual repeats with every boat landing, almost unchanged: first the men jump over the side, to wade in the water and bring the boat ashore, then the women and children are helped to shore. Adults all wear lifejackets, but many children are wrapped in taped-up toy life preservers, undeserving of the name.
Clumps of people collapse on the beach, many unable to contain their sobs, weeping openly and clutching their children tight. The men rush to the boat to stab and deflate it, and throw the inner tubes and life preservers to the sea (they don’t mind volunteers gathering them again in piles). Then come the famous rescue selfie moments: young Syrians whoop and dive back into the water, now that it holds no danger, take a few languid laps, stand in the surf and shoot selfies throwing victory signs, singing songs and swapping cigarettes they have unwrapped from cellophane with volunteers and journalists.
It’s a wild moment, a celebration of life, and of mourning everything lost across the water.
For three days, I tagged along with volunteers from across Europe and an impromptu company of friends who found themselves drawn to help and/or report on the crisis in northern Lesvos, as we drove across the same strip of beach several times over the course of a day, greeting arriving refugees.
Shortly after I left the island, locals from Molyvos drove the refugees away from the car park, and from the village, forcing volunteers to only help arrivals strewn out across the road to Mytilene. Buses were discontinued, citing bottlenecks in Mytilene and at the camps, and protests by refugees at the port were met with police brutality.
Lesvos received 12,187 refugee and migrant arrivals in the whole of 2014. Arrivals in August 2015 alone were over 33,000, and in September, they reached over 73,000. The numbers continued to swell into October, as the weather turned bad, and casualty numbers began to mount.
Bolstered by the unexpected arrival of several northern European NGOs in September, Eric Kempson and his family continue to help refugees, and their work received broader recognition after Sharron Ward’s mini-documentary was broadcast by Channel 4.
Emergency EU meetings to address the refugee crisis across Europe in September and October resolved to deploy military force against traffickers, and to set up reception and detention camps at ‘hot spots’ in receiving countries. At the existing ‘hot spot’ in Moria, conditions continued to be deplorable during, and after visits by European leaders and top officials. Turkey started cooperating with the EU to stem the flow by sea and land, and lethal pushbacks were reported.