Leaving Lesvos

It has been over three weeks since I landed on this beautiful island. My head and heart are full with everything I have seen and learned while I’ve been here. I hope that my ramblings have made it all just a little more real for others who live so far away from the chaos that is playing out here, throughout Greece, and everywhere the refugees are passing through.


The EU and Turkey signed an historic agreement on Thursday that is supposed to go into effect today. It is problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that it violates international law with respect to treatment of refugees, but it remains to be seen if it will stand and how it will be implemented. Here are the take-home concepts:

  • Turkey will take back all migrants who arrive in Greece starting today, March 20.
  • Turkey will get $6.79 billion from European countries by December 2018.
  • For each Syrian who crosses illegally into Greece and is returned to Turkey, one Syrian will be transported to Europe as a legal refugee. Those who attempt to cross illegally will be at the bottom of the list of refugees who can go legally to Europe under this provision.
  • The total number of Syrian refugees Europe will accept from Turkey under this agreement is capped at 72,000 (over one million arrived in Turkey last year).
  • Turkey gets fast-tracked toward consideration of admission into the EU, but there are numerous negotiations that are must happen successfully for this to move forward.
  • Turkish citizens get fast-tracked toward visa-free travel to the EU but only if Ankara meets 72 conditions.

“On paper the agreement looks consistent with EU and international law, but the problem is that many of the safeguards can’t be put in place by March 20,” said Vincent Cochetel, the United Nations’ refugee agency director for Europe.

The Vatican also criticized the deal. Cardinal Pietro Parolin, the highest Vatican official after the pope, said that faced with the “serious drama” of migrants, “we should feel it humiliating to shut doors, as if humanitarian law, won with such toil by our Europe, no longer has a place here.”

Wall Street Journal, March 18, 2016.

It is unclear to me what this means for the tens of thousands of multi-ethnic refugees already in Greece, what it means for the non-Syrians who come into Greece after today, nor what the asylum process will be here in Greece for future arrivals.

I spent my last day in Moria Camp on Friday. It was much like the others except for the drama created by a fight in the residential huts at the base of the hill in the morning. I later learned that fights happen every day, but seldom come to fisticuffs like they did yesterday. Emotions were very high and the air was definitely crackling as volunteers and residents stepped in to break up the argument over… blankets. This is what happens when people are just so very stressed and their home is reduced to the pile of blankets they carry in and out of a temporary hut each day. I don’t know any more details, and the details are probably unimportant. Really it is just an indication of how traumatized these people are and how fundamental their world is right now.

As I walked around the camp, I recognized that I’m ready to leave. I’ve done enough for now and need to go home to reenergize and process all that I’ve observed and heard. It’s a lot.

Some conclusions from the last few weeks:

  • This crisis is messy and confusing and complicated like a sticky spider web that’s been crumpled and tattered.
  • The real-life individuals involved in this are a lot like us. They look like us, they want the same things we want, and they have the same strengths and weaknesses we see around us in our daily life wherever we live and work and go to school and make our communities. This is true of both refugees and volunteers.
  • Volunteers are making a difference, but we are standing with our fingers in the holes in the dike while the necessary structural repairs await system-level action that never seems to come.
  • Refugees’ biggest need may not be food, shelter, clothing. It is probably accurate information. Despite the cell phones that link them to family around the world, they are sorely lacking in accurate timely information that can really be used to make big decisions for themselves while governments are making enormous decisions that determine their futures. One organization, newsthatmoves.org, attempts to post critical information for them and in their languages, but that it is brief and limited, nowhere near as comprehensive as what the refugees need. From the first step they take inside of Moria, to the last step they take into their new country of residence, everything is confusing and overwhelming. As I often remind myself when I can’t figure things out at home, “I have a PhD and I can’t figure it out! How is anyone supposed to know what to do?” That applies more than ever in this situation. Knowledge is power, and their lack of knowledge keeps these people powerless, day after day.
  • Greece is an interesting, beautiful, charming, gritty country whose residents have those same characteristics. She has an incredible, rich, long history and is struggling to survive a terrible and painful present.


  • McVities makes a dark chocolate version of their digestive biscuit, and it is possible for one person to eat two boxes in one 24-hour period.


  • I saw a German Shepherd kill a terrier on the village street yesterday, and I was reminded that it is a dog-eat-dog world, quite literally. But, I still want to believe that humans are better than that. We have to be.
  • I’ve done good work. I didn’t plunge into the Aegean Sea and pull babies out of boats, but I helped a lot of people get fed and sheltered and have hope, and I feel good about that. I’m very lucky.


One thought on “Leaving Lesvos

  1. You’ve done good work, Kirsten, and you’ve humanize he refugees for those of us home in our cushy lives. Thank you for that. I am sure many of those you’ve helped are happy for how you welcomed and helped with little things like a smile and huge things like getting their papers sorted. I look forward to hearing more stories as you tell them.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s