Crossing borders and seas: a Lesvos journey
The Greek islands, long adored as a sparkling haven for tourists. Those traditional whitewashed buildings, decorated with a splash of deep blue; some painted with pride, others crumbling- all as photogenic as each other. The inviting Aegean sea, perfect for a cooling dip on a hot summer’s day. And the food, oh, the food; plentiful salads garnished with home grown olive oil and feta cheese, the freshly caught seafood - squid, mussels, and calamari, and the meat, - charcoal-grilled cuts and tightly packed gyros.
For years this has been a foreigners’ main impression of Greece.
Increasingly over the last few years, however, this has changed. Global news reports documenting the journey of refugees to the islands have changed the picture. For many, this is now front and centre of mind when they think of the Greek islands.
And yes, it’s true. It’s real and it’s raw. Raw for the many migrants fleeing war, persecution and destruction in their home countries. Real for the volunteers dedicating time to do what they can to ease the suffering, and true that as a tourist to certain islands, you’re likely to witness and encounter refugees as you travel.
What’s not true is the sensationalisation by many western media outlets of who these refugees are. Spending three months on Lesvos Island in summer 2018 gave me the honour of getting to know the island more intimately, and of meeting and forming friendships with those currently displaced on it. Far from the stories often portrayed on our TV screens, our newspapers, and our social media, these are real people with real worries and real dreams. People I have come away with the upmost respect for in their resilience, compassion and gratitude.
As Greek islands go, Lesvos has never been the most famed for a European holiday, with Santorini, Kefalonia and Mykynos outnumbering it on the tourism front.
Lesvos, I found, offers a more genuine experience.
Here, rather than the fancy hotels, you’ll find locals renting out their sea-facing villas. Rather than spending your day lying by a picture-perfect pool, you’ll head to underground churches, to ancient castles, and to quaint towns with tree-shaded winding streets. Rather than spending your tourist pounds or dollars on expensive meals, you’ll dine at locally-run restaurants serving up Greek classics, fresh from the farm or ocean.
Mytilini, the capital of Lesvos, has three refugee camps in close proximity; Kara Tepe, Lesvos Solidarity, and Moria. It’s also a city seemingly split in public opinion about the refugees currently calling it home. During my three months here, I was shocked to find public serving establishments including certain restaurants and beach bars with a ‘no refugee’ policy, if not explicitly then certainly implicitly. I was pleased to see others very welcoming, many of these becoming firm favourites for refugees and volunteers to socialise at, away from the camps. I was more grateful still to find others actively building and bridging the Greek and refugee communities; Syrian-owned restaurants serving up hummus, falafel and Babaghanoush. Not-for-profit organisations opening trendy restaurants, employing local refugees as chefs and in turn, serving up delicious food and a direct means to cultural understanding.
Since the first refugees started arriving on it’s shores, Mytilini has been known as a city generous and compassionate to those seeking refuge; stories of locals volunteering their time, providing meals, washing clothes, and even opening up their homes to those who needed them - so much so that the city was recognised for its efforts with a Nobel Prize nomination in 2016.
It’s worth remembering that only 100 years ago, over a million orthodox Christians were sent from present day Turkey to current day Greece. That around 400,000 Muslims were moved in the other direction. That 90,000 Lesvos natives (around 60%) are therefore descended from the refugees of years gone by. This isn’t a new phenomenon.
But, times are changing, not only in Lesvos, not even in only in Greece. Globally we’re seeing a concerning swing to right wing ideologies and policies. Prime minsters and governments in Europe and geographically far removed countries, are swaying this way. News outlets are following. It comes as no surprise, therefore, that general public opinion is also being influenced.
For Greece, the arrival of new communities coupled with the recent economic crisis, means it’s a country where locals are often, at best facing wage cuts versus a higher price of goods - and at worst facing unemployment and a struggle to house or feed their families. It’s a country with the highest unemployment rate in the European Union. It’s a country who, because of it’s location on the European border, receives the most refugees fleeing Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan and other Middle Eastern countries, along with smaller numbers from African countries.
It’s a country where the majority of the population, Greek and otherwise, are trying their best to survive.
Tourism is important for an economy at the best of times. For Greece today, it’s more important than ever. It’s also important as a tourist, to embrace the community in it’s reality today; visiting islands less set up for tourism, and interacting with those who currently call the islands home - wherever they are from.
By experiencing the country this way - renting, eating and shopping local, not only will you gain more of a local experience and way of life, you’ll also be putting far more back into an economy who need it. By eating at local and refugee-run restaurants, you’ll be supporting those who need it - not only with monetary means, but with a sense of emotional solidarity and support.
And it will mean more than you realise.
- By Katie Silcox
Katie spent 3 months volunteering on a Lesvos refugee camp in the summer of 2018. During that time she was able to gain a unique understanding of the situation on the island, from varying perspectives.