Tuesday, May 19, 2015

Ideas: how it started

This is the story of Ideas, a refugee from Syria. We met him in Greece, when we were in Lesbos, in the town of Molyvos. Between 50 and 150 refugees arrive there by raft from Turkey (6 miles east of the island) in the little harbor and on the beaches of this community. They just sit at the side of the road..

or in the fishing harbor

while tourists pass by.
We -my wife Ine Poppe and me- started documenting their story. That's also the story of the Greek/ The community of Molyvos, like every part of Greece, is severely stricken by the crisis. And still they are there in the harbor. Distributing tampax, diapers, clothing and food.
Using the scarse means they have to prevent a humanitarian disaster to happen..
It was in the harbor that we met Ideas, who spoke English and was translating for his group.
We started chatting and after a while I decided to give him my business card. The recommendation the people of Molyvos gave us when we started helping them (we did that briefly, by the way) was to never cry in front of the newly arrived refugees and never, ever give them your adress or telephone number. Nevertheless I did.
A couple of days later I received his first Whatsapp message and we've been chatting since then.

Ideas agreed to tell the story of his journey. And that's what he did: almost every day I get messages, sometimes with pictures, sometimes we just chat. It is a rollercoaster ride: once you're in, you just can't help being involved. In this blog the account of the Balkan route: a hike through Greece and the Balkans, to reach salvation, as Ideas puts it.

To give you a bit more context, here's an article we -Ine Poppe and Sam Nemeth, wrote about the situation on Lesbos:
'We saw them coming up the beach on the morning after our arrival: 40 or 50 people with hardly any possesions. Wet and exhausted. We were devastated and decided the only thing we could do was help' says Becky Thompson, university researcher from Boston, in Molyvos for a yoga course. Her travel companion Irene Harriford: 'We're involved, we have to. This morning Becky was waving at the beach to signal where the boats could land safely, after we heard the UN helicopters and knew they were coming.'
This summer an exodus from the instable countries -to use an euphemism- around the Mediterranean and much further is really taking place: on the Greek island of Lesbos Lesbos the numbers of refugees who sail the 7 miles from Turkey in cheap Chinese dinghies have increased from 50 to > 500 a day. A humanitarian disaster is taking place on one of the EU's most popular holiday destinations.

Everywhere on the island we see refugees, individuals or groups. At night we hear helicopters flying up and down the coastline. Sometimes the coastguard calls to the dinghies through their megaphones. We talk to a local coastguard officer who is clearly impressed by what is going on.

We have this problem for a while,’ says the president (mayor) Athanasios Andriotis of Molyvos 'but in these numbers the situation is spinning out of control.' He receives us in the municipality, and the conversation is translated by civil servant Theodora, who studied sociology in the UK. The Greek have a soft spot for refugees. Almost everybody on the island has a refugee in the family, the result of 400 years of Turkish occupation and WO2. But the problems they have now are bigger than their personal involvement. A political solution has to be found, on short notice, say both Theodora and the president.

The approach of the Greek police is lenient. They collect people, take their names and send them to the refugee camps in Mytilini, the capital of Lesbos. Then they are taken to Athens, in large cruise ships.

I haven't had a moment of rest in two weeks’, says the Molyvos' chief of police, who later appears the husband of Theodora. About her husband: ‘if he's home he's silent. He stares, that's all he's capable of’
During our days on Lesbos we get more and more involved. In the small fishing harbor the refugees get 'first contact' relief in the restaurant van Melinda Mc Rostie. Melinda is the spider in the web of the local relief group. She distributes water, food and cloths helped by other volunteers. We see her giving orders when a large group is on the terrace of her restaurant. 'I just do this, how long I can take this, I cannot say', says Greek/Australian Mc Rostie, 'my restaurant is closest to the harbor and they are here, first with few, now with sometimes 400 a day. This is an exodus'.
And of course we start helping too when the next group arrives. We make sandwiches and listen to their stories.
I thought for a long time Syria would recover’, says Ideas (not his real name), from Damascus. ‘But after 4 years of misery and violence I just could not cope anymore. I'm a student and there is hardly any educational infrastructure, for nobody. We left yesterday and were sent back by the Turkish coastguard, this morning I left again, for another 1000 $ (the set fare for an illegal journey from Turkey) and was scared that we would not make it because I'm broke. But thanks to Allah we made it.' Ideas is the only one in his group who speaks English. He tells us the traffickers tell the refugees they have to say they come from Syria, in order to get their refugee status. 'In truth our group consists of Afghans, Pakistani and Iranians, apart from about 50% Syrians.'

The beaches of Lesbos are littered with cheap Chinese dinghies and life vests. The island tried for years to make the best of it and save their livelyhood (the majority of islanders depends on the tourist industry). But all involved insist that's over now. They need an acceptable solution fast.
The president, but also the Molyvos' police criticize the second treaty of Dublin stating refugees have to be taken care of in the first country of arrival. ‘This policy is for all PIGS-countries (Portugal, Spain, Italy and Greece) not realistic. The economically most challenged countries of the EU have carry the heaviest burden.'
We speak with Dutch tourists (60% of the tourist population of Lesbos). Most of them are in denial. 'We are on holiday and weren't aware of this', says Irma van Tuil from Elst in the Netherlands. After being informed by Becky Thompson she joins her to support the refugees. She's the exception. Most tourists, confronted with this disaster, don't know how to respond to it. They discuss it when having dinner in one of the harbor restaurants, overlooking the first contact relief work. The awkwardness of the situation does not seem to get through to them.
It is probably no coincidence that the Turkish resorts of Bodrum and Izmir are starting points for the refugees. Long beaches are difficult to guard and a dinghy can easily land. The locals are reluctant to complain, not wanting to endanger their business.
This means we are entering a summer where the tourists at the Greek isles come eye to eye with history. And that can be, in the words of a representative of a tour operator 'a confrontational experience'.

We stayed in touch with Ideas since our visit to Lesbos. He has been transported to Athens, he found completely crammed with refugees. His group is currently taking the Balkan route: they're walking from Athens to Hungary, and from there further to the countries that will take them. This is a hazardous trip, with robbers and police chasing the refugees, sleeping rough and lack of food and water most of the time. The group is currently trying to cross the border between Greece and Macedonia. The police have sent them back once, so this is their second run.  

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