During the autumn and winter of 2015 to 2016 I worked as a volunteer on the Greek island of Lesvos, in the midst of the refugee crisis. The TV pictures showed only the most dramatic and tragic events. I experienced several of those too, but my most vivid memories from Lesvos are the positive ones.
This article is a reminder of the fact that most humans are basically good. I do believe there is hope for us.
Some of my best memories from Lesvos:
A strong contrast to the bleak TV pictures: newly arrived refugees playing volleyball on the beach, setting up a makeshift net, killing time while waiting for transport to the other side of the island.
A family bringing their dog with them, all the way from Syria. I really hope he too was able to make the journey through Europe. The emotional bond with animals do not cede to exist, even in the middle of a war.
The indie band from Damascus (I think it was Damascus), arriving with their instruments, playing on the beach. Many of the refugees will have a hard time trying to settle in, if they are allowed to stay in a European country. But for those lads I was totally optimistic. Musicians have a common language, wherever they meet, and find friends and helpful contacts easily.
A nurse from Syria. She trusted me with her most valuable belongings, while she went looking for some dry cloths. Showing this kind of trust to a total stranger is remarkable, considering the conflict ridden, repressive and corrupt regime she fled from. And, yes, she got her handbag back.
I demonstrated to a young man from Iraq that the potable water was safe to drink: filling up my own water bottle from the tap and drinking, whereby he did the same. And pretended to die, instantly, from intoxication. Keeping your sense of humour is an excellent coping strategy.
A beautiful young woman, presumably from Afghanistan, who stood in line outside our food tent for several hours, while we were waiting for supplies. And all we could offer her was one “sandwich” (two slices of toast, one slice of cheese), a banana and a bottle of water. And she just stood there waiting, all by herself, without expressing anything but pride and dignity, despite all the hardship she had been through.
The Real Heroes: the Hellenic Coast Guard
I cannot write about Lesvos without mentioning the Hellenic Coast Guard. They were nominated for the Nobel´s Peace Prize, a nomination they very much deserved. The Coast Guard Commanders were the ones who picked up the drowned children. They were the ones who had to deal with all the boat wrecks and the casualties. And they did so, night and day, month after month, with little support from their authorities.
I sat beside one of them, one night. He was squatting on the pier, not able to say a word, totally exhausted. We just sat there in silence, because no words would have made him feel any better. The volunteers, and especially the international ones, gained much attention, while far too little praise and attention was given to the courageous and wearing job of the Hellenic Coast Guard.
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On Lesvos different cultures, and people from very different backgrounds, were brought together under special circumstances. International organizations, the EU and the government were mostly absent, until the end of 2015. The local authorities had very little resources.
Mainly untrained, national and international volunteers ran a huge, chaotic, humanitarian operation. And, yet, the absolute majority of the refugees had been fed, given shelter and access to medical assistance by the time they left the island. And we received up to several thousand refugees each day.
That, gives us all hope for the future.
With this symbol of peace I wish you all an excellent 2018: