In the Conservative party manifesto that outlined David Cameron’s “Big Society”, “enterprise and aspiration” were supposedly at the heart of a new kind of world. Whilst these values (along with many others) have been forgotten by the Prime Minister, Mr Cameron was right about one thing:
“Real change comes when the people are inspired and mobilised…”
One of the most rewarding aspects of my time on Lesvos has been the levels of co-ordination between various NGO’s. Whether it’s the team at Korakas Lighthouse on 24-hour watch for potential landings, the NGO boats towing dinghies safely to shore, or the now-famous Dirty Girls cleaning and recycling clothing, what started out as an ad hoc response to a desperate situation has flourished into an intricate society of volunteers and workers.
This society isn’t perfect. Spend long enough on the island and you will encounter what some call the “bureaucracies” of each NGO. The constant flux of volunteers also means that old lessons often have to be taught again. But this community continues to develop, showing the kind of “enterprise and aspiration” David Cameron and other European leaders can only inspire through their own incompetence, precisely because it engages with the refugees, treating them as human beings rather than monetary tokens.
Ariel Ricker, an American Human Rights lawyer, has witnessed the refugee crisis firsthand across Turkey and Europe. After coming to Lesvos, she is taken aback by the levels of infrastructure in place on the island:
“It seems like Lesvos is a whole different universe.”
Whilst her experience here may not betray the sense of chaos that can erupt at any time, comparing the island now to a few months ago reveals just how much progress has been made. Marcus Friberg volunteered with the CK Team over Christmas and returns for a week in April. During his first stint, landings were more frequent and certainly seemed more frenzied. They didn’t have campsites established back then and refugees would often be found wandering on the roads heading South. After Marcus sees the MSF-funded campsite near Korakas Lighthouse, he offers a droll assessment:
“Someone has been doing a lot of work.”
As other refugee camps on Lesvos close down and numerous NGO’s consider moving resources to other parts of Greece, it is sad to watch the infrastructure volunteers worked so hard to build up slowly winding down. This doesn’t mean that there is nothing left to do. As Kris Krossman, the CK Team medic, notes:
“Lesvos as a volunteering destination is not as sexy as it used to be but there is still a need for people.”
I will always remember my month on this island. Returning home, dinner table conversations with the family about broken boilers and the latest travails of Phil Mitchell seem otherworldly. Was it really just a week ago that I was driving a Syrian family from the beach?
And now that parliament has voted against legislation that would bring 3000 unaccompanied child refugees to the UK, I remember what a volunteer once said to me as we took down the No Borders Kitchen:
“These are the people who have been forgotten.”
I will always remember but I wonder if everyone else will.