A Reason to Go

Below is my original post for why I’m spending the month of April volunteering in Greece. The situation has evolved since I wrote this, but I’m moving it here for context.

I go on April 1st to spend one month on the Greek island of Lesvos. This is not a vacation. In the past year more than half a million Syrian, Afghani and Iraqi refugees have arrived on that island, fleeing terrorism and war. Every day I see new pictures of their boats overturned, their wet clothes and hunger, their desperate need for help. Each story tears me up inside. I can’t just watch from afar. Fortunately, I don’t have to. Stacey Hurlin launched her Lesvos Refugee Project to raise donations of clothing, medical supplies and food for the refugees. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to help her, and now we go together to lend our hands to the work. The needs are many: to help the boats land safely, to help stave off hypothermia from the cold Aegean crossing, to help distribute food, transport people and clean clothing, set up tents and other immediate and urgent necessities of basic survival.

About the Crisis:

In 2015 somewhere around one million refugees went to Greece by boat. Around three thousand people didn’t arrive, presumed to have drowned. 499,000 humans arrived to Greece through the island of Lesvos that year. They come in rubber boats, packed to the gills and ankle deep in seawater. They don’t know if Europe will let them settle, or where, or if they’ll be turned back at the border of one country or another and left with nowhere to go. Cold and hungry, they know only that the uncertainty of that future is preferable to the certainties in the present: starvation, violence and fear.

So far in 2016, the number arrived to Lesvos already reached 83,000, and those have come through the winter, risking frostbite and hypothermia. Arrivals are expected to increase as the spring warms up. They came from Afghanistan, Syria, Pakistan and Iraq. They hope for a life free of the threat of extremism and war. They ask for nothing more than a chance to work toward that life.

The Island of Lesvos has a population of 86,000. It’s an island with a proud history of poetry and art stretching to classical antiquity. This is not the first time the island of Lesvos (or Lesbos, depending on how you transliterate) has played host to refugees. The Lausanne Treaty of 1923 forced 1.5 million Anatolan Greeks to leave their homes in Turkey and return to Greece, and about a third that many Muslims living in Greece to go the other way (link). Many of them passed through Lesvos. A few settled. But the island was utterly unprepared for scale of human desperation arriving on its beaches since 2015. International aid came too slowly. Local families bore the brunt.

Now aid has arrived, in trickles and starts. Doctors Without Borders runs a clinic for those who have been injured in the crossing. Many groups assist with logistics and transportation. Dirty Girls of Lesvos makes sure the refugees have a dry change of clothes on arrival by trading for the wet clothes and laundering them. The Kempson Family runs a short-term Hope Hotel where refugees can get a shower and take a breather before moving on.

But where they move to is the real question. Lesvos has only one processing center, called Moria. It’s a former military installation now run by the Dutch Refugee Council. There the refugees are sorted for if they’re single or with their family, if they speak Arabic or some other language. Then, one by one, they fill out the documents requesting asylum, their fingerprints and photograph are taken, and they’re sent along to the next stop on a ride with no destination.

The word Moria has a grim connotation for many. In Tolkien’s fictional middle earth, The Mines of Moria were the ruins of a lost civilization where Dwarves dug too deeply beneath the earth. That’s where Gandalf shouted “You shall not pass!” In real life Lesvos, Moria is a beacon on the road of hope for hundreds of thousands of people who seek a better life. But as a hope, it’s a grim onaae. The DMV from hell. The lines to be processed are so long, it routinely takes multiple days to get into the building. Camps of the hopeful wait in olive groves nearby while family members navigate the lines and red tape.

Once they’ve been processed, they get to move on. But to where? A few may eventually make it to Germany, a few to Canada. For many, there is no clear answer. Like Tolkien’s Dwarves, they scatter to diverse lands.

My volunteering helps in some small measure, but I am not alone: volunteers gather from around the world. Together, we can make a difference, even if it is just one life saved at a time. Since I’ve mentioned Tolkien, I’ll let him say it: “It is not our part to master all the tides of the world, but to do what is in us for the succour of those years wherein we are set, uprooting the evil in the fields that we know, so that those who live after may have clean earth to till.”

We all do what we can. Thank you for your support.

Please feel free to contact me or Stacey (artlifesociety@gmail.com)

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