Saturday, February 4th- It's 6 o'clock in Geneva. The alps form a ring of shadows at twilight. Boney M plays unmistakeably through the driver's radio as the bus charges ahead. My wheels are rusty and the emergency brake has nearly seized in place after an un precedented period of inactivity. Lo, it let up at the last moment and I'm now jerking & jolting, groaning & creaking back into a state of motion.
I leave behind me the better part of the last year on Lesvos trying to do something decent in a world spun violently off course. The first five months were so completely overwhelming that I was compelled to return as if to re-investigate the scene of some great calamity in which I was personally implicated. Actually, I felt more like a criminal who returns to the scene of the crime weighted with guilty curiosity. Details. Graciously hosted in the aging farming village (and aging farmer village) of Paleokipos, I shared the streets with a community has borne heavy sacks of olives on their wilted shoulders for so long that they still bend beneath the burden.
A 20-minute drive around the Gulf of Gera from Moria camp the refugee crisis here is a distant phenomenon, invented by NGOs who bilk the dangerously disconnected European institutions in order to line their pockets at the expense of the island's calm. Cynicism reigns in this detached place where tradition has no recipe for mixing with the orient. Here, I became fast friends with "Nick the Greek," the only English-speaker I came across in the village. He, too, is creaking beneath the weight of age and it would not be long before our conversations become insufferable rants about the crimes of politicians everywhere. I nonetheless admire his perspicacity and appreciate his perspectives on the villagers who he describes as "Mysterious and Evil!"
My lover is here in Person but not in grammar as everyone refers to her in the third person when we are together. We have a small house, an orange tree, outdoor plumbing, and a loosely formed agreement to work three olive fields in the surrounding area. Our neighbor exchanges clementines for bits & pieces of our story and promptly shares these with friends over coffee so at the very least it is impossible to feel unknown!
Officially, this is a business trip: We are here to create the "Three Sticks, Two Nets" olive oil company. Or charity. Or cooperative. Time will tell! The goal is to amass one ton of olive oil, export it to Canada, register a charity to receive the oil tax-free, sell it at farmer's markets & concerts, repatriate the proceeds back to Greece to pay local farmers a premium rate for their oil and finance apprenticeships for refugees stuck on the island for the length of their asylum process. It's also a pretext for a political project: to talk about what Lesvos is, who was here before, who has been arriving over the past years, and what can be done about it! It's a wonderful plan but I have a hard time believing this is the time or the place.
To say this is not the place means to accept the fact that there is no out-pouring of goodwill from the local population. As far as my olive oil scheme is concerned, I can't take a ton of olive oil in trust or in solidarity because there is none in this village. And why should there be? Lesvos has become the de facto waiting room of the European Asylum Service Office as a result of deliberate policy decisions. Moria camp, in its current state, was the masochistic fantasy of a far-removed bureaucrat. Every time it goes up in flames, the necessity of its existence is further lost to public opinion on the island, which seems reasonable. The locals hear the news about what inevitably results from this weird military operation, feel pity as humans do, but are not moved into action because they have reasoned not to sustain this madness. I forgive their disdain and accept their indifference, the same way I now understand the significance of the mass evacuation by major NGOs that happened in March after the EU-Turkey declaration foretold of this impending reality. The boundaries within which you can operate on Lesvos are so debilitating that actors of goodwill end up accessories, complicit in a horrible crime.
There is also a deep lack of trust that has a lot to do with the economic climate in Greece. When I first arrived on Lesvos, the nearest bank was half an hour away from where I was staying. The only bank in Manthamados consisted of a desk, a chair, three empty filing cabinets, venetian blinds hung askew, an ATM, and a garbage can overflowing with and surrounded by a mountain of discarded receipts which grew every time I went back to it. For me, it was an art installation every time and it told a compelling story about the state of Greek finances. Everything is paid for in cash on Lesvos. Capital controls limit withdrawals to 800 euros per month and no prudent person would put euros back in while there is serious consideration of a return to the drachma and new taxes are introduced with shocking regularity. To say that the fiscal future is uncertain broadly understates the economic state of a country with no foreseeable path back to some form of normality. And so, even though there is a lot of olive oil on Lesvos, the prospect of more money in the future is not at all interesting to a farmer who feels the everyday impact of an economy that is simultaneously cash-intensive and cash-scarce!
It's worth pointing out, also, that foreigners are definitely not greeted as heroes on the island! I've been up-braided at the bakery about how much money I make pretending to help out here (ironically, by an employee of the port police, who earns a respectable salary working for an organization who regularly beats & releases stowaways found in cargo containers rather than following administrative channels). I've been told by an army commander in Moria that volunteers like me who come to Lesvos hoping to put a refugee-selfie on facebook are the reason for the crisis because we invite misery to the island. He told me the real portrait of a refugee is buried beneath the rubble of Aleppo and I should go there if I want to take my picture with a refugee. We had this conversation as he escorted me out of Moria because I was distributing blankets after a huge fire left hundreds of people without shelter and two people dead on a cold winter night. Another time, at an introductory meeting between a legal NGO and one of the camp managers, I was told there is absolutely nothing non-greek lawyers could do to help on Lesvos. If foreigner lawyers want to help, he said, they should go home and change the laws in their own countries so they can take all the refugees there. When I was helping to set up Mosaik support centre in Mytilini, one of the neighbours even went so far as to tell me he wanted to take all the volunteers and drown them in the sea because they ruined what used to be paradise. I could go on. I could also make a list of really nice things local people did for me because I was a volunteer but it would not weigh up against the overwhelmingly venomous sentiment that I found among locals with whom I had no monetary relations.
When I got back to Lesvos in November, a lot of the asylum seekers in Moria had been there since just after the March 20 "deal." One particular friend, who I could easily name as the reason why I went back to Lesvos, was very excited about helping to set up the olive oil scheme. A businessman in his native Pakistan and a tireless volunteer on the island, he was a natural fit for the job, but understandably so overwhelmed by his own circumstances, so worn out that despite the best of his intentions he was completely unable to focus on the project. A decision had been made to expedite the asylum processes (and rejections) of Pakistani, Algerian, Moroccan and Bangladeshi applicants. A "Pilot program" was established and is still in effect in Mytilini whereby nationals of these countries are randomly arrested on the street and sent to closed prison camps on the mainland because they have virtually no chance of being accepted and are therefore deemed flight risks. It was painstakingly clear that the asylum process was little more than a formality for my friend, and he is now in hiding.
The long wait in order to participate in this kangaroo court of an asylum process has been further exacerbated by the onset of winter. There were FOUR weather-related deaths in Moria in the past week alone. On another island, one asylum-seeker hung himself from the cross-beam of the camp entrance. Suicide attempts are rapidly increasing as people who should be sheltered are running out of hope in what is quite literally a life-or-death emergency situation. This is what I keep in mind when I see European leaders criticizing Trump of his openly discriminatory immigration policy. I think of this when I pass easily through border and security checkpoints while non-white passengers are screened more thoroughly. Let us please not forget that Europe is a racist political circus, too, even as her leaders forge political capital to claim moral authority over a straw man.
Very soon I will be in Paris and I'm excited for the friends I might have a chance to reunite with there. Everybody I met and sang songs with under the olive tree when Moria was a closed camp, they all escaped, and a lot of them are there. I have hope for them because they aren't in Greece anymore. They are in a country where acceptance rates for asylum applications are significantly higher (and closer to the European averages) and they are waiting for the results in dignified conditions. I don't really understand how conditions across Europe can vary so widely (or more specifically, sink to the low that exists in Greece). The deficit is so clearly visible, the European directives are so blatantly abandoned in practice.
On the orchard, we have a rule of thumb that we try to follow: Don't put good time on bad. It means that after you have made a mistake, you accept your error, your loss, and you don't invest any more energy into a lost cause. European leaders have spent almost one year pretending that Greece is capable of fulfilling its duties under European and International Law. It isn't. 625 million euros in aid (over 10,000 euros per refugee) have been earmarked for the crisis and yet people suffer in squalor with no access to a functioning justice system. There is a complete lack of political will and the efforts in place have been mismanaged from the outset. It's time to give up on the ruse and offer safe passage away from that place. This small gesture would alleviate the continuing suffering of the 62000 asylum seekers with the bleakest outlook in the Schengen Zone. It's high time to actually start processing these applications in decent circumstances rather than shoveling more money onto the problem. Even if all these funds have been honestly mismanaged, even if it was actually given in bad faith, even if every refugee is rejected by some other European member state, well I'm of the opinion that anything short of this surgical removal of the problem will just be more good time on bad.