Just before Christmas, the number of asylum seekers reaching Europe this year passed one million. More than 400,000 of those refugees first came ashore on the beaches of just one Greek island, where the residents of Lesbos have offered them a far warmer welcome than they have received from some governments.[emailpetition id=”1″]
In the north of the island, villagers with a telescope can see the refugees embarking from the Turkish shores in the distance, reports Patrick Kingsley for the Guardian.
“We are so close to Turkey,” says 83-year-old Emilia Kavisi, a former olive-picker whose house sits metres from the sea. “We can hear the noises and the screams at night.”
It is a vantage point that leaves islanders like Kavisi with strong views about Europe’s failure to provide safe passage to people who are coming — whether the continent wants them or not. “It’s inhumanity,” she says. “Cruelty.”
With few exceptions, Kingsley writes, the residents of Lesbos have offered far warmer a welcome than the governments of the EU.
Emilia Kavisi has become a symbol of the local response, after being photographed in October cuddling a refugee’s baby on the beach, and singing it to sleep. The picture became famous across Greece – but she did not do it for the fame, she says. She did it because her parents were once in the same situation. Like many on the island, they too once fled here from Turkey – when the Greeks were expelled in 1922.
“My father took only a pair of shoes with him, and this sewing machine,” she says, pointing at a contraption still sitting on her window ledge. “That’s why I felt so passionately about helping. I remembered these memories of my family.”
Kavisi’s generosity is part of a wider wave of compassion that has swept across the north coast in the second half of the year, writes Kingsley. Back in June, the inflatable refugee boats were usually met by a handful of local activists, if they were met at all. The people who disembarked then had to walk 40 miles to the registration centres in the south of the island. Six months on, the situation is much improved. A kind of activist international has descended on this isolated coast, and together with the Greek community they have created a largely self-run humanitarian operation.
Volunteers have divided the coastline into four zones of responsibility, with different charities – some of which have been created for this specific purpose – in charge of receiving the boats that land within their respective jurisdictions. They include doctors from France, activists from Wisconsin, and lifeguards from Spain. Next to a sea in which more than 700 have drowned so far this year, this is hailed as a significant development.
“It is incredible,” says Eric Kempson, a British woodcarver and local resident, whose family was once one of the only reception parties.
“We started in February and had three months on our own,” he says. “Then in June we got our first volunteers. Now we have watchtowers along the coastlines. We know when the boats leave – we have a whatsapp group so that everyone knows where the boats are. And we have RIBs [rigid-hulled inflatable boats] to meet the boats and bring them into beaches, where we have medical teams and food teams ready there and waiting.”
From there, the migrants are driven to the EU’s registration centres in the island’s south – and it is here that matters become more desperate. Syrians are given priority, leaving refugees of other nationalities sleeping outside in the cold, sometimes for several days. Moroccans, deemed to all be fleeing poverty rather than danger, are now not registered at all – leading them to mount an ongoing protest. Afghans escaping the likes of the Taliban are allowed to register, but often only after a week in the chill conditions – prompting some to lie about their nationality. “I am Syrian,” claims a new Afghan arrival who speaks no Arabic.
But still they come. The weather is worsening, the deaths are increasing, and so too are the arrests of smugglers and refugees on the Turkish side. Yet almost 71,000 people have still braved the crossing to the Greek islands so far in December – 35 times more than in same month last year, and double the 2014 total.
On Tuesday, reports Kingsley, at least a dozen boats chug ashore on the beaches of Lesbos, each carrying around 40 shivering human beings. Some of them are on crutches, many of them carry babies. All of them hope for a welcome that befits the season of the nativity, the inspiration for which was himself – some priests are pointing out – once a needy migrant from the Middle East.
“I am happy to be here at Christmas, and to share in it,” says Nemer, a 24-year-old Syrian business student, in the moments after setting foot in Europe for the first time. “I am a Muslim, but I’m coming in hope – coming to behave as I’m supposed to in the countries that I’m arriving in.”
Shortly afterwards, Nemer lays down his lifejacket – another candidate for the strange orange plateau in the hills high above him, where the residents of Lesbos have piled hundreds of thousands of [the refugees’] discarded orange lifejackets… [a] silent swath of orange – 3.7 meters (11 ft) tall in places.
On this Greek island’s north coast, activists have launched their own humanitarian operation, part of a wider wave of compassion that has offered arriving refugees a far warmer welcome than the governments of the EU. Read more at: theguardian.com