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Finding My Way in Molivos, Greece: A Hotspot for the Syrian Refugee Crisis

Sheep wool clings to rusty wire fences and clouds threaten rain.  Last night’s wind kept me up, howling ferociously from the east, then the west.  This morning, I try to outwalk the black clouds behind me.  My hotel is reputed to be “a ten-minute walk” from the harbor.  Let this be a lesson for you future travelers: when hotel owners say their hotel is a however-many-minute walk from the center, triple that number and you’ll generally be on target.  I’m running late, and I hate being late.

Another stormy day in Molivos

Another stormy day in Molivos but lots of beautiful spring flowers.

Two days ago, I arrived in Molivos so I could work with the Dirty Girls of Lesvos, the organization that washes tons of wet clothes discarded on the beaches every week in order to provide fresh, dry clothes to incoming refugees.  Unfortunately, upon arrival, I become aware that the laundry site is 12 kilometers away from my hotel.  I am willing to walk this distance but due to the lull in refugee arrivals, ultimately I am told that my help is not currently needed — good news — but personally frustrating to my desire to help.

The decrease in refugee arrivals due to the weather, along with an abundance of volunteers, combined with my lack of transportation has provided quite a logistical challenge for a solo volunteer like myself.  And so I’ve made another plan and that’s where I’m heading now.

Continuing my walk, despite the cold, I’m sweating and late for my first orientation meeting with the Starfish Foundation.  The wind lashes my face and my shins burn, hoofing it over cobblestones as fast as I can.  A woman stops and offers a ride.  In the car, she introduces herself.  She’s Sylvia, a Spanish volunteer.  Out of breath, I say “I can’t thank you enough for picking me up.  I’m going to the orientation meeting and the German in me is really stressing out about being late.”  She replies: “No problem.  The Spanish in me says don’t worry, everything is good.  Relax.  We share a laugh.  With so many international volunteers here, there is ample opportunity to enjoy cultural differences.

The meeting entails paperwork and covers the founding of the organization.  Melinda, a woman who owns a restaurant at the Molivos’ harbor, started tending to the few refugees that arrived in 2014, offering them dry clothes, food, and a warm place to sit.  The crisis literally landed on her doorstep.  At first, there were a few refugees, then hundreds, then thousands.  For months, she and other dedicated locals worked tirelessly helping the people who arrived in all kinds of conditions and in all hours of the day and night.  Now, her organization coordinates international volunteers to provide refugee aid on many fronts.  This woman, like many I have met, is a hero and an inspiration.  

Registering as a volunteer

Registering as a volunteer with the authorities in Molivos.

The locals in this small community have experienced a lot of trauma.  There are many unsung heroes.  The fishermen have performed hundreds of rescues and recovered many of the dead, sometimes inadvertently in their nets, while simply trying to make a living.  Some fishermen don’t want to fish anymore because of what they’ve seen in the sea.  Then there is the old woman at the convenience store that stands on the street handing lollipops to every refugee child.  Or the woman working three jobs to scrape out a living but still manages to devote time to organizing clothing distribution, making sure that there are dry shoes and a warm blanket for each refugee who arrives.  Molivos certainly deserves your support.  

After the paperwork is completed and I have registered as a volunteer with the police, a team leader from the Starfish Foundation has the time to provide a tour of the area.  He tells me that the UN Refugee Agency forecasts three times the number of refugees crossing the sea this year as compared to last.  If predictions hold, that would mean that in 2016, about 1,500,000 refugees will arrive on the shores of Greece, primarily on Lesvos, an island with a population of 80,000.

We are taken to the “graveyard of lifejackets”.  These were recently collected from a small portion of this island’s coast.  We are shown the inside of a lifejacket.  This one is fake, as most of them are, filled with styrofoam sheets that you would find wrapped around your book delivered from Amazon.  They should be called death-jackets.  They fill with water and cause drowning.  It’s hard not to get emotional looking at this mountain of neon-orange.  Each jacket carries a story of a person who risked everything.

The inside of a fake life jacket.

The inside of a fake life jacket.

The remnants of wooden boats and rubber dinghies litter the junkyard and the beaches.  Boat motors, which are often faulty when leaving Turkey, sit unmovable on the rocky beaches.  Smugglers do not man the boats leaving Turkey, they direct refugees to enter the boats, usually at gunpoint, and then abandon the boat leaving refugees from landlocked countries (often who can not swim) to navigate alone.  Often the engines give out, leaving refugees adrift, to be rescued or to drown.

Lifejackets in Molivos

Lifejackets in Molivos are an ecological nightmare.  These have been collected from just the north side of the island recently.

Today I learn of the struggles that refugee-friendly locals have with members of the Golden Dawn, a neo-nazi, fascist group with violent tendencies.  These hostile locals believe that refugees are coming because of the warm welcome that is provided i.e. warm clothes and assistance.  Obviously ludicrous.  They believe the refugees hurt tourism and so anyone who helps refugees is an enemy.  They put up obstacles to all good works and sometimes destroy what is built.

Refugee boat on the beach

Remains of a refugee boat on the beach.  The shore of Turkey is in the background.

The truth is that if all the volunteers left this island today, when the next wave of refugees arrived the entire island would fall into a state of anarchy with people dying in the streets without direction, assistance, or medical care.  That would cause the tourist economy to collapse as suffering people don’t usually go well with holidays.  This is just another example of how this crisis is revealing such stark contrast; in this case those who help and those who hurt.  These fascists, dwelling in a world of hate, do more damage to the reputation of the island than any refugees.  Unfortunately, they’re vocal and have some power.

Tomorrow I can begin volunteering again, which is a relief.  I so want to do something, anything to help.

As I lay in bed, the wind howls through a crack in the door.  I wonder how many people are sleeping outside on the frigid coast of Turkey waiting for their chance to brave the sea and find a new life.  My freedom as an American has never felt so bittersweet.  The critical difference between me and them is our birthplace.

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