The sea fools you. The Turkish coast is across from where we stand on Chios island. It doesn’t look like it is that far away. Only a few kilometers separate us. When the weather is calm, is it worth 1,500 Euros per person to put wife and children on inflatable cheap dinghies to make it to where we stand on this Greek shore? This side of the shore is Europe; this side of the shore is hope. You get a discount if you wait to cross over in rough weather. Prices have been known to drop to 750 Euros. Something to consider.
Today weather calls for calm seas, no wind. Frontex, the European Border and Coast Guard Agency, is out patrolling. The Greek coast guard docks at the port. The warm sun does not prepare us for the hide-and-seek game that awaits the island at night. So far, no human victims reported today. Because of the calm sea, dinghies will scramble to cross over undetected.
Along the port two tavernas are packed with people. My sister-in-law and I sit down to order lunch and realize no one around us speaks Greek. The well-dressed patrons speak Turkish, some of whom wear fancy leather jackets, designer sunglasses, polished nails. The Greek taverna owner looks at us perplexed. “No, they are not volunteers. Thank God we have these customers; Turks, who come over from Çeşme for the day or the weekend to vacation here. If it were not for them, all the stores you see on the port here would close down. They keep us in business. They do not mention refugees to us, and they don’t seem to notice what happens here.”
BEFORE HEARTBREAK: January 4th. Argyri and I walked through the center of Athens hand in hand. We met friends for lunch, and my world hummed along peacefully. When we returned home at night something shifted in me. Right before we went to bed, I suddenly felt unwell. “I feel this dark feeling in my chest, a heaviness,” I told Argyri. “There is a heavy sadness choking me like I have been crying for months and months.” He shrugged it off, and I tried to do the same. From my childhood I often got odd feelings when something was about to go wrong, and I did my best to push that awareness aside as I grew up. It was back. We walked up to our bedroom. It was late. A few hours later at dawn on January 5th, I woke from the sound of a loud thud. I ran down the marble stairs from our bedroom to the living room and found my husband on the bottom of the stairs, dead in a pool of blood. He was still warm when I touched him. In an instant I lost my companion, my safe harbor.
I feel numb. I can’t breathe.
I’ve kept the bedroom closet doors shut for months now so I won’t convince myself he will return. Soon. I see his shoes, his jackets, photos of us and cry. I manage to pack his socks, underwear, undershirts in individual plastic bags. It is torture to touch his clothes. This is all I can bear to part with right now.
The refugee situation is growing out of control in Greece. I need to get out of my house in Athens, gather the courage to give Argyri’s socks and underwear away and hope they might warm someone. Someone on a journey to a new life; someone who has lost everything. Like me. Forever. Maybe that person can start again.
My sister-in-law and I carry our loss, our shock at this unexplained sudden death in our family and decide to honor Argyri’s memory. We don’t go to Lesvos island where international media and movie stars stop off for a moment to call attention to this global human tragedy or themselves. We take our own heartache with us and fly over to Chios not knowing what to expect. Chios is one of the closest Greek islands for refugees coming over from Turkey in dinghies on dark nights when Frontex or the Greek coast guard might not see them. We stay at a photographer friend’s house in Kambos (the valley), and he welcomes us with good wine and a warm fire—his grandfather’s place so lovingly restored by hand, his refuge.
COURAGE: We drive down to the shoreline and meet a young Palestinian woman who has returned to Chios on her own for a second time to help the refugees. She tells us that there are volunteers from many different countries working in shifts, watching for any movement of dinghies. I see no police on the roads. Every beachfront we stop at has fragments of human life trespassing miserably into Greece. A baby shoe, flimsy baby floaties, ripped dinghies, pants, orange life vests, pieces of plastic from a rudder, black rubber tube. Evidence of struggle with jutting rocks, unfriendly shorelines where flimsy rubber boats landed, some unsuccessfully.
We meet up with Evgenia who is a Chios native and a nurse working with Doctors of the World. She takes us to the port where piles of life vests are thrown on the street and refugees linger by the dock. A huge tent temporarily houses refugees newly arrived from Turkey. Most have made it from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan.
Conditions don’t seem hospitable here at the port. Clothes hang from every available nail or hook one can find. This group will eventually be taken to the camps housing refugees in Chios: Suda and Vial. I have the hardest time looking at the refugee children. Their eyes are piercing.
I lift an orange life jacket; it is wet and heavy. Evgenia points out that an illegal cottage industry has mushroomed on the Turkish coast with shops selling vests stuffed with latex foam, which absorbs water, instead of Styrofoam, which floats. Refugees sink farther into the sea and drown if they don’t know how to swim. They don’t know anything about life vests when they buy these death traps and put them on their children, wives, themselves. Some refugees have never seen the sea before, and few, if any, know how to swim or stay afloat. Among the stories recounted by refugees, one stands out: traffickers are ruthless with adults who won’t jump out of the boats when told, who are afraid of the water especially at night when the sea is black and one sees nothing around the rubber raft. Most hesitate to jump so the traffickers snatch babies from their mothers’ arms and throw them into the sea. That empties out the dinghies fast, and the traffickers make it back in time to load another boat full.
The sun has set on our first day, and we take to the streets. We run into the young Palestinian woman again. She has her own rented car and is communicating with other volunteers here from the UK and other countries, some with night vision binoculars. Volunteers from the Basque Humanitarian Maritime Rescue squad seem to be the most organized and fast on their feet. We all follow their lead, jump into our cars, race to another shoreline, following the Basque Ambulance. No sign of life on the beach. This group gets new information on their walkie talkies.
The Basques then drive to a small port, jump into a speedboat that also belongs to them, and they take off. The rest of us, left on dry land, wait to hear where dinghies, overflowing with refugees, will land so we can get there in time to help.
This time two traffickers get caught with over one hundred refugees. Waiting for the traffickers to be brought in, we watch from a sandy shoreline.
One trafficker has money taped up and down his arms; the other has money taped all around his belt. The motor from the dinghy is confiscated by officials from Frontex, the dinghy stabbed and deflated. More ruin on the shore for morning observation.
A few feet away is a taverna bordering the sea, and I hear live music coming from it. I see people eating and wonder don’t they know what is happening outside?
Next to the taverna is an abandoned catering hall building with thin thermal sheet coverings used to warm the refugees, taped all around the many windows to create some privacy. The doors are open, and inside we see mountains of bags filled with shoes and clothes sent from Greece, Scandinavian countries, etc. Volunteers have helped label boxes with shoes for women, men, children. Pants and shirts for men to the right, and clothes for women to the left.
We meet Mr. George, a local from Chios who lives a few meters away from this building. Mr. George organizes the distribution of clothes from here. He points to his small house located right by the shore where the traffickers landed this evening. “I can’t pretend I don’t see. I have to help.”
Shoes are left on the floor from another group of refugees who passed by earlier. Piles of wet clothes, sandy shoes. After they change into dry clothes, they are escorted to buses, and eventually they are registered and sent to Suda or Vial or the port, where makeshift tents offer doubtful shelter.
Mr. George tells us the wet clothes and shoes are washed, dried, and made available to new refugees, and all the work is handled by volunteers. He points to a big rock; it would take two hands to lift it. It was thrown through the glass windowpanes of the building recently to scare him. “Some fascist did this, I am sure. I keep it here to remember,” he assures us. It shook Mr. George up, but it has not stopped him helping those who land near his home. Nor have the threats to kill him or burn the warehouse down. He goes to this warehouse every day.
He asks us to help with this new load of refugees coming in from the dinghies that just landed. We hand out hot tea that other volunteers have prepared in the back of their car trunk, give out packaged croissants and small containers of milk to the children. I hesitantly approach a woman who just walked in. I motion to the woman to remove her wet clothes. She doesn’t understand what I mean and responds to me in a language I don’t understand. Niceties are thrown immediately out the window. I touch her thighs, her legs, her feet. I pat them and motion to her to remove the wet clothes for clean dry ones, as simple as that. The intimacy of strangers. Almost all of them who enter this building stare at us, not sure what to expect.
FUMBLING: My sister-in-law and I are foreigners to this process, not quite sure we know what we are doing but soon learn. We take the babies and infants from the parents who give them to us easily. They seem to trust us. We remove their wet clothes, rub their tiny feet, and dress them in clean, dry clothes. The mothers seem shy but get to the business of stripping and changing as fast as possible in the back rooms. Some families stay together to change, some seem afraid to leave one another. Others split up, and the fathers go with the men in makeshift changing rooms carrying jeans, pants, shirts to try on. Most run over to the dry shoes and athletic shoes looking for the right fit. Some men and children are barefoot; some have lost one of their shoes; all are miserable. Several mothers walk over to me and hug me. I am embarrassed. I have not done anything worthy of grand hugs and
smiles. I nod and put my hand to my heart. My sister-in-law and a grateful man hesitate as he makes gestures toward her to thank and hug her, but, not knowing what is proper between strangers, they both keep their distance and do not touch in this new, awkward dance.
I wonder what their stories are. Who has been left behind in Syria, Afghanistan, countries in trouble? Who has been lost along the way? They cannot know my story and the person I have lost right here in Greece, right
under my nose when I was sound asleep.
After this group boards the bus to the camps, we gather with other volunteers out on the dark street, waiting to hear if another dinghy has been spotted.
We jump into our cars and park on a street leading to another beach. We wait. Soon enough sixty to seventy people appear from the trees lining the water and meet up by the road. Babies cry, noses run, a pregnant young
woman looks like she is going to faint. Volunteer medical personnel take her blood pressure and tend to her with great care. Her husband and I hold one of those thermal sheets around her to create a curtain so she can change her wet clothes. I wrap a thermal sheet around a little boy who seems like he is in shock. He does not respond to questions. I unwrap a croissant and put it in his hand. He stares at it and stares at me, not moving.
More volunteers appear in cars filled with clothing for infants, women, men. We all get to work. My heart aches, and I feel fear but don’t know why. The scene is overwhelming. A mother kneels on the street and changes her
baby right there on the asphalt, no blanket or cloth to put under its nude body.
I take babies from parents’ arms and try to distract them to get them to stop crying. Some desperate parents hand over their children to us so we can undress them since they need to tend to their other children. There is chaos, confusion. Refugees sit on house doorsteps lining the road. No one comes out of these houses; they might belong to farmers who get up at dawn to tend to their fields, or they might be summer houses that belong to Athenian residents. There is so much drama unfolding right in front of these dark, quiet Greek houses.
A man rushes up to me pointing to his wet pants. I scramble to find an appropriate size for him from the clothes that volunteers have piled in the car trunk. The only size that comes close is a pair of sweatpants made for a large woman, but that doesn’t stop him from grabbing it out of my hands. He goes behind a car and changes. Mostly they want dry shoes. Tonight, we don’t have shoes for anyone on this street, and we are far from that warehouse. I meet a family of Iraqis and they spread out to find clothes for the children, the wife, and then the father himself. I undress one of his little blonde girls who tells me her name is Eli. She might be about nine years old.
She cooperates with me by stretching out her arms and smiles at me all through the process. She is not shy about undressing in the street in front of everyone. I don’t have a towel to dry her, and the clothes I am trying to
put on her stick to her damp skin. I layer as many blouses as I can on her thin body, which is trembling. She seems composed and continues to smile at me. I ask her, Baba? Mama? She points to them farther away throwing their wet clothes by the street. Eli puts her hand on her heart to thank me. I kiss and hug her, walk her over to her parents. There is not much to say since neither side can speak in a language we both know, and yet we say everything that needs to be said with hand gestures, smiles, touching our own chests with our hands. I ask the father if I can photograph him with two of his children; he agrees. I capture them for a moment with my camera, all in dry clothes. A smile is hard to come by.
I have a hard time dealing with the infants whose feet are so cold. Rubbing those small feet doesn’t help much. We are told one set of socks per child, but I sneak on two pairs because several children have no shoes. The worst part is we have to put thin sandwich plastic bags on the children’s feet after we have changed their socks and then put the same dripping wet shoes on them again because there are no dry shoes to give them. All I can think is, what if I had to do that for my own daughter? How would I keep my girl warm? That moment I want to cry, not only for Argyri, but for what I am witnessing on this street. I hand out bags of Argyri’s socks to some men. I have no words to tell them they are washed, clean, and they belonged to a spectacular man. Someone I will never see again.
I just shove bags into the men’s hands. This group also boards the bus and are taken to be registered. This goes on all night, and we finally leave the road after 4:30 a.m. Left behind all over the streets are piles of wet clothes, socks, shoes. Mounds of sodden, sandy life jackets. Traces of life left behind, wrinkled and sandy on black ribbon roads.
Volunteers will drive by in the morning to pick up shoes, clothes and wash, dry them and start the process all over again.
Suda Camp on the island is now full with 900 refugees in small houses and tents. Most have heating, electrical outlets to charge their mobile phones, a play area for the children, medical staff. Things appear organized in this camp. We meet some of the Greek contingent of Doctors of the World working at Suda: a young social worker, a pediatrician, surgeon, nurse, pathologist, and the volunteers helping them. Several translators help the patients communicate, and the makeshift Doctors of the World trailer is busy all day long.
People wait in line to get food, volunteer groups from as far as Korea serve soup today to the many lingering at the port. The refugees must eat their food outside the camp to avoid attracting mice in their tents. Most of the refugees think they are going to leave Chios to make their way to Northern Europe, to Germany or Austria. Borders remain closed. I watch them as they study the maps pasted on the walls, pointing to where they are and where they want to go. One of the volunteers tells me that a refugee said he wanted to leave Greece because it is too cold here and go to Germany, without realizing that it is farther north than Greece and a lot colder. Another refugee asked if he had landed in America.
I walk around the camp with Irini, the Greek social worker working with Doctors of the World. She unlocks one of the trailers, and I help her hand out diapers, baby formula, sanitary napkins, socks, more socks, shoes to the people lining up for anything to be given away. It is sunny, and clothes hang all along the wired fences. I watch a young man walk by with his arm around the shoulders of a young woman. Among the wet blouses, trousers hanging on the fences, love blossoms.
Irini told me about a young Iraqi woman who was promised to a man in her village and traveled with him to Chios. He was being physically aggressive with her. When she landed on the island, she turned around in front of Irini and told him, “Europa, this Europa, finish,” and pulled away from him. Camp staff processed her papers before his, giving her time to make it across the borders, which were still open at the time.
Each person registered and staying at Suda Camp must wear a bracelet to be allowed in or out of the camp. I talk with an Afghani who tells me he is here with his son, but his wife and two other children are stuck in Turkey. With no money left to pay another trafficker, he is helpless here. He pulled out an official paper from his pocket from the Greek state stating that he has thirty days to leave Greece since Afghanis are not considered political refugees, unlike the Syrians, and must leave the country. “I cannot return to Afghanistan: the Taliban will kill me for leaving illegally.” He motions with his finger running it across his neck.
A Syrian man tells me he was pushed into a dinghy, but his wife and child remain in Turkey. When traffickers decide it is a run, they quickly push anyone in front of them into the boats and take off. So many broken stories, families, hearts. A two-month-old baby cannot keep food down and is taken to Chios hospital. Its sibling died; neither had ever been seen by a doctor before. A woman and her children were grabbed by traffickers and thrown into a dinghy, but her husband was left behind in the shuffle and remains in Turkey. Irini told me they have lost two children in Chios so far. When the mother and two children landed on a Chios beach, the panic to get off the dinghy was so intense that a two-year-old and a four-yearold were trampled upon and killed. The father, who had a heart condition, managed to make it to Chios some days later only to be told his children were dead.
The wind has picked up this evening; the water is very choppy. I hope no one is foolish enough to get into dinghies tonight, discounted prices or not. We drive up and down dark streets, but we see no sign of volunteers or refugees. We don’t give up quite yet and continue driving along the coastal roads. Groping in the dark, we walk to a beach but cannot see where we are walking. No movement or sounds other than waves crashing on rocks. I hope they all stay safe on Turkish shores tonight.
The news at dawn is not good. A dinghy did take off in bad weather; it overturned close to Turkey’s shores with twenty-eight reported dead.
Some refugees have a blank stare as I walk by them at Suda Camp. Their glances haunt me. They linger in the camp with nothing to do, and now, with borders closed in Europe, they will have no way out of Greece.
I think about my own ancestors and Greece’s history that has layers and layers of refugee heartache and death from forced marches and journeys to new lands. My father’s side of the family left Smyrna/Izmir in Turkey several generations ago to land on Chios island. “Melis” is a common last name in Kardamila village in Chios. From Chios, my great grandfather landed in Andros, where our family name exists today.
The Asia Minor Disaster, the World Wars, the Civil War in Greece eventually forced my family, my husband’s family to immigrate to the United States, like many Greeks escaping poverty or political persecution. Countless Greek refugees from Smyrna were thrown out of Turkey, and population exchanges between Greece and Turkey, then Bulgaria and Greece and Turkey again, created waves of refugees on both sides who lived in unbearable conditions, uprooted from the lives they once knew. Our cultural DNA knows this; we know what it is like to have nothing, to start a new life with nothing in a strange land. We have been weaned on family stories and songs that make this current refugee crisis look familiar.
Local cemeteries on Lesvos, Chios, and other Greek islands along th coast are filled with graves of those who did not make those crossings then, anonymous graves on foreign shores with no loved ones to remember those souls. I buried Argyri in Greek soil. I can’t bear that thought. He is buried in a small cemetery at a Penteli mountain hillside where the famous Penteli marble was dug out to build the Parthenon centuries ago. His grave looks out to sea where the tankers and boats seem to float in the sky. His death is not real. My tragedy is not real.
All along these Greek islands there are countless new unmarked graves of drowned refugees: children, mothers, fathers, people with dreams. Their loved ones continue to hope and wait for some word from them: “Yes, I made it; I am safe.” They wait in silence. I wait in silence. My story has ended, as have theirs. The unmarked graves are witness to lives cut short.
The mounds of life vests tossed everywhere look like art installations, clogging any landfill space each island may have. This situation is not going to end.
Our few days in Chios come to an end. We make our way to the airport. I look out the window of the little prop plane as it pierces the clouds and think I see a gray mass moving in the sea. I sit up and wonder, is it a dinghy? Are there people in that small boat, or am I hallucinating? I think about Argyri, his socks and undershirts now worn by refugees. I have left parts of him behind. I hope some good will come of that. I am going to go back to Chios. I have to go back and help.
Nightly news reports mount the tension growing in Greek cities and islands. I don’t know how Greece can handle this continuous influx of desperate people. The Greek state infrastructure seems on the brink of collapse. Most Greeks are battling to survive the financial crisis that faces the country.
In Athens, more public places, parks, passenger terminals in Piraeus port fill with refugees. Numbers in Piraeus port swell to four thousand. Facebook serves as a message board for volunteers who want to go down to Piraeus to help out there. I join some writer friends, and we make our way to Dock E2 in Piraeus. Armed with crayons, paper, coloring books, and balloons, we meet up with many other Greek and foreign volunteers. We spread the blankets on the ground and try to get hesitant parents to bring their children to play.
One poet friend makes soap bubbles and uses pipe cleaners to show them how to blow bubbles. Soon the kids follow her lead and chase bubbles all around the dock. Above us is a wall with a graffiti painting of Winged Victory and a clock that chimes the theme tune of “Never on Sunday” all day long, on the hour.
One of the mothers decides she will sit on the blanket herself and gets busy drawing flowers. When she is done, she gives me her drawing and lets me take her picture. She seems pleased.
An infant takes a pencil and scratches lines on a sheet of paper. Children forget for a few minutes where they are and find just the right color to draw on a complicated butterfly wing pattern in a coloring book. A few meters away refugees demonstrate and shout “Open the Borders” to the many international media outlet cameras lined up in front of them.
I want every European nation to open its borders. The United States, Canada should open their borders too. Can’t they see this is a human tragedy? Refugee numbers continue to swell in Greece.
The refugees at Piraeus port are afraid to leave the muddy fields and go to camps set up to house them. Many have slept in flimsy tents in Piraeus. Sometimes at night fights break out between Syrian and Afghani men over
something simple like waiting in line, and volunteers are left to calm things down. The refugees cling to the hope that borders might open. Eventually they will realize it is a false hope, and Piraeus will empty out as the refugees disperse within Greece itself.
JOY: I am busy drawing with the children, blowing bubbles, wiping runny noses, watching children run around barefoot. While all these activities are taking place at the port, a miracle happens. Eli, the little Iraqi girl I met in
Chios, is standing right in front of me. I shout out to my friends, hold her hand, and introduce her like she is a long lost relative, one I haven’t seen in years. I am so happy to see her. I hug her and remind her where we met, tell her my name. “Chios. Amalia. Remember? Mama, Baba, where are they?”
She takes my hand, and I follow her past the many tents set up by the dock. She calls her mother and points to me. The mother looks exhausted. I look inside the tent and see several more children, including one boy who is older than Eli; he is in a wheelchair and cannot move much. I don’t recall seeing him in Chios the night Eli and her family washed ashore. Eli tells me, with the help of another little girl at the camp who knows some English, that the children in the tent are all Eli’s siblings. They are nine children all together. I take out a colorful necklace that belonged to my daughter when she was a little girl, and I put it on Eli’s neck. She jumps up and down. I bring over some art kits for the other children and ask Eli where her Baba is. She points to the demonstrators. It is difficult to communicate. I ask how many days they have been in Piraeus port, and Eli counts five fingers. She may or may not have understood what I asked. I leave her a bag of Argyri’s socks for her brothers and father. I hope these small offerings will keep them warm. I take a picture of her mother, two of her siblings, and Eli wearing the necklace I gave her. I join the other volunteers to sweep, clean up the port where the day’s art activities have come to an end.
It is late afternoon, and the sun hides behind clouds. I need to hug Eli one more time. I run back to Eli’s family’s tent. I wonder where this little girl’s journey will take her. I can feel the power of joy again, even for a moment. Eli gave me that moment today, the first since January 5th. She blows a kiss to me and waves goodbye. I blow one back to her. I am grateful.
Photographs courtesy of the author. Feature Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons.