Chapter 3: Embraced at Kaloni

Δια τούτο δεν ημπορεί ποτέ κανείς να ειπή ότι «η τάδε χώρα πολεμείται, δεν με μέλει, διότι εγώ ησυχάζω εις την ιδικήν μου» αλλ’ εγώ πολεμούμαι, όταν η τάδε χώρα πάσχη, ως μέρος του όλου όπου είμαι…
 For this, one can never say that “a given country is embattled, I do not care, since peacefully I reside in mine” but that I am also embattled when that country suffers, part of the whole as I am…
«Η Ελληνική Δημοκρατία», (Τα Δικαιώματα του Ανθρώπου), Ρήγας Φεραίος, Βιέννη 1797
‘The Greek Democracy” (The rights of man), Rigas Fereos, Vienna, 1797

In the large village of Kaloni is where the main depot of the local charity ‘Angalia’ and some of its volunteers were based. It is there where Sakis has set me up with my next contact, Eleni, a former student of his who was a volunteer there. While driving along the coastal road I had to smile at the thought of Sakis and all those former students of his spread all over the island. Sakis the young and dashing physics teacher of my old Lyceum days, and all those students in our class sparkling up every time he came in to teach.

Happy memories of youth up welled from deep inside, linked hands with the boundless Mediterranean blue, now made deeper and deeper by the long shadows cast by the setting sun. Then they danced and danced while I was driving up North along a magnificent coast. ‘Hell! It feels almost like a holiday’, I found myself thinking, and better still, this being October, without any summer hordes either! I reached Kaloni just as those long shadows were joining up to form the coming night, the village lights coming sparkling up in clusters, the last vestiges of sunlight quietly retreating in deep yellows and reds. It was the hour of the amber when Time embarks for His more distant outposts, the stars.

I had the keys to a small apartment that Sakis owned in the village where I was to stay. In the morning, after a quick breakfast I drove to the warehouse where the volunteers of ‘Angalia’ were waiting. Eleni, all smiles, introduces herself, and takes me around to meet the rest. Most of them are young, between 17 and 25 years old, making me at 46 years old, the oldest volunteer there by far. Some are from the island but quite a few came all the way from Athens like me. ‘Hey!’ I chuckled inwards, ‘who said that youth is all wasted and materialistic these days?’ Here they were all smiles sitting in a row along a low wall, ‘I am Christina from Molyvos’, ‘I am Nikos from Mytilene, welcome!’, ‘I am Iro from Athens welcome’, and so it went. A wonderful moment. No matter what the problem was, for that short moment I felt like we were enough to face it down, joyfully strong to run towards it and defeat it, our shields joining on the plains of a different Marathon. A small ‘army’ of good, innocent enough to think we could even win.

Alas my first moment of deflation and near-defeat came immediately afterwards when Eleni took me to the warehouse where all the supplies for the refugee relief effort arrived from Greece and the rest of the world. Imagine the warehouse of a medium-size supermarket with piles and piles of unsorted things reaching up to 2 even 3 times the height of an average human. The number of people trying to sort all this out and homogenize it somewhat (i.e. socks with jackets rather than with… umbrellas) so that it could be useful to the people operating on the coast? Well, they were exactly two…

In a theme that repeated many times during my stay in Lesvos I found that while we were often awash with stuff, send from all corners of the World to help in the refugee problem, we were always too few for any given task. In that warehouse alone I felt like we could dress much of Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan combined, and yet there were not enough people on the receiving/sorting end to put all this material quickly to such a use. People send us lots of things they thought useful, and indeed most were so (even if to our utter amusement while I was there we received several piles of umbrellas colour pink, and several small hand-operated pumps, for foundering boats I suppose…).  Yet very few send us what was the most valuable resource, some of their time, time with us out here. A few large and utterly heterogeneous collections of items looked like if some people tried hard to clear attics and consciousness in one master stroke. I experienced some of this myself when I tried to collect items from various friends and relatives in Athens before I left for Lesvos.

‘So where will it be?’ Eleni asks, ‘Do you want to help here? or go to Sykaminia where we operate?’. ‘I would like to go to the coast’ I reply instantly, ‘I am a good swimmer, and I have a car so I can transport people and goods’ I quickly add to justify my choice, even as it would further exaggerate the staffing/sorting problem I had just witnessed. Selfishly I told myself that I did not come here all the way from Athens to sort things in a warehouse, I came to be at the ‘front line’ wherever that was. This selfish thought was later mollified somewhat when I discovered that even at the coast, we were still too few for the tasks there. ‘That’s fine’ Eleni replies, ‘but then please take also Alexandros with you and some supplies’. We load the small car to an absolute brim, Alexandros hops on to the front seat, and after embracing all the people working there we left Kaloni for Skala Sykaminias a village on the North coast of the island where our forward operations base was located.