Two years ago, Christian Peacemaker Teams saw a need on a small island in the Aegean Sea. In July, that hunch was confirmed when a refugee crisis on the Greek island of Lesbos dramatically escalated.
The 630-square-mile island is home to about 85,000 residents but sits far closer to Turkey than Greece. Lesbos is only four to five miles from the Turkish coast at its closest points.
That proximity makes it an attractive European entry point for the 2 million Syrian and Iraqi refugees in Turkey who aren’t allowed to seek asylum there and rarely are able to find work.
Two CPT Lesbos coordinators, J. Jakob Fehr and Ramyar Hassani, said Sept. 23 that the number of refugees on the island hovered around 2,000 to 3,000 until July, when 10 times that many began arriving.
“Basically our work has been accompanying the refugees who come to the island, who use this before they move on to Western Europe,” said Fehr, who also directs the German Mennonite Peace Committee. “We accompany local human rights activists and peace activists.”
Since the beginning of the year, the United Nations estimates about 288,000 refugees have entered Greece, and 138,000 of them came through Lesbos.
“You just go out on the streets and there are hundreds of people just sleeping on the street, wherever there is a little shade or it’s dry, because it’s started raining,” said Hassani, who can relate to what CPT is observing.
A former refugee from Kurdistan in Iran, Hassani sought safety in Norway but still has family in Iran.
“When I talk to people it’s very easy to think of my family, that it may happen to me,” he said. “It can happen at any moment.”
Supporting an initiative
In the summer of 2013, a gathering of Europeans interested in CPT instigated exploration of a refugee project in Greece that launched a year later. Much of the support for the initiative came from German and Dutch Mennonites and British Anabaptists. The German Mennonite Peace Committee, or DMFK, has been the main financial supporter.
“The [German] Mennonite congregations have really been reacting positively this summer,” Fehr said. “I sent out an email in the middle of July just before Mennonite World Conference assembly. Within 10 days we had about 7,000 Euros that flooded into our DMFK coffers.”
Using overlapping terms of two to six weeks, CPT maintains a team of about four people on the island. It hopes to increase that number.
The group networks with other organizations and accompanies vulnerable refugees who often lack identification.
Migration law varies from country to country. In Greece, stiff human-trafficking laws can jail young boat operators for decades based on flimsy evidence. Transporting someone who has no papers is considered aiding in the smuggling of human beings. CPT either advocates for the refugees or provides transportation themselves.
“Last night it was raining cats and dogs, and I was taking a taxi with a local and there was a refugee we know,” Fehr said. “The taxi driver refused to take him because the company will take her job away if she takes him. So we had to argue and argue with her that he has enough of an identity through the camp he’s at.”
Many newcomers arrive with nothing, forced by violence to abandon nice homes and farms. The boat ride is dangerous. Things can be lost overboard, or people can be robbed on the journey.
Hassani recalled encountering a Kurdish woman from Syria at a port with her three children and no husband. They had been sleeping on the street for four days, were out of money and all they had left was a bottle of water in the sweltering heat.
“I didn’t have water, and this boy, one of the kids, wanted to drink some water,” Hassani said. “He brought it first to me and said ‘Hey, you don’t have water. Please take some.’ And then he had a drink after that.”
Finding their way
Upon getting registered and entering information in a European refugee database, the arrivals find their way into either an official reception center built with European Union funding, a second official camp on a stretch of asphalt or an unofficial camp run by the refugees themselves that CPT believes offers the most humane conditions and freedom of movement.
“The kids are safe, they can play. There is no threat on them like arrest,” Hassani said. “There are lots of trees. It looks like a very natural human situation — while the other official reception center, it is just like a prison. There is barbed wire.”
Those facilities are now overrun, and a lack of local coordination — compounded by Greece’s debt crisis — puts the suffering chiefly on people fleeing suffering, though everyone has a stake.
Fehr said anyone who uses petroleum products has a part in driving an economy that ultimately leads to conflict.
“We in CPT try to focus on that, acknowledging our own conflictedness, the fact that we are part of the problem as well,” he said. “The only way to solve this issue isn’t to put up bigger fences. The crisis can only be solved if you address the injustices in Syria and Iraq.”
Dialogue won’t come easy. Syrian unrest involves interests from Russia, the U.S. and Iran. A decades-long legacy of trying to solve Middle Eastern problems with military might and sending arms to various factions hasn’t stemmed the violence.
“The only way to resolve these issues is to get people around a table and get a compromise, and then you can address the human rights issues,” Fehr said.