The pink moon

Last night when I went outside to say goodbye to a friend, we saw the ‘pink moon’ we’d been told to expect. But it wasn’t pink, it was bright orange. An extraordinary sight, hanging low over the Turkish coastline. The top line of lights on the left of the photo is the Turkish coast; the bottom line is the coast of Lesbos.

Today I climbed up the steep concrete road behind my building, hoping to get a view down to the lagoon on the far side of the hill. But the road fizzled out at the gated entrance to a private villa, and I turned onto a dirt track which followed the contour in the opposite direction. It was early afternoon and the sunshine was dazzling, but the wind remained very cold. (It hasn’t escaped me that in the UK it was 23 degrees yesterday and today – while here it was 13 yesterday and about 16 today.) The dirt track wound its way slowly upwards through terraced olive groves. The trees were gnarled and ancient-looking, the soil was more like crumbling flakes of rock and wildflowers grew everywhere. Dark, indigo-coloured lavender, with tiny bees flitting from stem to stem, and a pale lilac flower with five petals and an egg-yolk coloured centre. The petals are slightly crumpled, as if they were made of some fabric that crushes easily and has just come out of a suitcase. And growing in amongst them, wild thyme. I took a tiny side path which wound its way upwards then disappeared in a tangle of heather. I wasn’t up for a long walk so I sat down under a tree and spent an hour drawing. Below me, down on the coast, the olives were interspersed with villas, all of which seemed to have new roofs of the same bright orange. Then the sea, sweeping round a headland; and on the horizon, the hilly coast of Turkey. It’s five miles away, but it looked astonishingly close.

 

Dancing in the kitchen

‘OHF’ is the acronym for the Swiss NGO with whom I’m volunteering. It’s a day centre for refugees who are trapped on Lesbos. They’ve risked their lives crossing the sea in inflatable dinghies from western Turkey to the island and put in their asylum claims; now they have to wait, confined to the island, while the claim is processed. This can take two years or more.

‘OHF’ stands for ‘One Happy Family’. The name sounds twee to an English ear, but there are very few of those : the volunteers I’ve met so far are Swiss, German, Austrian, Greek, Spanish, French and American, plus a small contingent of Brits. And after four days at OHF, I understand why the name was chosen. The centre does exactly what it says on the tin: it provides a warm, lively and supportive community for refugees from diverse backgrounds at a time when they’re feeling (and are) extremely vulnerable. The present refugees who visit OHF are from Afghanistan, Pakistan, Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Cameroon, Sudan and Congo, among other countries.

OHF occupies a former industrial building on a windy hilltop overlooking the sea. The sixty or so ‘helpers’ who run the place alongside the volunteers are themselves refugees. Most live in Moria, the overcrowded former army camp a few miles outside Mytilene which is sometimes in the news due to the intense overcrowding and appalling conditions there. The uncertainty about the future, combined with the living conditions, causes acute additional stress to people who’ve fled their countries due to violence and trauma; and volunteering at OHF can help take their minds off things. It also provides warmth, friendship and an opportunity to improve English language skills.

People working at OHF frequently refer to the centre as a ‘bubble’: a place with a happy atmosphere where up to one thousand visitors a day can temporarily forget their troubles. Most are young men in their early twenties; but there are also families, single women, children and a small number of older people. Nowhere is the upbeat atmosphere more striking than in OHF’s tiny kitchen, where two refugee chefs and their team of helpers produce a delicious, free meal every day for all comers. The food is cooked and served to the accompaniment of loud African and Middle Eastern music, and sometimes a glance through the serving hatch reveals the chefs and their assistants dancing while they work.

The Afghans

The refugee situation on Lesbos has changed since I was here a year ago. In Moria camp, the former military base where the vast majority of refugees are obliged to live, the population has dwindled from 8,000 a few months ago to just 4,500. The camp’s capacity is two thousand people, so it’s still very overcrowded, but not as bad as it was. It remains dirty and unsafe, especially for lone women and unaccompanied children and the medical care remains very basic. Medecins sans Frontiere run a clinic outside the camp, but they only have capacity to treat women and children.

The reason for the drop in numbers is that a large number of refugees have been transferred to camps and other accommodation on the mainland. Ninety per cent of those who remain are Farsi-speaking Afghans. The ones I’ve spoken to in the last couple of days say that life in Afghanistan has become even more unsafe than before, due to the rising power of Isis, who are present there in substantial numbers. The risks faced by Afghans are not properly recognized in Europe. Many are refused asylum and some get deported. Apparently it’s no coincidence that the Afghans are the biggest refugee group on Lesbos: their claims are dealt with more slowly than those of the Kurds, Arabs and Africans (whose claims have generally taken up to two years to process).

The EU-Turkey Agreement of 2016 remains in force; about two thirds of the boats setting off for the Greek islands from the Turkish coast are forced to return there. Refugees who make it to Lesbos often report that their successful crossing was their third or fourth attempt. How many of them appreciate just how difficult their lives will be from the moment they arrive in Greece, is hard to say.

Spring in Lesbos

Lesbos is as beautiful as ever, but it’s the wettest spring on record and the rain hasn’t stopped yet. I’m staying up in the hills above Mytilini, which is the perfect place to be. I look down across a citrus grove to the sea in the distance and beyond it the coast of Turkey. At night it’s all lit up; in the day time, when the weather clears, I can almost make out individual buildings. The distance is just five miles: long enough to be dangerous in an overcrowded inflatable dinghy, but not really very far. It’s a strange feeling to stand looking across the water and reflect that this is Europe but Asia begins just over there.

After so much rain the hillsides are bursting with lush green vegetation and frogs croak in puddles. Ancient olive trees with thick, twisted trunks and grey-blue leaves; the large, pointed leaves of small chestnut trees; fig leaves like big hands; and orange and lemon trees laden with fruit. Fruit it seems that will never be picked. This evening my landlady agreed that I could climb down the metal staircase into the neighbours’ citrus orchard and help myself to a handful of lemons. I couldn’t resist taking a couple of oranges as well. It was dusk and the colour of the oranges against the dark leaves was dazzling.

I started work today, but more of that tomorrow as I have to ask the NGO how they feel about blogging.

 

 

 

 

 

 

x

Rain on the Acropolis

It’ s been raining on and off today in Athens, where I’ve stopped briefly on my way to Lesbos. Such a relief to be away from the protracted Brexit agony. Three years ago when I first came to Greece to talk with Syrian refugees, I glanced at the incipient Brexit saga from afar in disbelief. In the context of the suffering in Syria, our planned referendum seemed like an act of national self indulgence, one which got in the way of us helping people who desperately needed our assistance. But in the last nine months I’ve become obsessed by it, watching the news avidly every night and tending to switch off mentally when Channel Four talks about anything else. I’m ashamed to admit that, but it’s true. Brexit has sucked me in, like a vortex.

And now I’m back in Greece, about to find out what life’s like in 2019 for the fifty thousand odd refugees who are stuck here. The organisations which support them are generally very critical of the EU’s failings. When I was here in 2016, and even in 2017 and 2018, I shared their anger. No doubt I’ll feel that way again; but in the last few months I’ve developed something close to real respect for the EU leaders I see nightly on the box. When I compare them to British politicians, they seem states-person-like; dignified and infinitely more clear-headed.

This afternoon I walked around the Acropolis in the rain. My first visit. It was a treat to climb up high and see Athens spread out below, its streets grey and white, with clumps of cypress trees, the mist-shrouded sea, islands and tiny ships. The semi-ruined columns of golden stone are an apt reminder of how great civilizations exist in time; how they come and go. (I don’t mean Britain was ever a great civilization, but I do think there’s something in the idea that Brexit is the dying spasm of a former empire.)The whole site is littered with lumps of rock which still lie where they fell when the Venetians blasted the Parthenon in 1687; interspersed with weeds, dark red poppies, and wandering pussy cats. A tabby with a pigeon in its mouth was darting about between the tourists, searching for a private spot in which to devour its prey.

Refugees in the Shadow of Brexit

Refugees in the Shadow of Brexit

The plight of Syrian refugees trapped in Greece has been largely forgotten in the UK, where all eyes are on parliament and the collapsing government of Theresa May, as the Brexit drama escalates in a crescendo of anger and irreconcilable positions.

The public is bitterly divided between Brexiteers, Remainers, and those who just want the issue to go away. What a lot of us could agree on, however, is that the domination of our politics by the Brexit debate has resulted in the abject neglect of a number of very pressing issues. People who feel this are generally thinking of the NHS, elderly care, climate change, the housing crisis, schools. These issues are of crucial importance to ordinary UK citizens; but we should also try to remember the refugees, many of whom are women and children, still suffering acutely on Europe’s borders. Our country may be about to depart from the EU; but our government supported the EU-Turkey deal of 2016, which put a vigorous brake on the numbers of Syrians making it to Greece; and our government refused to participate in the Relocation scheme, under which consenting European countries welcomed agreed numbers of refugees. (All the UK agreed to do, under David Cameron, was to accept 20,000 Syrians over five years from 2015 – 2020 under the Syria Vulnerable Person Resettlement Scheme).

Although the issue is rarely covered in the media these days, Syrian, Iraqi, Afghan and other refugees have continued to arrive in Greece this year, a few by land and the vast majority by sea. The latter risk their lives on inflatable dinghies and, if they are not turned back by the Turkish coastguard, disembark in the eastern Greek islands (principally Lesbos, Chios,Samos, Leros, Kos Rhodes and Kastellorizo). Up to 2 December, 29,784 have arrived in Greece by sea[1], while another 36,000 were turned back by the Turkish Coast Guard[2]. The vast majority of those who make it across the sea are then prohibited from leaving the island in question, and have to endure up to two years of uncertainty whilst their asylum claims are processed.

Two years on a Greek island might sound appealing to those of enduring the poisonous politics of Brexit Britain; but life for asylum seekers on the islands is extremely difficult. In Lesbos, which currently has 9,000 asylum seekers, a full two thousand will endure the winter in flimsy tents. (In the winter of 2016-2017, several asylum seekers died of cold in Lesbos due to living in tents.) The main ‘reception centre’ is the notorious Moria camp, originally constructed as an army facility able to accommodate 2,000 at most; it now houses around 7,000. Medical care is very poor; psychological care, for the many refugees who arrive in a traumatised state having just fled extreme political violence, is virtually non-existent. Overcrowding and frustration with bureaucratic delays leads to an atmosphere of high tension in the camp, which sometimes erupts into violence. When it does, unaccompanied children and single women are the most vulnerable. But even when the camp is relatively calm, sexual assault is a major problem, with the result that women are often afraid to go to the toilet blocks at night due to the risk of attack.

Most of the big NGOs have left the Greek islands. Refugees depend for physical, psychological and moral support on small NGOs such as Lesbos Solidarity, which runs a small, independent camp for the most vulnerable at Pikpa and a community centre in Mytilini (https://www.lesvossolidarity.org/en); and One Happy Family, which runs a thriving community centre close to Moria camp (https://ohf-lesvos.org/en/about/). They both operate on shoe-strings and depend on the generosity of the public for their funding.

If you wish to learn more about the refugee crisis in Greece and the war in Syria, my book Hara Hotel: A Tale of Syrian Refugees in Greece is on offer at £8.50 if bought directly from the publisher before 1 January 2019. Follow the link: https://www.versobooks.com/search?q=Hara+Hotel

Image thanks to Lesbos Solidarity

[1] Figure from UNHCR Data Portal, Greece, accessed on 9.12.18

[2] Figure from One Happy Family newsletter, December 2018

The Taylor

Today I sat on a tiny stool in a taylor’s workshop, waiting to put some questions to the taylor, a Syrian Kurd by the name of Diari. I was in a wonderful refugee community centre which occupies a site on a run-down industrial estate above the sea in the vicinity of one of the camps, and is run by a bunch of inspired young volunteers.

from Turkish waters to Greek waters

Today I met a woman who keeps watch at night for refugee boats. She has a small group of people who live near the beach and they take turns to watch – with binoculars – and to be on call to respond. Most of the boats these days are met either by the Greek coastguard or by Frontex, but about ten per cent of them make it to the shore without being intercepted.

Turkey’s Coastline

Last night at dusk I plunged into the sea. I‘d found a little ‘beach’ beside the main airport road about 3 minutes walk from the place I’m staying. It was dusk and the wind was getting up, but it was a warm wind and I was hot and sticky from walking and I just couldn’t resist the temptation.