There is a “lifejacket graveyard” on the island of Lesvos in Greece, where Syrian and Afghani refugees flee from wars, departing from the Turkish shores 4 kilometers away. This is where adult and child lifejackets, rubber dinghies, discarded clothing and old boats are taken from the shores as the refugees move on in search of survival. On some days in 2015 and 2016, refugees were flowing in at the incredible rate of 12,000 per day.
The lives they flee are unlivable. But the lives they face in Europe are often deadly or paralyzed in detention centers as the EU increasingly flouts the Geneva Conventions. The lives these refugees seek to re-establish in new towns are beset by xenophobic hostility and ignorance often capitalized upon and agitated by politicians and stakeholders who stand to profit from local citizens’ fear of “the other.” As of the recent EU/Turkey agreement, refugees are forced to squander up to a year in detention camps in the island, awaiting processing to be returned to Turkey, where they are most likely imprisoned, or if they are unlucky enough to be Syrian Kurds, disposed of in less hopeful ways.
The life jacket graveyard bears the weight of thousands and thousands of old life jackets that were in the sea water for hours or days, and old clothes that no doubt were soiled in some way or another, rancid puddles full of gasoline and whatever flammable material the cheap lifejackets are made of, scavenging seagulls and some dead sheep that must have been dumped by farmers. It’s sort of like the city dump with some trash mounds as well. There’s a foul stench there but not from dead human bodies. Of course, lots of people die in the sea here, but they are buried in the (now full) cemeteries on the island.
A culture of avarice, acquisitiveness and power-grabbing at the top of the system has allowed the EU to ignore the Geneva Conventions that provide for asylum to be granted to war refugees. Yes–billions and billions of euros are directed at this problem–but where are they? Not on the ground where volunteers struggle to locate the necessary resources for saving lives every day. That money went somewhere, but not where it was publicly attributed.
There can be–and there are–some education-driven initiatives to alleviate the problems of ignorance and fear at the community level. At the systemic level, cycles of destructive power and corruption have been part of human history and human nature forever, and we seem to be in a downturn that no doubt will hit bottom and either destroy us all or give birth to another golden era of new versions of the EU and Geneva Conventions. The only thing I can think of to help on the systemic level is for these corrupt and myopic profiteers to crash the giant man-eating golden car they are driving, and for people with better values to be empowered to run for office and become leaders.
In the meantime, the work being done by hands-on volunteers, relief organizations, and solution-seeking research groups constitutes a contribution to the small but robust group of leaders and policy makers who do have constructive, humanitarian values. Effective relief work and research arms these leaders with some kind of respectable artillery with which to argue for better crisis solutions, and even more importantly, to strategize to end the wars and conditions that have send these desperate refugees barreling out of their countries and straight into seas.
Yesterday, before I saw the lifejacket graveyard, I filmed an interview with Eric and Phillipa Kempson, who have lived here in Molyvos, Lesvos for 17 years. They moved here for the quiet life–he is an olive woodworker and she makes jewelry–but even 10 years ago they were plenty of refugees fleeing across the Aegean Sea from the Turkish Shores, and the Kempsons, seeing 60 or more people arriving in dire conditions on boats built for 20, feeling they had no choice, literally waded into the effort to alleviate the tragedy that people face here on a daily basis.
These people have seen everything. They have rubbed out painful cramps in legs folded in cold waters for hours, they have learn how to unload rubber boats so that mothers and children don’t need to be separated, and they say things like, “I’ll never forget the smell of gangrene.”
Syrian refugees are usually university-educated professionals–engineers, architects, doctors–who can afford the journey and hope to go home as soon as possible. Afghani refugees are usually the most frightened because they’ve never seen the sea. Traffickers who have another boatload waiting back in Turkey will intentionally capsize the boats once in swimming range of Greece, or if they are armed, force everyone to jump into the sea at gunpoint. 16 drowned here two days ago.
Anyway, we talked for a very very long time and a lot was said but somehow I’m drawing a blank right now. Even though most of what they said was shocking, none of it was shocking, and I marvel at the Kempsons who see the worst and best of humanity side-by-side on a daily basis, and they don’t seem to lose the energy to continue. As they said, they don’t have a choice, but it seems like plenty of the apathetic, xenophobic locals have a choice and they choose to turn away. They blame people like the Kempsons and their volunteers for saving hundreds upon hundreds of lives, because it supposedly “attracts” more refugees.
I’m glad there are people like the Kempsons in the world, because I don’t think I could do what they do. Then again, they never thought they could do it either. Eric said, “But you just go on and you don’t think too hard about it all. There’s always another boatload to help.”
When we finished the interview I wandered around with my camera on their property for a while and stood a long time in front of a veritable mountain of plastic tubs holding donated clothing for incoming refugees. The boxes were labeled: baby, summertime. Five-year-old, shoes. Woman, winter tops. Man, rain pants. Child age 8 to 12, sweatshirts. The boxes went on and on and on.
At the end of the long rows of tubs was Phillipa’s jewelry workshop, where she’s busy fashioning recycled materials from the wooden boats and the lifejackets into pendants. “They’re more useful like this. Those lifejackets are fake and they absorb water, they’ll only drown you if you put them on.” She held up a beautiful wooden pendant. Yes, it was beautiful. And it was also sinister.
That’s the feeling I have here tonight on this lovely Greek island. The tangerine sunset, the cheerful fiery poppies, the tangy tzatziki, even the roly poly ouzo drinkers Zorba and Dmitri who I pass on the way to my sleeping quarters…all this beauty lies in tandem with all this thunderously sinister suffering. There’s the azure waters, bobbing up and down, and there are the hills of Turkey, trafficker’s boats and Erdogan’s jails waiting with their hungry maws to swallow souls.
Here’s to the bandagers, the baby-passers, the volunteers who give their summers, the interpreters and the journalists who set down their cameras to pass out blankets.
Here’s to the bankers and the heartless politicians who someday God willing will feel the chill of their soulless wanton power-grabbing tiny-hearted ways and choose…life, for more of the living.
Here’s to the sheep-cobbled green hills of Lesvos, the petrified forests and hilltop monasteries, the olive groves and the yellow snapdragons, for giving us beauty to remember, alongside everything else the world gives us.
Here’s to the ones who keep on helping, because it’s the right thing to do.