Anyone seeking a better understanding of the European refugee crisis as we rather self-centredly describe it, whether they feel that we should be more welcoming or less, would not find a better place to start than this book.
This accessible and honest account of one volunteer’s firsthand experience of this tragic situation conveys vividly both the complexity of the problem and the depth of suffering it causes. By the end of the book it would be surprising if anyone does not feel strongly that such volunteering, while it doesn’t solve the problem, significantly reduces the amount of suffering it causes, and is in itself therefore intrinsically valuable. It may also trigger more constructive thinking about how the crisis can be more effectively addressed.
It’s clear from the very start that this is not going to be some self-important sermonising tract. A thread of self-deprecating humour runs refreshingly throughout the book and helps to keep us going. We meet it on the very first page:
“Lesvos? Oh, Lesbos! That’s a Greek island, isn’t it? I thought you were going to India!”
“Mmm, I know, there’s been a slight change of plan.”
“What’s the weather like there in November?”
“We’re not going for the weather. But now that you mention it, quite nice actually.”
“Lesbos. Isn’t that where all those illegal immigrants have been arriving? Is that why you’re going?”
“Refugees, you mean. Well, yes. I thought it might be a good idea to help out a bit.”
“Aren’t you rather old to be wading into the water and pulling people out of boats? And what about your hip?”
It also combines vivid anecdotes that draw the reader into the lived reality of life on Lesvos with astute insights, often drawn from those experiences, that enrich our perspective on the whole situation.
A couple of examples will help to illustrate what I mean. For more, you really need to buy the book and read it. You won’t be disappointed.
Take this example, from page 41. It’s a simple description but conveys a wealth of meaning and emotion:
As I left the food tent at 23:15, I looked around, and in the dark I could see hundreds and hundreds of dark grey mounds, like a huge crop of large stones that had sprouted up in the evening. They were around all the tents and huts, including the toilets, and along both sides of the road. These were the grey blankets we handed out after sunset, and under each one was a person. They were also lying around the place where we parked the cars, which made it nerve-racking to back out, making sure there was no one behind us. In total, 2,200 people slept at Oxy that night. I was so thankful it was not raining.
Or this from the heart of the book (page 106):
After the terrible shipwreck of 28 October, when hundreds of people had ended up in the sea, flailing in their frequently useless life jackets, Kenny had been one of those who had leapt down to the harbour to help as lifeless or near-lifeless bodies of children were brought in. This young man, with his light-hearted banter and missing front teeth, had been one of the day’s many heroes, cradling and warming limp children, and performing CPR tirelessly for what seemed an impossible time in an attempt to revive one child whose body failed to respond as the father stood shrieking with torment beside them.
The cumulative effect of such experiences leads to deeper and deeper reflections as the narrative unfolds (page 135):
We engaged in banter about our early lives, and [my companion] said:
“Ah well, what doesn’t kill you makes you strong.”
And I wondered whether this was true of all the refugees who had passed through Oxy over the past months – thousands upon thousands of them. I also mused that Europe was being enriched by some of the strongest, kindest and most energetic people you’re likely to meet. How could I convey to people who had not been here my conviction that we needed the refugees as much as they need us?
A good question that is proving very hard to answer, but this book is an inspiring example of one way at least that this might be done.
The writer is well aware of all the veils and blocks that stand in the way of a more direct and compassionate response from us as we sit in the comfort of our homes and watch news of the suffering flicker on our screens. She also manages I think very successfully to convey the essence of our shared humanity with these victims of oppression, deprivation and terror (page 150):
It’s the distance, isn’t it? If you opened your front door and there was a homeless refugee family standing there in wet clothes, destitute and hungry, most people would drop their plans for the day and take them in. But our screens anaesthetize us. We don’t make the leap to think, “Wait, I could go there. It’s not impossible.” And we don’t make the leap to think, “What would I do if I had to leave my home to escape from being killed?”
I recalled the last Syrian man to whom I had said my routine phrase, “Welcome to Europe!” And to whom I had said, “if I were a refugee, you would help me too.”
“Yes,” he replied, “Of course. But I hope that this never happens to you.”
Can we really accept as right that someone suffering so much should be expressing more compassion for us than we are showing for him? I sincerely hope not, and I believe this book can play its part in making sure that does not happen.