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First Days in Lesvos, Greece: Beauty and Pain

It’s hard to know where to start.

The day before I arrived in Lesvos, something happened that changed everything.  For the first time since last October, the Greek Coast Guard started intercepting and rescuing refugee boats and bringing all refugees safely to the harbor.  It’s hard to fathom, but until this point, rescue at sea and meeting boats at the shore has largely been in the hands of fishermen, volunteer diving and rescue teams, locals, and volunteers from around the world.

Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece

Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece

For as long as it lasts, this is a very good thing, because it will prevent more drownings at sea and the suffering of hypothermia and terror.  Many long-term volunteers speculate that this Coast Guard effort will end as soon as it started; that it’s only happening because French and German politicians are visiting Lesvos this week.  

In any event, there’s been a lot of confusion amongst volunteers as to what to do now that 1500 people a day are being met by the Coast Guard and not volunteers.  This week, some organizations have been turning away volunteers.

But back to the beginning…

I arrive by overnight ferry.  Walking into Mytilene, Lesvos’ capitol, I see no evidence of suffering or the 500,000 refugees that have passed through in the last year.  All I see is clean streets, a shimmering harbor, lovely buildings, bakeries, ice cream shops and cafes.  The sweet smell of baking bread wafts through the morning air.  It’s hard to reconcile what I was expecting with this first glimpse.

Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece

Mytilene, Lesvos, Greece

A mile walk leads me to my accommodation where I am greeted by Kostas.  He invites me in for coffee.  He is bedraggled, frumpled, unshaven, his grey whiskers poke through a dirty face.  He tells me how hard it is in Greece.  With little encouragement he tells me that 75% of his income goes to taxes and yet he has to “pay for healthcare, pay for this, pay for that!  He insists that life is terrible but “We are not robots!  We have heart!” comparing Greeks to Germans on the issue of refugees.  After chain smoking and venting, he concludes with “Awww, it’s ok.  This is the one life.  It’s ok.” just like the man at the Acropolis.

After settling in, Jack arrives, a volunteer from Scotland who put out a desperate call for a bed for the night.  Given I have two beds in my room, he’s welcome.  Just twenty-five years old but full of passion and conviction, it’s a relief to share our mutual angst and outrage at the situation we’ve both been watching from afar.  But Jack and I are unclear about whether we’re needed now.

Volunteering in Lesvos – The First Day

I wake with a headache.  I pop some pills and Jack and I go together to the bus (wrong one), which takes us to another bus (right one) which takes us to Better Days for Moria which is an entirely volunteer-built refugee transit camp set up beside the official, and horribly dehumanizing, registration center for refugees.  Better Days for Moria is a collection of tents and services built in an olive grove that is testimony to the power of individual people.  Here, refugees, can get hot tea, hot food, dry clothes, health care, information, and smiles.  If you didn’t know better, for a moment you might think you were at a music festival.  The volunteers have tried so hard to make this a place of dignity and hope.  Their work brings tears to my eyes.

We arrive at 9 AM for what I thought was a volunteer orientation.  Nope.  Instead, it is a gathering of volunteers, many new, and a delegation of jobs.  That’s it.  No rules, no guidance, no nothing.  I am then on my way to the clothing distribution tent with Laura from Yorkshire, a three day veteran, who I attach myself to like a tick.  Suddenly I am inside the tent with aisles of donated clothes, baby carriers, shoes, toiletries, and stray dogs, who use the tent as refuge and could care less about a crisis, lying in the aisles while volunteers step over them.  I quickly try to learn where things are.  I follow Laura outside as she attends to the next female refugees in line.

Clothing distribution tent

Clothing distribution tent

Laura and I greet two women and their two children and take them into the fitting tent.   Here, Laura assesses their needs, speaking to them in English while the women point to the clothing needed on their child.  We take mental note of the child’s size and go to the storage tent to find shoes, socks, a light shirt, a sweater, a jacket and a hat.  We return to discover the jacket is too long, the pants too big, the shirt oversized.  Round two.  This is a very slow process which in our case is easy – only two groups of women are waiting.  Often it is hundreds and they are wet and shivering from the sea and have already waited for hours and hours in registration lines.

When the correct sizes have been found, one woman smiles at me and pinches my cheek.  I feel affection and momentary relief.  They thank us and go.  We must take their old clothes and bring them to laundry bags.  From here the Dirty Girls of Lesvos Island, another wonderful group of volunteers, will launder them and deliver them back for the next round of refugees, saving both the environment and the refugees.

The Clothing Exchange Rules for Refugees

The Clothing Exchange Rules for Refugees

Throughout the morning random women appear needing this or that.  Against the rules, a woman barges into the tent and demands shoes.  Her shoes are not wet or damaged and so she is not entitled to another pair.  Everything must be rationed.  But she will not take no for an answer and while she speaks to me in an incessant stream of loudness, I find myself with hands outstretched acting as the barricade between her and the shoes.  I look around for support, as this is my second hour, and another volunteer jumps in and starts helping her although I am telling her to leave.  Another volunteer says “you must decide if you are helping her or telling her to go.”  Good idea.

I reply that I don’t know the protocol.  I have no idea what I’m doing!  An interpreter arrives telling the woman she will not get shoes and she needs to leave.  But that’s not happening.  Finally, another volunteer brings her brand new shoes. She tries them on and complains.  Another volunteer laces them up tighter and the woman is suddenly satisfied.  The woman leaves without a thank you or acknowledgement.  She then proceeds to tell many other women outside that we have lots of clothes to give and they should all come get some.  She is unaware that a thousand wet people will be coming throughout the day and these clothes are for them, not for someone who is dry or wants to be more fashionable.

I find out later that in a grotesque marketing ploy, Turkish smugglers sell an all-inclusive people smuggling package which includes clothing upon arrival in Greece plus hot meals, water and other items provided by volunteers.  It seems many refugees do not realize that all these items and services are provided by volunteers and donations.

Dogs take a snooze in the clothing tent.

Dogs take a snooze in the clothing tent.

A woman needs underwear.  I look at her size which is difficult to determine under a long, black, shapeless traditional dress.  No training for such things.  I bring her with me and she looks through a bin.  One pair of underpants given and a big thank you in return.  She needs toiletries too.  This is easy, as volunteers have made thousands of toiletry bags for women and men.  Simple things like sanitary pads are too embarrassing for many women to ask for so they are given without asking.

There is a refugee outside needing a shoelace for one shoe.  A volunteer asks if we have shoelaces.  Apparently not.  Discussion ensues between volunteers as to whether or not the refugee removed the shoelace in order to get new shoes.  Who knows?  Why must we have these discussions?!  Why don’t we have a shoelace?  Are we in Europe?  This is crazy.  I don’t know if he got replacement shoes or not.

As I leave the tent, a man is waiting behind the barricade trying to make eye contact.  We are closed for now and so I ignore him and this haunts me later.  He wasn’t pushy like the horrible woman and I ignored him.

A doctor enters the tent looking for sandals.  Her patient has severely frostbitten toes and she needs open shoes to accommodate his bandages.  Frostbite is a common issue, especially with children and the elderly.

Volunteers make lunch for the volunteers.

Volunteers make lunch for the volunteers.

Doctors send over refugees that they say need new clothes.  We’re told they smell bad.  I shadow another volunteer who takes a woman and child into the changing tent.  I am mortified when the volunteer starts smelling the woman and child: smelling the sleeves and belly of her coat, the collar of the child’s coat.  What embarrassing indignity for this woman.  Smelling no odor she says “You are ok.”  She asks the woman what she needs. “Coat” the woman, maybe 20 years old and shy, replies.  “But your coat is not wet.  Your coat is ok.”  The woman meekly nods and leaves with the same clothes she and her child will likely wear for weeks.

No, she is not ok.  Nothing about this situation is ok. 

I fold clothes, tiny onesies and socks for newborns, leggings for two-year olds, sweaters for five-year olds.  Amongst the donations are high heels, frilly dresses appropriate for a child pageant but not for a refugee camp, and miniskirts.  All these go to the unusable box.  One wonders what good-intentioned people might have been thinking.

It’s a slow day at the camp and the clothing area is tidied up to a degree that long-term volunteers have never seen.  It’s actually orderly.  I can not imagine what life would be like without the hard, brave work of all the volunteers who were here before me, to build this tent, to hook up electricity, to solicit and organize the flow of donations, to create systems.  I suppose these refugees are lucky in some respects, having been picked up by the Coast Guard and benefitting from the work of volunteers for the past year.

But a serious backlash against refugees is happening throughout Europe and even Germany which previously put out the welcome mat is now putting on the breaks.  The borders are shut in many places.  It’s too late for so many.  If they are deported, they will be killed, tortured or imprisoned by the very people they were fleeing from.

Outside, I hear clapping and laughing.  Clowns without Borders, has come to give a few moments of happiness to children.  A small group of kids gathers around.  Some watch from a distance.  Some children stare but do not smile.

Clowns without Borders

Clowns without Borders

I hear mutterings that the camp is surrounded by predators; the mafia and unscrupulous taxi drivers and phone card vendors who try to sell their products at hugely inflated prices or convince the refugees they can provide safety. My stomach turns.  Is there no greater scum on Earth than those who would prey on these people?

My headache has become unbearable, now a full-blown migraine, causing me dizziness and nausea.  I stare at a pair of shoes for five minutes trying to remember where they go and realize I’m no longer of any help.  All circuits on overload.  

I make my way to the bus stop where I’m joined by refugees going to town. They are free to go once registered.  The bus is packed and I have a guilt-ridden seat which I want to relinquish but can’t because I feel sure I’m going to throw up.  Or faint.  A boy stands beside me carrying the luggage for his family.  I ask him to give me his bag and blanket, which he does, to give him more space.  The blanket gives off a puff of dust which becomes glitter in the sunlight.  He can’t be more than 10 years old, but he has deep wrinkles around his eyes.  What has this little man seen?

I close my eyes and take deep breaths – my head feels squeezed by a thousand hands.  I try to pretend I am anywhere else.  If my eyes are closed I don’t have to see.  I don’t want to feel this.

Opening my eyes, a small girl in front of me stares.  I smile, as I have been doing all day to provide comfort, and she smiles back.  I ask her how she is.  She tells me in English that she is from Syria.  I tell her I’m from America.  She smiles again.  She tells me she’s going to Germany.

With borders closing every day, I smile back.  I hope so sweet girl.  I hope so.

I am raising funds for refugee aid.  Please click here to donate.  Also, every share or “like” of this post helps spread the word.  Thank you.


Photos from Lesvos (click to view):


  1. Beautifully written post and comments that brought tears to my eyes.
    I’m currently pursuing a photography passion around Greece and although not related, I will be helping on an Olive farm on Lesvos Island from Thursday.
    It will be interesting to ‘Explore Majestic Lesvos’ – the island that has it all, as claimed by Aegean Airlines…

    • Thank you Angela. I think you’ll find lots to photograph on Lesvos. Compared to other Greek islands it is largely unspoiled by tourism. Enjoy your experience!

  2. Love your writing.

  3. Laura, I’m old enough to be your mother. Your kind bravery, your difficult day at the distribution centre, your massive headache – makes me want to give you a good footrub and a long back rub and something for the headache. When my girls are around and too weary to talk, I bring out a towel and the baby oil. The action comforts us both. Thank you for these reports. They tell us more than the articles in the papers. Your voice carries the needs and sorrows of these people to our hearts and minds. A big affectionate hello also from John (of the EPW).

    • Erika – THANK YOU. I feel your kindness radiating all the way from Australia! My biggest hope in being here is to find out the truth for myself, to see what is really happening, and to communicate for those who can not. I have no agenda except for sharing the humanity and hoping to bring the realities of the situation here to life. Best to you and John!

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