On June 22, 2015 Carol Christ translated an article on the refugee crisis in Greece for her FAR blog. I have been visiting Carol in Lesbos this September and have been observing the crisis close at hand. This blog describes what Carol and I have witnessed and our reactions.
I have been in Lesbos for ten days this past September and have been stunned by the mass of humanity trying to escape war and destruction in Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq and other countries in the Middle East and Africa.
The migrants cross from Turkey to Lesbos in rubber boats designed for 20 people but holding a crowd of 40 to 50. The distance of four to six nautical miles should be a half hour trip but the boats are in poor condition and horribly overloaded. For most of the month the travelers have been blessed by good weather and calm seas, but that doesn’t always serve people who don’t know how to swim, have been sold ineffective life jackets by the traffickers, and travel in boats that run out of gas or are so overloaded they capsize. Many have drowned.
What happens when the migrants reach the stony beaches of Lesbos? If they are lucky, they are met by volunteers from Dutch, Norwegian or French NGOs, who provide water, sandwiches, and directions to the town of Molivos which is at least an hour’s walk from the beach. Other volunteers are trying to help out — Greeks providing food, old clothes, occasional rides and expats contributing money and buying water and baseball caps for protection against the hot sun. The migrants are polite and grateful for help. The sight of exhausted migrants, especially families holding children by the hand or carrying them on their shoulders and in their arms, and old people, even some in wheelchairs, is heartbreaking.
The numbers of migrants grew daily all summer long. At the height in September there were about three thousand people arriving daily. Once they reached the town of Molivos, they sprawled on the sidewalks along the road to rest, hung their wet clothes on fences, and tried to buy food and water although few had Greek money. I saw some migrants trying to change money in the bank but the bank reports that some migrants had counterfeit dollars which were undoubtedly passed to them by the traffickers.
The lucky migrants find a place on one of 12 to 15 buses that make the 90 minute trip to Mytiilini. The buses are limited to 50 people and only make one trip a day. Do the math. Each day perhaps 750 travel by bus to Mytilini out of 3000. A few young men start out on the three-day walk. Most migrants pass the night along the road outside Molivos waiting for transportation the next day. Why aren’t there more buses? The municipality can’t afford them (they cost 300 Euros each) and the national government only provides services once migrants arrive at reception centers in Mytlini. So the buses are paid for by contributions from expats and NGOs.
The reaction of the tourist town of Molivos is understandable. They fear the loss of tourists — the town’s main economy — as the news about Lesbos gets broadcast across Europe. They have already lost reservations this year and expect to suffer more next summer. In addition, no one wants a holding camp of migrants next to their hotel so there are few paces to put migrants in need of rest and services. Some hotel and restaurant owners have been generous with assistance but they keep a low profile so as not to antagonize those who are “antis.”
Of all the experiences that affected me the one I recall best was a conversation with a young Afghan who spoke a little English. I asked him if he knew where he was and he shrugged. I then asked what country he wanted to go to and he replied “Merkel.” He didn’t know the word “Germany.” It was funny but also so sad. How these people will survive on the long road ahead of them is a great mystery. They have each other, information in their own language on Facebook, but they have no idea what kind of difficulties lie ahead. If the unknown, total unknown, is better than what they have escaped, they are truly the face of desperation.
It will take a surge of humanitarianism to help Europe and the countries that have already accepted so many refugees — Turkey, Jordan and Lebanon — to manage the flood in the years ahead. I fear the receiving countries are already worn out. I fear Europe will fail to respond at the level that is needed. There is a need for a sustained spiritual, as well as practical, response to the flood, a response we can all contribute to once we understand how high and fast the waters are rising.
Tim Smith has been a leader in Molivos in the effort to raise money for refugee needs in Lesbos. Anyone wishing to help can send a contribution to one of his PayPal accounts. His US Dollar PayPal account is:firstname.lastname@example.org. His €uro Paypal account is: email@example.com
Ellen Boneparth first went to Lesbos in 1981 where she ran the original program of the International Women’s Studies Institute featuring Carol Christ teaching on women and spirituality. Her connection with the island has remained intense with other women’s summer programs taking place in future years and with visits to her Greek goddess-daughter and her family and to Carol Christ, all living in Molivos. Currently, she is the Director of Light My Fire, a nonprofit promoting women’s and girls’ health and education in developing countries. Her passion for writing has generated 7 novels and 2 memoirs.