Some of you might remember an older post entitled “4.1 miles”, (read it here), about ‘The hero of the Aegean’, captain KyriakosPapadopoulos, who risked his life nightly in Lesvos rescuing refugees arriving on the island in unseaworthy boats. I am sad to report that he has suddenly passed away of a heart attack, at the age of 44, leaving behind a wife and two children.
A man who worked tirelessly for months on end to save thousands of lives was stuck down in the prime of life. I do not know his medical history, but I have no doubt the stress of those long nights, his despair when he failed to save everyone, the awfulness of dragging out bodies, many of whom were children, had something to do with his demise.
Papadopoulos was of refugee stock himself, his family having come from Nikomedia, Turkey, in 1922. His father was an ironmonger and he grew up in a working class neighborhood, joining the merchant marine for a few years before moving to the coastguard. Due to his work, he became the face of the Greek Coastguard, was awarded medals for his exploits, and starred in the multi-garlanded documentary 4.1miles. However, he remained a simple man, never forgetting that lives were constantly in danger on his watch.
Papadopoulos did not like to talk about his experiences, but others on his boat have described the unbearable scenes of saving people who were severely handicapped, having lost all their limbs to bombs, along with heavily pregnant women, and others who were very ill.
It is so unfair and cruel that his family was robbed too soon of someone who had saved so many other lives. And worst of all, it appears his efforts were but a drop in the ocean of misery that is the refugee crisis.
Greece made the NewYorkTimes front page (October 12, 2018) with a photo entitled Epidemicofmisery. It shows Afghan refugees at Camp Moria, on the island of Lesvos. I quote from the caption: ‘Trauma, psychosis and suicide attempts have become common at Moria, which has around 9,000 people living in a space designed for 3,100. There are 80 people for each shower, 70 per toilet.’
It beggars belief that our presumably civilized western society can tolerate this. Refugee camps have existed since ever, for example in Sudan, but there it was possible to turn a blind eye. This is at our feet. Most Europeans dream of a vacation in the Greek islands, and many go there each year.
I have no doubt the Greek authorities are not managing the situation or the funds available in the best possible way. But this cannot be only the fault of the Greeks, nor can it be their sole responsibility. Everyone should be pulling together. I know individual people, from many different countries, are doing whatever they can—donating money and time, taking in people, some even upending their whole lives to go and help. I find, however, that the authorities, people in power, governments, call it what you will, have woefully mismanaged the whole issue.
I know I keep harping on about the refugee crisis – most of you must be heartily sick of me by now. But it is something that I don’t feel the world as a whole can ignore – and not only in reference to the humanitarian aspect, but because it is a problem that, give the present situation, we will all have to face in the future, one way or another. And I don’t believe building fences everywhere is a solution.
4.1 miles is a short documentary made by Daphne Matziaraki, a Greek filmmaker who lives and works in the San Francisco Bay Area. ‘4.1 miles’ refers to the distance between Turkey and the island of Lesvos, where she followed a coast guard captain for three weeks as he pulled family after family, child after child, from the ocean and saved their lives. All the events in this film were shot on a single day, October 28, 2015. Two additional rescues happened that same day but were not included.
She says: ‘The Greek Coast Guard, especially when I was there, has been completely unprepared to deal with the constant flow of rescues necessary to save refugees from drowning as they attempt to cross to Europe from Turkey. When I was there filming, Lesbos had about 40 local coast guard officers, who before the refugee crisis generally spent their time conducting routine border patrols. Most didn’t have CPR training. Their vessels didn’t have thermal cameras or any equipment necessary for tremendous emergencies.
Suddenly, the crew was charged with keeping the small bit of water they patrolled from becoming a mass grave. Each day, thousands of refugees crossed the water on tiny, dangerous inflatable rafts. Most of the passengers, sometimes including whoever was operating the boat, had never seen the sea. Often a motor would stall and passengers would be stranded for hours, floating tenuously on a cold, volatile sea. Or the bottom of a dinghy would simply tear away and all the passengers would be cast into the water. The coast guard felt completely abandoned, they told me, as if the world had left them to handle a huge humanitarian crisis — or allow thousands to drown offshore.’ (Excerpt taken from a NYT article, sept 28, 2016.)
The coast guard captain in question is KyriakosPapadopoulos (photoabove), a naval officer who, after working on freight ships for a few years, decided to come back and settle on his beloved island of Lesvos, where he dreamed of a quiet life. Little was he to imagine what was in store for him and his crew, on the by now legendary coast guard launch “602”.
The first sea rescue in Lesvos took place in September 2001, when they picked up ten Afghans off the coast. This became the talk of the island. The war in Syria changed all that. In 2014 around 50-100 people washed up on the island daily; and, by the beginning of 2015, this number had risen to thousands every day. More than half of the one million refugees who arrived in Greece that year came to Lesvos, and most of those were picked up by Kyriakos’s boat.
Usually, rescues take place in bad weather conditions. Kyriakossays: ‘We come upon boats that are half sunk – we know we need to act fast, people can drown before our eyes. We need to pull around 60 people into our boat in less than five minutes. It’s a huge responsibility.’ Psychologically, this is tough, and has taken a toll on him and his crew. Kyriakos has two daughters, aged 15 and 7,5. At sea, he sees their faces in the faces of the children who lift up their arms to be saved. ‘You can never get used to this. However, none of us has entertained the thought of giving up. Saving people gives us the strength to continue. Especially the smiles of the children, when they see us.’ (Translated from an article in Kathimerini, January 28, 2017).
Kyriakos has been given an award for his work by the Academy of Athens, and the documentary has been nominated for an Academy Award. What pleases him most, though, is the fact that through the screening of the documentary, his friends and family have seen for themselves what he and his crew are going through. Because they find it impossible to talk about this to anyone; they only discuss it amongst themselves, on the advice of psychiatrists – to exorcise the images they’ve had to witness. He also hopes the world will see the film, and offer some help.
I watched the film, and I warn you it is harrowing. An incongruous thought kept going through my mind: at least there are no killer sharks in Greek waters.
The Greek daily paper Kathimerini posted this video today, about life in one of the refugee camps in Greece, where are large number of people are stuck indefinitely, with no idea of what will happen to them.
In another article, I read that in Syria the army has started to conscript civilians.
Relatives of detainees claim that Syrian forces are arresting and forcibly conscripting civilians fleeing opposition-held areas of east Aleppo. Dozens of military-aged teachers, medics and aid workers are reported to have been rounded up and spirited away, as regime troops push further into the city.
According to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, a UK-based monitoring group, more than 300 people have gone missing from east Aleppo since the regime began its blistering ground offensive late last month. They believe the army has been looking to bolster its dwindling numbers, having suffered a huge loss of manpower during the bloody five-year-conflict.
It is difficult to know what conclusions to draw from all this, but no wonder people are putting their lives in the hands of traffickers…
In Greece we do not celebrate Thanksgiving, but we’re still aware of it through foreign relations and friends. Many have been asking me if things are getting better, since Greece seems to be a lot less in the international news lately. Unfortunately, I have to report that the answer is no.
We cannot be thankful that we are saddled with an inexperienced and inefficient government. And we cannot be thankful for our ‘lenders’, whose handling of things has been a disaster. Negotiations have been going on over the summer regarding The Debt. Result: more and more taxes are to be imposed. To my mind, this only makes sense if the aim of the exercise is to make sure Greece sinks. I’m sure a lot of people would be interested in buying national and private assets dirt cheap, something which has already been going on. Airports and ports, anyone? A house on a lovely island? The list goes on.
Various eminent economists from different countries have been at pains to explain what needs to be done for Greece to regenerate its economy, but their words are falling on deaf ears. It would seem self-evident: if you want to help the country out of this crisis, give incentives to investment, help small businesses, start new projects. Curb corruption and cut the public sector. Maybe this sounds simplistic as a theory, but what is happening now is a dead end. The government, coerced by the lenders to produce more money is basically robbing people who have no more to give. I say robbing, because those who are owed money by the government are lucky if they see half of it, after great delay. And yet they are fined if they don’t pay the whole of their taxes on time. More and more are being forced into the black economy (on the advice of their accountants, no less), paying with cash or even using barter (You fix my plumbing and I’ll fix your back…)
At the same time, the country has been obliged to face a terrible humanitarian crisis, which is being mismanaged to an appalling extent. People are herded like cattle into inadequate facilities, where, due to despair, loss of hope and lack of employment they are turning against each other. Fires are set, people are injured. These violent incidents will only result in turning opinion against them. I’m not saying that all refugees, or migrants, call them what you will, are the same. But I have taken the trouble to read some stories of these people’s journeys and misfortunes, of the situations they have been forced to flee, and I am horrified by what is happening.
As a nation, we still have a lot to be thankful for. Our climate, our beautiful countryside, our heritage, and most of all, our people who, as a whole, are managing to deal with their misfortunes and remain optimistic. But it will take more than optimism to get the country out of the mess it’s in.
The borders are shut and tensions are running high in the refugee camps, as people become increasingly desperate about their future. A few days ago, in Souda on the island of Chios, refugees set fire to the rubbish skips as a protest. The fire spread and was only put out after a couple of hours by the fire brigade with the help of the police and the locals whose houses it threatened – but not before severely damaging two large tents used by NGOs and the UN High Comissioner for Refugees, some offices and a load of equipment. One of the firemen was injured.
In the sprawling border camp of Idomeni, in Northern Greece, police had to use tear gas to break up clashes between rival groups of rock-throwing Pakistani and Afghan migrants; incidents of violence along ethnic lines have become a daily reality. At Elliniko camp in Athens, hundreds of people, mostly Afghans, refused to eat because of the quality of the food and because of their belief that Syrians are receiving preferential treatment at their expense.
There are still nearly 60,000 refugees stranded in Greece, although the flow from Turkey has abated since the deal in March between Brussels and Ankara. However, it has not lessened as much as shifted – they have now gone back to trying to reach Italy from Libya, and hundreds have drowned in the Mediterranean in the last few weeks (this route is longer and more dangerous). In total there have been 10,000 deaths in the Mediterranean since January of 2014.
Meanwhile, tireless and feisty volunteers are continuing to give their all to help their fellow man. The Dirty Girls of Lesvos (see previous post, here) have saved more than 10,000 blankets from ending up in a landfill. Hearing the Idomeni camp was to be emptied, they came over and collected around 15 tons of bedding, to clean and re-distribute to other camps. Alison Terry-Evans says: ‘A clean blanket is a small way for people to have a little dignity in an underserved situation.’
Other volunteers are bringing water to camps where there is none; some deal with vulnerable groups; some with cleanliness; some with training and education of the refugees. Some set up WiFi in the camps (like Ilias Papadopoulos or Ben Ridge) or lay wooden floors in the tents, paid for out their own pocket.
Take a look at the video below, and you will see why Iokasti Nikolaidi spent three months cooking, together with up to 15 of her friends, on the island of Samos. Her husband, a fireman, was upset with the deaths he was witnessing. Iokasti was on maternity leave, having just given birth to her fourth child, and had not been out and about. When she went with him to see the hundreds of desperate, dispossessed, exhausted people, and especially the crying kids, she wanted to help. ‘Why don’t you cook something?’ said her husband.
Iokasti called her friends; they started with 30 portions, and slowly built up, with the help of other women, to their record – 4,380 portions one day! Spurred on by a photo of her holding a sick baby – she was initially angry with the photographer for taking it – volunteers from England and the rest of Europe came to help, and people sent money and supplies. Her worst nightmare: when the food finished, and the last people in the endless lines got none, after having waited for hours. This was her last thought when falling into bed at night: ‘If we don’t cook tomorrow, these people won’t eat.’
Charity can be a double-edged sword, especially when practiced by people who are celebrities. It is true that their notoriety helps to highlight the issue they’re concerned with and bring it to the attention of the public, but how much difference does it make in actual fact? And how much of it is also used for their own advancement, the feeding of their own fame?
The latest example of this is Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s espousal of the refugee crisis. He thought it a good idea (“art”?) to take a photo of himself lying on a pebbly beach, recreating the image of drowned infant Alan Kurdi that in 2015 became the defining symbol of the plight of Syria’s refugees.
This was seen as tasteless by many, as was his suggestion that high-profile celebrities don thermal blankets and take selfies at a gala event for the Cinema for Peace, for which he also wrapped the columns of Berlin’s Konzerthaus with 14,000 salvaged refugee life vests on Feb. 13.
At Idomeni camp on the Greek-Macedonian border, the dissident artist set up a piano in the middle of a muddy field and invited aspiring Syrian pianist Nour Al Khzam, from the city Deirez Zor, Syria, to play it.
The photographs of this event are a bit incongruous, since a light drizzle necessitated someone to hold a piece of plastic over girl and piano. The reviews I read were mixed – some characterized the event as ‘beautiful’ some as ‘ridiculous’.
It’s difficult to gauge the overall improvement in the victims’ situation resulting from such antics. If you’re stuck in a camp, cold and wet and uncertain about your future, are you overjoyed to see Angelina Jolie (another visiting celebrity), or would you rather have a hot meal?
That is why I admire people offering help on the ground, as it were. Small gestures sometimes, but which make a big difference. One would not even hear of them, were it not for some journalists seeking out these stories and writing about them.
Free Wi-Fi at Idomeni
One such article by journalist Lina Giannarou, written for the Kathimerini daily paper, tells of Ilias Papadopoulos, who decided to provide free Wi-Fi for the refugees trapped at Idomeni, on the Greek frontier. The border has been shut, these people are desperate for news, they need to communicate with their families; some have been separated from relatives on the way and want to look for them through social media.
Ilias Papadopoulos, a Greek electrical engineer who lives in Thessaloniki, a city about an hour’s drive south of Idomeni, built the necessary infrastructure inside an old trailer donated by the church in September 2015. He spent more than €5000 of his own money.
“I had the idea for free Wi-Fi at the beginning,” said Papadopoulos, who first went to the camp in August 2015 to see how he could help. “People had mobile phones, but no roaming, so they could not use them. They couldn’t communicate with their families.” He also found out hotels were asking people €5 to recharge their phones, so he showed up with large professional 80-slot plug boards, which he powered first with batteries and later using generators. In order to organize internet access, since phone signals in the mountainous area are weak, he borrowed two telephone lines from a local Evzone (army) unit and connected wirelessly to Idomeni.
Today his installation covers about 2/3 of the camp area. There’s still a problem, since the network’s capacity is for up to 900 simultaneous users, while thousands are trying to connect at any given moment. But, if you go near one of the eight antennas or try late at night, it’s easier. Using the network is free, but it is controlled – Ilias has blocked sites that are unsuitable for children or connected to criminal activities. He is now proposing to the authorities and the NGOs to use his network for information purposes, since he’s noticed a lot of the refugees don’t know what their options are and are still hoping the border will open soon.
When the refugees arrive on Lesvos in unstable, overcrowded boats, they are drenched with sea water. They are given new clothes and their perfectly good, but wet clothes are discarded and have mostly been trashed , adding to the environmental problems of landfill on Lesvos. Now Dirty Girls collect the clothes and have them laundered at a commercial laundry. They are sorted and distributed so they can be reused. Because of monetary donations, from people all over the world who want to help, we have been able to recycle many thousands of items of clothing.
Dirty Girls is the brainchild of Alison Terry-Evans, an Australian who has been going to Lesvos for years. Alison saw the littered beaches as an opportunity to recycle and simultaneously provide a service.
Local volunteers gather the dirty clothes from the sand and rocks, place them in bags, label them, and leave them by the side of the road. Alison’s team picks them up, gets them washed and dried, and then distributes the garments to the camps and outposts cropping up along the coast. Even heavy-duty blankets and shoes are sanitized so they can be put to good use.
Alison has always loved doing laundry. She says: “Sorting for me has always been a near meditation; so much satisfaction for little actual elbow grease. And finding a mate for the odd sock or shoe is super satisfying. So visiting the huge washing and drying establishment, Ermes, owned and run by Peter Mylonas, was thrilling.”
Peter saw Alison collecting clothing on the beach and heading home to wash and dry. He generously offered his assistance, and the rest is history.
Everyone on Lesvos loves Dirty Girls: the locals, the arrivals, the NGOs. Alison keeps the washing machines spinning thanks to private contributions. Want to help? Find Dirty Girls of Lesvos on Facebook.
Recycling to make bags for refugees
One of the often overlooked side effects of the refugee crisis in Europe is the massive amount of waste piling up on the islands at the frontline of the crisis.
Thousands of news arrivals are pouring onto the islands daily, leaving behind them on the beaches piles of rubber dinghies and thousands of life jackets.
Volunteers on the island of Lesbos have developed a novel approach to dealing with some of the waste by upcycling the rubber from the boats and the straps from the life vests into waterproof bags.
Twenty-four-year-old Amsterdam native Floor Nagler had been volunteering on the island helping people disembark from boats when she noticed a need for bags, since many people had lost theirs along the route.
Nagler brought some of the material back to Amsterdam, where she is studying textiles, and worked with a fellow Dutch artist until they up with a solution. Then they took the concept back to Lesvos where they held workshops outside the Moria reception center near the capital city, Mytilini.
The bags are made from one folded piece of discarded material from the boat, held together with rivets and clipped shut with buckles from life vests. The bags costs around $3 to make and can be assembled by hand.
This is not the first project that Nagler and others have set up in upcycling materials on the island that were once destined for landfills.
Back in January, Nagler was making mattresses out of the life jackets that were left behind. Along with a group of volunteers, she founded the It Works initiative to bring empowering skills to the refugees who arrive on the island.
You can watch Floor making her bags on YouTube, below:
Greece is being threatened with the closure of its borders, effectively trapping hundreds of thousands of refugees who have made it across the sea from Turkey. We are being accused that, for refugees who see Greece as a transit point on their journey north, ‘Athens is happy to oblige, waving them through, providing transport, but never hosting the caravan of humanity wending its way into central Europe.’
We are also blamed for ‘not ‘protecting our borders’, thus endangering the social fabric of other European countries.
Greeks are furious about this ‘blame game’. We have been offered money in return for keeping the refugees, an offer that is deeply insulting. How about our own social fabric? From as far back as the 80s, Greece has already hosted a vast amount of refugees: Asians and Africans, Palestinians and Kurds, and, after the dissolution of the communist bloc, people from Eastern Europe, especially Albanians, Bulgarians and Rumanians. A large percentage of these are now very well assimilated, speaking the language perfectly and blending in with their neighbours—despite the usual bureaucratic shambles regarding their documents. In a population of around 11 million, around one million are immigrants.
This society, already strained to breaking point by six years of internationally mandated austerity, is now asked to accept responsibility for an unprecedented situation for which it is certainly not to blame. It is a fact that the Greek government has not fulfilled all its duties in this matter yet. But which government has? We have seen the rapid deterioration of the situation in Germany – Mrs. Merkel’s neck is on the line for her open-door policy. We read daily about the situation on the Hungarian border, or in the Jungle in Calais. And now the tinder-box is to be kept solely within our borders, courtesy of our European partners and allies.
It is certain Europe cannot accept everyone, and the terrorist dimension has added complications to the issue. A lot of the able-bodied young men wanting to take advantage of social benefits available elsewhere should be returned home. People have worked for those benefits for generations, and it is normal they should want to protect their way of life. But everyone has to work together towards a solution, and the Arab countries have to do their bit as well. Finally, Turkey has been promised three billion euro to deal with the problem – yet that is where most of the trafficking takes place.
Greece cannot and must not be turned into a dystopia, a giant campsite, or, as some have said, into Europe’s prison.
Frontex has declared it is impossible to patrol a coastline which includes 117 inhabited islands (there are 6000 islands in total, including some that are just large rocks). So how are we supposed to do it? Surely the refugees should be stopped in Turkey, before they drown as they are doing on a daily basis, now the seas have turned cold and rough—but apparently the traffickers are offering cheap ‘off season’ rates. Every single day, we wake up to the news: 12 drowned, 7 drowned and so on, all on our shores. Some can be saved – what are we supposed to do, throw them back into the sea?
I will finish with an account, freely translated, written by islander Nina Giorgiadou:
‘Today was another ‘normal’ day. For us normality has gone beyond seeing your children unemployed and depressed, not being able to pay a new lot of taxes, or having your property confiscated.
Our normality has been enriched by repeated doses of mass death, packaged in black bags that are piled, when full, one upon the other.
Here is a resume of today’s normality.
We were woken in the dead of night by one of those phone calls that make your heart race. We ran to the port, bearing clothes, blankets, hot tea and a tendency to rapid depression.
The first body arrived before dawn. A small bundle, probably a child. Then came 26 survivors. The 12 were more dead than alive, deeply hypothermic; they were piled rapidly into ambulances.
The rest who were more ‘alive’ we undressed and rubbed down, muttering endless and meaningless times ‘Ok, my friend, tamam,’ all mixed up with a lot of tears and snot since there’s no time to wipe your nose when hurrying to dress the frozen.
Afterwards, our normality included 13 more bodies, big and small, and an attempt not to vomit. Where to put so many dead?
To continue within the framework of normality, we received ten boxes of body bags. To do what with? Let’s put them aside for times of need. The industry operating around death is impressive.
The next phase includes scattered images within the shelter. Aliki is holding in her arms the 15-year-old girl who has lost her parents and both siblings. Aliki is the smaller of the two. You have to wonder—who is consoling whom? Vasilia has gathered the children in a corner of the high-ceilinged space we gracefully call ‘the playground’. They are the offspring of those who arrived the day before yesterday. Today not a single child was saved. Vasilia is telling stories in a low voice. In Greek. They listen as if they understand. She has her way. Stories always have a way.
Outside, the coastguard boat is passing again. How many? Around twenty? How many were you, Sam, on the rust bucket?
Sixty or eighty. We’re missing twenty lives. They will never be found. They will never even be listed as missing.
Tomorrow is the day for identifying the dead. Our normality will be transported to the morgue. It will be a little more tense, I suppose. But it will still be our normality. Distorted, but normal.
Oh yes! The clock shows it is already tomorrow.
Another normal day will soon dawn.