Departing from the “Flying Dolphin,” our slightly seasick class stepped onto the port of Mytilene. We were greeted by the blazing sun, warm seaside mist, and somber news. Early in the morning, a shanty raft had washed ashore a few miles north. Although most of its passengers had survived the treacherous journey from Turkey to Greece, there were a few casualties: two children and an older woman.
Before arriving at Lesvos, I could only imagine the island based on the images that NGO’s been pushing online. There would be tattered life jackets still lining the beaches or mothers desperately looking for their children. Instead, I was surprised. Rather than a place overwhelmed by one of the largest modern humanitarian crisis (though it was and still is), the isle was surprisingly empty. “Tourism has been in dramatic decline since the crisis began in 2015,” said the mayor of Lesvos. Although emphasizing the urgency to help refugees who arrived on the island, he lamented about failing economy of the island. During our seminar, we were gifted books covering the natural beauty of Lesvos, filled with images of a tourist destination of the yesteryears.
Lesvos was the most beautiful island that I had seen. It was beautiful in a way that Santorini or Mykonos could never compare. There were Greece’s famed beaches and the cerulean Aegean Sea, but there were also petrified forests, Byzantine castles, and a sense of raw authenticity. Nevertheless, the natural, pristine condition of the island was too perfect. As our academic excursion continued, our professor pointed out the inconsistency. The European Union’s policy of “refugee hot spots” that we learned about back in our classroom in Athens turned out to be worse in reality than what we expected. Driving past Moria Refugee Camp (which was destroyed by fire one year later), we saw large white walls reinforced by a chain-linked fence. Inside were thousands of refugees cramped together. There was limited food, shelter, and medical care. For a group that came from such a traumatic background, there was virtually no psychiatrists present either. A volunteer from a humanitarian organization told us that if the world saw what was inside, they’d be condemning the inhumanity of the situation but moreover, condemning the EU-Turkey Deal. The relative calmness of the island was merely the result of the roundup and restriction of refugees in camps.
The people of Lesvos do not deserve blame. While driving along the northernmost cost of the island, just outside of Molyvos, we stopped in a seaside village. After finishing a small lunch at a rustic restaurant, our professor brought our class out to a spectacular vantage point. Peering out into the sea, you could make out the blurry Turkish mountains which peaked over the horizon. Pointing at the rocky beach, our professor explained that the first refugees from Turkey arrived at this very spot. It’s no surprise that the villagers of Lesvos were nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize earlier in the year. Rather than a swift and powerful response from the supranational entity that is the European Union, it was the locals of Lesvos who came to the rescue of those who arrived. Welcoming refugees and migrants to their homes, the villagers from the north housed, fed, and rehabilitated them with the utmost hospitality. Many of them former refugees themselves from Smyrna, it was both memory and humanity that guided their sincere response. It was only until the size of the crisis became larger than what everyone could imagine that the leaders in Brussels began devising a scheme to assist Lesvos and Greece as a whole.
Without the bravery and compassion of the residents of Lesvos, the migration crisis would have begun with even more tragedies. Although the fate of the situation as well as the future recovery of Lesvos remains uncertain, my brief stay continues to remind me that even in history’s darkest moments, there will always be stories of humanity – of everyday people taking initiative into their own hands and transforming into heroes.