Continuing the blog posts telling the story of my visit to the Greek island of Lesvos in December 2016 to collect a refugee’s life jacket for Manchester Museum…
After visiting the workshop at Mosaik in Mytilene where life jackets are recycled and made into bags, I went to the refugee camp at Kara Tepe. This turned out to be a frustrating experience because although I had an official permit, I was not allowed to visit the camp. I learnt later that there had been some sort of disturbance and that I’d arrived at a difficult time.
Katerina Nikolarea and the Restoring Family Links initiative
I withdrew and sought the help of my new friends at the University of the Aegean, especially Katarina Nikolarea, who volunteers for the Mytilene branch of the Hellenic Red Cross. She very kindly arranged for me to visit Kara Tepe the following day. I also interviewed Katarina and she told me how the ordinary people of Lesvos had responded generously and spontaneously in the early days of the crisis by giving the refugees clothes and shoes, and food and water. Prices were discounted in shops to help refugees. This story often doesn’t get told. The help given by ordinary Greek people on the island is even more laudable given the economic problems that Greece has experienced in recent years.
Katarina told me about how her local branch of Hellenic Red Cross was helping refugees to keep in touch with one another. The Restoring Family Links initiative helps refugees to find and contact family members and loved ones. I learnt that families and friends are often split up by the people traffickers in order to cram as many people into the boats as possible. Refugees sometimes have no idea whether their nearest and dearest have even survived the crossing so this is a really important thing to do.
At the height of the crisis last year (2015) up to 6,000 refugees were arriving on the beaches of Lesvos every day, and this on an island with a Greek population of only 87,000. Refugees were sleeping rough on the streets and the island’s authorities were largely left to cope on their own to begin with. Since the signing of an agreement with Turkey earlier in 2016 the numbers of refugees have fallen dramatically but there are still camps with people either waiting for their papers to travel to countries in mainland Europe or to be returned to Turkey. They have the right of appeal and relatively few have returned to Turkey. Vessels from Frontex patrol the straits between Lesvos and Turkey.
The following day I succeeded in visiting the camp at Kara Tepe but sadly I was not allowed to take photographs nor film any interviews. I took some toys to give to the children in the camp. A guide showed me round. It was well-managed, tidy and comfortable, with a range of facilities for the guests as she called them and everyone seemed content in the circumstances. In the middle of the camp there is a monument built by the refugees using recycled material from boats they’d used to cross to Lesvos. My guide was not at liberty to answer questions that were considered sensitive, such as how many guests there were at Kara Tepe. I certainly wanted to respect the dignity of the refugees but I feel that we lost an opportunity to do some good in raising the profile of the refugees as part of the collecting life project at Manchester Museum. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see Kara Tepe and I naturally respect the wishes of the authorities in protecting the dignity of the people staying there but it means I was unable to make any visual record of my visit.
All was not lost, however, because later in the afternoon I visited a camp run by volunteers for vulnerable refugees at Pikpa. Again my visit there came about because of the good will of staff the University of the Aegean, to whom I am very grateful.