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My Heart Was Broken and Healed in Molivos, Lesvos, Greece

This will likely be my last post from Lesvos Island, Greece.  I never expected what I found here —  I didn’t know that my heart could be so broken and so healed simultaneously.

Wildflowers in Molivos

Wildflowers in Molivos

On Heartbreak

The heartbreak I felt before arriving has settled more comfortably in my body.  It’s just there.

I’ve stared at ceilings for hours, contemplating the hatred in this world and the tide of anger and fear which seems to be swelling rather than retreating.  Our cruelty towards our “enemies”, our scapegoats, seems to know no bounds once we have de-humanized the human.  Some days, any effort to try and help seems totally, hopelessly futile.  I’ve tried to zoom-out emotionally, flying high above the earth to gain perspective.  Clearly, suffering is not new.  The lack of connection between people breaks my heart again and again and again.  Ok.

Spring in Molivos, Greece

Spring in Molivos, Greece

A local, who worked tirelessly with refugees last year, said to me: “You cry and you cry.  If a child dies, you cry for the child.  Then you cry for the parents.  You cry for the family.  Then you cry for the world.  Yes, you cry!  And then, you look up and see who needs help now.”  Words of wisdom.  It’s ok to cry.  But you don’t want to get stuck there.

I have accepted that “the suffering” will always be there, until the world wakes up to the understanding that we are all one.  This refugee crisis has made me aware of suffering on a daily basis, which has increased my daily appreciation for beauty, love, and goodness.  This brings depth and richness to my life.  

Although my pain is greater, so is my joy.

The News

Over the past two weeks, all that I feared has played out in a staggering, lumbering, macabre drama with tragic consequences for refugees.  Tens-of-thousands have waited at the borders in the freezing cold and rain without aid, while every trick in the book has been played on these people denying them the opportunity to apply for asylum.  People have been tossed around countries like footballs while politicians drink tea.  And that was when things were “good” and people were still passing through borders.

An example of a refugee clothing donation that made it's way to the garbage.

An example of a clothing donation for refugees that made its way to the garbage.  Promptly.  Thanks, but no thanks.

Now, the borders of the European Union and the bordering Balkan countries have slammed shut with violence, tear gas, blood and tears in their wake.  Refugees who are in Greece will not be allowed to move on.  International laws protecting human rights have gone to hell.

Over 40,000 refugees, more than half of them women and children, are stuck at borders throughout Europe.  Some refugee camps are being violently torn down, refugees arrested and deported, and thousands are left without food, shelter, sanitation, legal help or information.  Men, protesting at the French “Jungle camp” in Calais, are sewing their mouths shut to represent their lack of voice, hoping the media, someone, will notice, and hear their cries to open the borders and stop their suffering.  That hasn’t worked.

Refugees in transit are now being returned to Greece which is already crippled by staggering debt and financial despair.  From Greece, those who do not qualify for international protection (because they are from anywhere else than Syria or Iraq), are being returned to Turkey or their homelands where they will likely face detention at best and death at the worst.  Those who are stuck here will likely wait years for asylum paperwork to be processed with no guarantee that asylum will be granted.

And the refugees, despite NATO warships, are still coming.  They will not be stopped.  They will find a way out of hell or die trying.

It’s 2016, and people are starving and freezing here in Europe with some relief coming from the kindness of locals and volunteers, but it’s not enough.  Here, now, we can watch Greece become a third-world country filling with camps of thousands of people who will languish and suffer while the rest of the EU and America washes their hands — not our problem.  Except it is.  It’s a total failure on a humanitarian level.

On Beauty

Meanwhile, my life and my volunteer work in Molivos has been stable, satisfying and beautiful.

This morning, it’s overcast with billowy clouds on the horizon.  I walk closely alongside stone walls, doing my best to avoid crazy Greek drivers, while eucalyptus branches, still laden with morning moisture baptize my head with fragrant dew.  I pass the same old woman (“yaya”) who sits outside her house all day and watches like a prisoner looking out from her wrought iron gate.  “Kalimera!” (“Good Morning!”) I say.

Wisteria in Molivos, Greece

Wisteria in Molivos, Greece

The weather has warmed since I arrived in February.  Wildflowers now burst forth, with purple lupine, and white, yellow and pink petals appearing everywhere in lush green fields.  Farmers plow the land in preparation for planting.  Olive trees are pruned, the discarded branches circling their trunks.  Wisteria blossoms hang languidly over cobblestone streets, their soft perfume carried on warm ocean breezes through alleyways of cold stone.

The Aegean sea sparkles everyday, some more than others.  The winds — the incredible winds — change the color of the sea from steely blue to bright aqua.  The dogs and cats, all free-roaming and familiar to me now, play-fight in the streets and sometimes follow me for long distances.

I’ve been the passenger on the back of a motorbike, traveling on cliffside dirt roads, high above the sea, passing mountains abloom with yellow and purple.  Neon orange lifejackets and foil thermal blankets cling to the landscape always reminding me of the suffering so close.

Motorbike trips in the mountains.

Motorbike trips in the mountains.

I’ve had dinners beside an ancient mulberry tree, it’s trunk two meters wide.  Cats surround the table, some on chairs as my dining companions, waiting for a scrap.  As soon as my head is turned, furry paws grab spaghetti off my plate.  I’ve been filled with an abundance of fresh olives and feta, fresh greens and tomatoes, bread still warm from the bakery, tangy sheep’s milk yogurt and Lesbian wine which in ancient times was compared to the “nectar of Olympian Gods“.  Indeed!

The Molivos Castle at night.

The Molivos Castle at night.

My room, my walk, the small community and my work is all normal to me now.  My few local friends greet me with kisses and hugs.  In the days that I didn’t feel well, the woman at the market didn’t hesitate to feel my forehead for fever.  The cafe owner gives me a free juice, despite being unable to pay his bills.  The shepherd insists that I inhale the aroma of fresh mountain herbs to cure the “grippe” that has come from the “cosmos”.  The kindness has been so amazing.  People who have nothing, continue to give, to me and to the refugees.  What little they have, they share.  Greece, with all it’s problems, has got this part right.  In the history books I hope Greeks are recognized for their humanitarian efforts in this nightmare of a crisis.

The Work

Thomas, a 25 year-old German philosopher is my new partner at the clothing warehouse.  He’s a calm and lovely character.  After I told him a story about the “annoying French” he told me he was half-French.  Whoops.  He’s forgiving too, fortunately for me.

We’re a good team and together we share a passion for getting the space in order.  He keeps me from having a daily existential crisis and I keep him laughing.  And he sometimes makes me coffee.  Winning!

Thomas and I at the warehouse.

Thomas and I at the clothing warehouse.

We plod on in our tasks, and believe that what we are doing is worthwhile despite being at the bottom of the volunteer hero chain.  While most volunteers wait desperately for refugee arrivals and the chance to save a wet baby, even chasing these opportunities, we sort the “Small” pants from the “Large” and the t-shirts from the long-sleeves.  We sort clothes into 77 categories.  That’s right — 77 damned categories.

When I began working at the warehouse, the space was crammed with boxes filled and labeled by international volunteers with varied time constraints, standards, and degrees of intellectual ability.  Opening each box is like Christmas;  you never know what’s inside, despite the scrawl on the outside meant to classify the contents.

It's anyone's guess what's really inside this box.

It’s anyone’s guess what’s really inside this box.

Often a box, labeled “Men’s X-Large Trousers” will contain women’s sweaters, socks and a few men’s vests (which are the bane of my existence as they are useless in a refugee situation but I hate to toss them).  Also, I have learned that there is no worldwide sizing standard for clothing.  What is labeled “X-Large” for a Chinese consumer has no relationship to an “X-Large” in America, and is, in fact, an American “Small”.  Therefore, every single garment must be held up and sized by my standard.  And shoe sizes  —  don’t even get me started — a Chinese women’s size 36 is an American child’s 31.

It’s good fun, sorting clothes, if you like madness.

Slowly, slowly or “sega, sega” as the Greeks say, the space is being labeled with accuracy and when these boxes arrive at a refugee clothing distribution point, life will be a little easier for the volunteers and the refugees will get dry clothes a little quicker.  I’ve helped make and post guidelines so that volunteers who follow me will have a clue.  That’s my tiny contribution.

Orderly and properly boxes are my specialty.

Orderly and properly boxes are my specialty.

I’ve been asked to stay, which my ego appreciates, as I have questioned my efficacy many times.  Although I have commitments in the next couple months, I’ve been told that I could receive free accommodation and a visa for up to nine months if I choose to return.  This is something I will be contemplating.  Long-term volunteers certainly offer the consistency that short-term volunteers cannot.  Plus, I’d really like to learn Greek and I can’t do it without immersion.

Saying Goodbye

As my time here comes to a close, my heart is heavy with gratitude for this experience.  Before I arrived I was filled with dread not knowing what to expect and scared of the heartbreak.  What a surprise that I’ve discovered so much beauty amidst all the pain.  So many examples of love in action.  So many inspiring people from refugees to locals to volunteers.  The cherry blossoms and the birdsong, the Greek people who carry on despite all odds, the sea and the sky, the empowering feeling that I can contribute — have all been medicine for my heart.  I’ve changed for the better.

I found out that the heart doesn’t have to break, it can expand.

Another beautiful sunset in Molivos.

Another beautiful sunset in Molivos.

Photos from Molivos, Greece (click to view):


  1. So glad to see this new post and a pic of you and Thomas! I Miss the “Donkey Days”! I think you captured the hope and despair of the work. Good luck on your travels…I’ll be watching! Love~Diane

    • Thanks Diane. I’m glad we will be staying in touch and I hope our paths cross again. 🙂

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