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Refugee Crisis in Leros

In the middle of the swirling chaos of the World, stand still. She will show you what is yours to do. After refugees, after a harrowing nighttime journey in rubber rafts, the refugees have just endured a four-day “layover” on the Greek Military island of Farmakonisi. They have had no food, insufficient water, no shelter from the blazing heat. Hundreds of hungry, sea-ravaged and terrified men, women and children arrive by the boatloads here on Leros.

The smallest of the Greek Islands off the coast of Turkey, Leros has been taking the brunt of the seemingly endless tide of refugees from Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, Somalia. My first few days here are a kaleidoscope of impressions: movement, confusion, need, fear, trauma, anger, desperation. These are sharp shards—there is little color, little light.

I follow Matina Kastaveli, the remarkable founder of the Leros Solidarity Network, trying to get a sense of what’s happening. She moves from one crisis to another. She receives constant calls, yet when someone gestures that they need a diaper, she hangs up and runs to the supply room. She is a force to be reckoned with, but not a delegator, and she is exhausted.

It’s like being in a village on fire and everyone is running from one hut to another with buckets of water. The more intense it is around me, the quieter I become inside. I feel like I am in the eye of a hurricane. I have come here on my own to see, to listen, and to help if I can. I also have a good amount of money donated by friends and I’m trying to discern how best to use it amidst such chaos.

What seems to be missing is a commander with the wide-angle lens needed to generate strategy, to organize a team. Gentle attempts to insert this kind of structure have so far fallen flat. Dora, a Greek psychologist tells me: “This is not the Greek way.” But somehow, amidst a cacophony of seemingly disconnected activity, things seem to be happening.

Everyone who has shown up to help on these shores carves their own path. We are from a dozen different countries. We have each heard a call in our own hearts and responded by simply showing up. We make alliances with one another and move together with our self-assigned tasks like a small swarm of bees.

Each day, we arrive at the Port Police compound where new arrivals are basically incarcerated. We offer whatever food we can find. We buy medicine, diapers, formula, shoes. The Greek government, the police and military are overwhelmed by the scope of the crisis. This rag-tag crew of volunteers is the only safety net until the international aid organizations show up. We are bound together and bound to these courageous immigrants whose countries are no longer safe for them.

In my mind, a certain amount of the money we have raised must go emergency response—food, medicine, buying ferry tickets for those who don’t have the money, paying for a hotel room for a mother with two very sick young children while they wait for their boat to Athens.

But the rest must go toward some infrastructure.

I ask Martina what is most needed. “Pipka,” she says. “We need to get Pipka.” I am whisked away to a very large abandoned building on the hospital grounds, close to the port. It needs toilets and electricity and windows and doors. But it would clearly serve the purpose of providing decent housing and services while people are waiting for their papers and their tickets to Athens.

Matina explains that the local mayor is blocking her from getting permission to use Pipka, and instead he wants to direct refugees to sleep on the grounds of an abandoned mental hospital. Besides looking like a set for a Gothic horror movie and having a gruesome history of gross neglect of patients, it’s five miles from the port so refugees would be completely isolated from services they needs.

Matina tells me she’s been trying to get the head of the National Office of First Reception (for refugees) to come and help them convince the mayor and the hospital administrator to allow them to start work on Pipka. She has been trying for six months and he has not shown up or gotten her permission to get the key. She is exasperated. “You call him,” she tells me.

Mr. Nikas and I have a very nice conversation. He tells me I am the first person who has called to speak to him who has not yelled at him. I tell him we have money to help with renovations, but we need his approval for the building. “There are procedures,” he said. “These things take time.” I tell him I would hate to go back home with all this money. “I promise you will not go home with a penny in your pocket!” he says.

I follow up with an email thanking him for his help and telling him we want to make Leros a model of cooperation and partnership with Doctors Without Borders and UNHCR and show what is possible to ease the situation. He says he will talk to the hospital administrator who along with the mayor has also been blocking this.

The next day we are given the keys to get in the building. It needs lots of work, but it’s perfect. Mr. Nikas sends a structural engineer to assess the building. “It is very good,” she tells me. He has also sent his deputy, a very calm and competent man, to stay on for a few days to evaluate what the project needs and work with Matina, who is so happy she is almost dancing around the yard.

This article was first published in the Huffington Post, September 29, 2015. Copyright Judith Ansara.

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