Chapter 20: A Viking priest, and the Mayor

‘Listen Nikiforos, we are needed here, so we are not going anywhere’. These were Alexandros’ last words to Father Nikiforos, a priest of Greek Orthodox denomination, but hailing from a Nordic nation. The word ‘Father’ was pointedly absent from this terse exchange meant for resolving the issue of Stage-1, our camp, and whether it was still needed as Stage-2 was slowly deploying more resources. Father Nikiforos was the coordinator of the NGO Faros that manages the Stage-2 camp uphill outside the village of Skala on behalf of the UNHCR. He seemed as the top man in a very top-down pyramidal organization. I saw him a couple of times along the coast, a tall blond man, blue eyes, with a long ponytail, dressed with the robe of a Greek priest typical of the Athos monasteries or those of Meteora. His Greek was almost impeccable. There has been no opportunity to talk to him up to now, his appearances on the coast always brief, him spending most time up at Stage 2. ‘Hell maybe I should go and talk to him’ I thought, ‘and do so before we see the Mayor of Lesvos’. If I were to explain him why we need all hands on this coast, it could still resolve the issue at the local level.

I went up to the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp to seek him out, taking a family of Afghanis along with me, the children tickling my ears and laughing all the way up. Stage-2 was busy, but now, unlike previous times, a substantial line up of refugees was forming outside its reception gate. I arrive at the gate and ask for Father Nikiforos, one of the NGO workers then goes in to find him. While waiting I notice an organizational pyramidal-like graph showing responsibilities and accountabilities, who has them, where, etc. pinned on the tall wire fence next to the entrance of Stage-2.

‘The contrast with our operation could not have been larger’ I thought. Our camp could reconfigure at the drop of a hat as needs evolved. This adaptability was not due only to its smaller size, but owed much to its fluid, non-rigid, operations. Our doctors needed a bigger tent? Apollo and his friends would step in and have it ready within few hours, was there a need for immediate transport to Mytilene?  Patrol a certain place of the coast? It could be done fast by whoever was at hand. Roles, except those of the doctors, could be interchanged, or extended (e.g. our doctors coming along to patrols on the coastline) fluidly as the conditions demanded. This made it perfect for the chaotic and rapidly changing situations we faced on the coast[1]. Finally, one should not forget that unlike NGO workers we were not paid for all this (only some expenses for fuel, and occasionally food were covered by a common account, maybe of ‘Angalia’, I am not sure).

‘Hello I am Nikiforos’, and there he was, nearly two meters tall, his priestly black robe flowing about in the light wind. ‘My name is Petros Father’ I tell him, ‘It will be great if we could meet briefly to talk about coordination between Stage-2 and Stage-1 camps’ I continue. ‘Sure, is it OK to do this in one hour from now? Down in the village cafe?’ he asks, ‘Certainly’ I answer. An hour later we sit alone in the cafe owned by Soula. After some small-talk about the happenings on the shore, and in the two camps I breach the subject: ‘There seems to be a strong opposition from the mayor of Sykaminia and a few locals regarding the Stage-1 camp, but I think both camps are necessary, even complementary in their roles’ I tell him. ‘Well the people in Stage-1 did not have the permission to set up on the land where they are’ he tells me, ‘and Stage-2 will have even more capabilities later on’ he continues. ‘But Father your operation is not on the coast, we are’ I tell him, ‘…and there is a lot of need just there when these boats come out’ I retort. ‘True but in the future we will have capabilities there as well, and permission to operate in the area’ Father Nikiforos says. Seeing all this rapidly approaching an impasse, and with the image of rapidly filling up refugee camps fresh in my mind, I lean forward and ask him quietly: ‘Do you think that anything, anything, we deploy on this coast will be enough for what is coming Father?’, ‘What do you mean?’ he now asks guardedly, ‘Simply that we must keep all the resources we can have on this coast Father…’ and after a momentary pause I add: ‘…because catastrophes like the one we are facing now have a way of surpassing even our best preparations and plans’. A long silence ensues, Father Nikiforos turning to gaze at the sea, ‘Maybe you are right’ he says twice, in a subdued voice.

‘So should I talk to the mayor of Sykaminia and tell him you think Stage-1 remains necessary?’ I ask him, ‘No better leave this to me, I will do it my way, it will be easier’ he says and gently smiles. He gets up to leave, ‘What about those two large tents next to us, can we use them in a case of emergency?’ I ask him in order built on this new positive climate, ‘Yes, but I would like to have one person from us there as well’ he tells me. ‘I will say that to my people’ I assure him, and wave him goodbye.

The afternoon finds, me, Manos, the royal Meliades, and Yannis, driving together to Mytilene to meet the mayor of Lesvos. We carry with us some lifejackets from the beach, one is that of a child. The meeting is to take place without the knowledge of our anarchist friends, as they would certainly object to such an action. Before we meet the mayor we all sit at the cafe Panellinion not far from the City Hall, to hash out strategy on what to say to a man already swamped with various requests and problems related to the tremendous refugee inflows in Lesvos. ‘We should simply focus on the fact that any spare capacity to handle refugees is necessary, given the uncertainties’, ‘…that we are the only ones right on the coast’ Manos says, ‘and that if there is anything certain is that the flow of people has been steadily rising in the last few days’ Yannis adds.

The mayor accepts us immediately in his office after we arrive. There we describe what we are facing on that coast, and why we think that the camp must stay operational, despite its controversial origins and well…arbitrary setup. The mayor, is very circumspect at first, and then he starts to list his problems to us. The accommodation problem, the stretched resources of the Mytilene main hospital, the lack of ambulances the difficult sanitary conditions that result in a small city of an island that has its population double for weeks on end. ‘All this happening without any major racist incidents and a population that overall is tolerant and tries to help’ he tells us, ‘…but people are getting tired, and frustrated’ he continues on. ‘You see this has been happening for far longer than you people in Athens or the international media know or cared about’ he concludes. An uneasy silence ensues, with us not knowing whether his words dismissively meant: ‘I have bigger problems than yours to deal with’ or were simply meant to give us the big picture. At the end he tells us that he will see to it so that Stage-1 continues operations and that we should not worry. Boy did we spark up on that one!

We thank him for his support. Once outside his office we all hug jubilantly, the secretaries looking on bemused. Before leaving the City Hall we left the lifejackets to the Mayor. Later we learned that he gave them to some EU dignitaries that were visiting Lesvos to see the magnitude of the catastrophe. We left the city of Mytilene with a lighter heart, heading back to Sykaminia. As the deadline of three days came and passed with no incident, the same municipality worker came back with his van to pick up the considerable garbage the camp had after several boat arrivals. He now broadly smiles to us. ‘I think he now has orders he likes’ I tell myself. Yannis goes up to him for some small talk overtly friendly now, feeling guilty, I suspect, for having jumped at the poor guy when he came to deliver the ultimatum from Sykaminia’s mayor. Our anarchist friends never learned about our actions behind the scenes.

[1] I can already imagine some well-paid CEO/manager of an NGO, or even of a run-of-the-mill corporation reading this and thinking of a new ‘anarchist-way-of-management’ or some other such silliness.  To prevent them from producing yet another ‘great’ management book about the trivial, I can say that this way of doing things is not scalable (much as my anarchist friends would disagree), not to mention the obvious political oxymoron of such an attempt.