Not Only a Refugee Crisis

Adapted from a blog written by Aphrodite Vati Mariola (hotel proprietor, Lesvos)

It’s about the impact on the island and people of Lesvos of the ‘refugee crisis’. They’ve got it good, compared with those fleeing war zones, but the story of the Lesvos locals still deserves to be heard.

Half a million men, women and children arrived on the island of Lesvos in the last year. By the time they reach my doorstep, these people have survived war and terrorism, exploitation by traffickers, and a perilous journey across the Aegean. No photographs can depict the emotional seesaw experienced each time a boat reaches land.

Expressions of fear and relief on the boat people’s faces as they step onto our rocky shore turn to shame for having ‘burdened’ us, mixed with hope, resolving into gratitude. We give what small practical assistance we can, we offer a few brief moments of humanity. The journey is still long ahead of them. Often, as they leave the shore to continue that journey, we hear “Thank you, thank you. Sorry. Good luck!” We wish them luck too. Often now, as it sinks in that this crisis may have no end, a knot tightens in my stomach as I watch the flow of people arrive and go. I can’t help but wonder, who will need that luck more – them or us?

The majority of people on Lesvos make a living from tourism, farming or fishing. We hear that the refugee crisis has had a positive impact on our economy, because shops and hotels that would usually be closed in the winter now have volunteer and refugee customers. In fact, the businesses flourishing in the crisis – a handful of car rental firms, taxis, restaurants – are clustered into just a few corners of our island. The hoteliers providing rooms to volunteers at cut-price rates this winter won’t be able to sustain themselves for long on those deals, and the refugees are on the conveyor belt to get registered and onto a ferry towards the mainland and northern Europe, so those who do have money aren’t spending it here.

Many local people are questioning whether they will be able to keep their small businesses afloat if the early warning signs of a tourism collapse prove true. Those small businesses support whole families, enable us to eat and put roofs over our heads and maintain a healthy, independent existence. Holiday bookings are down 80% for the coming summer season. Tour operators are cancelling packages to Lesvos, they tell us media coverage of refugee boats and people dying means tourists don’t want to come on holiday here any more. Our island is scrambling to deal with this refugee crisis, the local people are caring and giving and saving lives, but we’re afraid there’s going to be a devastating impact on our own lives.

Our fishing industry has been seriously affected by the migration from Turkey. Fishermen are often unable to lay out their nets, for fear they might capsize the refugees’ dinghies. They worry about how the sea will be affected by this tremendous increase in traffic; about the pollution caused by sunken boats; about the petroleum leaking from the ships and the debris caused by shipwrecks. Mountains of detritus, including tens of thousands of fake ‘life jackets’, have been left on our coastlines. This is not only detrimental to the future of tourism and fishing; it threatens our quality of life, our health, our eco-systems.

My family lives on the north coast of Lesvos. We enjoy gorgeous views of the sea and the Turkish coastline; misty mountains rise above the shimmering Aegean in picture postcard scenes. Our personal lives are dictated by the schedules of Turkish traffickers, by the flimsy, overladen boats they send across six miles of surprisingly capricious sea. We spend countless hours on the beach in front of our hotel, providing clothes, snacks, water, medical aid and transportation. Then we clean up the trail of debris left behind, and then we prepare for the next arrivals. We must always be prepared, lest a life be lost on our watch.

For the last few years we Greeks have been coping with difficult political and economic situations in our country, suffering under austerity measures imposed by richer EU nations, watching our public services suffer while youth unemployment rises. This is the backdrop on which we’ve seen sewn inadequate responses from the Greek government and the EU to a refugee crisis that has left islanders to deal as best we can with a situation none of us have adequate preparation or resources for.

In the void left by government, independent volunteers from around the globe began appearing in our ports and airports towards the end of 2015. These volunteers came with such a variety of skills, languages and expectations that at times we feared the lack of control and co-ordination would lead to carnage. The dedication and compassion of these volunteers has been invaluable to refugees and local people alike, and yet there have been occasions when the volunteer invasion has felt more intrusive than the flow of refugees. Increased traffic, and fast driving on country roads, has put our free range sheep and goats (and our free range children) at risk, affecting farmers and countryfolk far from the sea.

Meanwhile, our fishermen continue to rescue people from death by drowning and our villagers quietly give: digging into their own kid’s closets to offer clothes to the children pulled from the sea (according to UNHCR figures, over 30% of recent arrivals have been children); donating merchandise that went unsold in summer; driving refugees from the coast to transit camps inland. Simultaneously, we try to run our businesses, raise our children, take care of our households and relationships. We’re not here on a month-long stint, we won’t be packing up and leaving once we have completed our ‘mission’; our daily reality has changed, we’re coping with death on an almost daily basis while reeling from the impact of lost livelihoods and fears for the future.

I don’t want to complain – my family has so much compared with those fleeing terror – but I would like the voices of local people to be heard and for our government, and the EU, to do their jobs rather than ignore us. I would like everyone on Lesvos to respect each other – the refugees, volunteers, NGOs, locals, local authorities – and to respect our land, our environment and our humanity. I would like procedures to be established which apply to everyone, aimed at protecting the future, safety and integrity of the refugees, and of the locals who will be left to deal with the aftermath when this crisis dissolves or evolves.

I often think about the people who have passed by our beach and wonder how they have fared on their journeys, whether they have found hope and new homes, and I think about the souls unjustly claimed by the Aegean. I feel we will be failing the new arrivals, our children and ourselves if we cannot find a humane solution to this human migration. Intolerance, power and greed must not win this battle. When I voice a cry for help for local businesses, I worry that greed is what people will hear, when in fact it’s the survival of our communities, of our generous natures, of our compassion that’s at stake.

Many of these fleeing human beings who stop momentarily on my doorstep are leaving behind memories so awful as to be almost unimaginable to us; they never wanted to leave their homes and are now in a state of limbo, without a country, without a safe haven, as the domino effect of borders closing resonates like the clanging of cell doors along the trail. Yes, on Lesvos we are luckier than many, but this crisis affects every community through which the refugees are forced to pass and we are all yearning and hoping for the same things: freedom, peace, education, work, dignity, safety, a home, love.

Unless the causes of this crisis can be solved, I fear a tsunami of human pain will build and sweep our island away, leaving in its wake a trail of economic, psychological, environmental and sociological disarray. Fractures appear when families are torn between self-preservation and generosity, when one village appears to benefit from the crisis while another’s businesses fail, when a neighbour fears that your helping hand will be their downfall.

While governments try to find solutions military and political, on Lesvos we say to the rest of Europe – don’t abandon us. We have an extraordinarily beautiful island with a remarkably long coastline; there’s room here for refugees to pass through, for volunteers to aid our rescue efforts, and for holidaymakers to support our economy while enjoying themselves too. We need everyone to recognise the precariousness of the situation and act accordingly.

A journalist asked me, soon after the attacks in Paris, whether I was afraid I might be helping terrorists. My answer: “If a person with hatred in their hearts steps from one of these boats, the only thing I can do to change their mind is show them kindness.”

If we can find a way to survive through this crisis, we can bring up our next generation as humanitarians rather than racists. If we are given the chance to keep being kind, we can avoid stoking terror.

I invite you to support our island.

A few notes from me:

On days when the weather is wild and few refugees arrive on Lesvos, local people, volunteers and NGO groups are busy cleaning the seas and beaches. Beauty is abundant on the island. You can sunbathe, hike, cycle, marvel at the petrified forest, feast in seaside tavernas, bathe in hot springs, visit the women’s co-operative in Molyvos, explore hill top castles and churches, buy local produce and have a laugh in friendly bars and coffee shops.

Lesvos is a really good place for a holiday.

You could holiday there without seeing anything of the refugee crisis if you chose, especially in the south-west of the island. Or you could combine your relaxation with joining an environmental team to help clean some hidden rocky coves where boat debris has washed ashore, and go home knowing you’ve left the place in better condition than when you arrived. Either way, you’ll have helped the local economy, which means helping local families and communities.

More about Lesvos, the holiday island: The Other Aegean

UNHCR reports and statistics

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