Migration is the story of most of us because 'we all move': a visit to Lesbos

A child plays in the Kara Tepe camp close to Mytilene on Lesbos island Hannibal Hanschke/Reuters

This is a story about people and movement. We all move, physically and emotionally. We are moved by others and circumstance. We move in thoughts, in countries, in loyalties, between forefathers and mothers from different places and cultures. We could all be placed in vulnerable positions that force us to move. In 2016 so far – as at August 18 – the UNHCR reported that 161,599 people moved by sea to reach Europe.

Recently I travelled with my husband Paul to the Greek island of Lesbos. Paul is supporting an initiative with Changemakers Lab to provide skills and opportunities to locals and refugees with events like the “Startup Weekend”. Paul has been supportive of such collaborative initiatives in South Africa and has been involved in this particular initiative for the past year. In the course of our stay we met people from both Lesbos and other parts of the world who have told us their stories.

It began with us walking off the plane and visiting a self-sustaining refugee camp called Pikpa. The people of Pikpa manage themselves by cooking their own food, arranging initiatives and upcycling life vests into bags and pouches. Monies from the sale of items go towards sustainability of the camp. Medecins Sans Frontiers has a strong presence because Pikpa is home to some of the most vulnerable refugees.

At the Mayor’s office we got a letter allowing us access to the next camp – Kara Tepe. It is run by the local municipality and, like Pikpa, is also home to some of the most vulnerable refugees.

The director of the camp, a man called Stavros, had a unique approach to refugees. He referred to the camp as a hospitality centre while speaking about guests who stayed for an average of nine months before moving to another destination in Europe. Stavros emphasised normal everyday routine with calm, dignity and safety – things we all desire in our daily lives.

The woman who stopped talking

At Kara Tepe we met a young man (28 years old) who spoke English. He told us about escaping the Yazidi genocide which occurred on August 3 2014 in northern Iraq. The Islamic State of Iraq and Al-Sham (Isis) group forcibly transferred Yazidis into Syria after launching its attacks on Iraq’s Sinjar region. Roughly 40,000 Yazidis were forced to flee or face slaughter by an encircling group of Isis militants.

The militants killed at least 500 members of this Iraqi ethnic and religious minority, burying some alive and taking hundreds of women as slaves according to news reports.

Displaced people from the minority Yazidi sect, fleeing violence from forces loyal to the Islamic State in Sinjar town, walk towards the Syrian border Rodi Said/Reuters

The young man’s wife (23 years old) had stopped speaking. She had a vacant look about her. She had witnessed the genocide in her village.

A few days into our stay we returned to Kara Tepe because we promised the young Yazidi couple that we would visit them again. We met the young man at the entrance to the camp. He was alone. He said his wife had tried to commit suicide and was in hospital.

We subsequently found out that she had several failed attempts at suicide. We took him for a drink before visiting his wife in hospital. She was glad to see us even though she was dazed. She spoke, albeit a little. We spent some time with her and then dropped the husband back at Kara Tepe. Before we left we visited the couple again in hospital.

On our visits to Kara Tepe we met Geert van der Veen, a school teacher from Holland, volunteering with the Dutch NGO Bootvluchteling. He was spending three of his six weeks' annual summer vacation driving refugees around the island. He was responsible for taking the young Yazidi man to hospital to visit his wife.

Van der Veen worked eight-hour shifts throughout the day with breaks for rest and sleep. He and others gave their time and energy to help out in small and big ways. We realised that going for one week was not sufficient time to volunteer at a camp. We needed to spend more time with people to develop trust.

A little girl stands next to a placard at the Moria refugee camp, on the Greek island of Lesbos, prior to the arrival of Pope Francis, April 16 2016 Filippo Monteforte/Reuters

There is a third refugee camp in Lesbos called Moria. Paul and I spent an afternoon sitting outside Moria, a detention facility managed by the national government, operated by the military and secured with barbed wire. It is a hostile sight on the landscape and access is given only to a couple of organisations, International Rescue Committee and Save the Children.

Psychological traumas

People from Kara Tepe and Pikpa are usually transferred from Moria, presenting medical and psychological traumas, or both. People speak about Moria as “very bad”. What that means I can only imagine.

One such person was Lukman. We met him and his family at the canteen outside Moria. He had been staying in Moria for one and a half months and said he could not sleep well there. His wife Zoviat and his two-and-a-half-year-old daughter Mydia came on the boat on Wednesday, 13 July 2016.

There were two boats that day. One capsized and a family drowned. Hundreds of people have died crossing that stretch of sea. Lukman’s mother and the couple’s then newborn baby were sent earlier to Lesbos to safety and were now in Germany for the past seven months.

Meeting Lukman, Zoviat and Mydia, I was struck by the precariousness of their lives. Lukman was relieved that his wife and child survived the boat ride from the Turkish coastal city of Izmir to Lesbos. It costs locals €10 for a day trip to Turkey yet refugees pay nothing less than €600 per person to make the treacherous journey to Lesbos. So many lives have become disposable with EU restrictions.

Refugees are dignified people

Molyvos, a picturesque town on the hill overlooking Turkey, was our home for a few nights. We had dinner at Tropicana, a family-run restaurant. Taxia, the wife, waitresses in the restaurant. She speaks about how her family and many ethnic Greeks fled Turkey and sought refuge in Greece when Ataturk declared Turkey a nation state in 1921.

Taxia’s family remembers the distrust towards them and how three generations later they are fully assimilated into the island. Of course, assimilation is easier because they share a language and religion but migration is the story of most of us, says Taxia: “We all move”.

A Syrian refugee holds onto his children as he struggles to walk off a dinghy on the Greek island of Lesbos. Yannis Behrakis/Reuters

Since the deal the 28 EU heads of state forged with Turkey on March 18 2016 many refugees have been stuck in Greece and on Lesbos without knowing if and when they can find placement within Europe. Perceptions of hordes of refugees on the island have damaged tourism on the island. But what we saw showed that refugees were dignified people, not beggars. They were organised and registered at one of the camps.

Resentments have been brewing among the locals because their livelihoods have been affected. We hope that an initiative to bring tourists back to the island, creating opportunities for skills and collaboration between islanders and refugees can bridge the gaps that we have failed to bridge. Locals just want to earn an honest living.

At the end of our trip we’d had a memorable time, with a sense of wanting to return. We learnt that we all live with precarity and could become vulnerable at any given time. It is our collective responsibility to find a solution to end wars by ending the arms industry and, failing that, to find ways to help bring people to safety.

The Conversation

Nadira Omarjee does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond the academic appointment above.