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.

3-20-16Licenonrocks

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.

3-20-16Countryside

  • 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.

3-20-16Cookies

  • 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.

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The world is watching. Or is it?

 

Angelina Jolie is coming! She’s coming! She might be coming! Hmmm. Guess she’s not coming after all. Well, that was certainly a disappointment to the government and NGO reps who were excited to show Angelina all that’s lovely and delightful about Moria. On Wednesday morning, word was circulating among the volunteers that Angelina was coming to visit Moria. Refugees were allowed to stay in the rooms unlike on typical days when they have to be out from 8-3 to allow for cleaning. Government workers even removed a layer of razor wire from the exterior walls of the camps (as if that changes the lovely view of several more layers of razor wire).

Moria front
Entrance gate at front of Moria Camp.
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Graffiti on barricade wall.

But, alas, Angie changed her mind, dissed Lesbos completely, and headed north directly to Idomeni without even as much as a wave and a smile. No time to visit Moria, Skala or Kara Tepe on this trip. Sarcasm aside, the real tragedy right now is definitely in Idomeni, so if the Good Will Ambassador and Special Envoy for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees can only make one stop, she is choosing the most appropriate place to call world-wide attention to the crisis.

Last week in Idomeni, I shared a hotel, a restaurant and an airplane with Jim Yardley, New York Times Rome Bureau Chief, who was working on a story. His piece came out today and is a nice summary of the refugee impact on Greece and Greece’s impact on the refugees—personal stories that hit hard. The writing and photos are excellent. Everything he says rings true to what I’ve seen in each of the places where our paths crossed.

For those who are asking, how did it come to this, I have to say, “Well, go back a century.” Historians know what I am talking about: the Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 and the Cairo Conference.

sykes-picot
Courtesy of Cosmo Learning.

 

 

 

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Attendees to the Cairo Conference 1921. Courtesy of Clio Visualizing History.

I have read two books recently that really help explain the history that led up to this debacle. I can recommend both of them: Mary Doria Russell’s Dreamers of the Day is a fictionalized account of the Cairo Conference which describes the cavalier way in which European dignitaries drew political boundaries for the current Middle East; Lawrence Wright’s The Looming Tower: Al Qaeda and the Road to 9/11 takes the long view to understanding the development of Al Qaeda; his analysis has relevance for the current refugee crisis and the development of ISIS in the region.

Book a vacation to Molyvos!

Alright, maybe you never considered a vacation on a Greek island. Or maybe, you didn’t think it was appealing until you heard that half of Syria was headed here and maybe they knew something you didn’t. Whatever the rationale, I’m here to confirm that a vacation to Molyvos is a GREAT idea, and now more than ever. Really.

I spent today taking it easy again and recovering from the damage done by my internal storm while the north end of the island recovered from the wind storm outside. I walked into Molyvos and visited the castle properly (had only seen it from the outside before), admired the incredible views, and stopped at the local bakery for an 80 cent raisin bread. Yep, 80 cents, folks. You can’t get a better vacation deal in Europe right now than this island. I’m convinced of it. Unfortunately, due to the the refugee crisis, the usual vacationers are canceling their regular visits planned for this summer, bookings are down about 80% according to some sources, and the locals are really concerned about how they will survive the summer season without customers. As if Greece didn’t already have it bad economically, this is a blow to the knees for sure.

So, in an effort to entice friends and family to consider a vacation on a spectacular Greek island where the views are tremendous, the hospitality is delightful and the food is gastronomically unmatched, I’m sharing photos from my walkabout this morning. These images are all within a 45 minute walk from my hotel. If you’re thinking about a European vacation, please consider Lesbos. If you’re dreaming of a vacation somewhere sometime, please enjoy these photos and let them carry you through your day as you take a vacation in your mind.

Clockwise from upper left: Eftalou beach; Molyvos side-street; Turkish coast vista; Molyvos castle gate with Arabic inscription above; billy goat; octopus legs drying; Molyvos grocery; residential gate; lambing season; view of Molyvos from the castle wall.

 

The sea is angry and I am sick

The sea is white with churning water and rough waves. Yesterday and last night the winds were the strongest I’ve seen here, and sounded like the building was blowing away. Balcony furniture was blown away, flying through the air and shattering on the ground. I can’t imagine anyone starting a voyage across from Turkey in this weather, but at least one boat arrived early yesterday morning just before we went to work at Moria. The refugees were soaked with water, but landed safely and made it to the camp. That is the only boat I know of that came in yesterday. Considering the smugglers send the boats off from the coast with no one to captain them, I can’t imagine how this one successfully arrived. I heard that the refugee who ended up at the helm dislocated his shoulder during the passage. No surprise there.

Refugee boats recovered.

While the sea was churning, so were my insides as I got hit with food poisoning in the middle of the day. It was not pretty (never is, I suppose), and I went straight to bed late in the afternoon only to emerge from my room late this morning. While the wind whistled and roared, I tried to sleep it off and was so thankful to have a warm, dry bed in which to suffer. Apparently Hepatitis A (a fecal-borne disease) has been identified at Idomeni, and I just think about those poor people as uncomfortable as I was, but without a dry, warm place to rest and recover. Awful.

Athens ferry
Athens ferry–every refugee’s next goal.

I’ve been trying to figure out something cheerful to write about as I have heard from a number of people that my posts are depressing. These were not complaints, just reactions. And, I agree, they are depressing. But, I just can’t find a way to put a positive spin on any of this. Yes, we volunteers are giving it a noble effort to help and reach out and support and encourage. But really, let’s be honest, this situation is downright horrible and doesn’t look be improving anytime soon, if at all. That is the unfortunate reality, and one that I just can’t sugar-coat no matter how I try. For a great overview of the situation, and a really engaging video, check out this video.  It won’t be uplifting, but none of it is.

Where does $5K get you?

Welcome to Greece

Meet Pervez. He is a soft-spoken 24-year-old English teacher with warm brown eyes from Lashkar Gah. He has lived through nothing but conflict in his country—conflict that is an outgrowth of foreign involvement in Afghani affairs over the past four decades. He has been traveling for about two months. Let’s see how he has spent his money: $2,000 to get from Afghanistan to Istanbul by car. $misc to support himself in Turkey for three weeks while he looked for a smuggler and waited to depart. $50 for a life jacket at a store in Turkey. $1,000 to get across the Aegean Sea to Lesvos in a boat with 70 people. $65 for a ferry ticket from Mytilini to Athens. $35 for a train ticket from Athens to Thessaloniki. $25 for a shared car from Thessaloniki to Idomeni. $misc to support himself in Greece while he waits to cross the border. So far he has been waiting 11 days. Teachers in Afghanistan make about $150/month; Pervez started his journey with about three years salary in his pocket. Does he have enough to get back to Afghanistan if the borders never open? While he sits on a cinderblock step in the Idomeni refugee camp, he wonders what will happen. He is determined to wait it out because he wants to live somewhere—anywhere—in Europe where he can work and learn and live. How long will he have to wait?

Meet Fadi. He is in his early thirties. He is from Hama, Syria, a primarily agricultural area of the country famous for growing pistachios. Fadi is well-educated and worked for several years in the Gulf as an administrator in a large corporation before returning to Syria to get married and start a family. He is well-educated, wears glasses and looks like your next-door neighbor (if your neighbor is professional, polite, well-spoken and dresses nicely). He fled Syria with his family because his baby and young children could not sleep due to the constant bombing all around them. I met Fadi and his family in Moria camp over a week ago. We met again in Idomeni yesterday where he was frustrated because the non-food-item distribution tent would only give him 10 diapers for his children. He had walked 1.5 miles from his tent where the family is staying to get diapers and he got 10. He was told that there are 10,000 people in need so his allocation was 10 diapers for his family. Like Pervez, Fadi has spent so much money, time and hope getting this far, he is determined to see the journey through. Unlike Pervez, Fadi is Syrian and so will still have preference if the borders only open to Syrians and not others. For now, he and his family wait and live in tents outside a gas station where the Greek owner was kind enough to tell him they could sleep inside if the rain gets bad. Lucky Fadi. (Soon after we spoke “someone” brought his family two bags of diapers, wipes and a large carton of warm blankets.)

Conditions in Idomeni were marginally better yesterday because it was sunny and the ground was drying out along with everyone’s laundry.

Sunny day in Idomeni

But, the borders are still slammed shut, riot police are stationed at the rail line crossing in case anyone gets a bright idea to try to climb the razor wire fence, and Macedonia is now planning to extend the 19 mile fence another 200 miles.

Greek citizens I spoke with express dismay at the current situation. As individuals they are warm and generous, putting families up in spare apartments, providing food to those who ask and carrying water to thirsty refugees who trudge along in the sun. As a country, possibly the hardest hit by the European economic crisis, Greece is at a real breaking point, and the rest of Europe is watching them grow with refugees and shrink with possibility. Greeks are horrified and embarrassed at what is happening at Idomeni just like we are and feel as helpless as we do when we can only help one diaper at a time.

Children sleeping Idomeni

There, but for the grace of God, go I

OpenthebordersIdomeni

We started our morning with fresh sheep milk butter on warm bread and Greek coffee—a moment of grace to begin the day. That was definitely the high point. Everything after that felt desperate and overwhelming.

Our goal for the day was to get a comprehensive perspective on what is happening at this northern Greek border with Macedonia. Our regional director and medical coordinator are trying to decide what, if anything, SCM can contribute to meeting the crisis here. We started by driving about 40 minutes south east toward Athens to Eko camp. This camp of about 400 sprang up as a result of somewhat unrelated factors. Eko is the name of the fuel station on the highway to the border. It happened to be the location where busses of refugees stopped and dumped their load. Initially, those refugees hitched a ride or called a taxi or tried to find another bus or walked the remaining 15 or so kilometers. But, when the border was closed, and the Idomeni camp began bursting at the seams, some refugees stayed at Eko until they thought they could cross over. Now, there are UNHCR tents, periodic MSF and OTH medical units, and occasional targeted supply distributions like the one we did this morning. We drove in with a car load of supplies—we chose Eko over Idomeni for this distribution because we were warned we would get overrun at Idomeni. Wow, did we learn our lesson. We were immediately swarmed by men, women, children asking—and in some cases very forcefully—for anything we were handing out.

EkoDistribution

In the pouring rain and 45+degree weather, we handed out dry socks, knit hats, scarves and vests, and hygiene kits. The crowd grew and swarmed and pressed in. Despite my commanding demands to step back, we were soon overwhelmed and forced to move on. It was a real slap in the face—crowd control is a science and we are not that kind of scientists.

Kirsten in Eko

Our next stop was Idomeni itself. I think images speak louder than words in this case, so I’ll include several photos.

Everyone and everything was wet from the constant rain that had pounded all night. The medical tents were filled with lines of people coughing and suffering. The portable toilets were filthy with urine and feces simply because they were not numerous enough to meet the demand. The showers are only cold water, so many are foregoing cleanliness in the face of possible hypothermia. Signs warn parents to keep track of their children—human trafficking is a very real danger.

This feels so hopeless—even more so than the prison-turned-refugee-camp in Moria.  At least at Moria the people are warm and dry and sleeping in structures at night.  They get three “solid” meals, warm blankets, services, etc.  And, they still have hope.  Here, they get minimal food, minimal medical care, and you see the photos of where they are sleeping.

TentCityIdomeni

In Moria I was able to make eye contact constantly and speak with people, greeting them in Arabic and asking how they were.  At Idomeni, almost no one looked at me and when they did, they seem so much more sober, resigned, desperate.  One family has been waiting in the camp for THREE WEEKS.  Can you imagine?

UNHCRTentIdomeni

I just keep remembering a phrase I learned as a kid: “There but for the grace of God go I.”  We are so lucky. I see the elderly people and imagine my mother and my father in their shoes—literally.  No 80-year-old deserves to be living like this.  It is humiliating, terrifying and debilitating. They have lived out their years in their home countries and are now here trapped in a soggy, cold, tenuous refugee camp .  One of the volunteers on our team has grandparents in Syria. Her grandfather won’t ever leave because he can’t bear the thought of dying outside his homeland and not being buried with his ancestors.  He would sooner stay in Homs. I can now understand his perspective.

The border has been slammed shut and these people are caught on the wrong side of the door. It has been happening incrementally since September.

GraffitiIdomeni

For a very good summary of EU actions, read this article. Who knows when/if it will open again? The refugees keep arriving in Greece, the gates to the rest of Europe are officially closed. All camps are full. What next for these families?

Shoeless