I didn’t go to Lesvos to help the refugees. I went to Lesvos to deliver humourology workshops at the International Women’s Festival In Scala, Eressos. But when you are on the island that is dealing with an alleged 50% of the refugee landings you can’t help but become involved.
When Nicky met me at the airport she was also meeting 350kg of donations from friends in the UK. Her partner had found out that a Thomas Cook flight was flying with 64 empty seats and talked them into using the consequently redundant luggage allowance to deliver the much needed clothing, nappies and toiletries to the refuge centre in Molyvos.
When we passed through Mytiline I got a glimpse of the temporary ‘camps’ that have been set up. Some tents, but mostly people sleeping rough. With just the clothes they had arrived in and very little else. The air heavy with confusion, uncertainty and the smell of fear and damp sweat. These were the ones who had made it to Mytiline. Still no closer to knowing what the future held for them but at least with the sense that they had a future. We were about to drive past hundreds of others still on the road. Tired, hungry, frightened. None knowing how many of the necessary 80km they had travelled along the twisty mountainous track. Forging on in the 37º heat of the afternoon. Young men with nothing. Families clutching their belongings in bin liners. Seeking shade under the olive trees even if that meant sitting in the middle of the road. Some with no water. Some with no shoes.
The refuge centre was a well organised sorting station. Taking in the donations and attempting to order them into sensible packages. Men’s clothes, women’s clothes, clothes for kids, for babies, summer clothes, winter clothes, toiletries, nappies, shoes, coats, towels. Everything that was donated had a place. And everything had a use. Except for the pink ra-ra dress. The pink ra-ra dress has no place in this crisis. Except to maybe bring a moment of levity to this group of exhausted volunteers sorting through things in the dust.
The next time we visit the refuge they are putting up a corrugated roof in anticipation of bad weather. There are eight of us in a hire car and a 4×4 with some donations and a full day to help wherever help is needed.
“Sit and have some tea with us first,” says Eric. This is his place. His home and workshop which has been adapted to support the situation. I ask Eric what we can do to be of most help. He suggests we come up with him and take a look at the beaches.
“They are completely awash with life jackets”, he explains. “Hundreds and hundreds of discarded life jackets. If anyone has any spare time we need people clearing the beaches.”
Right then. So that is what we will do. The tea has just brewed when Eric gets the call. Up to eleven boats are on their way. All eight of us climb into the 4×4 and follow Eric up to Eftalou. If his description was chilling, the reality is horrific. Beautiful, long, sweeping beaches edged with dramatic, craggy cliffs and lapped upon by the crystal clear, turquoise waters of the Aegean. Paradise. The perfect holiday destination. Tranquil and picturesque. Except this corner of paradise is currently a disaster zone. From high up on the coastal road we can see amongst the sand and pebbles the red, blue and hi-vis orange of the lifejackets. The huge rubber carcasses of the inflatable dinghies that are burst on arrival so they can’t be utilised any further. Clothes, shoes, towels. Discarded in the panic. Left behind in the hurry to get up the cliffs to dry land. In amongst it all there are also rubber rings, inner tubes and armbands. Armbands. With cartoon fishes and colourful seaweed patterns. I am sure printed on there somewhere will be the warning: This is not a flotation device. This item is a toy. This item was designed to be used whilst splashing about having fun in a swimming pool not retreating from a civil war across a 10km body of deep water. The image sends a shiver up my spine. I catch the eye of Marie, one of the other girls squashed up in the back of the truck alongside me. I can tell she is thinking the same.
Today we have to be the strong ones. We can’t show that we find this upsetting. We have to keep it together and inspire calm and hope. Marie places her hand on my arm. A single tear trickles a fresh path down a face that is covered in dust and sand and full of sadness and empathy. She grits her teeth and nods at me. We both know what we have to do. But still we both look at those piles and piles of life jackets knowing that each and every one of them, at some point, had a body inside. Each discarded lifejacket represents a human being fleeing for their life.
The refugees are cheering as their boats near the shore. So happy. So excited. Volunteers wade into the shallows to take the children and babies – some of them newborn – ashore to safety. A group of young girls from Norway clamber up the cliffs with children in their arms and on their shoulders. The younger men climb up on their own, laughing and checking their mobile phones. Old ladies hoist huge backpacks over their shoulders and fathers carry plastic bags full of their families belongings. We make a human chain to help them up the rocks. They have not landed in the best place. 100m further down the coastline is a flat beach but they have come up on the rocks. What do they know? Their ‘captain’ has probably never driven a boat before. He won’t know how to steer. He can just point the boat at the land ahead and hope for the best. Most of his passengers can’t swim. It is a miracle that this ridiculously overloaded inflatable has made it at all. But it has. A miracle which is celebrated by more cheering, applause, tears and cries of “Salaam, Salaam”. You are welcome.
I don’t know who the people are to whom I hold out my hand. Lawyers and doctors maybe? Plumbers and motor mechanics? Secretaries, nurses, teachers? Mothers, Fathers. Brothers and Sisters. Aunts and Uncles. I take a heavy backpack from an elderly lady. She doesn’t challenge me or question me. She is helped up the cliffs and I make sure her bag gets to her before returning to the queue of people struggling over the rocks. A young girl slips and holds her hands out to me, I catch her and she throws herself against me. She is maybe seven or eight years old. The same age as my youngest niece. I hold her for a moment and she clings to me. There is another younger girl and a woman with the same smile. Her sister and mother. They are safe. I hold her out at arm’s length and she looks into my eyes.
“You’re okay,” I say. “You’re safe.” This little thing still has days and days and days to travel. But right now this is true. She is okay. She is safe. I hug her again and her mother smiles and nods a ‘thank you’.
Everyone is safely ashore. This is a boatload of survivors. The air is filled with the explosion of the boat being burst. Like a gunshot, or a firework. There is silence for a few seconds and then more cheering as we welcome the next boat ashore. There are stories of people arriving with bullet wounds. With shrapnel still embedded into their bodies. Riddled with gangrene and unable to walk. These are the ones that will not make it. Stories of women going into labour on the beach. A paraplegic man who has had to be carried the whole way. These are people who would rather face death on the run than be killed in their homeland.
Some of them have already been travelling for up to two weeks before they even get to Lesvos. They still have to get to Mytiline, then perhaps to Athens, and then to who knows where? Some of them are heard asking “Where are we?” Someone understands a woman who says “People here have a big heart”. With each boat that successfully comes in spirits stay high and the air is full of optimism. This is our job. Our current role is to be strong and positive. To help them up onto the road and point them in the right direction. Smile at them. Shake hands with them. Welcome them. Check they are okay. Give them water. Give them whatever dry clothes we have. Give them fruit and biscuits. Give them a tiny ray of hope that the world isn’t all bad and that – for a little while at least – they no longer need to be afraid. For the time being they are safe. And they are on their way.
“This road. Just follow this road. Just keep walking.”
No one mentions that the walk is almost 80km.
I look at the beaches and think of what Eric said. I start to gather life jackets into a pile. It will take hundreds of people days to clear the debris. But it will keep on coming. We all pull together and haul one of the boats up off the beach and out of the way. We hang the high vis jackets in the trees to guide the next boats to a better stretch of beach to land. We can already see other boats on the water. They will be here within the hour. In the meantime we clear the beaches. We hang clothes out to dry. We rack our brains for ways we could recycle or reuse the lifejackets. One thing we need are baby slings. Surely if you turn a small child’s life jacket upside down and strap it tightly a baby’s legs could go through the armholes and it could serve as a temporary baby carrier. Better than just carrying the baby. And with all that padding the baby would be warm and comfy. What about also if we take some of the straps off the adult life jackets – they could be appropriated as baggage handles to make their luggage easier to carry. All I need is a pair of scissors or a knife and I could have a few of these knocked up in time for the next boat. Just a blade, something sharp. And a hundred more volunteers to gather in the life jackets.
I throw a few jackets into the back of the truck to experiment with later, grab one of the hi-vis orange jackets and join the line of volunteers on the beach waving the next boat in to the best stretch of beach with their cries of “Salaam, Salaam”.
On our drive back to Scala we search for the most needy refugees to whom we can offer a lift to the halfway house at Kallonis. It’s impossible to be selective when everyone is so vulnerable but we are looking specifically for families with young children. We pick up a mother and father with a small boy of four or five. His beautiful long lashes drooping over his tired, bewildered eyes. The father speaks perfect english and explains that they have been walking for nine days so far. We stop at a supermarket and buy bread, cheese and juice for everyone. Realising that we haven’t eaten since breakfast. It is now almost 5pm. The family stand outside of the car in the shade. I stay in the back of the truck and – in a moment of pure surrealism – attempt to connect into a prearranged conference call. My ‘other’ life colliding with this current life and throwing into question which one is my reality. I look across at the family. The father puts his arms around his wife and they hold each other for a moment. Just a normal family. Having a hug.
In the shop, Nicky buys a packet of plastic dinosaurs and offers them to the boy.
“Just choose one,” she says. “You can have which ever one is your favourite.”
“You can’t only give him one,” says Sandy. “He has to have two. So they can fight.”
Sure enough, the boy’s face lights up when he is allowed two dinosaurs. And sure enough he spends the rest of the journey bashing them against each other in mock battle. The mother and father chat. For the meantime they are in a good place. Maybe they are talking about what they are going to do next? Where will they get their next meal? What will they do when they get to Mytiline, or to Athens? We don’t know. They speak in their own language. Gently and thoughtfully. For a brief moment it is like we are all just on a pleasant, if not slightly bizarre day trip together.
Things become more heated when we arrive at the halfway house. We decide that we have room for another family and see a mother and father with two small children. People are trying to climb into the truck. We offer them water but explain that we don’t have room for anyone else. We point to the children and explain that we are taking children first. A grown man tries to force himself into the back of the truck with us. Sandy has to be clear that we have no room for him. He is strong and healthy. He can walk. He is fine.
We close the doors and the little boy starts to cry.
“He is my brother”, says the man.
“You will find him,” says Nicky. “In Kallinis, you will find him.”
The man repeats this to his son in their own language but the boy continues to cry. He is not convinced that he will see his uncle again any time soon.
Neither am I.
For the remainder of the journey we fall into a routine whereby Sandy slows right down whenever we pass a group of refugees walking and calls “water” to us in the back of the truck. We hold bottles out until everyone has fresh water and call back to Sandy “done”, and she drives on. We focus on the rhythm of our system and remember to smile and say encouraging things to those we pass at the side of the road. Anything to distract from the disappointment we see as we pull away and leave them there. Anything to take our minds off the fact that we can’t help everyone. We have a car load and yet we can only help two families today. Two families out of the hundreds that have landed in the last few hours. A drop in the ocean. But a drop, at least. The truck slows down and a group of young men clamour round the window. We hand them bottles of water and wish them good luck. A little girl jumps up at the window and looks longingly into the truck. All I can do is hand her some water and a dinosaur.
“Done,” I call to Sandy and we pull away.
A few days later I am packing to come home to England. I will fly via Brussels where I am staying for one night to deliver another workshop. It doesn’t seem right to be leaving this place where there is so much to be done. I remind myself that I was only in Lesvos for the festival. I can come back in the winter when help will be really needed. So many people; holiday makers, tourists, ex-pats are demonstrating such kindness, such dedication and such humanity. Hiring cars and shuttling donations up to Molyvos. Driving to the wholesalers to buy water and bananas. Waiting at Eftalou to help people in off the boats.
On the Friday night we hold a benefit concert which raises €1000. I am chuffed to bits but stunned to hear that €1000 will only buy one day’s worth of water. €1000 feels like a lot of money until you divide it between the hundreds of thousands of people in need. Another drop in the ocean. But a day’s worth of water that we didn’t have before. One more act of kindness.
As holiday makers move off the island they are asked to leave behind anything they can. Any clothes – shoes especially – towels, suncream. Anything they can do without. I pack a bag with shorts, t-shirts and toiletries. Then I place my beloved walking boots on top.
“You’re sure you want to give away your walking boots?”
I look at my scuffed up boots, worn on the heels and stretched and gnarled to the contours of my feet.
“Are they a bit too scruffy?” Suddenly I am embarrassed by the state of them and feel patronising. Who would want my stinky old boots?
“They’re dry.” So they go into the bag.
For a fleeting moment I worry that my feet will be freezing when I arrive in the UK in flip flops but then I remind myself, “I can buy new shoes.”
As an independent, liberated, secure, unthreatened woman living in the UK, I can just pop to the shops and buy new shoes. New clothes. Shampoo. Toothpaste. I’m not in any trouble. This is not likely to be a problem. For me there is always a solution. How fortunately able I am to solve the issue of ‘being without’ becomes unmistakably clear when I arrive in Brussels to find that my luggage is still in Athens. Suddenly, I too find myself in the position of having little more than the clothes I stand up in. And the clothes I stand up in are not appropriate attire in which to deliver a corporate workshop. A workshop that starts in less than two hours time. I manage to blag my way to the front of the ‘filling-out-the-form-to-say-your-luggage-is-lost-and-where-you-would-like-it-sent-to-if-it-eventually-ever-gets-found’ queue and realise that I don’t really know where I should get it sent. Will it make it to the hotel before I leave in the morning? Doubtful. I moved out of my house on the day I flew out to Lesvos so I currently don’t have an address. I am homeless. Of no fixed abode. Sans address. No home and now no clothes. Twisted karma.
I am not suggesting that I am in the same situation as the refugees. My loss is inconvenient. Irritating. Frustrating. But fixable. Almost immediately fixable. Or certainly within the next two hours. It had to be. I call my work colleague and explain the situation. He will try to get hold of a black shirt for me. All I need now is black trousers, shoes, socks, knickers, bra. Oh, and tampons. In amongst the chaos I’ve managed to start my period. I know I can find these things. I know that I am being met at the airport by a driver who will take me to a shopping centre where I can whirl through in a frenzy putting together an identikit outfit for myself. Black trousers, tick. Knickers and bra, tick. Oh, black trainers. The ugliest black trainers I have ever seen. Trainers I would never wear indoors, let alone out in public. Do they have my size? Yes. Trainers, tick. Better bra than the last one, tick. Three pack trainer socks, tick. Tampons, no tick. Pharmacy, no tick. It’s a nice hotel. They’ll have tampons. I race back to the car and finally relax knowing I have done all I can to make things happen in the way they need to.
It is a really nice hotel. With a really lovely spa. Usually I get there a bit early and go for a swim and a sauna. My costume is in my luggage and anyway, I don’t have time. If this had happened to me a few weeks ago I would be fuming now. Full of anger at the airline. Angry at the ground staff for not moving my bag along quickly enough to make the transfer. Angry at the girl who huffed and puffed at me when I jumped the queue. Angry at the stupid weather for delaying the plane. Angry that I now have to rush. That I won’t get a swim. That I am forced to wear ugly trainers. All seems so ridiculous now. As I sit in a swanky Mercedes surrounded by bags of newly acquired clothes.
When I arrive at the hotel the receptionist gives me a wide smile.
“Ah, Miss King. I am so sorry to hear about your baggage, but we will chase it for you and hopefully have it returned tomorrow.” Her reassurance makes me relax and in doing so I realise how tense I was. Then another receptionist appears and asks,
“Miss King? Yes?”
“Ah, we have something for you. With our compliments.”
She hands me a little red bag tied up with a white satin bow containing shampoo, conditioner, shower gel, soap, a comb, a shower cap, a sewing kit, a toothbrush and toothpaste and a shaving kit.
In that moment I want to cry. She is so pleased that she has been able to do this for me. And even though all this stuff will be in my room anyway the fact that she has put me together my own little kit is touching beyond words. The fact that she has thought about it and taken the time to put it together with such care and such kindness. And then it hits me. It’s just another little act of kindness. In a totally different situation. In another world. In a different universe almost. It’s a little act of human kindness that has made everything okay. She can’t turn back the clock. She can’t suddenly present me with my luggage. But she’s done something. Something kind. Something helpful. It doesn’t make the problem go away and it doesn’t solve the issue but it makes everything a little bit more bearable and makes me feel a little bit cared about and a little bit more comfortable and as if things are not so bad. In the same way that we can’t fix the refugee crisis overnight. Maybe we can’t fix it at all. But we can show up. We can smile and tell them that they are welcome. We can give them our shoes, our clothes, our shampoo.
“Please let me know if you need anything else,” she smiles.
“I don’t suppose you have any tampons?”
Little acts of kindness. Little drops in the ocean. It’s something we all can do.
If you think you may be able to help but you are unsure how to get involved then visit: https://www.facebook.com/RefugeesSTART?fref=ts These are kind people doing kind things.