A Small Hand in a Larger One
By Joanne Pilgrim
My efforts during a week in the fall that I spent volunteering on the Greek island of Lesvos, in the Moria refugee camp and along the northern shore of the island where boats full of asylum-seekers arrive from Turkey, amount to not even a ripple in the river of need, but I made the decision to do something rather than nothing, and the impact of that has been profound.
Most importantly, that same decision made thousands of times over by people who have traveled from all over the world to help the refugees has coalesced into an ad hoc but wide-ranging humanitarian response to the largest wave of displaced people across Europe since World War II – efforts that often, in the face of governmental and “official” actions that continue to fall far short, represent the only significant endeavors easing their difficult way.
And for all of us, I venture to say, the people we have met, both the helpers and those in need, and the moments we remember have flung open a door to a smaller world, a place where the concept of “other” shrivels and dies.
It’s the memory of a small hand in mine, the hand of a little girl, a refugee whose toddler brother was handed to me over the pontoon of the inflatable boat in which they had come over from Turkey, as it came ashore in Greece.
I still feel that young girl’s hand in mine, a plucky nine or 10-year-old full of spirit who had pushed beyond the trauma and fear of wherever she came from — Aleppo, perhaps, in Syria, an annihilated neighborhood in the crosshairs of warring factions, or from Iraq or Afghanistan, terrorized by the Taliban.
Perhaps, like another family I heard of, hers had faced a week under a bridge in Turkey, destitute after paying bandits and profiteers along the way to the shore where they hoped – hoped! – to put themselves in the hands of smugglers who would send them in a shaky boat across the Aegean Sea.
She had eyed the ruthless men insisting that this was the time to set out on the crossing, insisting with knives and guns although the wind and swells were fierce, had sat through the journey with her mother in the center of the thin rubber vessel, heavy and low to the sea. She sat ringed by dozens of panicked fellow-travelers, crushed by the weight of their tired bodies, washed in seawater and fear-stink and adrenaline.
Climbing out on shore, she clutched a small bundle and pulled her hijab into place on her head. She felt — I can’t imagine what she felt. But I admire her and if she makes her way to a place where she can grow up in safety, I can’t imagine what amazing things she’ll do.
She made her way over the rocks onto a muddy track in the midst of the chaos of all those arriving, of the bright-vested volunteers stabilizing the raft and steadying the people who plunged, madly, into the water, disembarking; she walked through the yells and hugging and kissing the ground and sobs, and found me, holding her brother.
Found her father, and her mother, and led them to me, and as we walked the short distance to the tents where they could find dry clothes and have tea, she looked up and smiled so sweetly at me. Such a spark in her face, still hope-filled and looking forward.
Today, taking in my daily dose of information, I saw a picture of a young girl just off another boat, her torso encircled by someone’s desperate attempt to keep her safe: rough-broken chunks of Styrofoam taped around her middle.
I devour news and opinion and messages from those still on Lesvos or on the Macedonian border where people from Afghanistan are now meeting a dead end, no longer allowed to pass; or in “The Jungle” refugee camp in Calais, France, where hundreds of children have been discovered living alone — orphaned, unaccompanied minors who are easy prey for human traffickers. Soon, the French government is to send bulldozers to demolish half of that rough camp.
I’ve followed the arrests of the factory owners making fake life vests, the ones that look real but that absorb water; sodden, they don’t float but drag people down. Followed the trial of a Turkish smuggler, a trial perhaps just for show by a government promised billions by the European Union to “solve” the refugee flow.
I keep track of the efforts of the activists trying to open more eyes, among them the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who set up shop on Lesvos just after I left and has wrapped the pillars of a Berlin concert hall with 14,000 of the bright, cast-off lifejackets that pile like strange seaweed on the Greek island shores.
He laid down on a Lesvos beach posing as Alan Kurdi, a three-year-old Syrian boy who drowned on the crossing to Greece – whose photo spread horror around the world — and he convinced couture-clad celebrities at a Berlin Film Festival gala to wrap themselves with the gold-and-silver foil emergency blankets handed out to wet refugees — two efforts considered in poor taste in some quarters. But they did the job of raising awareness, perhaps.
I’m just like so many volunteers who, changed, can’t put it down. So many go home to their lives only to count the days until their next ticket back. They raise money with crowd-funding campaigns, with yoga-thons, they give lectures to describe what’s going on.
We share the inside info with each other – how many at Moria, where all refugees reaching Lesvos must register; the advent of a ferry strike at Mytilene leaving people bound for Athens hungry in the port; the number of boats that land each day, the height of the swells in the Aegean and the warnings issued about dangerous crossings.
Is it snowing, is it calm, how much misery is there to calibrate? Is there a shortage of socks or shoes or food? Which borders are open or closed, to whom — a cruel and constantly changing game of chance.
In California, in New York, in the UK, phones are pinging all times of night and day, still hooked into a network on WhatsApp, alerting people to boats arriving on rocky shores, to people who need help.
We keep reaching out to each other craving information, continued connection, in outrage and disbelief and, maybe, hope.
Each day there’s something new — often surreal, through-the-looking-glass twists. First EU Frontex forces gathered in the sea between Turkey and Greece, then NATO ships and Coast Guard vessels picking up travelers and taking them directly to the port – a step in the right direction toward safe passage for refugees?
Then reports of water cannons being trained on boats just off the Turkish shore, officials attacking and swamping boats full of refugees.
An inexplicable crackdown on the volunteers holding a greater degree of suffering at bay: the arrest of some collecting discarded life vests at the island dump in order to reuse them as tent padding against the cold; charges of human trafficking against sea rescue volunteers who saved people from drowning by picking them up in the water and transporting them to land.
Police locking out the ad-hoc groups’ worker bees, who toil so hard to improve conditions and fill refugees’ needs in the camps. We’ve got it covered, the officials and the big, name-brand NGOs said, and then packed up their operations after “business” hours and went home, leaving people arriving at night hungry, cold, and in need of medical care.
So many developments are not to be believed, the whole thing is not to be believed but we collect the information, we try to pin it down, if not to prepare for going back to help, to know what’s needed, then just to get the word out, to try to help others understand.
To incite compassion rather than fear, judgment, contempt. The circles of understanding widen, we hope, with more people reading, listening, learning, brave enough not to look away.
And I am transformed by the memory of a small hand in a larger one, communication without words, love beyond boundaries and politics.