Some thoughts and pictures and feelings from a week in Lesvos where thousands of people arrive in search of refuge every day. Where people who have already travelled great distances, displaying courage and mountains of resilience, come ashore in little boats, mostly unsafe. Where rocky beaches have become the scene of the arrival of thousands of people on the move, coming in wet and often very scared. This coastline and these waters have seen many, many deaths, much struggle and much survival.
It’s hard to talk about, seems a little easier to write about, but where to find the language for what you’ve witnessed? To describe it without appropriating it? To convey it and not to minimise one iota of it? This is just a snapshot, just a week, a glimpse into what people are being forced into – privilege enables it to be just that for me.
What strikes most is the sheer numbers of people coming, people on the move, people in boats and walking, walking. These people have been victimised by capitalism, climate change, war – western invasions, dictators, injustice BUT they are not victims, they are survivors with immense resilience and courage and if Fortress Europe opens itself up, we have so much to learn from them.
(Using the term ‘them’ makes me uncomfortable – I dont see people in such ways, but to do otherwise is to try to coopt experiences that aren’t mine)
Driving over the hills of the island, en route to pick up older people, kids, families to bring to the camps, you’re driving past the groups of young men (they always end up bottom of the heap) and they are waving, smiling and flashing the peace sign – what great stuff we could all have if we opened the borders and just let people in, let them be, let us all be, together….
What is also striking is the absence of official structures and resources – this is criminal given the magnitude of this crisis, and it is an indictment of the EU governments. The seeming randomness of volunteers doing their best to provide support is a shock to the system. But it is also brilliant and inspirational to see how much people can organise and cooperate to such a degree. And the reasons why – because they reject the othering of our sisters and brothers on the move, reject the closing of borders and minds, and want to just hold out a hand in solidarity. It is beautiful and it is how it should be.
Although you meet people for a really brief time, it is quite intense, naturally given the circumstances. So there is much hugging and much kindness – it’s incredible how people on the move, even at their most vulnerable, can give so much. Since then, always wondering how they will fare, what awaits them in Europe, will they be welcomed, embraced as they should be… Where are they now? How are they getting on? Are they ok?
The absolute injustice being visited on so many has to end.
We need safe passage for all refugees as a minimum requirement, and we need to open the borders, stop the racism embrace each other, learn from each other, live with each other, love each other.
Oh yeah, and dismantle capitalism and the patriarchy…..Until then – no borders, one love.
The rest of my ramblings are below.
Solidarity and shared humanity. Amidst all the sadness and awfulness of the enforced displacement of so many people, there is much to fill your heart. The resilience, courage and dignity of the people on the move is extraordinary, it really is something. Much of the local population on the island is out helping, offering support and a welcome. There is incredible self-organisation among different people offering a helping hand, and among those on the move themselves. There is also so much friendship, some of it really passing and brief, but very real, some of it less fleeting but equally intense. When people are thrown together in the absence of governments, they manage pretty well even in tough circumstances. All this cooperation and common humanity – we can be together outside the war machine and the extremes of capitalism and it is good. No borders, no gods, no masters.
Incongruity – the contrast of the beauty of this Greek island, so pretty and full of character, with what it has turned into – often a grave, a place of refuge, a place of hurt and hope- is stark and strange. For the local people it must be transformative, hopefully in positive ways, but definitely in profound ways. For the people on the move, it looks like it represents mainly relief – at having survived the sea crossing, at having reached Europe and the potential that offers (if it does). Maybe it’s just a hyper magnification of this world as we live it now -riven by inequality and strife – the close proximity of ‘normality’ and privilege to enforced displacement and extreme stress. Sometimes driving people from the boats to the camps, along the beautiful coastline, I just wished they could all stay there on this lovely island and not have to keep going on that grim walk to who knows what…but….
Snapshots of Lesvos. Kindness – shared humanity. One of the main things you do on Lesvos is drive as many people as you can from where their boats come in to the first camp before they have to go for registering. On the second day we drove a lovely family from Afghanistan to Oxy camp – they were from Kabul and Kunduz. The young women were teachers and we laughed at having this in common and being in that van together. They asked us if we knew Afghanistan is unsafe and we said of course and talked about the US bombing of the hospital in Kunduz. They were planning to go to Germany and wondered if they would be accepted there. We hugged goodbye and we wished them luck – it’s an awful moment there as what we have in common ends at the camp because of privilege inequity… A minute later I was just going back to the van when one of the women ran up to me and gave me this nose ring – she had noticed I wear one. In the middle of what she and her family were going through she did that, such a beautiful act – it could break your heart.
Snapshots of Lesvos. Privilege. And luck. We’ve got them. The privilege to choose to come here, to board planes, boats, buses at will. To choose the right shoes to wear for the rocks, the warm clothes to keep the wind out, the bed for the night. To choose.
To only have to deal with the ‘normal’ hurt that life can bring, sometimes hurt which is more than enough to bear but to not have massive violence piled on top of it. To not be displaced, uprooted, othered.
To not have to witness your homeland torn apart and destroyed by dictators, by imperialist attack, by crippling poverty, by climate change, until even your home is not safe, your future not possible, not there.
To not have to walk the world being exploited by the ruthless profiteers of misery, to not have to get on unsafe boats making perilous sea crossings while others get to board ferries. To not have to endure, to keep going, keep walking in the hope of something better, anything better.
To choose when to be on the move. To choose.
On the move and on the road. When people get to Lesvos they have a lot of walking to do, on winding, dusty, rocky roads – up hills, along cliffsides, and long, very long. One of the main things volunteers can do is to drive as many people as possible to the camps. It’s a tiny part of their journey but it’s some of it at least and if you can do it together with warmth and solidarity, that’s a good thing. These roads are hard and scary to walk and also make for some very hairy driving. This will all worsen as the weather deteriorates. This can’t be allowed to continue. Open the borders.
Ways of looking, ways of seeing. On Lesvos you look at the sea differently, you scrutinise it watching out for boats coming in – it’s an anxious looking, especially at night when the journey seems so much more frightening, so much lonelier. For the people preparing to get on the water, the alteration in perception must be so much more profound. For those on the water it must be near unbearable and the shore so goddamn important. For the people who’ve already made the perilous crossing and are waiting for loved ones, it has to be torture. How we see everything has to be altered by all this movement, and how our world is operated has to change. In the meantime, open the borders.
Altered landscapes – the shoreline of the island is covered in piles of useless life jackets, there are clothes and shoes drying all along the water. It’s testament to the abject failure of all the systems we are supposed to hold up as somehow a model for others, for the ‘other’. The spoils of this rampant capitalist war machine are the visible remnants of people’s lives. It has to end and, in the meantime, open the borders.
Some of the people we met on their journeys.
A Syrian woman whose 14 year old son made his own way to Germany, she hadn’t seen him in 8 months.
A man from Syria who when I asked where he and his family were heading said: we just want to be somewhere there’s no fighting.
A family from Kabul and Kunduz in Afghanistan who told us how dangerous it is and wondered: will Germany accept us?
An older Afghan woman devastated at having to leave. Her son said: my mother is just so sad.
A typical teenager on her phone all the time, just looking for a charger, not in the least interested in us smile emoticon Iraqi and Syrian lads talking football and nervous that we were trying to kill them with my driving and then trap them when the van door wouldn’t open!
Families travelling with very elderly relatives, people with disabilities.
As you drive along the road picking people up to drive to the camps, the walkers are waving and smiling. People exhibit so much warmth, strength and resilience even in the face of this exile and the unknown roads ahead. We have much to learn from them, if we open our hearts, our lives and of course the borders. One world.
‘Modernity’ – this system of war and rampant capitalism is sending millions of people’s lives backwards. With all the means of transport available now, it is unthinkable that people are being forced to travel thousands of miles on foot, to cross seas in unsafe boats, wearing dangerous life jackets – at best to be met by volunteers, at worst by no one. War and poverty are not incidental to the system, they are inevitable and necessary for it to thrive. It has to end. And in the meantime OPEN THE BORDERS.
HOME. I’ve got a place called home and so do most of the people I love. I’ve just come to this place on a plane, through airports, with no problems, because of my white person’s passport. No one is going to run or bomb me out of here, to make it impossible to be here. No one is going to force me across the world on foot, on boats, in danger and precarity. No one is going to hurt me and stop me finding a new home. This planet is for all of us, not some of us, it’s everyone’s home – let’s make it be that way.
On night shift on the hillsides looking out with torches and night goggles for boats coming in, obviously this journey is much more dangerous and frightening at night, in the dark, in the cold. Two boats came in in the last few hours, in darkness and it’s freezing. They weren’t expected so there weren’t many people around on the beach. Thankfully everyone seems *relatively* ok but, despite buses being organised and people ferrying them, there are still loads walking long, long ways to the camps, over mountains, along cliffsides and very dodgy roads. Pics also of Karatepe camp which is only for Syrian families, and the ‘best’ camp but still is a camp, and also is right beside a sewage treatment plant spewing out toxic fumes. Even though there is immense resilience and resourcefulness in the people on the move and people trying to give a hand, the situation is wrong, full stop. It is neither right nor sustainable that people on the move are being forced into these conditions and the enrichment of ruthless traffickers is being enabled, and that it is largely being left to volunteers to try to ease the path. Fortress Europe is an abomination that can’t be allowed to continue. #openborders .
It’s difficult to find the words for what’s happening here in Lesvos and this is only one stage on people’s journeys. Yesterday boats were coming in full of cold, scared people – being handed a child off a boat by a terrified mum in the water – it’s beyond wrong that this is happening to people. Talking to a family from Afghanistan who had spent a month living in a forest in Turkey, they were on their way to Germany – hopefully and full of hope – will we be accepted there….? Jesus christ, I hope so. A woman trying to change her wet clothes up the side of a mountain, privacy is rare now. Huge walks for people up steep, steep hills. This is brutal, medieval – all the technology, the transport, everything that’s available and this is how people are forced to move. There is no dignity from Fortress Europe, it is shameful. But there is dignity and resilience in abundance in these people on the move – and much to learn. Travel safe and may you find safety and hope.
Shots of the shoreline in Lesvos today, fake life jackets sold at extortionate prices, one of the many used boats… Lots of people came in today and mercifully the weather is relatively calm at the moment so, while extremely dangerous and traumatic, it wasn’t fatal -today. It’s impossible to quantify the magnitude of what people are having to go through to reach Europe and to square that this is only one step on a massive journey. What’s behind them, what’s ahead of them and how can it be that so much human energy and incredible resourcefulness is spent in such ways? This cannot continue, we need to build a world where we are all safe in our homes and, on the way to that, we have to welcome, really welcome those who are not.