Big Changes for the Refugee and NGO populations on the Greek islands

Last week the newly elected Greek government issued an announcement describing sweeping changes to the current refugee management on the Aegean islands. They will clear out everyone in the overflowing camps on Lesvos and Samos, sort people into groups that will get asylum and groups that will be sent back (to where I’m not sure), the latter being held in closed camps. Moria camp will be emptied and another camp will be built in another location. Unaccompanied minors will be placed in a separate location. They say they will speed up the asylum process, which can take 18 months now, and work to prevent and discourage future refugees from attempting to cross the sea.

Everyone is even more anxious and nervous than before, awaiting the news of their fates. This week two women that I teach got their papers. One went to Crete, one to the vicinity of Athens. They are middle-aged, and know nothing about where they are going or why. Yesterday we drove past Moria camp and scores of people were at the entrance with their bundles of things, waiting for transport to the ferry to Athens.

I can’t help comparing it in my mind to the people in Nazi Germany being led to the trains. Although their fates will not be death chambers, they will be sent to unknown and often undesirable locations, isolated from towns and with nothing to do. My heart breaks for them. Moria is awful, but people are free to come and go, take classes and find recreational activities, shop in town, swim and fish in the sea. I fear that the next step will not have the same opportunities. And for those who are considered unqualified for asylum, detention centers will be their homes until they are sent away; back to the dangerous conditions they fled.

The NGOS that I have described on this blog are also waiting apprehensively, to see what steps they will have to make to adapt to the new conditions. Some may move, some may be finished altogether. Of course these announcements damage fund raising efforts as well.

People say that announcements like these have been declared before, and nothing changes. But they also say that this time feels different. This time more specifics have been outlined, and the new government needs to make good on campaign promises. Needless to say, everyone is holding their breath and awaiting what happens next.

The Hope Project

The Hope Project On Lesvos 

Here is another really special place on the island.  A couple from Britain, the Kempsons, run an ngo providing spaces for refugees to relax, paint, sew, crochet and knit, across the street from KaraTepe camp.  And paint they do!  The walls are covered with paintings of beauty and sadness, politics and pain and joy.  There is a painting instructor, lots of books on drawing, canvases and paper and all sorts of paint.  All of the paintings are for sale.  10% of the sale price goes to pay for supplies, and 90% goes to the artist.  I’ve seen several of my English students at Hope Project. They tell me that painting helps them relax. 

The Hope Project will have an art auction at Christie’s of London in January.  The catalog should be printed in the next few weeks. 


Lesvos, the Island

Snow on the mountains above Mithimna (Molivos)

Lesvos is a beautiful Aegean island. The third largest of the Greek islands, after Crete and Rhodes, it is situated so close to Turkey that you can see the towns on the Turkish coast on a clear day, and the lights at night. At the closest point, it’s only 4.1 miles from Turkey to Lesvos.

It is covered with (some say) 11,000,000 olive trees, and although the fact checkers haven’t weighed in on the exact number, they do cover the island except for the steepest mountainsides. They look ancient alongside the ruins from prehistoric settlements, ancient Greece, Rome, and the Byzantine and Ottoman empires.

Olive tree #10,999,999 still kickin’
A Roman aquaduct hidden away behind the town of Moria – no postcard stands or keychains to be found
Mytilene Castle looking all spooky at night
Molivos Castle
A Turkish bathhouse in Mytilene, now a museum

Mytilene (Mitilini) is a bustling little island capital, and I believe there are about 11,000,000 cafes and restaurants there, in direct competition with the olive trees for sheer numbers. The main shopping street, Ermou Street, is chic and up-to-date with fashions, jewelry, bakeries, bookshops, and all other sorts of commerce.

Ermou Street on a rainy December day

Dining options are plentiful, and the Greek small plate menu items are excellent. Stuffed fried zucchini flowers, eggplant imam, tsatziki, Greek salad, souvlaki, meatballs, fried cheese, octopus, and my personal favorite, lentil salad on rye toast rusks. Prices are low by our standards, maybe half of what we pay in a restaurant. And guess what? Ouzo is made in Lesvos, and there are often 20 different choices on the menu. People say it goes well with fish. Refreshingly absent are the American chain restaurants – They who shall not be named.

A day’s drive will get you to the other side of the island and back, if you so desire. The magnificent beaches are over on the south west side. I’ve never been because I’m always here when the season has ended and everything is shut down. Driving on the roads out of town is easy, but in town takes some getting used to. My fellow volunteer and I have a routine when the streets get too narrow, we flip the side mirrors in and squeeze through. The scooters will unnerve you of course, darting around both sides while you try not to cry from the stress of driving a pristine rental car when everyone else has dings and dents and couldn’t care less about another one. I actually hit someone’s car last time I was here, and he waved me off. Couldn’t be bothered. Luckily my rental car agency also couldn’t be bothered.

So why, you smirkers will smirk, is the island named Lesbos? Is it all lesbians? Well, as a matter of fact it is! Anyone who lives here is a Lesbian. Men, women, children. They’re all Lesbians. Ha ha gotcha. But the B in Greek is actually pronouced V, so they are really Lesvians. The connection with gay women goes back to Sappho, the Greek poet, who wrote erotic poetry to women. I haven’t read one, but she apparently did live here, and there is a Sappho Square in the middle of Mitilini. Did I mention that the history here goes waaaaaaaaaaaaaaaaay back?

A few more photos for your viewing pleasure-

Mitilini Harbor
Alison of Dirty Girls fame, in a charming alley in Molivos
Flamingo viewing at Kalloni
A cafe in Agiassos
Cats in a window in Thermi
A pretty little store front in Afalonas
Way up the hill above Mitilini
Sunset over the Aegean Sea as we returned on the ferry from a day trip to Turkey

Stand By Me Lesvos

A guy, in this case Michaelis Avaliotis, sees a need, in this case school for kids and women at Moria Camp. He knows a guy with some land near Moria. He asks if he can use it to make an English and Greek School for people in the camp. The guy lets him use the land, and voila – a school is born. This place is truly a work of love and shipping palettes. It is much larger and improved since I visited last January. Thanks to small donations here and there, 800 children and women are now taking classes at the school. On the same property is Fenix, a legal aid organization. (There is so much red tape and complicated paperwork to getting residency, and waiting. So much waiting.) There is a sewing room with four working sewing machines. Stand By Me now has a director and an academic coordinator, and they are developing a curriculum of classes towards proficiency certificates in English and Greek. Our volunteer Lois has worked here every day during her month’s stay, and I have driven her out every day. She has amazing stories, including a visit by a world famous magician, DMC, who thrilled the audience of children. Here’s the link to a video of his visit:

DMC visits Stand By Me, Moria Camp, and One Happy Family

REAL volunteers have contributed sewing machines, sewing supplies and English textbooks to Stand By Me. I have sent out a request to the publishing house in Thessaloniki for 100-200 more beginner texts for the new sessions. I hope they will help again. But there is such a need, and so many ngos asking for help, that I fear these sources will finally say, “Enough. We can’t provide any more materials for free.” A new eight week session has just started at SBM. Lois helped scrub desks, organize supplies, sweep floors, decorate the sewing room, and is now part of the team out there. She never knows what she will do from day to day, but it is always inspiring and uplifting… and sometimes exhausting.

For more information and photos, here is Stand By Me Lesvos’ website:

The big classroom
The stairs to the hillside play area and ampitheatre
The hillside ampitheatre
Lois in the newly redecorated Sewing Room at Stand By Me
The treehouse classroom up the hill, and, well, an old car…

Safe houses for Women

My blue classroom in the safe house

Moria Camp’s population is overwhelmingly young men. Women are very vulnerable, and have been harassed., or even assaulted during their travels. There are special houses for them to live, if they have suffered trauma, and others where they can spend the day and feel safe, take a shower, and relax. The showers are especially important, because the conditions at the camp make showers dangerous for them. I teach English at one of these houses four days a week. It is a typical Greek house with a walled garden and two stories. There is no signage on the door, and you must knock to be let in. There are women from Afghanistan, Syria, Somalia, Cameroun, and Iraq. Some of the women need to learn our alphabet, others are more advanced. The classes are a joy for me, calm and quiet, and we make real progress. I will work there for seven weeks. Other volunteers teach arts and sewing, help with asylum papers, and provide psychological counseling. Here we are making three letter words.

A model community

To be here in Mitilini is to see the power of people working towards a common goal – helping their fellow humans gain a foothold in a new land. There are over a thousand people here helping in any way they can, from pulling people out of the ocean, to offering blankets, to teaching them English and Greek and other subjects; finding them nourishing food, giving their time and money to make a difference. In the absence of aid from governments and large agencies, individuals are filling the void. It is amazing. The other day I heard of a yoga class for volunteers. They ask for a donation of 5 euros in order to pay for refugee bus tickets to take yoga. This is how people think here. What can we do to help the newcomers, and not to make profit for ourselves.
Some of the ngos operating here are:

Better Days Greece

This is the group that we REAL volunteers work with most. It comprises three projects:

GEKKO School, providing classes in Math, English, Greek, and Computers as well as other workshops for the teenage unaccompanied minors.

Athletics for boys and girls

Environment and Ecology: this project is actively looking for an environmental science – ecology teacher volunteer.

One Happy Family – OHF

This amazing place provides a way for people from the camps to get away for the day. It provides food and drinks, a large blacktop for sports, a work out area, a playground, a toddler room, a library, a women’s room, a large garden, and a school for the kids run by School for Peace, which is a collaboration of Israelis and Palestinians. It is built from love and shipping pallets. We started a knitting workshop there today, providing yarn and needles and lessons which we brought here in our luggage, and about eight women joined us to practice knitting. Lois, another REAL volunteer who arrived yesterday, will visit every day for the three weeks she’s here. My sister Sally and I will also help.
As we were leaving One Happy Family, they were serving everyone a hot meal. There must have been 250 men lined up patiently to receive a plate of rice and chicken. Women and children got theirs first. I love this place.

More about other ngos next time.

First day back on Lesvos

Hit the ground running on Monday. I had a one day overlap with the previous REAL volunteer and she wanted to show me everything that I need to know. I saw a few people that I knew last year, and met a lot of new people. One of my teaching positions will be at a women’s safe place in town. Young women and mothers are referred to this house if they are experiencing trauma or have greater need for a supportive environment during the day. Babies and toddlers up to age 2 are welcome. This house is a true refuge. Women may take showers, fix themselves a snack and make tea and coffee, relax, and learn English. I will provide lessons every day from 11:00 to 2:00. The seven week course starts next Monday. This house is only open during the day. Women must return to the camp nine kilometers out of town at night. Because of the crush of new arrivals, buses are overcrowded to the point that 500 people try to get on one bus. One incident had the driver beating people off the bus with a stick. This makes it very difficult for the women to reach town to come to the house at this time.

The other danger of leaving camp during the day is that one may miss an important appointment or even a transfer to the mainland. The authorities are trying to move people as fast as possible due to the overcrowded camp. To date there are 13,000 in a space made for 3,000.

Tomorrow another new REAL volunteer will arrive who will share my apartment.  My sister Sally and I will pick her up at the airport and get her settled.  I will find her a placement at an organization on the island, and help acclimate her to the life here.

In other news, the weather is balmy, the sea is calm.  The people and volunteers of Lesvos are amazing.  And I feel very much at home.

Boats are arriving at a furious pace.

The Facebook page Aegean Boat Report (ABR) @aegeanboatreport keeps track of the boats leaving Turkey and arriving on the eastern Agean Greek islands. In recent weeks the boats landing on Lesvos, Samos, Chios, and Kos have increased to numbers that the camps and facilities can’t keep up with. Today alone, 17 boats arrived on the islands, 9 on Lesvos. One baby was tragically lost in a capsized boat. (Photo from ABR)

Thank you donors!

Mary TimpaneAccord
Bob Castle
Jan LockeCrawford
Louise Estupinian
Bob Feder
Kim and LarryFong
Katrina WilsonGoldsmith
Mary Ellen Kasak-Saxler
RPCVs of Montana
Emily BethMorrell
Laura BuckleyNorris
Barbara Plaut
Kristin HarrPurtill
Emma BlandSmith
Barbara Walker
Stephen Williams
David Wilson
Simone ElectraWilson