The Lesvos odyssey

A story of refugees and salvation

Lesvos has become a flashpoint for all that is wrong in the world today, and all that is good. Over the last months, alongside Kos, the island has gained international attention for the entry and plight of refugees.

Walking along the shoreline of Lesvos, at the northern tip of the island and just 10km from the Turkish coast, it’s easy to see why refugees have been coming to the island. It’s not to holiday, as I had been; it is a chance to enter the EU at one of its most vulnerable entry points, one that may or may not be subtly promoted by boat smugglers and people in Turkey.

I found myself face to face with many people, most who have had a wretched and hard journey to get this far. Whilst I was experiencing this on a temporary break from my summer holiday, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of sorrow. It’s why I stopped to help whenever I could, whether it be providing maps, support or advice. This island seems to have a calling for refugees …

For you see, the island has known its fair share of refugees in the past. In the lead-up to the Asia Minor catastrophe of 1922, thousands of Greek people from Turkey fled to the island as a safe haven from persecution. When Smyrna was destroyed in September of the aforementioned year, an American missionary commandeered the Greek fleet and set about rescuing tens of thousands of Greek refugees. Mytilene was the base for the missionary Asa Jennings and the Greek fleet that he was inexplicably given control of as the authorities in Athens and Europe dithered with the problem of Greek refugees. My relatives (those who survived) and Pappou were among those who made their way to the island.

Fast forward to more than nine decades later and Lesvos is once again experiencing refugees and once again Europe is dithering, or rather floundering, as many of the refugees have in their inflatable boats.

I interviewed the newsreader of TV Mytilini, Androniki Koutsavli (Ανδρονίκη Κουτσαβλή), who was born on the island. She told me that at its peak, “17,000 passed through the island in one month”. She explained that it is a tough situation for the refugees and the islanders who themselves are dealing with the crisis. Androniki has reported on the refugees and, like me, has seen them make the long journey from the tip of the island in Efthalou to the camp in Moria near the capital. This is a 70km journey. During the month of Ramadan in July, I witnessed hundreds making the journey, walking in the heat.

The people I met were predominantly from Afghanistan. These people generally come as families. There is nothing more heartbreaking than watching children having to go through torment, as their journey has taken in many hostile countries. Whereas children in Australia will be in school or at playgroup, having proper meals, playing on an iPad, these kids have nothing more than hope … if they actually understand that word.

There was a day when my parents and I went up and down Eftalou and the picturesque Molyvos providing water, maps and words of comfort. My parents are descendents of refugees, their hearts, just like mine, went out to these brave visitors.

When a little girl says to you, “dank you” and a little boy and his parents flash you a smile, you know that they are genuine. It is worth understanding that people haven’t suddenly wanted to come to Europe enticed by the thought of the Eiffel Tower; most have been forced to leave due to the conflicts of their home countries, many under the fear of death or torture.

Other refugees I came across were from areas including the subcontinent and Syria. The difference between those from Syria and the other countries was that they were predominantly men. Reasonably fit, backpacks, maps, single file and on a mission. I have no doubt most are fighters. My only question is, are they from the Assad regime or rebels? Next you may ask, how dangerous will some of them be? I remember when a well-built Syrian man asked me as I waited outside a monastery if I could help him. I had water and juice, two healthy drinks that I would prefer not to consume and in an instant they were his. The smile told me all: relief.

It’s easy to blame the Greek government of Alexis Tsipras. Naturally, it had planned the economic crisis and now the refugees were also its fault; why can’t it wave a magic wand to solve the situation? I have read the reports from news agencies around the world and some have mixed hysteria with blame on Greece. Greece did not start the issues that the refugees are fleeing from. The EU, which is strong enough to bully Greece and Cyprus, has lacked the desire and drive to prevent global issues from escalating. They dithered in Syria, they allowed the Bush regime to destroy Iraq and Afghanistan, they failed to stop Obama from withdrawing his troops from problem areas, they failed to have a genuine solution to the fear and persecution millions will suffer in Asia and the Arab world.

According to Kostas, from a taverna in Mytilene, “Europe seems to be content to allow Italy and Greece to bear the burden of the refugees. They should have been ready, instead they spend all their time arguing with Greece over our debt, and yet they act poorly when people cross over from Africa or Turkey”. Greece could do with the suits of Brussels coming in to lend some real support. The people on the island are doing the same, many are contributing food, blankets, toys and acceptance – the acceptance that many are crowded on the outskirts of the capital in makeshift tents, clothes being washed on the rocks. Imagine the panic if that had occurred in Melbourne or dare I say it Frankfurt.

The issue of refugees finally made international headlines when an off-duty military officer, Antonis Deligiorgis, in Rhodes, swam out and rescued up to 20 people from a sinking boat.

One of them was a 24-year-old woman from Eritrea. Their image was splashed in newspapers around the world. Rather than stay in Greece, she made it clear she wanted to reach mainland Greece and move on, as most seem to want. It is fair to say that Greece, like Italy, is an easy target for people smugglers and refugees. It is now up to the EU to flex some muscle and find a solution. This can include halting the migration from Turkey, as they appear not to be preventing their entry, helping these people from the moment they arrive on the Turkish or Greek coast, rather than merely pointing out how inadequate places such as Lesvos, Kos, Samos and Chios are in dealing with them.

For those in the first world, especially in Brussels and those sipping their lattes in the morning at their favourite cafeteria, spare a thought for each island. Each one has a small population in a small geographical area. They are more equipped for dealing with waves of tourists, escaped donkeys, food shortages and over the centuries, the brutality of foreign occupiers. They are not equipped to sort out refugees. This is something they are learning as they go along. Not even large cities around the world are able to cope with similar situations.

With that in mind, try processing hundreds of refugees every day and then try verifying who they are and if they are detrimental to the island. Most of course are not, though the security of the islanders and fellow refugees is paramount. Once processed, they will be taken to Athens and possibly from there to other countries.

It is interesting to see, in some of the tourist spots, tourists still going about their business, having a great holiday whilst the newly arrived are allowed the space to breathe and recover. Unlike some of the reports from Kos, the visitors to Lesvos just want to get their second chance in life without being involved in any fracas.

As someone who has spent 14 months of his life in Lesvos, it is easy for me to defend my island. We are not as wealthy as London nor have we the infrastructure of Washington. Therefore, to those who persist in making rash judgements including how the camp Kara Tepe (in Moria) “is the kind of camp that could exist in conflict zones in many parts of the world, but it’s not in a conflict zone: it’s in Greece, on the Aegean island of Lesbos”. That is attributed to Mr Nick Barnetts, reporting for Al Jazeera. My hope is he can spend quality time living on the island to understand what it is and is not.

Journalists fly in and fly out of the areas they report on. This is what they do. Unfortunately, when it concerns my own island and how difficult life has been there for many, it would be great for more people in the media to be fair to the Greek authorities.

It is the same Greek authorities who have to daily clean the dumped vessels and life vests which number in the hundreds. Just take a walk along the Efthalou coast.

To the paranoid in the British media who daily give us stories of Calais – I understand that just 1 per cent of the 200,000 ‘migrants’ to Europe thus far in 2015 have made it via Calais. Europe has a population of over 740 million.

Is there an end? As long as there are significant issues in countries from Libya to Pakistan, there is no doubt that refugees will try to make their way to the Europe. Many borders seem to be lax; this is a situation that Europe and the US must take responsibility for. The EU had previously pulled funding from border patrols and many developed countries around the world have reduced their aid budgets. This needs to reassessed. Greece needs support and they need Turkey to take more responsibility. Having said that, Turkey currently has an estimated 1.5 million refugees from Syria and Iraq inside its borders, which means it too will need help.

Lesvos will continue to function as an island. That is what we are, an island. It is not a Dubai, it is a remote island. The people have shown compassion and patience, a typical element found on Lesvos and in the spirit of many of its recent visitors.

* Billy Cotsis is the director of the short film Draconian Decision of the German Drachma.