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?”
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?”
“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:
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?”
“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?”
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?”
“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.”
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.