Omar Robert Hamilton: Welcome to Lesvos

Two weeks as a volunteer at a refugee camp in Greece.

I see the young man of the night before, sitting alone and smoking, staring at the black sea before him, his phone dark in his hand. Next to him a dozen young men lie asleep under grey blankets, their enormous UNHCR labels flapping in the wind.

“You OK?” I ask.

“Yes. Thank God. You?”

“Fine. Can I help you?”

“Help me?”

I’m not wearing my high-vis jacket. He thinks I’m running with him, that I just got off a boat.

“I’m a volunteer here on Lesvos,” I explain. “Do you need anything?”

“Really?” he stands up, smiles, and shakes my hand. “A volunteer?”

“Yes.”

“But how could you come here? Your accent is Egyptian.”

“I have a British passport.”

“May God keep you. Do you have electricity?” he holds up his unresponsive phone.

“No.” I point at the dark behind us, the enormous white plastic tent, the shipping container, the smaller green tents that make up this ramshackle refugee camp. “I’m sorry. No electricity. We just get lights from the nightclub.” A blue-lit architectural monstrosity, OXY Nightclub, looms above us. The camp grows bigger every day down here in the club’s car park, on the side of this cold Greek mountain.

It will rain today. And when it rains, people die.

I hold out my phone, “You want to call somebody?”

“Oh?” he says, his face brightens. I put my phone in his hand.

“Thanks, brother.” He takes the phone, opens Facebook Messenger.

I leave him to it.

*                      *                     *

It’s the next morning, dawn, my tenth day on the island of Lesvos. I’m driving to the camp, cigarette in one hand, phone in the other, clothes unchanged. I unlock the phone and it goes straight to Facebook. I’m confused at first. There’s a message in Arabic to a woman in Sweden:

My darling
I’ve crossed the sea
I’m near Athens
My phone is dead

Then I understand. I remember the young man from the night before. He’s gone on. I will never see him again. I swallow a little surge of exhausted emotion and drop the phone on the empty passenger seat. Clouds are gathering fast around the mountain peak. It will rain today. And when it rains, people die.

You can see Turkey from Lesvos. The sea is not wide, the sea is not rough, but the boats are weak and overburdened with as many lives as the smugglers can fill them with.

On a clear day with a working motor a rubber dinghy takes an hour to cross the strait.

On a rainy night with a broken engine the boats fill with water; fill faster than you can splash it out with your hands. On a rainy night the waves tower ten meters above you, crash down on you again and again, force you deeper and deeper down into the water. On a rainy night you will throw everything you own into the cold black sea to float those few meters closer to Greece. On a rainy night you’ll tell the smugglers in Turkey, “No.” You’ll tell them you’ll cross tomorrow, you’ll walk away from the boat, back to the truck they’ve kept you in for the last three days. You’ll tell them “No,” and they’ll pull out their guns and push you out to sea.

Fatma is seven months pregnant. Fatma’s boat was lost at sea in a storm for three hours. She was sure they would all die. She is alive, but the baby hasn’t moved for hours.

“Maybe,” I tell her, “It’s just scared. Maybe it’s in shock.”

It’s 3 A.M. There is no doctor in the camp.

“Maybe,” she murmurs, as she rocks quietly back and forth. “Maybe.”

In four hours she will be on a bus to the government camp. There are supposed to be doctors there. I don’t know if there are. I don’t know if the baby lived.

Mahmoud is 75 years old. His house was destroyed by an Assad barrel bomb. And now his bag is at the bottom of the sea. “How much is the ticket to Athens?” he asks me.

“60 euros,” I tell him.

“I only have 100 Euros.”

He is sitting alone. I do not ask if his family is alive.

He does not speak for a minute. Then he looks at me: “If I tell them that I only have a hundred will they let me on for less? For thirty maybe?’

“I don’t think so.”

I feel in my back pocket. A single note. Ten Euros. Maybe five. I am too embarrassed to offer it to him.

I don’t know what will happen to him.

“If I knew. If I had any idea, I swear to God, I would never have done it. If I knew the sea would be like this…”

I don’t know what will happen to anyone. Not here or in Athens or in Macedonia or in the winters of the north in this stone continent that has ripped the world apart again and again.

“Welcome to Lesvos,” I say a thousand times a day. Remember to smile. Be warm.

“Welcome to Lesvos. You’re in a transit point in the countryside. We’re all volunteers here, working to help you get to the government camp in the south of the island. Here’s a bus ticket, the bus leaves tomorrow morning. You’ll get your papers from the government there. When you have your papers you can carry on to Athens. Here is a ticket for food. There are dry clothes in the tent behind us. There are blankets in the big tent. Welcome. Hello.’ Smile. Smile. ‘Hello. Welcome to Lesvos. Is this your daughter? Hello! Would you like a biscuit? Here you go. Sir, you’re in a transit point in the countryside.”

On a clear day two, three, four thousand people come through OXY camp.

Michael’s boat missed the beach and crashed on the rocks. He jumped out to try and steer it away from danger. The waves pushed the boat up over him, pushed him down under the water, pushed his back down onto the rocks. He can’t move his legs.

“Do we have a wheelchair?” I ask. “We need a wheelchair. We’ll get you to the hospital, sir. It will just be temporary, god willing. You’ll be fine tomorrow, god willing. Does anyone have a car?! We’ll find someone to drive you to the hospital.”

On a clear day you can see the orange interruption on the horizon. Fifty fluorescent lifejackets pressed tight against each other heading for you. On a clear day there’ll be a line; one, two, three boats behind each other. At $1000 per lifejacket, fifty jackets per boat and fifty boats a day the smugglers can clear $2,500,000 in a day, easy.

One smuggler sends his boat every night at 1am. The families arrive soaking at the camp in the coldest hours before dawn. Fatma was on one of those boats.

“If I knew. If I had any idea, I swear to God, I would never have done it. If I knew the sea would be like this…”

Mohamed is taking his 4-year-old niece to Hamburg. Daesh killed her father. They took him from his house in the night. Mohamed is 18 years old.

There are buses for Syrians and buses for non-Syrians. A camp for one group and a camp for another. The camps are run by the Greek government. The camps are chaotic, overcrowded and filled with riot police. One night there is a fight, tear gas, panic. Word reaches us in the north that two people died. That a woman lost her baby.

What are we doing here? Where are we sending these people?

A baby is crying. In the low gloom of the solar lamp I see a family of four. The mother is rocking the baby, her teeth chattering, her clothes clinging wet to her shoulders. I hand the father four bus tickets to the government camp. There is no choice. I hand out another four, four hundred, four thousand.

“What happens next? When we have our papers? Where do we go?”

“You buy a ticket to Athens. From Athens you take a bus to Macedonia. You cross through Macedonia to Serbia then to Croatia and Austria up to Germany.” I’ve learned to say.

“Germany is still open? They won’t send us back?”

“They say Germany is still open.” No one knows for how much longer.

In the dark, between breaths of a cigarette, a boy from Iraq puts his hand on my arm: “Can I ask you something?”

“Yes.”

“Would it be better for me to say I’m from Syria?”

*                      *                     *

A municipal meeting is called in Molyvos, the village that watches the boats arrive on its shores day after day. There are a dozen organizations at work across the north of the island and their coordination must be improved. UNHCR, the Red Cross, International Rescue Committee, Islamic Relief, the Boat Refugee Foundation, Team Humanity, Proactiva Lifeguards and Starfish Volunteers – the group I am working with – is just one of the groups scrambling to respond. Some days the work pulls together efficiently. Some days it doesn’t. There is no system and no one is in charge. No central intelligence. Some groups are giving every breath they have. For others it’s just a day at the office.

I bought a ticket to Lesvos from Cairo. I rented a car from the airport and I drove north, towards Turkey. A half an hour after I arrived, I was waist deep in the sea as a man handed me a baby from the waterlogged dinghy. We waded onto the land, weighed down by bags. I handed him back his child and he stood still for a moment, dazed. I squeezed his arm and then his head was on my shoulder and we were both crying.

“You’ve arrived,” I say, in Arabic. He doesn’t understand.

An hour later, I found OXY and was at work in the ticket booth.

“Hello, welcome to Lesvos. Do you need dry clothes?”

Dozens of volunteers have the same story.

The volunteers are all organized through Whatsapp:

Who can swap 7 A.M. bus shift with me?

2000 in OXY now, running low on sandwiches.

We need a doctor in OXY.

Coast Guard going out now-prepare for boat coming in to harbor.

I can take 7 A.M. bus shift.

5 boats in the water now.

Need more blankets in OXY.

Has anyone seen this child?

Hundreds of messages a day bounce between dozens of volunteers.

The town official clears his throat. He tells the room the economy has suffered this summer. It is a tourist economy. We must be mindful of the locals. He reminds us to roll our windows down when we drive past them, say kalimera, say good morning. Drive slower, he tells us, they do not understand what is going on their island. They do not understand what is going on in Syria. They only understand this summer was not so good for them.

I raise my hand: “Instead of looking at this as a problem, why not say it’s an opportunity? You have a summer tourist economy and it has suffered. But now you have thousands of people passing through your island every day. Many of them have money. Many have sold everything they have. Many would rather sleep in a hotel than in a refugee camp. But I have to tell them it’s against the law to do anything here without papers. Make an emergency exception. Integrate these people into your economy and your hotels will be full through the winter and you no longer have a problem.”

But the reply is simple: This is against the law. The locals are not ready for this.

“Not ready to have Arabs stay in their hotels?”

“No.”

Europe can cling on to its outdated ideas about itself-to its posturing of imperial supremacy while its population ages and economy crumbles. Or it can create a new future for itself.

So I tell people, night after night: “Please take a blanket. You will be warm here. There is no space inside the tent? Take another blanket. I’m sorry, it’s shitty, it’s racist, but it’s illegal to take a taxi. It’s illegal to stay in a hotel. It’s illegal to buy a plane ticket. I’m sorry.”

The mountain road is paved by a grey river of blankets stretching as far as I can see. The tents can take 500. Most nights there are at least 1000 people in the camp.

When the rains come, everything changes-and the rains in Lesvos come hard and fast. The camp is slick with mud in seconds. We hand out plastic ponchos and people huddle together under improvised tarpaulins. It will only get colder. Colder through the winter and colder through the north. “Please,” I say, “Take your blanket with you, keep it with you.” There will be long nights in the cold dark of the Serbian border. Marches through the Slovenian countryside. Days spent in internment camps in Germany. It will only get colder.

It will slow down in the winter. It has to. A refrain heard dozens of times a day. It will slow down when Erdogan gets his deal. Visa-free access to Europe for Turks plus some billions of Euros and it will slow down.

“A curse on the Turks and on Erdogan and all his government,” I hear stories like this one every day. “I tried. For a year I tried living in Turkey. But you work twice as hard as a Turk and take half the salary. Your boss stands over you and snaps his fingers at you and tells you pick this up and clean this mess and he stands over you mocking you and doesn’t pay you enough to feed yourself forget about your children. No. I tried. You have no rights. Life is impossible. They made sure. All I want is to work. If I can work in Turkey I’ll work. But you can’t work in Turkey.”

On the day Erdogan meets the E.U.’s top brass there are no boats.

Europe is at a crossroads and how it deals with this crisis will help define the continent in the century to come. The world has always been shaped by mass migrations. Throughout history great cities and civilizations have been forged in the catalytic combinations of people.

OXY is growing every day. A new tent for women and children goes up. A medical bus is parked. A children’s play tent is born. But it’s not enough. The rains are coming and the winter is coming and the people will not stop. They can’t stop. They have nowhere to go. They can do nothing but run from the barrel bombs and the chemical attacks and the public executions.

Europe can cling on to its outdated ideas about itself-to its posturing of imperial supremacy while its population ages and economy crumbles. Or it can create a new future for itself. A future that begins in Lesvos and Kos and Lampedusa. A future not based on narrow ethnic hypocrisies but on work and acceptance: A new world where things more valuable than capital can move uninterrupted between lines on maps.

Moses is running from Daesh. He used to live in Nottingham, used to have a visa, but went home to Afghanistan to get married and be with his family. That was eight years ago. Things were supposed to be getting better.

“Daesh controls four provinces in the north” he says, but no one’s talking about that.”

He speaks perfect English with a rapid Midlands accent. I assume, wrongly, that he works in the camp. We spend the night working together, me in Arabic, him in Dari.

“We’re stuck in the middle of a war between Daesh and the Taliban. Daesh, they come and take you from your home. If you have women inside you have to put a flag up, so they can come take them. It’s how you show you’re not hiding anything. You can’t raise a family there, can’t work there, can’t live. What would you do, mate?” he asks me.

He spent two years applying for visas. All rejected. Where is he now?

He got on a bus a month ago and I climbed on after him:

“What’s your name on Facebook?”

“Mosey Nottingham.”

“I’ll add you now.”

We shook hands.

“See you in the U.K.,” I said

I got off the bus. I felt a hand on my chest, and a French accent commanded me: “Stay on bus! You must stay on bus.”

I removed the hand, and responded in English: “I work here.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

The bus pulled out. I waved goodbye.

It’s been forty days now. Is he in Calais? Waiting for the backlash from Daesh’s latest spectacle of violence? I don’t know. My friend request still hangs unaccepted.

 

For your information: first-hand account of one volunteer on the Greek island of Lesvos

My dear reader, the logistical and structural problems in #Moria are so great and the authorities and NGOS have let it gone so far that it’s very hard to make any positive changes in the middle of this catastrophe. We often sit around with the other volunteers and dream about a clean slate. If we had money how we would build a new camp from scratch: big enough so nobody would ever have to wait outside in the rain, sleep in the cold of winter without a tent , not be able to see a doctor or not have dry clothes to put on after getting ashore. And it would be so simple, so straight forward and with so much common sense. But the organisation and coordination in Moria is none of those things. It’s a mess, a disaster, a complex catastrophe made impossible with bureaucratic nonsense and rules.
So my dear reader, we try and fight it on a daily basis for the people who need our help so much, to make their situation a little more bearable. We have all seen on the news the images of volunteers pulling people out of their dinghies when they land. But let me tell you about some of the forgotten heroes, the unseen people who are volunteering in Moria: far away from the cameras and sensational images. They are the volunteers who sit on their hands and knees with thin latex gloves and a scouring sponge cleaning toilets that are covered in human waiste and nappies. The ones who till deep in the night, walk around opening shelter doors and get people to huddle in more so they can put a roofless family with them. The ones who climb on the gates in the pouring rain to hang up tarpaulins with their bare hands. The ones who put up big tents in the dark, using only a head torch, to make sure those people have a shelter to sleep in. The ones who drive to Lidl and buy water for people coming in from a shipwreck, because the Big organisations take a million years to sort even the simplest issues. The patient volunteers who mediate between the police, the NGOs and the refugees to try and come up with the most humane solutions. And the hugs, the smiles and the love they give: it isn’t always easy to do with the energy-draining depressing conditions of Moria. But goodness, do they work hard and with so much dedication! Their innovation and use of resources goes far beyond that of the big NGOs: they are on the ground solving immediate problems and each and everyone of the volunteers I have met here deserve to be knighted really.
The past few days the UNHCR have opened 3 rows of barracks to house the most vulnerable and tent-less families who are awaiting their registration papers. Before they could open though, we spend the entire day cleaning: filling up over a hundred garbage bags, and mopping the toilets and showers. Even after our attempt they still look awful: these are old army barracks and I don’t think they’ve been cleaned for years. It should all be taken out and replaced really, but that will not happen. There were not even the proper cleaning supplies to make a difference: we had to go out ourselves and get them. Oh, but how the Dutch team cleaned, the elbow grease was flying around left right and centre. I think cleaning the barracks was one of the best things we could have ever done: to give someone a roof over their head when the alternative is sleeping outside is so grand. But the conditions are such a shame and the sanitation is non existent: there are no bins, so things just get left on the floor, including the nappies. Half the taps, showers and toilet holes are blocked or broken so cannot be used and though there are lots of bunkbeds, there are only a few disgusting old mattresses in each room so the people ask us for an extra blanket to cover the mattress but of course we do not have enough to give those out either. Sometimes I’m so embarrassed to bring people in here that I wonder if it is really a better alternative than staying outside. (A few people have come in and then left again: I think they’d rather stay up the whole night then be somewhere so dirty). UNHCR calls us all together for an emergency meeting: a shipwreck of 240 vulnerable and traumatised people will be arriving soon. They are the survivors but many of them don’t know if their family members are alive or missing or critically injured at the hospital. We prepare the barracks by getting all the blankets together, arranging the aid, cleaning out the rooms. We await them, knowing there isn’t enough aid for every single person: not enough blankets and not enough mattresses to sleep on, not enough new clothes to put them in. Sometimes it makes us feel very ashamed, though it isn’t our fault the state of things. The people start pouring in, you can tell some of them are relieved they’ve survived and have come out with just a scratch here and there. Others are not so lucky: one look at their faces and you can read the worries that are playing on their mind: they obviously have a family member dead or are at the very least uncertain of their condition. Licia jumps in the car with a mother and her children to translate at the hospital. Her little son has died. That was the hardest thing she had ever had to tell anyone. A guy questions me about information about his family, I have none to give him. There is no water with the food, and no cups for them to drink from the taps. Nathan, Lance and I jump in the van and drive to Lidl to pick up 300 bottles of water: we try to fill in the gaps when it is within our reach to do so. How delicate the situation is: untrained volunteers comforting traumatised people, these horrendous barracks: is this really a suitable place to house such vulnerable people? It is sad that this is the best we can do. But we try.
My friends from London arrived to support me the night before and that evening my mother flies in, it feels good to have her after everything I have experienced these past few weeks. How good a hug from your own mum can feel! The next day we leave early to buy supplies again. A wonderful American lady told me about the young boys in the detention centre (where the unaccompanied minors get separated and locked away), and I have been longing to see them ever since. We bought two fuss-ball tables, skipping ropes, sweets and footballs. We’re not allowed in to give it to them, but find a wonderful team of Dutch doctors who will give them the games during their assigned playtime. Through the small gap in the gate we hand them apples and sweets and pour them little cups of juice. I will never forget the faces of the two girls who are there. Faces of complete loneliness, how I long to hug them. I often think about all these people and what they go through on this terrible journey into Europe. It is essentially a breeding ground for trauma and depression, especially the things these children will have to endure in their young years. I hope that once they reach their destinations they will find the right people to talk to about everything they have been through.
As we pull out in the car from the detention centre we get out to ask a family sitting behind the car to move. One look at them though and it takes my breath away. It’s an Iranian family with 3 children, the oldest girl is 6, the father holds her on his lap. She moans with pain: an enormous tumor, the size of a tennis ball is growing from her cheek, half her hair has fallen out from previous treatment. Another growth has affected her right leg which looks like an elephants leg compared to the skinny left one. Good god, how on earth did they get this child over in a dinghy? The mother explains they are here because the doctors in Iran cannot do anything. Utterly shocked we take them down to Doctors Without Borders, they will try to get them to Athens to see a specialist. I have never seen anything like this in my life.
In the evening a surprise call from Abdulrazzak: he and his family have arrived safely in Denmark! I hope their process there will be quick so they can finally start the peaceful life they deserve. They have been through so much, such good people.
Let me tell you dear reader, about one other type of volunteers. And that is the refugee volunteers: The self appointed ones who help to create order in the chaos of the queue for registration and for food, the ones who help put up tents in the dark, the ones who try to control the masses so the volunteers can get through with their cars. And every night when we go out to find the vulnerable families to take inside we find another Farsi and English speaking refugee to help us speak to the people to find out about their situation. They have never failed to amaze me. A few nights ago two afghan brothers: one of them an English teacher, the other a software engineer. The day after a young boy who worked tirelessly to identify the vulnerable cases. And this night a very soft spoken man with a family of 21 people. When I offer him food and blankets for his family at the end of the night in exchange for his services he says: “no thank you, we are all fine.” They are all very curious about us too, about the fact that we come from so far to help without getting paid for it. “Thank you for your humanity” the young man with the big family says to me at the end of the night. Not everybody we meet is like that trust me, there are also a lot of cunning people who try to cheat the system and cut the queue and try to fool us. But then you always meet someone again who is worth every bit of effort you put in, and a reminder that those are the people you do it for.
So my dear reader, thank you for taking the time to read up on our work again. The past few days have been a constant struggle between wanting to solve an issue but realising it takes solving another 10 before you can get to it. It’s sometimes hard to remind ourselves that we are doing something positive. That in the midst of all this misery we are here making small positive changes that otherwise wouldn’t happen at all, but it’s hard because you know that whatever you do is only a small thing, on a temporary basis so whatever you do never feels like it is enough. But we keep going, with you my wonderful reader, with your words of support and your donations that are helping us to help them. You too are volunteers, volunteers of awareness, of making aid supplies happen and don’t forget that you too are the volunteers of humanity as much as we are. With love and gratitude as always. By Merel Graeve