Chapter 28: PIKPA’s Heaven

‘Shit! Listen, listen people! If we are to operate like this, we should be saving and helping only the pork-eating atheists among them!’ Apollo says, and then he abruptly hangs up, visibly frustrated. That was the end of an intense exchange I chanced upon. He was probably talking with his some of his comrades from the anarchist-autonomous, whether those in Athens, or from a similar cell in Mytilene, I did not know. ‘Poor little Apollo’, I thought, ‘some of his comrades, away from our realities, must have just given him some taste of dogma in reverse’. Still I could not see this making this citizen of Νεφελοκοκκυγία rethink any of his axioms anytime soon. It was very amusing to witness nevertheless.

Today we finally managed to restock everything, foodstuff included, so Bryan happily cooked his huge pots of soups again. We even managed to reorder the clothes station after the human tsunami of last night, aided by a few more volunteers that arrived early in the morning from Athens. Elena, the blue-eyed EINA doctor, is in the medical tent today together with Aline and Wolfgang. The weather is calm, and boats arrive at the high rate we have been experiencing for the last three days. We are better prepared now, no longer shocked, while both the UNHCR/Stage-2 and OXY camps have been unclogged somewhat by an increase of the bus transports.

It is early in the morning, and I help clean around, the first refugees already streaming into our operations area. I stop in front of a small tent to check out how things are with a family with three children, Syrian-Kurds from Kobane, that I sheltered there last night. I did this after I came back from transporting the Princess and her family up to the UNHCR/Stage-2 camp, because it was the only family with small children that would have been left to sleep outside last night (other such families we managed to send to OXY). We were not supposed to have refugees stay in our operations area, our few tents, except the medical one, meant to house only supplies. Still I figured that nobody would notice as chaos became a steady state of affairs in our part of the coast, plus the damn tent was nearly empty. ‘Hello?’ I say tentatively while bending over at the zipped entrance of the tent, ‘Hello!’ comes back with a small child giggle, from inside, along with some faint snoring in the background. ‘Good morning’ I whisper in jokingly, ‘Goody morny!’ and multiple giggles come back. ‘I guess the adults are still asleep, and the little ones are up’ I think. I leave it at that, they need all the rest they can get, I tell myself, and then go about to continue cleaning.

At around 4 pm there is a reduction in boat arrivals (but no longer a complete pause), and Elena asks me to drive her to the medical department of PIKPA[1] in Mytilene so we can bring back some necessary medical equipment for our medical tent. Wolfgang and Aline stay to deal with any medical emergencies and Yannis also stays back in case and emergency transport is needed.

We arrive at Mytilene and PIKPA around 6 pm. This is an institute for children with special needs, but in Lesvos it has taken also the role of housing numerous refugees, many of them also with special needs. Its small complex of buildings provide shelter for numerous families of refugees that have applied for asylum and are waiting for the results, displaced family members waiting for reunion applications and transfer to other parts of Europe. As I enter PIKPA’s grounds, it feels a world apart from the chaos, the despair and the tragedies of our coast, and even from the ordinary bustle of Mytilene’s city around it. ‘Hello sir’ a smiling little girl, probably an Iraqi tells me in Greek, serenely passing by with her smiling mother. ‘I wish the Syrian Princess and her family could be brought here’ I wistfully think. Then Elena and me make our way to PIKPA’s modest medical centre, and to the office of Peristera the principal doctor here. She is the one we have been in telephone contact regarding the medical equipment and the medicines we needed back at Sykaminia.

‘Hello! Welcome to PIKPA, hi Elena!’ Peristera warmly greets us with a wide and beautiful smile. She seems in her late thirties, and one of those rare people whose face and manners exude such human warmth and quiet enthusiasm that puts you immediately at ease. ‘How are things in Sykaminia?’ she asks us, ‘Very bad’ we tell her, ‘we can barely cope with the number of arrivals’ Elena continues, and then she goes on to recount some particularly difficult medical cases the EINA doctors have faced there and on the Greek Coast Guard ships. ‘It is difficult all over the island’ Peristera says, ‘…and it may get even more difficult in the future’ she adds. Then she goes on to recount stories similar to those that Lefteris told me that night in the ‘Mouria of Myrivilis’ tavern, of all the difficulties they had before anybody was here to help them. ‘They will not be here for long…’ she says for the NGOs and the UNHCR, ‘so these days I am stocking up, stocking up supplies from them, before they all leave’ Peristera tells us with a smile, one that she keeps even while delivering her pessimistic opinion for what is to come. ‘You want people like her left behind when everybody else leaves but disaster stays…’ I am thinking, her enthusiasm and quiet strength infectious.

The more we talk, the more I admire her and her staff here at PIKPA. If Europe could only lay foundations for places like this all over her troubled lands, places of support, education and quiet cultural contact, and then let them do their good work for decades, how far we could go in truly re-building Europe, a Europe that instead seems to be tearing herself apart[2]. ‘Let’s go around so I can show you the place a bit’ Peristera says, and we follow her. We first go to the kitchen where the food for all of PIKPA is cooked. With around 80-90 refugees hosted here, on top of the families from Lesvos that PIKPA hosts, this is one busy place. There are several volunteers helping from around the world. During my visit I distinctly remember an Australian volunteer cooking some huge pots. I also remember that I got instantly ravenous when I went inside that kitchen (I had only one cup of Bryan’s soup since morning), and the Australian cook filled a plate with goodies for me. I start eating on the spot, while Elena goes up with Peristera to sort the medical supplies that PIKPA would give us.

After my quick foray in the kitchen, I walk around the facilities by myself, there are children’s paintings all around. It is early evening and some families are still around strolling in PIKPA’s playground. Everywhere I go I am greeted in Greek by the little ones, and often even small conversations in Greek ensue with them. The peace of this place is so pervasive that I feel like sitting on of its benches in the playground and stay there for days, simply breathing and looking at the children and their families peacefully going about. I find myself not wanting to go back to Sykaminia, actually not wanting to even come out of PIKPA’s leafy, tranquil, grounds, to the bustle of the city of Mytilene. An oasis of peace, and I don’t want to leave it…

‘You can have all these, but please bring this one back when you are done’ Peristera says to Elena, pointing to a piece of electronic equipment that seems to be for some specific diagnostic work. ‘We will, when we do the next refugee transfer to the Mytilene Hospital’ Elena tells her. ‘Thank you so much for all this Peristera’ Elena adds, ‘No problem, keep me informed if you need anything else that we may be able to supply’ Peristera says. I load all the boxes to the car, we hug her, and leave PIKPA’s grounds. After stopping to a Pharmacy to pick up the medical oxygen, we continue on to Sykaminia. We reach back to our operations field with our supplies late at night. It is full again, with news of another capsized refugee boat, this time in the waters in front of us, the Coast Guard announcing many people drown, children among them. ‘So much for rescue, and barely a relief…’ I find myself thinking, Peristera’s smile and PIKPA’s peaceful heaven, suddenly made very distant.

[1] PIKPA is an institute for caring for children with special needs.
[2] To those cynics that would say all these are naïve pipe dreams, I will answer using the words of a very prescient wise old Jewish man born in Ulm, Germany, when he was told this about his proposal on how to pacify societies and avoid another World war (he has lived through two of them): What is the alternative? he asked.