I left Athens one night in early October on a ship bound for Mytilene. I could have taken the plane but I opted for a ship because this was how I traversed the Aegean in the past, even if under sail rather than throbbing engine. Maybe it was also a better way to prepare myself for the task ahead. I was to join one of the refugee rescue and relief teams operating in Lesvos since the late summer of 2015. After a nearly 10-hour journey mostly at night we reached Mytilene in the early morning. I went on the upper deck to set eyes upon a city unlike any of those I have seen during my journeys across the central Aegean islands like the Cyclades. No longer defined solely by white-washed houses with blue outlined window frames and doors here was a city also of browns, reds and light greys and the bustle of a busy port even during this non-tourist season. A wide boulevard went around the harbour, and several ships could be seen docked, sailboats, fishing boats, and a Turkish-flagged ferry boat reminded me of the proximity of the Turkish coast. A grey torpedo-boat of the Greek Navy, two large Coast Guard ships and a Norwegian-flagged Coast guard ship were also there, adding an ominous tone to the port.
I disembark to find Sakis, my old high-school Physics teacher, embracing me all smiles. ‘I have not seen you in ages Petro’, ‘how are you and the family in Athens? Welcome to Mytilene!’. ‘Everybody is fine Sakis, sends you their regards’ I reply, my joy seeing him after so many years singular, and one of the few I had in Lesvos during the days that followed. Sakis was born and raised in Lesvos, with only a short teaching stint in Athens in my high-school. He was my first “fixer” on the island, hooking me up with a local philanthropic team called ‘Angalia’ (which means ‘Embrace’ in Greek) that was assisting refugees. It took a while to make our way through the port grounds, and it was then and there when the magnitude of the refugee crisis, and what it meant for small island societies like that of Lesvos, first struck me.
The whole port section where the passenger ships from Athens arrive was an impromptu refugee camp, with many tents of various colours and shapes everywhere, smouldering remnants of fires that must have burned at night to keep people warm, laughing children of all ages running about, crying babies and tending mothers, laundry hung out to dry on the fence encircling that part of the port. People with those inscrutable eyes of the deep Orient looking back at you. Faces worn by the elements, whether those in some distant mountains of Afghanistan, the plains of Mesopotamia, or the elements during their Aegean Sea passage I did not know. On those faces there was anticipation and the quiet anxiety it brings, but often there was that weary look of people that been through too many blows and stoically, even knowingly await for the next one. These images, the haggling in Arabic, Farsi, and Pashto, transported me momentarily in another land well beyond Greece, in a bazaar of some sort somewhere along Silk Road territory, except that nobody was selling anything.
Then in the first hopeful sign, I found this ‘bazaar’ to be smoothly spilling outside the port and into the city of Mytilene. Refugees walked around the harbour’s main promenade, mostly families with children in tow. They would visit one of the many food stands and shops ringing the port and there, in fragmented or fluent English and even Greek, this idiosyncratic East-West bazaar acquired its last missing element. The haggling now was indeed about prices, prices for food, cigarettes, and various everyday amenities. Seeing all this while walking around the port I had a happy thought that would pop up a few times in the days that followed. The famous Lesvos cuisine, with its strong influences from the East along with those from the West, must have given to many of these people a small sense of homey continuity in otherwise profoundly disrupted lives. Laughter of some young Syrians standing over a falafel and souvlaki stand near the port’s exit puts an exclamation mark on this thought. Still, most of the refugees could certainly not afford any culinary ‘run’ even in the cheapest restaurants of the port as they were desperately poor, especially the Afghans.
‘Let’s go to a car rental company I know’ says Sakis, ‘the lady there will certainly give you a good price for the days you will be here’. After walking along a small street that goes around the port we find the small office of the rental company near one of the port’s exits. Just opposite of the office, on the port’s wire fence, there was an impossibly large number of clothes set out to dry. A real riot of colour and style and with an age range starting from that of infants, it provided another cross section of the refugee population swelling in the port of Mytilene. Many children, their faces joyfully peeking through ‘cracks’ of that wall of fluttering clothes, laugh and giggle at us while some small Afghanis try to raise some kites up to the deep blue Autumn sky. In the office I rent a small compact car thinking it as the best choice for manoeuvring in the small village streets of the island. Then Sakis gives me final directions on how to reach Kaloni where the people of ‘Angalia’ are based, I promise to stay in touch, hug him firmly and then drive off. Some of the kites are now up in the sky flying among the seagulls.