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Home / Mint-lounge / Features /  Up close with refugees on a Greek island

It was springtime on the island of Lesbos, Greece, and Becky Thompson had just arrived to work with a fellow yogini, Angela Farmer, on a writing project. Thompson, who is an American sociologist and professor of sociology, poet, yoga teacher, and my friend of several decades, was walking along a perfect beach in perfect weather, headed for the hot springs, when a contingent of Syrian students came walking by.

“They were so articulate, so handsome, so well dressed; bright and lively, like students at NYU (New York University). And they were soaked," she said. The students were her first indicators of an exodus that would soon overwhelm Lesbos. Eight months later, she has just returned home to Boston after her third trip there.

You’ve probably read about it—the tiny island in the Aegean Sea, not much bigger than Delhi, with a population of less than 90,000. From 1 January 2015 to 16 January 2016, 885,811 refugees arrived in Greece, according to United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) figures. Most are from Syria and Afghanistan, but there are Iraqis, Iranians, Moroccans, Pakistanis, Sri Lankans…

Many came after weeks of travel, “loaded into cattle cars, squished in, driving through the dark", Thompson said. Those last 5km to Lesbos seem tantalizingly close—Thompson told me that she can see Turkey when she stands on the beach at Lesbos. But 5km of open water in unpredictable weather, with babies, on an overcrowded raft meant only for a festive jaunt around the harbour, with unreliable or no life vests, can be a death trap. The morgue in Lesbos is now so full that there is no room for more bodies.

Rafts started washing up right outside her window. “Some are in retired boats—way way way retired. It costs €1,000 (around 74,000) per person to get out. Smugglers pack everyone on the boat, then they hand the engine over to someone who might never have operated one. The journey takes a couple of hours. Everybody is sliding. Everybody gets in the water. Sopping wet and freezing. We witnessed people dying in the water. I would stand on the shore and wave my arms above my head and shout so they could see where to land."

In April, there were almost no services. Lesbos residents freely gave food and forbidden transport and shelter despite their own crippling financial crisis. What a contrast to the mean-spirited response of so many wealthier nations to a refugee crisis they have helped create.

“They arrived, very hungry, very scared, and had a moment of great jubilation because they didn’t die," said Thompson. “I would take people on my bike, to Kalloni. I would put one child on the front rack and one child on the back, loop backpacks on the handlebars and then push kids up the mountain with their families, for 12 hours at a time."

She met:

A Syrian and an Afghan woman and their children, all sharing one raft.

A 23-year-old woman whose brother was murdered just before she crossed. She brought his photograph with her.

Grandmothers, aged 80 and 81, with their wheelchairs on inner tubes tied to their raft.

A paralysed man who had lost his brace. Thompson found a jeweller who made him a new one with a silver spine.

A two-year-old who climbed on to her lap and said, “I have no father any more."

“Today, there are almost 100 organizations on this little tiny island," said Thompson. “I saw so much infrastructure that I wasn’t sure I was needed any more. But then I realized I could make little interventions."

She and a friend helped organize space in a tent on the shore where young mothers could take their newborns for a little space and privacy, a brief pocket of intimacy.

She also sees how the demands of sheer numbers create a system of bureaucracy. “Now people have to get in lines to get each thing," she said. She sets up shoe stalls where people could come and simply take what they need: “I want to help stop some of the subtle forms of humiliation that I saw happening in the name of helping."

A walk with a newly arrived family; a few minutes to hear somebody’s tale of terror, loss, and reprieve: “Crossing is birth and death. They know they’re not going to go back. These are people who never wanted to leave their homes—until their schools were bombed. They are doctors, professors, artists. But it’s also a birth—they know they made it."

Thompson went to Greece on a spiritual quest, and her road to grace took an unexpected turn. But she might get to the same place in the end—not alone, but with many others.

Angela Farmer was on the beach one day when a raft came in with five wet children. She writes, “Without thinking I pulled off the dress, dried up the last two babies and found suitable clothing for them before I realized the irony of a 76-year-old woman with nothing on other than brief underpants amongst a crowd of Muslims!" In that place of death and hope, it was fine.

When people get on a raft with their children, knowing they might drown but taking the risk because it is their last chance, we must not look away. If rafts full of desperate, proud, brave people started washing up here on the East River, would I go help? Would I sit here and worry about my apartment getting overrun or would I grab warm clothes and race down there, leaving my door open for whoever needed to come in? I don’t know. Would I take my dress off and wrap strangers’ babies in it? I don’t know. I hope I would.

We reach for what is useful,

a skin to wear between weather

patterns, a flame resistant faith,

hope enough

to fit into our backpacks.

—From Fragments by Lena Khalaf Tuffaha

Sohaila Abdulali is a New York-based writer. She writes a fortnightly column on women in the 21st century.

Also ReadSohaila’s previous Lounge columns

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