Things have become very quiet on the island. Our job here is to provide medical assistance to those arriving on the shore. I haven’t had much to do medically here. Since the agreement between the EU and Turkey, which amounted to Europe paying Turkey to keep the refugees, there have been less refugee boats arriving on the shores of Lesvos. Those that do make it into Greek waters are picked up by Greek coastguard and taken straight to a camp where they will be ‘held’. Having said that, last Sunday, while I was in the north of the island, two people died on the shore. It seems they may have suffocated as a result of being crammed onto the boat.
What we have been able to do, however, is go to the port and help those who are travelling onwards to Athens by giving out sandwiches and helping where we can. A few days ago, when they were asked to board the ferry taking them to Greece, the scene became slightly chaotic. There was no reason for this. Everyone who had the correct papers would get on, and there was no rush, but you could see a little bit of panic in the eyes of the worried mothers travelling with two or three children, all their possessions packed into a couple of bags. They clambered onto the ramp leading to the ferry, just about keeping their emotions in check. I imagine after such a long journey and the uncertainty they have faced, they never take anything for granted, always being vigilant and never relaxing.
The ferry was big, with an escalator taking you to the middle deck. It seemed quite luxurious to me and I’m sure it must’ve seemed that way to most of those about to board. Many of the families had too many bags to carry themselves and so we tried to help the families with their bags. I too walked with ‘them’, up the ramp and to the entrance of the ferry. As I was standing there, I felt for a moment as if I was about to board the ferry. As if I were fleeing some disaster. I imagined my behaviour in such a situation. Would I stand there and help others, calm and gracious? Or in my desperation would my eyes be filled with the fear and uncertainty that I saw in most of the people around me. I realised that even though I cared about these people, I had no real empathy for them. We are so used to seeing images of terrorised people that we easily disconnect. It’s natural and I don’t think anyone should feel guilty about this. How can any of us imagine such hardship unless we ourselves have experienced it? It’s important to remember though that the people displaced by the war in Syria are from all walks of life. People who have much have lost everything and those who didn’t have much, have lost the little they owned. War seems to have a way of levelling society out, the rich and the poor are affected in the same way.
I am new here compared to people who have been volunteering for months, and although this was not a shocking experience for anyone involved, on reflection it did affect me. I’m a bit ashamed to admit this, but seeing how people from all walks of life, people like me, have been affected made me feel a little uncomfortable. There was no longer a distance between us. Going on to the boat and being asked for my papers certainly brought it home in a very tangible way.
The truth is, there is no way I can even come close to knowing how these families feel but this experience has certainly made a lasting impression on me.