I arrived here on Thursday at 5pm, after a horrendous 50 minute flight from Athens of non-stop turbulence. The weather, as an Irish volunteer put it yesterday, is a “bit inclement” at the moment. To put it mildly. It has rained heavily and incessantly since I arrived. Everyone, everywhere, everything, is a varying degree of damp, wet or soaking.
From the plane, the sea was visibly rough with rolling white horses. Turbulence usually terrifies me but not this time. I knew I would arrive safe and sound, which is more than can be said for many of the people making the crossing to Lesvos from Turkey by dinghy.
Mytilini is the main town on the island. The airport is here and so is the port, with regular connections to Turkey and the Greek mainland.
At first sight, Mytilini is a normal, sleepy, island town. After leaving my bags at the accommodation we go for a wander to get a feel for the place. Will, who arrived before me, tells me of a post-apocalyptic feel to the town centre. I don’t really listen, I’m tired. Not prepared for the reality of people everywhere, huddled in every door way, bus shelter, covered area, sheltering from the rain. As we approach the port, where a giant Hellenic Seaways ferry is docked there are more and more people. Refugees everywhere. Flimsy pop-up tents set up on the pavements, buffeting in the wind and rain. It’s very wet and they are in the streets, waiting to take the ferry to the mainland. There are lots of children, who are so resilient and still laughing and playing. There are some women, but not many, it is mainly men, young men and boys. There is a pregnant woman. There are people from Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan as well as Syria. Many unusual beautiful eyes and faces telling so many stories of endurance and suffering. Across the sea we can see Turkey. In the harbour the rubber dinghies they have crossed in are tied up, full of abandoned life jackets and litter, clothing. This is a desperate situation but the people seem to be in remarkably good spirits. I imagine that they are so glad to have got this far, and are taking the journey each step at a time, which is all they can do.
Also in Mytilini is the Pikpa “Village of All Together” Camp, which you can read more about here. This is an abandoned summer camp that has been taken over by local volunteers and is a hub for humanitarian work on the island. We spent yesterday there. There is an incredible team of volunteers coordinating a huge aid effort. There is a lot to be done, from sorting donations to cooking, to delivering supplies to other parts of the island, looking after new arrivals, providing food and clothing. Chatting, supporting people, and much more I imagine, and will find out with time.
I spend most of my time in the kitchen, helping Selina and her team prepare food for almost 1000 people. It takes time, coordination, cooperation. These people are amazing. As we are cooking, two boatloads of people land on the shore just below the camp. The refugees are directed straight to the camp. They are dripping wet. Their feet are black from the wet socks. Will spends his time taking them two at a time to change and find clean, dry clothes. The wet clothes are discarded. They will never dry in this humidity and torrential rain.
Time flies by and soon we have served up all the food into individual portions and it’s ready to go. The team aren’t sure where exactly it will be going, there are logistical problems. We don’t have enough vehicles to transport the food as well as the number of volunteers needed to distribute it. They have been using a van rented out by volunteers from CALAID, but they have just left and the van has been returned. We sit and wait. And wait. It’s good time out, everyone is tired, and it’s a chance to chat, to find out more, but it is frustrating. I still have no real idea of what the situation is like in other parts of the island, but one thing is for sure and that is that the detention centre Moria is notorious. “Welcome to hell” one Syrian volunteer tells us he was told as he entered to distribute food. In the end we take the food to the port. We have to take a taxi. Another vehicle is desperately needed.
When we arrive at the port people begin to gather round expectantly. I’m really pleased to be there with them. They are so optimistic, hopeful. Positive. We communicate with gestures, broken English, good English. As more and more arrive for food, firm and kind coordination is needed. It’s hard to ask people to form a line, and not make them feel like cattle. They do, they are grateful, thank you, thank you.
After days of torrential rain the mayor has opened an abandoned swimming pool to let people go indoors. We go inside. It’s noisy, dark, and there are leaks everywhere. People are sleeping on the floor on plastic sheets and blankets. Exhausted. They don’t have any drinking water. Neither do we. Mental note to try and bring that with food tomorrow. And hot tea or coffee.
We only have food today, but people need clothes. Most have nothing waterproof, no proper footwear, a wee girl walks by, in only pyjamas, shivering. It’s all the clothes she has.
As we finish distributing the food a police van arrives full of people just arrived from the boats. And then another official arrives and tells the people that if they have a ticket for this sailing to Athens they can get on the ship, out of the rain and cold. “There, very hot” he says, encouraging them on. And off they go, to the next stage of the journey. It’s 1am when we leave.
It’s time to go back to Pikpa now and see what today brings. More tonight or tomorrow, depending on what time we finish today. Please comment or message me if you have any questions about anything here, if there’s anything you want to know. Thank you for reading and sharing.